By Nancy Bilyeau
Among the assumptions made about the life of a debut novelist is that right around publication day you will be swept up in a glamorous book tour. When you’re not dancing on tables at the Algonquin or having two-hour-long lunches with Important Journalists, you will read from your own novel in a bookstore before audiences hanging on your every word.
The first thing that’s incorrect about this scenario is the role of the Algonquin. The hotel, scene of Dorothy Parker’s 1920s round-table carousing, has been closed for renovations since December 2011.
As for the grand tours, they, too, seem closed for renovations, particularly for debut novelists who do not yet have followings. In the age of social media, author time is more productively spent blogging, guest-posting and tweeting, most publishers seem to feel.
But book-store readings survive. They may not be as plentiful as in bygone days but they do happen and they are important. Last summer, when I met the publicity team from Touchstone Books, I was happy to learn that, soon after my book dropped on Jan. 10th, 2012, I was scheduled to do a reading from The Crown in a Barnes and Noble on Broadway, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I once lived in a rental apartment on West 84th Street, quote close to that BN, in a time well before book writing—and marriage and motherhood, for that matter. It was a period when I managed a bit of carousing myself, so I was doubly delighted with the choice of locale. Some fine memories.
But then something happened as the January 12th Barnes and Noble date approached. I felt not just the customary jitters that every newbie experiences about a book coming out. The reading, scheduled from 7 pm to 8 pm on a Thursday, scared me. A lot. I confessed my fears to Jessica Roth, the super-capable publicist for Touchstone, and she said not to worry, there was someone she knew who could help.
If you expect me to here confess that I am a withdrawn writer who can’t put two words together in front of others, if only it were that simple.
As a magazine editor I’ve been called upon to appear on television. I once went on Fox News—live—to talk about my interview of Laura Bush in Good Housekeeping.
Sometimes I’m fine. But sometimes I’m not.
This unpredictability began early. When I was 14 and trying out for the Pom-Pom team, I froze and mechanically thrust my white pom-poms in all directions, the routine forgotten, while the TV theme of “Hawaii 5-0” blared. But this same teenager scored a leading role in the spring play, L’il Abner: I was Mamie Yokum, chewing on a (fake) corncob pipe and bellowing songs onstage. And I loved every minute of it.
Much more recently, I volunteered to be the class mom at my son’s school, and at the end-of-the-year party I tried to give a speech for the teacher. But then I could not stop my voice from quivering, and I barely made it through a few words of tribute. (Well, it had been a rough year.) But then, when I left my job at InStyle magazine to focus on writing fiction, I held forth at my going-away party—I gave a full speech, I read an ode to the production editor, I even did imitations.
A friend says it’s because I’m a Gemini. Which is all well and good, but which one of my dual selves was going to show up at Barnes and Noble on Jan. 12th?
Touchstone’s Jessica truly came to my rescue by hooking me up with Kim the media trainer from L.A. I spoke with her on the phone a few weeks before the BN reading. Kim has one of those Great Telephone Voices: warm and confident. She gave me a few pointers that reduced the panic, ones I have permission to share:
Set the table for the event. Kim told me that after thanking my hosts, it would be a great idea to let the audience know what to expect. And so I did. “First I’m going to read a bit from The Crown and I’ll talk about how I came to write it. I’m happy to answer any questions you have, and then at the end I’ll sign some books.” Just as Kim predicted, I glimpsed a flicker of relief in the eyes of both friends and strangers who’d turned out for my event. There is a plan—yay!
Don’t read from your book for an hour. Most writers read five minutes’ worth of their work (though according to my research others have been known to go on and on). Kim told me that a successful reading can mean no actual words spoken from the book at all. She knew one author who entertained the audience through imaginative means, not least of which was songs. No, my Mammy Yokum days were far behind me. But again I took her advice to heart, and read three snippets of my novel, interspersed with background. Text reading time: five minutes. Discussion of process: about fifteen minutes, followed by Q&A.
Share your passion. “Make sure that people know how much you loved writing your book,” Kim said. This was the easiest part, because of how much I did love researching and writing my historical thriller. I told the audience what it was like to wake up at 5 am and drink Earl Gray tea while I tapped away at my computer at the kitchen table. I told them about workshopping a first novel. I shared the research thrills, such as how excited I was when a Tower of London curatorial intern emailed me a scanned 16th century diet sheet of a prisoner held there before execution–finally, I knew what they ate in their cells!
So was I fearless that Thursday evening? No. While waiting to walk to the lectern, I swear I felt as frightened as Colin Firth before he takes the microphone in The King’s Speech. But I took a deep breath, looked down at my notes and my marked book, and I began. I do believe my voice quivered in the beginning. But afterward my friends told me they didn’t notice. And to my joy, it did go away.
To learn more about Nancy Bilyeau’s The Crown, go to www.nancybilyeau.com