Bad Book Seller Part 2
Saturday May 10th Amazon: 728
The grand tour is about to start. I pack my four shopping bags of books and a nightgown and train it down to Philadelphia with my family. They hide in the Acela bathrooms while I stroll the aisles, hawking my wares like a hot dog vendor at Shea Stadium. After a tour of the Eastern State Penitentiary (the family loves visiting abandoned prisons) I prepare for my reading. I’m the featured writer at a Mother’s Day event at Barnes and Noble called Misfit Mothers. I imagine an audience consisting of my two children, my husband, and maybe an orphan. I mean, even misfit mothers must have better things to do on mother’s day than attend a bookstore reading. But the reading is a hit. There are twenty, possibly even thirty, strangers in front of me, howling with laughter, asking questions. And I sell one book. That’s right. I’ve traveled nine hundred miles, spent $700.00 to stay with my family at the Ritz, and I’ve sold one book. The manager asks me to sign another twenty copies.
May 15th Amazon: 1,120
The next stop is Chicago. Here, I’m scheduled to read at a run down department store after a fashion show. This is an event sponsored by a leading woman’s magazine and clothing brand. And yes, it might sound like a peculiar bit of cross promotion. But not as peculiar as later discovering (thank you, Google) that my book is being read aloud on a special radio to blind and movement impaired people in Georgia and Alabama. Even if these people love the book, and God love ‘em for that, how many of them can actually run out and buy it? Anyway, when I see the time allotted for my reading on the program, I assume it’s a typo:
”Latest spring fashions 5: 30 to 6.”
“6 to 6:05 — Author Brenda Cullerton reads from her new memoir, the Nearly Departed.” Huh?
“Hey. Dorothy,” I say to the woman in charge, ”This is a mistake, right? I mean, five minutes?”
“ Well, Brenda,” she explains, “We did this other reading last week in Atlanta. The book was about Sylvia Plath and the audience didn’t really get it, you know? And they sure weren’t in the mood for shopping after. ”
Right. The “techie” plugs me into a headset like the ones rap stars and the guys at The Gap wear when they’re chatting with friends in the stockroom about D.J’.s at Marquee instead of calling up a pair of size 10 loose fit jeans..
The extraordinary and disorienting thing about this particular audience is that most all of them are middle aged black women. My book is about an over privileged, very white family that hits the skids in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Not a lot in common, you think. But as I begin to read, these ladies are laughing so hard, they’re wiping their eyes. Twenty minutes later, I’m still reading. I spend an hour afterwards, signing books that they’ve been given free with their 100.00 clothing purchases.
May 16th Amazon: 2,060
A Borders reading on Michigan Avenue. I’ve scoped it out the morning before. It’s pretty cool, seeing these huge posters of myself all over the 1st and 2nd floor. The reading area upstairs is set up with at least a hundred chairs and the manager is extremely excited. “I just loved, loved your book,” he says. “And we always get great turn outs.” I’m on a high all day, riding barges down the river, walking by the lake. My father was born in Chicago but his father died when he was six years old. He and his mother left, never to return. My palms are sweating as I head up the store escalator with my husband. It’s 6 45. The reading starts at 7. There are two women in the front row. “No way, no way,” I shriek to my husband while also whispering. “I’m not going in there. “
“It’s still early,” he says, trying to reassure me. “Give them some time.” At 7 o clock, I greet the audience. “Look, I just want to thank each and every one of you for coming. So thank you. And thank you.” Next time I look up, my dead father is looking straight at me from the last row. Sure, I drank a small Martini before the reading. But come on…This guy smiles and winks, he even crosses his legs like my father. I stutter my way through to the end as the apparition slowly moves towards me.
“Hello, Brenda,” he says with a grin. “My name is Geoff Cullerton. My father was your father’s half brother.” What half brother? It’s moments like this that explain why people write memoirs. I sign thirty copies for the manager.
May 19th Amazon: 875
The big reading at Barnes and Noble in Manhattan. Only the thought of standing up and doing a nude pole dance in front of 80 people I actually know is more terrifying than the thought of standing up there at that podium and baring my soul. Just as I begin to relax, I hear this deafening knocking sound behind me. Six boys outside pull their tee shirts up and stick their nipples up against the window. “More fans”, I say to the audience before moving on. I sell a lot of copies. To friends. And just before leaving, I invite everyone over to my editor’s house for margaritas. Unfortunately, the mike is still on. So I end up inviting the entire store over for margaritas.
June 12th Amazon: 6,489
1 P.M. National Public Radio Studios, downtown Manhattan
Oh my God. I’m going on the radio with Leonard Lopate. My knees are shaking as I sit on a plastic chair in the corridor, listening to this incredibly articulate, funny woman talking about the East German Stasi. How can anyone be funny about the Stasi? “Relax,” I shout silently to myself. “You’re always witty. Your book is hilarious. It’ll be fine.” But it’s not. It’s the interview from hell, given by God. And I sound like someone who hasn’t even read my book, never mind, written it. “So, Brenda. Tell us about the house in your book. What does it represent? “ Dead air. “Ummm… Ahhh.” My mouth is stuck open like those fish on ice at the old Balducci’s. “ The house, the house… What house?”, screams the tiny little bit that’s left of my brain. “Well, Leonard. It’s a primal place…”Blah, blah. My house had a cement wall running smack down the middle of it. My mother built it after a fight with my father when he was away on business. I called it Checkpoint Charlie. The house is a metaphor for everything I have to say in the book about divided lives.
As I leave the sound proofed booth, the producer comes up to shake my hand. “Brenda. Just a bit of advice,” she says, ”If you ever do radio again, try talking into the mike instead of away from it. That way people might hear you.”
7 PM Housing Works Reading, Soho
I arrive at Housing Works in Soho still reeling from my close encounter with Leonard. Five minutes before I head for the podium, I realize I’ve forgotten my glasses. Even if I have memorized most of the book, how the hell can I do a reading without glasses? A friend heads out in a panic to find a pair at Duane Reade. The good news is that he finds a pair. The bad news is that no one can remove the security tag. Not even with an ice pick from behind the bar. It hangs there in front my eyeballs for the whole reading.
June 17th Amazon: 38,243
7 PM My hometown reading at the Ridgefield Public Library.
If you’ve written a memoir, this may be the moment in time that proves you can never go home again. At least, not without wearing a paper bag over your head. Jesus. Did I really say that in an interview with the local paper? Yes, apparently I did. Because there it is for all the world to see on the front page of the Ridgefield Press. “The laughs, the tears, the nuts!” shouts the headline above my Tallulah Bankhead-On-A-Bender color photograph. The reading room is full of faces I haven’t seen for years (including my agent.) It’s also full of faces I see all the time: my sister, my mother’s best friends, my niece. The irony, of course, is that my mother, a voracious reader, was persona non grata at this library. She refused to pay fines. “On principle,” she always said. What principle exactly remained a mystery to all but herself. She ended up borrowing books from as far away as Bridgeport.—a city she claimed was “more fascinating than Athens.” Not that she had ever been to Athens. Anyway, this is the longest reading yet—45 minutes and when I finally stop, they ask for more.
A blur of Googling. Amazon up to 40,000. Barnes and Noble—steady at 35,000. I’ve just heard that the guy who wrote Life of Pi sells 400 copies a DAY!!!
Morning: Message on my machine to call my agent. Hollywood? Second printing? Lunch?