This Week’s Column:


... a MobyLives guest column

by Quinn Dalton

30 May 2005 — Recently, I made a 100–mile roundtrip visit to a bookstore in Raleigh, where I had been invited to speak to a short story writing group that regularly meets there. This was to be the first in a series of events to promote the paperback release of my first novel, High Strung. I compiled a resource list for attendees, gathered my favorite books on craft, and re–read the short story appearing in the back of the paperback High Strung to promote my collection, Bulletproof Girl.

When I arrived, I was led to an area with about twenty chairs and a podium. But no one was seated in those twenty chairs. I asked the event coordinator where the short story writing group was. She pointed to a lone woman who had taken a seat in the second row. "Tatiana scared everyone off," she confided to me. "They refused to come because she says mean things about everyone's stories."

At the beginning, a large man seated himself squarely in the middle of the second row, and I asked him what had brought him to this event. I was buying time while the events coordinator tried to get the microphone working. "Try it now," she kept cheerfully suggesting.

"I'm bored," the man answered me. Alas, I was not to be the cure. He managed to last until I plunged into the second paragraph of my story. He then got up and left, bumping Tatiana on his way out, which, on the positive side, caused her to turn her glare from me to him for a brief moment.

Besides terrifying Tatiana, my audience eventually included a total of four people, three of whom worked at the store. For a time, a young man sat in the back row, flipping through a magazine, until he tired of it, and then decided to select another, which he located on the rack directly behind me before returning to his seat. Eventually, he wandered off, leaving his stack of magazines as evidence of all that was unworthy of his attention.

Fortunately, the story I was reading lent itself well to on–the–fly edits. The three female employees smiled up at me from the front row, encouragingly, yes, but also I detected a grimace of embarrassment on each sincere pair of lips. And this, my friends, is the character–building moment, when you realize that complete strangers feel sorry for you.

It's worse than the worst humiliation you've ever brought on yourself at the office party, or during a break up, or during other life hiccups that most people recognize and can sympathize with. But then you find there are entire other universes of self–dismantling experiences available to you. And there you are, trying to pace yourself, so you don't hyperventilate and die on the spot.

Afterward, Tatiana, of course, had questions, many of them. Her first question went something like this—I paraphrase because her English, fortunately for me, was nearly unintelligible: "Do you believe this story has any connection to reality?"

"Of course not," I said. "It's fiction. Really, we're all liars here, right?" I was trying to form a writerly camaraderie with the disapproving critic before me.

"Stephen King," she said. "Now there's a man who can write a story. And he's written so much!"

Here, I decided to refer to some helpful information I gleaned while attending the Sewanee Writers Conference in Tennessee. I'd gone to readings, craft lectures and workshops with writers I deeply admire. But also, as with any other professional conference, and in particular with writers' conferences, there was much drinking, deal–making—or rumors of such—and gossip. During one such boozy "reception" after an evening reading, it so happened that a NY–based writer I was chatting with mentioned King's three–page account of kicking his cocaine addiction in the book White Lines: Writers on Cocaine. King's habit was at one point so formidable he'd had to stuff Q–Tips into his nostrils to stanch the blood flow while he cranked out one bestseller after another. Now there was suffering for one's art.

Naturally, I recounted this story to our dear Tatiana, and naturally, there were followup questions. Occasionally, one of the well–meaning staffers would wedge in a question about my writing habits, which, regrettably, do not involve cocaine, but do involve a good deal of the paranoia, sleeplessness and suicidal ruminations said to dog actual users.

Finally, after several attempts to close the session, the last of which involved me offering to tap dance, Tatiana gave up the ghost. The three staffers crowded around me like Secret Service shielding me. But Tatiana elbowed her way in, and, to my surprise, wanted me to sign a book.

The manager watched her toddle away afterward and looked at me, open–mouthed. "She always comes to these things, and she never buys a book."

