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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

World Book Night -- Being Santa!

Here's all I knew about World Book Night, when I applied on-line to be a book giver --  I'd be volunteering to hand out 20 copies of one of 30 titles especially printed for this event, authors foregoing royalty, publishers foregoing profits, everyone just spreading a love of reading to people who don’t normally have easy access to books. The idea was to hand out a half a million free books, in 6,000 towns and cities across the country, all on the same day.

On the application I said I’d leave the books on park benches and bus stops & I chose to pick my books up from Vroman’s, an independent book store where I teach. Picking the book was a little harder, it was a great list.  

I decided not to do a teen book, because that was too close to my real life. So I chose Tim O’Brian’s brilliant Vietnam novel The Things They Carried, because I could remember exactly where I was when I’d read and loved it many years ago, and for a compulsive reader like myself, that’s saying something.

I’d asked a few friends if they wanted to give away books with me. Many said they’d love to, but it ultimately whittled down to one pal saying she'd try to join me for an hour or so in the late afternoon, and my husband agreeing to go with me at night.

I pictured one of us driving the get-away car, trolling the streets, slowing by a park bench and idling while the other one pops out, places the book at a tempting angle, and we zoom away.

That brings us to World Book night - day.  It was rainy as I drove to Pasadena to pick up my box of books. I figured I’d stop on the way back and get plastic bags to wrap each book in.  In my minds eye, however, they looked a whole lot less tempting in bags on soggy benches.   

At Vroman’s will call, I was given a small black pin with white letters that said, World Book Night, Book Giver, April 23, a xeroxed thanks and congratulations, a sheet of hints and reminders of no significance, and, ta-da! My box of books!

I tore it open the second I got back to the car. Then pulled out of the parking lot, suddenly so giddy, that I rolled down the window and offered a book to the first person I saw. 

“Want a free book?” I called out through the drizzle to a guy waiting at the light. His eyes darted for a second, but then he shrugged, “Sure,” and stepped closer to take the copy I was waggling out the window. 

“It’s World Book Night!” I shrieked in explanation.

I pulled away, thrilled with my first triumph, until I realized he'd been wearing a snazzy bright green jogging kind of thing and was probably a rich Cal Tech student with more books in his library than I had in mine. 

I had to be more selective. But really, my adrenalin was pumping and I suddenly knew how Santa must feel with his big bag of presents. 

So, too excited to wait, never mind my plans to take people with me later, I immediately got on the freeway and headed straight for Skid Row. 

As I drove, ok, sped, I decided two things. 1.) I would pace myself and only give out 10 of my remaining 19 books down town, saving eight for my originally planned park benches and bus stops.  And 2.) There’d be no more impulsive giving to people who might possibly be rich.

But as I got off the freeway at Hill I had to stop myself from rolling down the window at every light and hysterically hurling books at whoever passed by. I did let myself give one out at a light in China Town, but then I took myself firmly in hand and sternly reminded myself to face the grim reality of already being down two books. 

I found a parking meter a block and a half before the mission on 6th. I only had enough change for 15 minutes, so I hastily stuffed eight books in my purse and two under my arm, and hit the street. 

A few dampish folk, sitting beside their blue-tarp tents said, “no thanks,” or “I’ll get it next time,” but others accepted my books with pleasure. Some looked a teeny bit suspicious, one asked if the book was of a “biblical nature.” But in no time my ten books were gone.  I hadn’t even made it all the way to the mission, where a crowd of rain-soaked people were waiting outside. 

I  returned to my car and dealt a few more books out to people passing by. One woman pulled the book she was reading out of her cart to show me that she was almost done with it. Another told me he didn’t want a Vietnam story, “Vietnam was boring.”

Good! I thought. I'm giving way too many out down here anyway. But trying not to give any more away, was like trying to save the last few cookies for later. Ha! The next guy who passed wanted one.  And then, there were only two left.

I’d wondered earlier if it would be considered stealing for me to keep one commemorative copy, since this was a special one time printing, and the first World Book Night in the States, and all... But fate answered for me, as the last book left my hand. 

My parking meter hadn’t even run out, and all I had left was my Book Giver pin, which I hadn’t even put on yet, and an empty cardboard box that I’d bequeath to my Guinea pig as a new hidey-hole when I got home. My World Book Night -- over by noon!

P.S The WBN facebook page is full of great stories.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Show Biz?

Dearest Dears, I am thrilled to report that I am in the honeymoon phase of writing a new novel. That is NOT a complaint, but it means I cannot tear myself out of its arms long enough to write a blog. So for your reading pleasure and edification, (or to help you kill time while on hold with tech support) I have pulled another column from the vault -- this one ran in the LA Times 2 years ago today. I hope you enjoy it! xo Amy

     The other day a man called me (on my unlisted number) and said he worked for a women's morning talk show on the Lifetime channel called "The Balancing Act." He thought my newest novel might be a good fit for a "summer reading" segment. 

