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War Stories

So, yesterday was the official kick-off of the Keep Portland Weird festival here in Paris, which meant that I had a reading/screening in the evening, while upstairs the first docket of bands played, including Street Nights, Michael Hurley, Rebecca Gates, and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. A great line-up.

The day started nicely. I woke up, blogged, and headed out onto the street, pondering the what and how of the night's reading. I had some good thoughts, walking along the Seine and staring at Notre Dame. I would talk about hot tubs, I decided.I had some good thoughts, walking along the Seine and staring at Notre Dame. I would talk about hot tubs, I decided. I just wrote a story that involves a hot tub, and the movie they were screening, Old Joy, based on an earlier story of mine, also has a hot tub. I could talk about the rise of hot tub culture on the West Coast, the suburbanization of the public bath, the idea of the hot tub as the site of middle-class debauchery, the very aporia (to throw around an old French theory word) of the Western bourgeois home. I could compare the hot tub to the American lawn, symbol of a lost agrarian past — the hot tub as a symbol of our fantasied aboriginal roots. It would be funny. I had lots of ideas.

It didn't entirely occur to me that the audience would not speak English. Or maybe it did, but I figured, what the hell, I've come this far, I'll read for the people who understand me and the others will just have to wait until the movie with subtitles begins. It was only when one of the festival organizers mentioned there probably wouldn't be that many people at all that I realized I might have to revise my plan.

Sure enough, about eight people showed up. Maybe 13 if you counted my musician friends. I had a moment of indecision about whether to go ahead and do my whole patter and read the whole story — a commitment of at least half an hour or so — or whether it would be better to just go short and get out of the way. In the end, perhaps cowardly, I went short. I read the first few pages of my new book and wished the audience a pleasant screening, and the musicians and I headed upstairs for the rock show, already in progress. Had it only been a reading, and had the audience spoken English, I would certainly have played it differently, but as it was, facing eight French-speaking people in a movie theater under the banner of a music festival, I forsook my duties of showmanship.

It was a disappointment, to be sure, but far from my worst reading experience. The worst reading I've ever had, quantitatively, was at a Barnes and Noble in Eugene, Oregon. Not a single person showed up for that one, unless you count my friend Todd who drove the hour and a half to keep me company. I got a nice note from one of the cashiers a few weeks later saying she'd read my book out of pity and really liked it.

The second worst reading was at Elliot Bay in Seattle. There were two people at that reading, both only trying to escape the rain. I didn't bother reading anything there, either, but I did engage the pair in a discussion about writing. I found out that the man in the hoodie waiting for his bus was an author himself. He'd been working on the same screenplay for almost 50 years.

So, whatever. I've had good readings along the way, too. It's hard to pity yourself too much when someone's flown you all the way to Paris to deliver a five-minute spiel. The way I see it is: you can only be humiliated if you have expectations.

÷ ÷ ÷

Jon Raymond is the author of the novel The Half-Life and the short story collection Livability. He is the writer of several films, including Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff, and cowriter of the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. Raymond lives in Portland, Oregon, with his family. Rain Dragon is his second novel.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Half-Life Used Hardcover $8.95
  2. Livability: Stories
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  3. Rain Dragon Used Trade Paper $5.50

Jon Raymond is the author of Rain Dragon

One Response to "War Stories"

    Chelsea April 25th, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    Dear Jon,

    From all the English speakers/Oregonians in Paris that had (for weeks) been planning to show up and ask pertinent questions with regard to your work, and are now headed for fiery infernos in handbaskets, my deepest apologies. With a bird on it. It was a major blunder on our part. Is there any chance of catching you at any of the Portland events in the days to come or have you already flown the coop?

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