Here is an interesting dilemma. Let's say you've got a book, from a small press, and you're desperate for any form of publicity, because there's basically no budget for a reading tour or any other form of marketing whatsoever. Then a news event comes along that suddenly makes the book more "relevant" to more people than it was previously conceivable to imagine. The bad news: the news event is a brutal tragedy.
When I said yesterday that Letters from New Orleans was transformed by Katrina, this is part of what I meant. Suddenly, as people over the country, and the world, watched the agonizing spectacle of Americans trapped for days on rooftops, or dying in attics, there was, shall we say, heightened interest in the city I had written about. For about a month, there were many opportunities to talk in various first-rate media outlets about the book. By and large, I turned these opportunities down. There were several reasons for this.
The most significant one was a distinct lack of professionalism on my part. I was pretty emotional about the situation. I had moved away from New Orleans, but I love that place and I have a lot of friends there, at least one of whom I knew had decided to ride the storm out; I couldn't get hold of him. (He's fine.) So I just couldn't get into the right frame of mind; I couldn't be professional.
Another reason is that the idea of jacking up book sales and making money because of a tragedy made me somewhat ill. (This is why author proceeds from the book go to relief organizations.)
One of the great things about the book having been published by Garrett County Press is that my publisher understood my reluctance, never questioned it, and even endorsed it. He had also moved away from New Orleans, just a month or so before the hurricane, and was in a similar position, but even if you take that factor away, he also just happens to be a person of integrity who realizes there are times when moving units is not a priority.
The third reason is that the pundit/expert promotional persona makes me uncomfortable, which brings me to the subject of masks.
Because Letters from New Orleans was not conceived as a book, I did not start out with particular themes or goals in mind. Themes did, however, emerge. One was the attraction of the mask, or the persona. Given the whole Mardi Gras phenomenon, it's hard not to think about masks when you think about New Orleans, but over the course of writing the Letters the way that I thought about masks evolved. One of the essays in the book is about being in a Mardi Gras parade, and how curiously liberating it was to wear a mask. A mask can make you, or let you, do things you would not otherwise do; it makes you a different person. The question is whether the masked version is less real, or more real, than the unmasked version. Both versions are, of course, personas.
There is a great deal of persona involved in writing. This is one of the things about that process that I enjoy. There is also a great deal of persona involved in the promotion of writing. This is one of the things about that process that I do not enjoy.
The difference is that a writing persona can be ambiguous, changeable, and open to interpretation. The promoting persona tends to be more concrete. This can be boiled down to a photograph of a writer used to promote a book ? the promotional photograph. It's pretty specific. "Here is what the writer looks like. Now you know." What's good about that? It's not as if lots of author photographs aren't persona-driven images ? carefully staged and lit and so on. So that's why you can't actually see my face in the picture above: That's my (carefully staged) persona. Draw your own conclusions.
For the record, yesterday's visit with the students at Cooper-Hewitt ? which involved my Consumed columnist persona ? turned out to be a lot of fun. It was a good group, with good questions, and good observations.
My whole song and dance about not enjoying the promotion persona might seem inconsistent with speaking to students or other groups, doing radio or television interviews, and joining panel discussions ? all of which are things I've done. Actually, much of what I'm saying on this blog right now might even seem inconsistent with the fact that I'm saying it on this blog.
The reason it sounds inconsistent is that it is inconsistent. But I'm not naïve. I love to write, I am lucky to be able to do it for a living, and I want people to read things that I have written. I have no particular interest in being known, but I understand how the marketplace functions. Unless you've got a hell of a lot more talent I do, then you have to be "out there," promoting yourself. (That phrase, "promoting yourself," is carefully chosen. It's different from "promoting your work.") The point is, I know that I can't get away with silly gimmicks like hiding my face forever. I'll have to adapt a new persona, I guess. There are times when moving units is a priority.
So: Reading tonight at Mo Pitkin's in NYC, y'all! Everybody come!