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First Person

An L.A. Author Feels San Francisco's Chill

A writer on a book tour finds the city's 'serious' literary community to be less than genuine.

January 04, 2002|GINA B. NAHAI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I'm not one of those writers who routinely predict the demise of the written word, feel ignored by their publishers or lament the possibility that their books may be read by the huddled masses. The written word, I believe, is alive and well. I feel quite loved and appreciated by my publisher. And I would like nothing more than for the masses to read my books.

Which is why I'm standing here, at 4 a.m. on a freezing Atlanta morning, in a line that stretches through the airport and out to the sidewalk, hoping to make an 8 o'clock flight to San Francisco. I'm on tour for my new novel. I've pursued the huddled masses in Los Angeles and San Diego, courted them in the Midwest, followed them to the East Coast, and all the way down to the South. But for all the mishaps along the way, nothing prepared me for the likes of San Francisco.

To garner interest in the book, my publisher has spared no expense. I've been on news shows and book shows and even in People magazine. Yet I'm beginning to sense a kind of existentialist despair--as if I've been locked inside one of Jean-Paul Sartre's plays or trapped in an episode of "Seinfeld."

It could be the reading in one East Coast city where the organizers had changed the date and neglected to tell me, or the one in the South where I was pitted against Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the sex counselor, and lost hands down in terms of numbers attending, or the book festival in Southern California where 10 minutes into my talk someone came in to announce to the audience: "Kenny Turan's event has just started downstairs; hurry if you don't want to miss lunch."

It could be the number of times I have turned up for an interview only to be preempted by "real" news, the security alerts I have set off--a woman with a Middle Eastern name ($150 highlights from a Beverly Hills salon notwithstanding), traveling alone on a one-way ticket.

It could be aftershock from Sept. 11, Afghanistan, the explosives in people's shoes. It could be, but it isn't: The writer's life has its own absurdities, independent of the world at large.

So I take my theater of the absurd aboard a plane from Atlanta to San Francisco, check into a hotel and call a writer friend in Palo Alto to say I'm in town doing readings. I imagine she will be pleased, that she will offer to come out and meet me, that she will say a few words, sincere or not, about how much she's loved my new book.

Instead, I find her gasping at the other end of the line.

"Really?" she asks. "You're touring?"

She says this as if it's a crime against humanity.

"We're at war. People are dying. And you're touring?"

I feel like I've been caught naked in front of the whole class. On the first day of school. In third grade.

It's true I feel a bit ashamed of my self-centered quest to further my career when so much "real news" is going on. But I have spent four years writing this novel, and I'd like to see it sell more than five copies--all of them to my mother. Besides, I can't imagine that the hunt for Osama bin Laden will be undermined by my little book tour.

My friend is undaunted by my argument.

"You know," she says, "all the big names have canceled their tours."

I know. The big names have.

"Their publishers won't risk their authors' lives."

My publisher, on the other hand, has been more than willing to take a chance on mine.

"At any rate," my friend concludes, "San Francisco won't be what you expect."

I expect only to sell a few books, to a few friendly readers.

"But that's just it," she explains, a bit too joyfully.

What?

"Our readers."

What about your readers?

"They're not like L.A. readers."

What does that mean--L.A. readers?

"L.A. readers," she emphasizes, like it's an incurable disease recently imported from Africa.

What about L.A. readers?

"They're simple," she declares. "Shallow and unliterary and easy to please."

I take a moment to digest the meaning of this apparently well-known fact that has until now escaped me.

Does this mean that serious readers, S.F.-style, will not rush to buy my books?

"Probably not," she stabs. "Unless you're a big name."

We already went over that.

"Or you've gone commercial."

Oops. Do San Francisco readers, profound as they are, actually turn out for commercial writers?

"Sometimes," my friend says, sighing. "But when they do, there goes your reputation."

I hang up the phone and call room service for a pot of coffee to help me navigate this new maze I've been thrown into. I've got three novels to my name, had my books translated into 20 languages. I've won awards. And now all that may unravel, indeed my entire literary reputation may be tainted, if my books sell in San Francisco.

Should I stop hoping, then, that my cousins from Tiburon will show up at my reading, bring along their spouses and children and next-door neighbors, and make everyone buy books?

Should I stop hoping for a call from Oprah? Why, I've even left my cell-phone number on the answering machine at home in case she calls when I'm gone.

Sure enough, the first store I read at is packed.

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