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Gentle Readers, Meet the Man Behind the Novel

August 19, 1993|T. Jefferson Parker | T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County. His column appears in OC Live! the first three Thursdays of every month.

To promote a book, authors hustle around the country, sign their works at bookstores and libraries and give short talks and readings, trying their best to be affable and eager to please.

These encounters give authors a firsthand look at their readers, just as readers get a genuine look at the person behind the often misleading photograph on the book jacket. It's always interesting to see just who, in these recessionary times, is willing to plunk down 20 good dollars to see what you've been up to for the past three years.

I generally inscribe a book with something to the effect of "Hope you enjoy this tale." This is not a terribly imaginative nor intimate inscription, but it is certainly heartfelt.

You wonder as the person leaves: Will he like the book, or will I see it again at a Friends of the Library used book sale a year from now, marked down to a buck or two? You wonder, down in that now useless revisionist part of your mind, how you could have made the book better.

The apparently mercantile act of selling a book to a person so you can sign it is actually fraught with much more drama than appears on the surface. Some people are openly dubious of your credentials: "I've never heard of you. But I'll give it a try."

This is honest, and good, but it sends a queasy shiver down the author's spine. What is this upright woman going to think of the bloody sentence that runs from page 220 to 222? What else could she have spent her money and time on that might please her more?

Then there are people who have read and enjoyed your previous books. Although this might seem like the ultimate symbiotic retail match, the author immediately begins to wonder if this reader will be . . . disappointed! You hand the volume to the person--the story was an earnest effort, if nothing else--hoping that you haven't lost the touch, haven't repeated yourself off the welcome mat, haven't produced some jewel so dark it fails to shine.

These are the most challenging readers, because they've watched you grow--or perhaps not grow. Many of them have a more intimate knowledge of your characters than you do. Many of them have enjoyed your books for reasons that you may not even understand.

All have different tastes and varying pecking orders for your work. These people are the author's peer group, and they are, for the most part, a generous, perspicacious and forgiving lot.

I know for a fact that I've never written them a perfect novel, and they know it too. They seem to understand that I'm still trying, and I understand they are still waiting.

Occasionally, a reader has been so moved by the work, it shows on the face and comes through in the words. At times like this, the writer feels the second biggest thrill that the work can bring. (The biggest thrill is writing it.) So you sit there, mumbling a thank you that does very little to reveal to this person how happy you are that you got to them.

No words seem right, and a hug is out of the question unless you're Leo Buscaglia. You wish there was something you could say to ratify this touching of hearts, but there usually isn't.

Some of the most interesting moments at signings involve people who ask the most penetrating questions when you least expect it. Recently, as I sat at a sparsely attended mall bookstore, my table and picture set up near the entrance to bushwhack the unsuspecting, I was approached by a middle-aged woman who studied the poster, studied me, then picked up the book.

"You the author?"

"Yes, I am."

"Oh, man, I never met no author before! What's your book about?"

I synopsized the rather harrowing story.

"What you want to write about that stuff for?"

"I guess I'm interested in it."

"Do I have to buy one?"


"I don't want a book, but autograph this shopping bag."

I signed the bag--Cutlery World, I believe--and the woman smiled and went on her way.

Murder. Mayhem. Love. Tenderness. What do I want to write about "that stuff" for? Good question.

Later that same afternoon, a mother, toddler and infant in a stroller came by, all sporting black eyes. A heavily muscled man with an earring bought a book, fixing me with a look that suggested if he didn't like it, he'd find me later and pinch off my head.

Three separate individuals told me, unbidden, to leave my glasses on for the picture on the next book. One person told me to get a haircut. I was asked to sign Robert James Waller's "The Bridges of Madison County," which I did.

I was requested several times to describe each of my four books, then point out which one was the cheapest. It dawned on me that although I wasn't selling many books, I was certainly providing some entertainment value for the Sunday afternoon shoppers. I was somewhat on par with the 3-D "art" salesmen and the hot pretzel vendors.

It felt good to be part of the puzzling fabric of our society. I enjoyed being billed as an impulse item, along with Tic-Tacs and Chocodoodles. I felt like a very minor player, but a player nonetheless.

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