     "Wow!" I thought, "Finally some serious publicity. I wonder how he heard about my book? I wonder how he got my number? Do I have time to lose 30 pounds before the taping?

     He asked me if I was familiar with the show.
     He said I could watch that day's episode on the website, and he told me about the two hosts, one lively, one smart. He explained that the show is optimistic and solution-based. It airs from 7 to 8 a.m. daily. Viewership was blah blah number of women between the ages of blah and blah. They would need to shoot the segment fairly soon. How did the end of April, beginning of May look for me to be flown out for the taping?
     I glanced at my coffee-stained calendar. The rest of April, along with a good deal of May, June and July, were blank.

     Mind you, the TV man wasn't sure they'd decide to have me on. He explained that his job was just to tell me about the show and answer any questions I might have. Then some Bigger Billy Goat Gruff would call back to make the arrangements.

     While the TV guy talked, I fretted about my chins and how when women my age wear stage makeup, we look like we're in drag. I thought about the YouTube video a friend (Dan Santat) had recently shot of me, in which my ear poked through my stringy hair the whole time.
     The TV guy said there would be lots of cross-media support; the show's website, network promos and print ads that would have my book cover plastered all over them. For my part, he needed me to overnight him two copies of my book.
     Then he said they were investing something like $100,000 worth of publicity per episode, and all they needed from me was $4,900 as insurance that I was really interested, and ...
     That's when I squawked, "What? You want me to pay to be on your talk show?"
     He didn't know what I was objecting to.
     I hung up quickly, feeling utterly creeped out.
     But righteous indignation quickly gave way to self-doubt. Had I just blown a great opportunity?
     There are hundreds of TV channels with airtime to fill, and not enough advertisers to go around. Maybe in this sickly economy, this is how the game is now played. The old "you have to spend money to make money" thing?
     With the publishing business, bookstores and libraries all spiraling toward the new dark ages, publicity money for us mid-list, noncelebrity authors is nonexistent. We know we have to do our own promotion, but few of us have the stomach for it. So the idea that some entity would discover and promote our books … well, I for one would have been the perfect mark — if I weren't both broke and cheap.
     I belong to a list-serve of authors who write for teenagers, and so I posted my experience: "I think I've been slimed!" 
     The list is made up of people like me who constantly recheck their e-mail in search of distractions from their work, so replies came quickly, and I was soon looking at a whole website of concerns and complaints identical to mine. People who now felt tricked and befuddled, embarrassed by their own hope.
     For a few days, I talked about the TV man to anyone who would listen, while gradually returning to obsessing about my agent and reviews. 
     But about an hour ago I got an e-mail from a writer on the list-serve, reporting that my TV man, or one just like him, had just struck elsewhere in the kid-lit-o-sphere. I went to the fresh victim's blog and read his account. He too was clearly flattered by being sought out, and thrilled by the possible publicity, but wondering if it wasn't maybe a tiny bit sketchy that the TV guy asked for money.

     How many more of us are out there? Self-employed types working alone in obscurity; artists, writers, craftsmen being preyed upon by bottom-feeding, low-life crooks? 

     Or are they low-lifes? They're offering a service for a fee: exposure, visibility, recognition. The show really exists, and people are on it being enthusiastically interviewed. So especially in this, the Golden Age of Greed, rife with truly breathtaking scams and schemes and swindles destroying people's lives, I suppose my TV guy is small potatoes.

     I got my nerve up and called the show back to ask whether it's simply a big infomercial. The nice woman I talked to objected to that characterization.

     "No, it's not an infomercial at all," she said in a broad New York accent. "It's ‘branded entertainment.' "

     She then explained that spending a fortune on a television ad doesn't guarantee people will see it, because they're likely to "just TiVo it out." But "branded entertainment gives" an author the "opportunity to get integrated into a regular show."

     By that reasoning, maybe she should be paying $4,900 to be integrated into this article.
     But instead, I'll just die a broke, crabby old fart insisting that it was better in the old days when shows were shows and ads were ads and everyone could tell the difference.

P.S. Here's the show's website.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

An Author's Homage to Librarians

You sit down to write a novel, and soon the characters are crowding around demanding attention with the urgency and self-obsession of 3-year-olds.

