[Editor's note: Please join us at our Burnside location tonight at 7:30, where Lois Leveen will be presenting her new novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser. Click here for full event information.]
Wayyyyy back in October, I found out my novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser would be published on May 15. But it was only a couple of weeks ago that I began to wonder what I would actually do on May 15. And, for that matter, on May 14, and on May 16. I had no idea. So I asked some of my friends who are published authors.
Heidi Durrow (author of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky) told me that the day her book came out, she had a "gussy me up day": she got her hair done, and also her nails and toes, to be ready for her book launch party. But then she panicked that no one would show up. Ten minutes before the reading, only a dozen people were there. But then everyone flooded in and, she said, it felt like magic.
Or at least I think that's what she said.I sort of tuned out after the part about nails and toes. I'm not really a salon type. The last time I had a pedicure, which was also the first time I had a pedicure, was eight years ago, with my sister. Who'd just had brain surgery. It's not rocket science, but still I figured she should get to choose how we celebrated. But now we were talking about my book, not her brain.
"Do I have to wear make-up when my book comes out?" I asked Ann Packer. Ann's published two novels and two collections of short stories (most recently Swim Back to Me — her books always have great titles). I figured that made her four-times as wise as me.
"You only have to wear make-up if you're going to be on TV," Ann said. "And then, who cares that you have to wear make-up? You're on TV!"
That seemed very reassuring, until I thought about actually being on TV. Jean Kwok, author of Girl in Translation, told me that before her first live television interview, she was so petrified, she asked the celebrity who was waiting in the greenroom with her for tips. "About what, exactly?" the celebrity asked. Jean, watching the clock countdown to her moment to go on air, said, "Anything!" To which the celebrity replied, "Well, I really hate to buy things at full price." And she proceeded to advise Jean about all her favorite bargain hunting spots, non-stop until Jean got called onto the set.
"Seriously, what's the worst thing that can happen?" I asked Ariel Gore, who, as author of How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead seemed like she would know all about how to be a famous writer.
She didn't even pause to reflect. She described going to a far-away city to do a reading, described it in trance-like second-person narration: "Plane, train, and car. You get there. And there is no review. And there is no name in lights outside that big bookstore. And the listing in the local weekly says only: "Al Gore's bratty daughter is in town again." And you are not Al Gore's daughter."
Okay, well, at least I do not have the same last name as any sitting or former Vice Presidents, so I am probably safe on that score. Still, I figured it was time to see the reading-glasses half full.
"Seriously, what's the best that can happen?" I asked Julia Quinn, or rather the woman who under the pen-name Julia Quinn has published a gazillion books with titles like A Night Like This and To Sir Phillip, with Love, i.e. romance novels, all of which sell a gazillion copies.
"Three days after my first book came out in 1995," she said, "my local Waldenbooks called me up and told me they'd sold nine copies. After I hung up the phone, I realized that meant that nine people who WERE NOT RELATED TO ME had bought the book. Quite possibly the best moment of my career."
A lovely story. But still didn't leave me with a clue about what I'd do the day my book came out.
"That's easy," said Cheryl Strayed — easy for her, since first of all she is Miss Sugar and thus used to doling out advice, and second of all her new book Wild is driving everyone wild. "The day your book comes out, you go to every bookstore in town, and sign every copy, and then they can sell them as autographed copies."
This seemed like good advice, provided she didn't expect me to strap on an 80-pound pack and hike to all those stores.
So on May 15, I started my day by walking to the Powell's Hawthorne store, about six blocks from my house. I presented myself to a very nice staff person. He punched my name into the computer. And then he said, "Looks like your books haven't come in yet. You might want to try again later."
At least he didn't call me Miss Biden.
I left the store, feeling a little blue, telling myself it was no big deal, I could always — "Hey, there's the Powell's truck!" I yelled. While jumping up and down.
Innocent Powell's truck driver accosted by novelist Lois Leveen.
The truck driver was a very nice guy who unloaded my books right away. I went inside and signed them. Then the staff found all the pre-ordered books on the hold shelf, and I signed those, too. I recognized some of the last names on the holds, so I personalized all the ones that my friends had bought.
Then I went home, and google-mapped every bookstore in a 10-mile radius (doesn't sound like a lot, but when you πr2 it, it really adds up). Eleven stores in two states in nine hours, a true mini-book-tour. At the Airport Powells, I sold every copy in the store just by chatting with customers who happened to be there while I was signing. I felt a little like that person doing a cooking demo at the grocery store, though way more excited to meet readers who were that interested in the book. I tried not to wonder whether I'd made enough on those books to cover the cost of parking at the airport.
Innocent Powell's customer Andrea accosted by novelist Lois Leveen.
At one bookstore, I remembered why my friend chose the pen-name Julia Quinn: so that her books would sit on the shelf next to those of the already-best-selling Amanda Quick. I thought of this at the store where The Secrets of Mary Bowser was stacked right next to Fifty Shades of Grey. If only I'd thought to title my novel, which is set during the Civil War, "Fifty Shades of the Blue and the Gray", I'd be set.
That's a whole different house of bondage than what I meant.
Sometimes I got to bookstores to discover they'd already sold copies before I'd arrived. It was my Julia Quinn circa-1995 moment, and I loved it. Over the next few months, I'll be heading all over the country to sign books and do readings and talks. But I have to admit, I'm glad I started here.
Welcome to Portland, City of Books. And tatts.
If you're in town tonight, May 18th, come on down and hear me read.
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Lois Leveen is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in the New York Times, on NPR, and in literary journals and anthologies. A former faculty member at UCLA and Reed College, she lives in Portland, Oregon.
Books mentioned in this post
Lois Leveen is the author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser