Tuesday, 07 February 2012

Writers and Humble Pie

There are many humbling moments in the life of a writer. Constant rejection from publishers and agents, bad reviews and non existent royalties to name only a few. But perhaps my most humble moment came years ago after the publication of my first book.

I'd been invited to Hoss's Authors Night in Long Lake in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. If you're unfamiliar with this institution, it's basically a party and sale under a big tent outside Hoss's Bookstore and general store. Authors begin with a private picnic given by the hosts and then spend a couple of pleasant hours under the tent at tables filled with their books for sale. It's an opportunity for the public to meet their favorite writers and purchase autographed copies of their books.

Since this was my first appearance, I'd been looking forward to it. At the picnic I sat with writers Gary Randorf, Chuck Brumley and Anne LaBastille, who would depart every few minutes to deliver hot dogs or hamburgers to her German Shepherds waiting patiently in her pickup truck.

Eventually it was time to sell books and we all trouped down to the tent where our books had been carefully laid out by our hosts on long tables. I was to share a table with one of the best known and most prolific writers in the Adirondack region, Barbara McMartin, the author of numerous trail guides and histories of the Adirondacks.

There was my little book, perched at the very edge of a ten foot long table, the rest of which was completely filled with Barbara's twenty or so titles. All night long, as people approached our table, I'd perk up at the prospect of actually selling a book, only to have them lean on my book or shove it out of the way in order to reach one of Barbara's and hand it off to her for signing. At times I was so surrounded by crowds of McMartin admirers that I felt like some sort of personal aide to her, actually handing out copies of her books to those who couldn't get close enough to reach one. I think Barbara sold fifty or even seventy-five books that night. I sold one, if memory serves. It might have been to my wife.

Perhaps that experience was a worthwhile lesson in eating humble pie, one that prepared me for more of the same to come in the years ahead. I traveled to several bookstores around the state with Anne LaBastille for author's nights. Like Barbara, Anne was well known, even nationally so since the big splash she made with the first of her Woodswoman series in 1976. I rarely sold more than a handful of books. But Anne had a real following, mostly women who identified greatly with her woman alone in the wilderness theme. Again, I was outsold by vast numbers.

On one of these occasions, to the new Plattsburgh Borders bookstore, I drove with Anne, Mohawk poet Maurice Kenny and Adirondack legend Clarence Petty, the subject of a biography I had written. Maurice had never met Clarence and the two told stories the entire time, each vying to out-reminisce the other. This was when I first heard Clarence's story about being a passenger in an old Model A Ford about 1920. He was sitting in the back seat with his rifle as they drove up a very steep road. The car flipped backwards and turned upside down injuring the two men in the front. Clarence's gun actually went off and blew a hole through his jacket without injuring him. In those very early days of the automobile, I suspect no one thought anything at all about driving with a loaded gun.

After the book signing, Maurice got a ride home with someone else, perhaps exhausted at the thought of having to go toe to toe with Clarence again in the story telling department, though Maurice was no slouch himself. Anne invited Clarence and me to come spend the night at her farmhouse near Lake Champlain. I was quite excited to be spending time with these two legendary Adirondackers in an intimate setting.

Anne's house was funky and cozy with a woodstove in the living room where she slept on the floor. The house was piled high with books, magazines and notes for various projects. There were many paintings and crafty things from Guatemala where Anne had done extensive research as an ecologist over many years. Before we settled in for the night, she gave me a tour of her book business housed in the barn. The place was filled with tables of books, boxes and packing materials. Anne was the first writer I ever knew who did all her own marketing, promotion, packing, mailing and bookkeeping. She was dedicated to the work and quite successful at it. She tried to convince me that this was the only way to go. But I was unable to accept it. I wanted to write, not be a salesman and marketing guru, something I still resist, though the demands of my publishers that I become fluent in social media, have made that much more difficult.

Before going to bed, Anne decided to put teetotaler Clarence on the spot. I got the impression this was something of a ritual whenever they got together. Anne insisted that we have drinks. She pulled out an enormous bottle of Jack Daniels and carefully poured out glasses for each of us, placing one ostentatiously in front of Clarence. Of course he would never touch it, but he seemed to treat Anne's little temptation with a degree of resigned humor.

Anne and Clarence were both down to earth people, and I learned, perhaps, a bit of perspective on dealing with humble pie moments from them. In any event, Anne and I drank more than enough for the three of us that long ago night.

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