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Original Essays

Underwear

by Charlotte Mendelson
 
  1. When We Were Bad

    When We Were Bad

    Charlotte Mendelson
    "[Mendelson] deftly blends humor and pathos in this portrayal of a family in crisis." Booklist

    "Slender, often farcical events are significantly enhanced by astute, affectionately mocking prose and a wicked but merciful intelligence." Kirkus Reviews


Underwear will tell you the truth about a writer. Everything else is lies. They may claim that every time they enter their publisher's office, they are greeted by champagne, bugles, and dancing horses. They may say they have breathtaking reviews, colossal sales, a secretary whose sole job is returning unsolicited cheques from millionaire admirers. But if you want to know the truth, look in their underpants drawer.

Would-be authors dream of fame and riches. They may not do any actual writing, but the fun bits are all planned: the hard-to-find marbled notebooks, the cryptic dedication, the humble Booker Prize acceptance speech. And they assume that, naturally, when their book is published, they will be sent on an international book tour, and enter a world of packed auditoria in capital cities, charismatically rumpled corduroy jackets, and encounters with regretful exes. "I'm on tour," they will say. "Exhausting. Is it Friday? Is this Miami? Would you like to come up and see my schedule?"

Sadly, they are wrong. Author tours are not normal. Normal, as any honest writer will tell you, is a wearying regime of split-end picking, enemy-Googling, and, if reasonably successful and unusually charismatic, an occasional humiliation-laden outing. Last night, for example, I attended a festive party at a neighbouring bookshop for local authors. The writers jostled. The booksellers fretted. And the customers, straying in from the cold in search of wine and sweetmeats, clustered round the one celebrity, leafed through our books, made faces conveying sympathy without financial commitment, and went on their way.

I didn't care. The celebrity bought my novel. But that doesn't mean it was fun.

And that's as close to megastardom as most of us get. Ordinarily, authors are not encouraged to leave the house. Let's face it, they're generally a liability. Plain, gauche, and needy, more likely to seduce your daughter or accidentally kill your cat than make small talk: is it any surprise that they're rarely allowed to meet their readers? So it goes without saying that, while authors think they're the perfect ambassadors for their deathless prose, their publishers may disagree.

Besides, book tours are expensive. I am an editor as well as a novelist, and know the truth about publishing: most authors cost far more money than they earn, even when they stay at home. So why let them out? Hotels and aeroplanes aren't cheap, even for those authors who don't feign bad backs (business class) and wheat allergies (lots of sushi). And so my excitement that When We Were Bad was being published in America was tempered by the knowledge that it would all take place without me. Let others complain about ill-stocked minibars. I would be staying at home in London, a model of cost-effective authorhood, hard at work in my hideous English-novelist-in-underheated-Victorian-house woolen garments, trying to remember social niceties when the postman rang the bell.

And then they sent me on tour.

Other authors, possibly, take this in stride. But I know how much publishers and, in my case, the blessed Jewish Book Council, invest in book tours: the expense, the organisation, the effort. That they were willing to spend that on my novel — that they thought America was ready for a book about the strange, nervous, little-known world of English Jews — was unbelievably exciting.

For about an hour.

And then the dread set in.

Because if you're sending an author on tour, you want your money's worth. You don't expect a mildly enjoyable talk for ten minutes and a couple of paperback sales; you require standing ovations, enough hardbacks sold to denude either Amazon, non-stop publicity and Oprah in tears. Minimum. And so, even while I was hugging myself in delight through my unattractive woolen garments, I was beginning to panic: what would I say? How would America react? And, most importantly, what would I wear?

You may think that we prizewinning literary authors are very highbrow; that we spend so much time translating things into Latin that we barely remember to eat, let alone dress. But you would be wrong. Yes, I was worried about my talks. Yes, I feared that my feeble constitution would buckle under the jet lag; that, although I feel like an American (I have big hair and wave my hands around), no one would understand my hilarious, pre-war BBC accent. But, more than anything, the Clothing Question filled my waking hours. You see, just because you have a ticket to the Oscars doesn't mean that you have anything to wear.

