It’s pretty obvious, after going to countless number of book readings over the years, that it’s no longer good enough to be a great writer.
If you’re a great writer and you’re really boring then do yourself (and the audience) a favour and don’t read in public. Bask in the book sales that your story, your intellect, your unique take on the world, or your research has garnered. In other words, let the audience read your magic but don’t inflict yourself, in person, on them. None of us can be all things to all people and it’s good to know one’s strengths.
Not only do writers have to write a great story these days but they also have to be able to tell the interesting stories behind that story, to be equally enticing a character as the characters they’ve brought to life on the page. Are you worthy of a paragraph or two according to someone other than your mother?
But it’s not fair, you say. Writing the damn thing was hard enough. Now you want me to be Margaret Cho as well?
A friend who was a bookseller a decade or two ago told me her Farley Mowat encounter story the other day. She was in her twenties or thereabouts. She was standing with another young attractive female employee outside the bookstore at a large department store in downtown Vancouver where Mowat was going to be reading/signing books. When he showed up and they went to the door to greet him, he said, “I won’t come in unless you kiss me.” He was in his late 40s or thereabouts then. I’m not sure that’s personality as much as just your run-of-the-mill randy old guy (and he wasn’t that old then) but on the wake of his death it captures an aspect of his personality that, apparently, was well known. Afterwards, he went on to write a salacious little snippet in the book purchased by the other young woman.
Of course I want to hear a bit of the author’s writing when I attend a reading but mostly I want to hear the stories behind the story. Why this idea? What prompted that plot? Your struggles with writing it. Your process. The people you met while you were standing on that desolate beach trying to get a feel for the place. All the other wannabe writers hoping one day to be on that stage where the featured writer is presenting are just as eager to receive a PetSmart-styled literary treat as well.
I think back to a few of the personalities who also happen to be able to write who are/were masters at entertaining their audiences:
Tomson Highway at the Vancouver Writer’s Fest some time in the 1980s reading from The Fur Queen.
The late Peter Matthiessen on Salt Spring at ArtSpring in 2008 because of the stories he told about the on the ground research he did in writing The Snow Leopard.
The late Maeve Binchy in the first very funny 15 minutes of her intro to the reading of her book Tara Road back in 1998. At least, I think that was the book. See. I’m a little unclear about the book, but I didn’t forget her intro at the Vancouver International Writer’s Fest.
Patrick Lane at a reading at the Sechelt Writer’s Fest introducing his new book, There is a Season: A Memoir. I now can’t even recall why but the way he was, his persona, stood out for me.
Gail Anderson-Dargatz because she is really funny and once again, I’m not positive but it may have been the release of her book Recipe for Bees, but it could just as likely have been Rhinestone Button. I don’t remember. I do remember it was at Sechelt and she kept the audience in stitches leading up to her reading.
The late Frank McCourt at the Chan Centre at UBC, in his glory, centre stage, and yet he might as well have been having a chat at his local pub with the audience sitting in the next booth eavesdropping his interaction he was that elegant in the casualness of his storytelling. Damn Irish! They’ve got an advantage.
The biggest shock to this day, for me, was probably Margaret Atwood. Maybe circa 1985. UBC. A Saturday night on a cold fall evening. She was wearing a floor-length black cloak, hood up, and when she opened her mouth to read, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe the voice of the woman whose words on the printed page had kept me riveted was as monotone as white paint drying. It was almost painful/irritating to listen to her. It’s still hard for me to believe that the person I saw and heard then is the same Twitter feed personality now, and with a sense of humour. I guess she’s loosened up a bit.
You get the idea. I don’t live in New York. I haven’t been to too many readings of the cream of the crop of glorified literati. And my choices have been limited by my ability to remember.
What about you? Any really interesting authors who are also great readers/presenters stand out for you? Do tell! Or maybe you find the whole idea of authors having to be dog and pony shows offensive. Whatever.