Sunday, January 11, 2009

Alan Chin’s First Book Reading/Signing: Disaster or Triumph?

It had been a long-time dream, and also a dreaded nightmare: my first book reading/signing. A dream because this was my first chance to showoff my work, my taste of fame, my fifteen minutes. It was a minuscule taste of a petite fame, but one has to start somewhere, no? And a nightmare because I have a phobia about reading aloud in public.

I seldom read aloud to myself, but in public I break out in an icy sweat, fear grabs me by the throat, my mind stops working. This condition is the product of my early school years when I would have to read in front of the class. Far from being a model student, I was one of the dumb ones sitting in the back row that carried a facade of cool boredom to mask my lack of learning. Whenever I had to read, I stumbled over difficult words or complicated sentences, my brow would crease together causing a hundred lines, and beads of sweat would pop up like opals on my skin. The other kids enjoyed my misery. They would try not so hard to stifle their mocking laughter. Scornful laughter, what a penetrating thing it was. Giddy and gay and joyful, yet it touched a hidden nerve ever so masterfully.

So I was both thrilled and nervous as the date approached that I was to do a reading at A Different Light Bookstore in the heart of the Castro in San Francisco. It had been many years since I had read in public, so I was hopeful that, with maturity, I had overcome the problem. I had emailed 120 invitations, and heard back from about ten friends. I was hoping that those ten, and perhaps another five more would show.

I selected two passages from my book, Island Song, and practiced reading them aloud for three consecutive days before the big event.

I was scheduled to read on Sunday at 3p.m., and Herman and I drove into the city early and found a parking spot around the corner from the store. When we arrived, the manager explained that the bookstore had ordered an additional fifteen copies for the reading but most had sold already. They only had six copies left. Not to worry, I thought, only ten people were coming and I had six more copies in my briefcase and another ten copies in my car just around the corner.
At 3p.m., there were only two people sitting at the fifteen folding chairs they had set up at the back of the store. My spirits plunged. My fifteen minutes would go unnoticed by all but two people. I stood before them and suggested we give it five more minutes to see if anyone else would show. I chatted easily with a fellow writer from my online writing group that showed up. A few more minutes and three people from my tennis club showed up, which raised my spirits by the width of an eyelash, so I swallowed and suggested that we start.

When I stood before the chairs, which were at the rear of the bookstore, I thanked the bookstore for hosting the event, then introduced myself and Island Song. A number of people who had been milling about the store rushed over and took the remaining ten seats. I began to grin, thinking fifteen people in the audience was considered a success, but then I noticed another ten or fifteen people gathering at the back, behind the chairs! I recognized all but a few faces. My grin blossomed into a smile.

I told them I would read two short passages, then do a Q&A session, and finish by signing any copies people had brought or wished to purchase. I swallowed again, opened my copy to the first passage, and froze. I could feel the fear rising. I knew I was about to make a fool of myself in front of thirty of my friends.

As I read, I tried to keep the pace slow, to give myself time to see the words and read them correctly, but my nervousness had me racing to get through it as quickly as possible. Also, my analytical mind refused to stay quiet. I kept reading passages and thinking I should have worded it differently, with the subject at the beginning and a stronger verb…. Needless to say, my voice quivered, I stumbled, stuttered, read and re-read passages, and often read in a monotone voice. I could feel everyone shifting in their seats, becoming equally as nervous as I was. At one point I stopped and looked up, making eye contact with everyone, and said: “I’m sorry. It’s just that I’m so damned nervous.”

Everyone burst out laughing, a loud bark of delight. I even laughed myself, which relaxed me just enough to allow me to finish reading the passages I had selected.

Once the Q&A started, I was relaxed, confident. As a general rule, there are few things in life that a writer enjoys more than talking about his/her work, and I am no exception. So I smiled, nodded, and encouraged questions. During those few times of silence, I allowed myself to talk about aspects of the creative process and the process of getting published that I thought would interest people. The Q&A lasted about thirty minutes, and by the end of it, I was glowing inside. These were mostly people that I knew and liked, and I was finally able to share with them the joys and heartaches that I had experienced over the years of work leading up to that first reading. I began to think, what could be better than this. It didn’t take long to find out.
As the Q&A wrapped up, and everyone applauded, I began signing books, and talking to people one on one. I found that that’s where I really shined. I loved that very personal, intimate, eye to eye contact. Accepting praise, thanking people for coming and answering those questions people were too embarrassed to ask before the group. That, more than anything, was the most rewarding.

Then, out of the blue, a couple, Tom and Mitchell, who I had never met, asked if Herman and I would join them at their house, which was two blocks away, for some drinks and snacks. As it turned out, they were friends of another couple, Mark and Leif, who I did know and were also there. So after another 30 minutes of schmoozing -- during which time we sold the remaining six copies of Island Song the store had, the six copies in my briefcase, and also all ten copies in my car -- Herman and I joined Tom, Mitchell, Mark and Leif for what turned out to be a delightful evening. The refreshments and conversation lasted well into the night, and our new friends were utterly charming (I know that’s a cliché term but it fits so perfectly that no others come to mind).

Anyway, my disaster turned into a huge success, judging not only by the number of people who attended and the number of books sold, but also by how much I enjoyed my fifteen minutes. Was it worth three long years of work? Possibly, perhaps even more. And the great part is, I’ll get to do it again.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a good reading. I can fully sympathize with the terror of speaking in public, I've always suffered from near terminal fear of it. My first (and only) 'reading' never happened. It the launch of L.A. Heat and I invited everyone from work -- and lots of them showed up. I was all set to read a passage or two from the book when a friend from work showed up with her 5 year old grandson. Well that quashed the reading. My book is just a bit too noirish and dark for a child and I wasn't about the censor my own work so he could hear it. I just talked for the next hour or so, sold and signed quite a few books, but no reading. I'm still hoping to get one in somewhere. Maybe with the re-release of Heat.

Craig Burke said...

It seems to me as if it went over really well Alan. Congratulations and may you have many more readings in your writing career.

By the way I used to be both a musician and a minister at various times and I learned early on if you can make an audience laugh to begin it makes it much easier to relate with them.

Bryl R. Tyne said...

You are brave to share such personal insight. Knowing I will face many of the same inner struggles one of these days, I can now visualize and hope what it may be like. I'm encouraged, and am happy you had such a wonderful time. Thanks for sharing this experience.

Victor J. Banis said...

Very interesting, Alan, and it sounds to me like it went over well. I had a similar experience. Having lived for a number of years as a certified recluse, I was asked by Michael Bronski to participate in a reading promoting his book, Pulp Friction. This was a major event at the SF Library, probably 100 people there, including some very intimidating names, like, Michael Nava. I too rehearsed everything to death. Fortunately, they had a podium I could cling tightly to, because quite literally my legs would not have supported me. And, I had trained as an actor, so I am able to assume the mask. I think no one realized how terrified I was, but I got through it unscathed. Now, I've done this so much, I just skip right up to the front of the room and start blathering, and they can't shut me up. You'll find the next time much easier. And, I too try to keep my reading/comments brief, and get right to the Q & A, which I enjoy.

Victor J. Banis

Jeanne said...

Sounds like a success to me, Alan!
And now that you've done one, you're ready for the next.
BTW, how did you choose which passages to read?