If you've watched actors on the red carpet, you will know that that groomed public glamour is an American thing. The British just give their hair a good brush, and hope for the best. And so the fact that I would need endless, perfect, America-worthy outfits began to obsess me. I'd be flying through time zones towards welcome lunches and big audiences and ritzy dinners. Who has enough glamorous yet practical garments for that? Isn't the only answer to be either a big-name author, with assistants and rooms dedicated to belts, or a man?

And so, as my preparations grew more frenzied — multiple speech-printing in case of theft or hijack, anguished conversations with near-strangers about on-flight snacks — my outfit-planning reached a level of complexity that Boutros Boutros-Ghali would quail at. I began to add it to my schedule ("blk drs, suede boots, gld earrngs in flight bag. Chnge on plane by 9 a.m."); I asked for advice. And gradually I discovered that all successful writers have a shared secret: not envy, not insecurity, but an obsession with travel detergent.

For without it, book tours would be impossible. Even if you had a fortnight's worth of impressive famous-author clothes, with accompanying underwear, would you haul them around America's airports? I think not. As it turns out, it's this, not the structure of Paradise Lost, which preoccupies even our greatest British writers. An extremely famous novelist, for example, told me she only wears silk underpants, because after a quick scrub with Travelwash you can dry them on your radiator overnight. A Booker winner revealed that he bathes midweek, surrounded by dirty socks, which he tramples, wrings out, and dangles from his hotel window on a wire hanger, brought from home. Others disagreed about vitamins, but, on travel detergent, they were united. So, obediently, I bought lots of new underwear and a huge tube of Travelwash, and discovered that they were right. Who needs sleep when you have clean underpants?

Obviously this was not the only highlight. Not just the best events, where the room was packed and the audience was warm and we sold hardbacks by the dozen; not just my twenty new best friends, from Michigan grandmothers to Scottish Jews adrift in Texas; but also the many thrills that lifted me from my humdrum, scruffy English-novelist life and plopped me straight into stardom — the little bottles of water in the limo, the room service, the window display of When We Were Bad in a big bookshop in Union Square. And, inhibited by extreme uptightness about my publishers' budget (how much are side salads? Will they be charged if I just open the minibar?), being financed to watch the Food Network and steal toiletries never palled.

So, despite my infinite fears about stage fright and wardrobe crises, I had, as we quaint Brits say, a brilliant time. It helped that Americans are so friendly; that the subject of my novel — a wonderful, apparently perfect family, very dramatically falling apart — is something we're all drawn to; and that the title I'd secretly wanted to call it, Fifty Ways to Leave Your Mother, rang true from coast to coast. And it can't have hurt that a photograph of me lying in a field was on the front of the LA Times book section just before I arrived.

But what made the biggest difference was this: once I was actually on tour, eating steaks, bonding with strangers, and discovering that, as my publishers hoped, American readers are ready for a new kind of British fiction in which no one wears tweed, my worries receded. Did it really matter if I was wearing Tuesday's boots with Ann Arbor's necklace? Would anyone care? Of course not, provided that my, er, personal garments had been freshly laundered by me on the balcony of the Hilton late last night.

So, if a writer tells you that their books are doing well, pretend you believe them. Then find your way to their underwear drawer and look for the signs: new socks, billowing silk, telltale tube of travel detergent. Anything less than that and they are living a lie. And next time you hear a towering figure of the English literary establishment read in your local bookshop, remember that they don't care about plot development. They're wondering how to dry their underwear in time to catch the 6:45 a.m. to Detroit.

Don't compliment them on their latest acclaimed masterpiece. Offer to do their laundry. They'll thank you for it. Take it from me.

÷ ÷ ÷

Charlotte Mendelson works in British publishing as an acquiring editor. She is the author of two highly praised novels — Daughters of Jerusalem and Love in Idleness. In winning two awards designed to spot talent in writers under the age of thirty-five (the Somerset Maugham Award and John Llewellyn Rhys Prize), as well as being shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, Ms. Mendelson joins the company of writers such as David Mitchell, Ian McEwan, and Zadie Smith. spacer

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