Early on Saturday morning, I woke to find a sharklike Lincoln towncar parked on the lawn. I peeked through the slats in my blinds. Was I dreaming? I opened the front door and tiptoed across the grass. A man in a dark suit stepped out and tossed my suitcase in the trunk.
I called my brother and said, "Guess I don't need a ride to the airport."
HarperCollins hired the mysterious driver to whisk me to Miami International Airport. No time to bask in the rockstar treatment. During my ninety-minute flight, I folded and unfolded my notes, trying to remember what the heck I would say.
The SIBA conference (Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance) took place at the Atlanta Hilton. It's like the Cannes of indie bookstores, where everybody gets together and talks shop with the publishers. I was supposed to give a talk, but the panel's name kept changing, and I wasn't sure what to make of the sub-headline: "How people overcome obstacles in their lives to relate well with others."
Another Lincoln swooped to the hotel, under lights that pulsated like a Broadway show. In the lobby, a glass elevator rocketed up and down. (When you take a ride, your ears click. I half-expected it to crash through the roof and carry me to a chocolate factory).
I met Jen (part of the Harper PR crew...in other words, my guardian angel for the afternoon). She lead me through the lobby, past crowds of football-toting, linebacker types (apparently, some sports-related thing was also going on) and people in identical t-shirts (a family reunion?) and the SIBA folk (easily identified by their bib-sized green namecards, not to mention, tote bags stacked with hardcovers).
I told Jen, "I'm just going to talk a little about myself and the book. Is that okay?"
Her eyes crackled with humor. "I hope so."
"I mean, I'm not supposed to give a motivational speech or something, right?"
She told me: everything's going to be fine. And I believed her.
I slumped in the last row, messing with my notes. I kept thinking: Okay. I'm a professor. I can handle talking to large groups of people. Then I looked up and saw an elegant woman with Afro-puffed curls, walking, almost in slow motion, up the stage. She sat behind a table decorated in yards of fabric, like Victorian curtains, and took out a poster--the foam-backed kind that fold and stand on their own. On the front was her bookcover and her Official Author Photo.
I glanced back at my notes. Luckily, I had brought my own goodies: a tin full of pinback buttons, business cards, and a plastic sewing kit (thank you, Container Store) that I had pimped out to fit my stickers and flyers. Everything fit in my TCO tote bag...except for my own foam-backed poster (which didn't fold...and, due to its ginormous size, I had to stuff in a portfolio binder. How I managed to cram my "pieces of flair" into my suitcase that morning, I have no clue.
"I think you should go up now," said Jen. She gave me a smile and I smiled back.
I plunked myself between two older gentlemen. On my right sat a guy who wrote suspense novels. "It's all about a hero saving the world from the bad guys," he boomed. On my left sat a bearded man who had written the same book (something about civil rights in the 1950s) multiple times. "Not revisions," he said. "First person, second person, third person, fourth person..."
The other authors got into a heated discussion about books from the south, and what stereotypes New Englanders might have of them. When it was my turn, I talked about the "novels" I stapled together as a kid, stories about talking lobsters and identical sisters who lived in a treehouse. I wondered if the people in the audience (who kept trickling through the door, filling up the place) would think I was crazy. But they laughed a lot...a good sign. Or not.
On the way out, Jen said, "You did great." A woman came up to me and said, "I liked your speech!" (Is that what it was?) and someone handed me a raffle ticket. The panel's moderator, Sally, announced that she had read my book's ending twice. My eyes burned as I scribbled on her copy (my first signature...ever. I haven't even autographed my parents' copy yet).
Next, Jen lead me into the ballroom, where all the authors sat at a U-shaped clump of tables and signed stacks of books. I sat beside the Suspense Guy again. He watched me unload my TCO stickers and cracked jokes about "shameless self-promotion" while banging his fist on the table.
"Sell books!" he bellowed whenever somebody crept over to the table. Across from us, I spotted a woman in a feather-trimmed hat (I was getting a vampire/Goth vibe about her) and assorted men in ties. I stared at the mountain of TCO books. Two years of my life.
A few people picked up my book and asked, "What age is this for?" and I 'd say, "Everybody.") The first crop of book-seekers were the store owners, then a general stampede hit the floor. Now I know how Anne Rice must feel (in high-school, I used to wait hours, just to see her pull up to a bookstore in a coffin). I signed so many books, I couldn't move fast enough. Fortunately, another Harper PR angel, Elyse, stood over my shoulder, flipping the pages open like a concert pianist.
I signed whatever they wanted: For my wife. For my niece. For "Book Lover." For Kay-with-a-K. Or "Just your signature please." I kept reminding myself: Don't get used to this.
SIBA is the perfect place for an unknown author (yours truly) to meet and greet with a slew of indie bookstore owners. I had a blast talking to everybody (We're all geeks and we love books). Even the grumpy old guy who marched up to my table, grabbed a copy of my book, and blurted, "This looks like chick lit. I don't know who would be interested in it."
"Do you know anyone in high-school?" I asked, freezing the grin on my face.
"Do you know anyone in college?"
He shook his head.
"How about your wife?"
He shrugged and walked away.
When the last stragglers filed out, I turned to Elyse and said, "I've got another signing in Decatur. Is someone supposed to go with me?"
She blinked. "Is this your first signing at a bookstore?"
"I'll go with you," she said.
We got a little lost on the way to Decatur (the driver kept smacking into dead ends), but we made it to the Little Shop of Stories. Call it my dream bookstore: loaded with comfy couches, overstuffed armchairs, and its own ice-cream parlor. The awesome owner, Diane, shook my hand and piled a stack of books on a table. I took out my pen and signed every last copy. Diane mentioned her new book club for teens (Glamor Girls). They will post reviews online, which is a very cool idea.
As I turned to snap a picture of a giant frog (you know my thing for amphibians), I heard my name and spun around. To my surprise, it was Carol, a MySpace friend.
"You came to see me?" I asked. "Wow."
"I just got my Internet back and saw your message," she said.
"And I'm standing here, taking pictures of a frog," I said, laughing.
After the signing, I sat with Elyse in a cafe called Sage, just a block from the Little Shop. After the long day, we finally had a chance to breathe. There was something going on in a park across the road: kids chasing balloons and blowing soap bubbles. Music trickled on the breeze.
"What a lovely night," said Elyse, who ordered "fancy" fried green tomatoes with goat cheese (She pronounced it, "toe-mah-toes," which made me smile) and okra with globs of Tabasco sauce. Elyse wanted a "southern experience." I was content, chowing down on fries and a glass of beer.
By the following afternoon, I'd be back in Miami, feeling like I'd just woken from a beautiful dream. I'd have new classes to teach (and my own car to weave through rush hour traffic). I'd sit at the computer, typing alone in my room. But check out the bottom of my shoes. They're covered in red Georgia clay...and I refuse to wash it off.