A few weeks in, you can no longer shake them. In fact, nothing shuts them up until the manuscript is ripped from your hands at deadline, when you go from total control to utter powerlessness with one click of the Send button.
Goodbye! Good luck!
After that comes the weird silence of the empty nest, with its combination of freedom and loneliness. The joy and relief are offset by the fear of a mean and indifferent world mistreating your defenseless characters. You realize how much you love all of them -- even the bullies and brats, and there's nothing you can do but hope the world will understand and love them too.
The first word that they've arrived safely in the outside world comes with the reviews. Then your friends start reporting sightings of your babies all dressed up in their new covers, snug and comfy on bookstore shelves.
If you're a first-timer, you continually check your Amazon rating and duck in and out of bookstores. You ricochet between elation and devastation, relief and panic. But that's largely a financial issue.
You don't really hear from your characters until readers write to tell you they've spent time with them and that they are still alive on the page.
Fan mail is your "Hi, Ma! We're OK!" And it is wonderful. Even the urgent e-mail begging for a plot summary to help some kid with a book report due in the morning is better than nothing.
Then the sad day comes when you get the "R" letter. The one saying, in essence: We're sorry to inform you that sales stink and we have to remainder your book. That is how the publisher announces his intention to stand your characters at the edge of a ditch, blindfold them and have a firing squad of sales execs and bookkeepers gun them down.
The horror of the "R" letter is mitigated by only one thought: Your babies are safe at the library! Were it not for libraries, there would be no safe harbor for characters and stories, nowhere for them to wait out disasters and economic storms. And were it not for librarians, there would be no one to introduce your characters to new children as the older ones grow up and move on.
And for this, I want to thank librarians, for the heroic work they do and for the many, many lives they save.
xo Amy 
P.S. This piece ran a few years back in the LA Times. Am running it again now as my local libraries and probably yours, too, are endangered. 
Join your Friends of the Library group!!!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Passing Over!

  • First came the parental insitance that one day I’d look back fondly upon these family holidays and the sweet traditions of my youth. 
  • Then came my tantrums and sulks.
  • Then the parental threats. 
  • Then the grim, soul-crushing acceptance of utter powerlessness and the knowledge that the Passover Seder at Auntie Jenny’s was as unavoidable and inevitable as death.  
  • Last came me -- in a dress, with hard shoes and a bitter scowl.

Great Auntie Jenny and Uncle Manny had two sons. Uncle Bill and Greta had three sons. I had a brother. And then there was me, the only girl. That meant that when we arrived at Auntie Jenny’s each adult told me how pretty I was, or how pretty my stupid dress was, or both. And then no one spoke another word to me for the rest of the interminable night.
Me & Barry
While I sat in a lump of resentment, my brother and the boy cousins would play boy games having boy fun until dinner, at which time I helped my auntie serve soup. This meant carrying one bowl at a time and setting it down before each of my uncles and aunts and boy cousins.
Perhaps this doesn’t sound utterly humiliating and horrid. But it was. 

Worse, everyone complimented my parents on how nice it must be to have a helpful daughter like me. Grrrrrrrr!
And worse than even that -- in between courses we went around the table reading the Passover Haggadah, including prayers in Hebrew... out loud!  
In a stew of dread, I’d feel my turn to read lurching toward me like the Frankenstien Monster. I did not want to read out loud in front of these people and I did not want to read this crazy stuff about plagues, and first born sons dying, and blood on door posts and lamb’s bones, and bitter herbs and tears and slavery and smart sons and stupid sons, and boils.

Perhaps if a kid is raised with religious stuff more than once a year, the odder aspects of the Sedar wouldn’t be as utterly bizarre and confusing. But I don’t think you can be rational and straightforward month after month, then suddenly spring all kinds of kookie goings on at someone and expect them to swallow it whole. And besides being wacko, the Passover Seder was also unbelievably l-o-n-g and tedious. 
Luckily, all miserable things do come to an end. And finally we’d be back in the car on the drive home. That’s when my mom always said, “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
So now, as Passover is here once more, I ask this: Do I now, as foretold in the prophacy by my wise mother, look back fondly at those sweet holiday memories? 
The answer is NO! I absolutely do not! 
But as an adult at long last, I can pass over Passover. And so I say amen & happy holidaze!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

What Goes Around

My son was just on spring break so we met in Michigan for a quick visit to my folks. I’d been there two months earlier with my daughter. I hoped that making shorter visits more often would spare me the kind of shocks that I got when I waited too long between trips. 
My parents still live in their own house, shop for their own groceries, prepare their own meals, keep their house tidy and drive. They still attend and enjoy lectures and concerts and meals with friends. But they'll be the first to tell you they are not the people they once were.
We all know their condition can, and no doubt will, get unimaginably worse as they shuffle along this tricky part of the path. But the unknown is... well, unknown. And for now I'm grateful for how well they're doing, especially since the same cannot be said for many of their friends. In fact, most people my parents' ages are dead. 

My son and I sat in the kitchen and then the living room, telling them about our lives. We drove around some, we ate, had a few laughs. We heard a few main stories and concerns on loop, and took naps. It was a pleasant enough few days, no hospital trips, no falls, no funerals. And although my folks were sad to see us go, we were ready to leave when the time came.  
My son had a few more days of his spring break so he flew home with me. We talked. He told me about his life. We drove around some. We had a few laughs. We ate. And this morning, as I stood not-quite-teary at the door, he drove off, anxious to leave, eager to get back to his own life. 
Ah, I get it.