Forgetfulness of things past
I don’t do many book signings. It’s not because I don’t want to, it’s because nobody ever asks me to. Of my fifteen— no, sixteen, I forget – published books, I think I’ve signed maybe twenty copies since I started writing them some three decades years ago. This isn’t counting the 500 I pre-signed for the special edition of my new A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison from NESFA Press or those I inscribe when I give them as gifts because I can’t afford to buy someone a sweater. No, it’s just that I’m not one of those authors who has bookstore appeal. It’s happened maybe four times. It isn’t as if I don’t try to get bookings. I’m really good in front of groups and on radio and TV shows. I’m funny and deferential and I always make sure my fly is up before going on.
I’m not any good at selling myself which is odd because, when I was a publicist and booked celebrities, I was very good at selling other people. Only now that I think of it, it was hard getting bookings on writers. A radio producer once explained to me that that was because writers always make you aware of how little you know. In other words, they were smart just walking in the room (code for “too intelligent for our audience”). William Goldman (naturally, a writer) wrote about that in one of his memoirs when he recalled attending a studio story conference about one of his script and taking out a yellow pad to write down everyone’s suggestions. The moment he whipped it out, he reported, the whole room clammed up because, he later reasoned, once they were all at risk of being held accountable for what they said, they were afraid to say it.
I’ll tell you who knows that not all writers are smart. Editors. A lot of people think that editors are just the people who make sure that your commas are in the right place. No, an editor is someone who can look at your painfully created prose with a new set of eyes and see everything you did wrong. Good ones can be a blessing. They can discover that you forgot to give a character a first name at the point at which you refer to him by his last name, to when you go off on a tangen that leads you so far astray from your primary narrative that it threatens never to come back.
The best editor I ever worked with was Donald Forst who didn’t last long at Boston Magazine. I had written a long story about the subway system. He made me sit in his office while he read it and then took a blue pencil, drew a line two pages before I’d finished, and said, “this is the end.” I didn’t know what he meant. “This is the end of the story,” he said. “You don’t need the rest.” I looked at it again and, damn it, he was right. Thank heaven I wasn’t being paid by the word. I have worked with other editors before and since, and all but two were good, but Don was the only one who made so much sense with so few words. And yes, ever since then I have heeded my gut when I felt a story, a scene, or a chapter was over, and moved on.
You have just read one of those tangents that I hope didn’t lead us too far from my main narrative. You think that’s why I don’t get invited to do book signings?
It might be because I don’t write teenage vampire novels, sex tales, or self-help books. (Jonathan Katz said he once asked a bookstore clerk where the self-help section was. She said, “If I told you, that would defeat the purpose.”) I write movie books and non-sleazy showbiz biographies. The first nobody cares about because the prevailing wisdom is that the Internet Movie Database now addresses all film research needs, and the second one probably speaks for itself. The public doesn’t care about a celebrity’s creative process, they care about a celebrity’s procreative process
Another reason I don’t get booked on TV shows is that I don’t do enough TV shows. In my world you can’t be on TV unless you’re on TV. Book signings flow from TV. Gore Vidal (whom I miss very much) said that the two things you must never turn down are sex and television. Apparently I am too old for both. I should have had the foresight to have been famous thirty years ago so that, today, I could be coasting on fame and no one would care if I had grown to look like a J.R. R. Tolkien character.
When you ask an author for an inscription do you stand there and read it right there in front of him or her, or do you wait till you leave? I’m never sure. Usually I just say say “thank you.” When I asked Tom Hayden to sign a rare copy I’d obtained of The Port Huron Statement, the manifesto that began SDS, he handed it back saying, “I bet this is going on eBay.” I assured him it would not. When he died in 2016 I thought about it, but nah, it’s worth more as a keepsake. Besides, I never sell things that are signed by friends of mine, and never when someone is still alive. I just don’t.
The author’s nightmare is seeing your signed books turn up in used bookstores. The first one of mine that that happened to was my 1990 biography of director William Friedkin, Hurricane Billy. I bought it from the bookseller and recognized, from the inscription, that it was a courtesy copy I had sent to an editor at St. Martin’s Press who had asked me to propose a project and then he never got back to me on his own pitch, the swine. How tacky, I thought, to sell a signed gift book. So I mailed it back to him with a note, “Did you lose this?” I never heard from him about that, either. (I was going to name him here but why bother?)
I have two books coming out this year. Two and a half, sort of. The first one and a half are A Lit Fuse (see above). The fancy signed edition is already out as I write this blog, and the general hardcover edition is due out in late July (2017). Those are from NESFA Press. At the top of October, Bear Manor Media is bring out Screen Saver Too: Hollywood Strikes Back, my second memoir.
The last two aren’t pre-signed. I am available for signings. Anybody?
I don't write on spec, but every now and then something gets me fired up and I can't stop my fingers from hitting the keyboard.
Copyright © 2019 Nat Segaloff