Monday, November 30, 2009

What Do You Expect?

So here's my question: When you go to a book reading, what do you expect? And when you're the one giving the reading, what do you expect of yourself?

I hosted an event on Sunday for Michele Murdock and had fun helping her prepare for her first-ever reading.

Here's what she expected of herself. She wanted to:

--make everybody feel at ease, right away, by using humor--as in, don't worry folks I'm not nervous. And this event will be lively and fun for everybody and I won't go on too long.

--read excerpts that showed her style in engaging scenes.

--give an understanding of why she wrote the book.

--discuss some of what she experienced (and endured) while writing the book.

--express her enthusiasm for the subject matter (This biography is about Dorothy Stang, an American nun who worked for social justice in indigent Brazil).

--tell what she planned to do to promote the book.

--reveal how writing the book changed her.

And she did it, well.

My husband likes readings where authors don't read from their books--they just talk about writing the book. When my memoir came out, all I wanted to do was read. “You mean I have to talk about it too?” I asked him, "between excerpts?"

“Yes,” he said, “you do. You can always memorize things to say.”

I gulped, my stomach clutching at the thought of being spontaneous or caught off guard. I was a writer not a public speaker and convinced I’d freeze, like a deer in headlights, or be like his grandmother, who "opened her mouth and her brains flew out." I had to get over myself.

Sometimes readings are primarily readings. I remember one given by Joan Didion at UNC-Chapel Hill a few years back. She had recently published, The Year of Magical Thinking, about her husband’s sudden death the year before. And her daughter had just died. Didion was doing a short teaching gig--probably set up before both deaths--that included a public reading.

She came onstage--there were hundreds in attendance--looking her usual frail, gaunt self but more so. I couldn't imagine how she got her teeth brushed not to mention how she found legs to walk across that stage and address hundreds of fans.

After the introduction, she offered a very few words of thanks and began to read. She finished the first excerpt, thumbed through the book, took a sip of water, and began to read again. No comments. She finished that section, then read another. And another. At one point her voice got wavy and she had to pause.

The place was tomb-still. Her reading voice was mesmerizing.

When she finished her final excerpt she said something like, "I suppose there are a few questions." People lined up in the aisles behind mics.

One of the first comments came from an older man: I came out tonight to hear you and all you did was read from your book? I can read the book at home. What was the point of my coming here?

In an even, yet chilly voice, Didion said, "I was hired to give a reading and that's what I've done. That's what a reading is. Reading."

Couldn't he see how fragile she was? How tough this subject-matter? That she was first and foremost a human being? I wanted to clatter out of my seat and kick the guy in the head. So did everybody else. When he headed back to his seat, the crowd erupted: "Boo."

Didion answered several questions. She showed mettle, just getting through it. What she gave was enough, plenty, more than enough.

Fast forward to Natalie Goldberg reading at The Regulator Bookshop a while back. She should have stuck to her text--and kept her mouth shut on other subjects.

She greeted the crowd by professing her broad-grinned amazement that there were “actually independent bookstores in the South and that people actually came out to readings down here. Wow.”

Hurry up, woman. Read!


mohadoha said...

Hi Carol: It's true that a balance is what works best in the many talks I've arranged for other authors over the past few years in Qatar.

Scheduling my own for this December has been an interesting experience: thinking about choice of venue, time of day, etc. as a writer and not an academic when it is all done for you at a university has been the major shift.

Will let you know how it goes: it was helpful to see Michele's list of things she wanted to accomplish from her event.

Carol Henderson said...

Good luck. I SO wish I could be there. Maybe you'll read while I'm in Doha. I would love that.