Why did I feel oddly victorious? The spirit of my grandmother, Ira, an equally garrulous woman who could sell anything—embroidery, bowl haircuts, flower arrangements, auto parts—leaned in to kiss me on the cheek. I sold four books that night and drove home laughingly recounting the story to friends via cell phone calls. But the story really begins later that night, when I couldn't sleep, because I was already thinking of the next reading gig, and wondering in what sorts of fashions I would again make an ass of myself. The possibilities seemed endless. I considered them until roughly 6:30 the following morning. In a fitful hour of sleep, I dreamed I was standing in my hallway, and I saw an old woman lying on her back on my couch, turning her head side to side and babbling incoherently and yet rather happily. The old woman wasn't my grandmother or Tatiana, but I did wonder, "Who is that?" Then a shadowy person stepped in front of me so that I couldn't see her. I remember thinking then, "How considerate, to want to shield this poor woman and her ravings from my view."

When I awoke with my daughter sitting on my hip, I realized, thickly but immediately, who everyone in the dream was: I was the babbling old woman, and I was the shadowy figure trying to hide her from me. This sounds like dream interpretation 101; but it was also the truth, the kind that makes you have to work for your next breath (or perhaps it had something to do with my daughter was sitting on me). Even as I sat up and carried her into the living room to my husband, who was already showered and dressed for work, even as I informed him that if he left right then, he would be entrusting his child to a woman who'd slept one hour, and that he'd do best to stick around for at least one more; even as I trudged back down the hall, where I did not fall asleep again, I was considering what the dream really meant: I was going crazy, and I had been trying to hide it from myself a long time.

Because this is crazy work, isn't it? In any other business, products are designed to meet real demands. But anybody can live without books. If you design a sexy toaster, it will sell in millions of units at Target, and you will get that airy Manhattan loft, or seaside retreat, or whatever your material fantasy may be. If you write a sexy novel, you will be sent, like a vacuum salesman with a bag of dirt, to as many bookstores as you can survive. You will dump that bag of dirt on the ground and yell, hoarsely, "See? See how this will change your life?" You can count on multiple character building experiences.

Am I bitter? Did I go into this author gig bright–faced and wide–eyed, only to come out of my first year nail–bitten and harsh—and hardly noticed? No to all except the last part. I just have a grip on a few more details. For example, I realized while at yet another Sewanee "reception," where I saw a senior editor from a well–known publishing house surrounded by drunk and hopeful writers who laughed on cue at each of his pussy jokes, that business is business, and it has certain realities.

I think that my first book will always be that difficult oldest child, the one I was alternately too indulgent and too harsh with, the one that will humble me for the rest of my life. My other novels, should I complete them, will be so much better–adjusted at cocktail parties. They'll arrive with more flair and tell better jokes.

And I think, if I am going to keep writing, and keep facing the myriad possibilities of the bookstore event, I will have to let that raving old woman in my dream off the couch. I'm going to have to help her to her feet, so she can catch her breath, and begin to talk.

Quinn Dalton is the author of the novel High Strung and the just–realeased story collection, Bulletproof Girl.

©2005 Quinn Dalton

Previous columns:

THE KILLER POET . . . When a big haired poet asks the literary gumshoe to whack a librarian, he feels the weight of the whole world of poetry on his shoulder. Will he do the right thing?

WHERE THE NOVEL'S HEADED . . . Jonathan Safran Foer's new book has a lot of people talking about post–modernism and the novel. But David Barringer thinks the novel is going in another direction — inside.

BOOKS IN GROCERY STORES: A TESTIMONIAL . . . After his mainstream publisher didn't want his second novel, Larry Baker got an idea about how to sell his second book himself when a flash of inspiration came to him in the local grocery store.

ANATOMY OF A HOAX . . . When Paul Maliszewski heard Michael Chabon tell a false story about a real writer, he wrote about it. So what led the New York Times to cover Chabon's hoax with an attack on Maliszewski featuring testimony from Dave Eggers?

EXTREMELY MELODRAMATIC AND INCREDIBLY SAD . . . Steve Almond explains in a guest column that he really wanted to like Jonathan Safran Foer's new book, but something about his use of 9/11 eventually got to him. And is it the beginning of a trend?


All material not otherwise attributed ©2000 – 2005 Dennis Loy Johnson.