By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
|Art by Michael Crivello|
All of my books have come out in either January or February, when small books stand a better chance of surviving. The theory is that during the rest of the year, when people buy most of their books, the publicity for the big, sexy releases might drown the smaller ones out completely. It’s shrewd marketing, but it hurts. It’s like telling your 17-year-old kid, "We’re dropping you off at the bowling alley tonight instead of at the prom. You’ll stand out more."
Since book tours are scheduled around the publication date, my readings, too, have always taken place in the dead of winter. Which is how I happened to be in Cleveland in early 1994. It was snowing lightly when I flew in that morning from Detroit, and the media escort who took me to my hotel warned me that it might get worse. By evening, when she returned to pick me up for my reading at a local bookstore, Cleveland was in the midst of the worst ice blizzard in memory.
We drove to the bookstore at 15 miles an hour. Ours was the only car on the road, except for the ones that had skidded in slow motion off to the side and gotten stuck. To her credit, the media escort seemed completely relaxed, as if she drove authors through ice storms all the time. She didn’t even flinch when a Hyundai spun out and nearly sideswiped her Lincoln.
When we arrived at the bookstore at a quarter to 7, only the manager was present, and he looked heartbroken. He showed me the ads he’d taken out to publicize the reading; he showed me the posters and the display of books he’d set up in the window, and kept saying, "We had so many calls this week! It’s just this storm, it’s so horrible, even for Cleveland." He had set up nearly a hundred folding chairs, and all of them were empty.
At 3 minutes to 7, a car pulled up in front and two men, one of them carrying a large briefcase, stepped out and came into the store. After shaking the ice off their coats, they strode forward, sat front row center and smiled at me. Then I saw, through the window above the display of my books, a lone figure crossing the parking lot on foot. It seemed to take forever for him to reach the bookstore. He was an overweight young man wearing a huge, puffy down jacket that was not zipped closed. Under it he wore only a T-shirt, a pair of jeans and some very wet sneakers. He sat in the farthest possible chair.
Instead of being depressed by the small audience, I felt inspired by these three brave souls, these chivalrous defenders of midlist titles. I decided to make the evening personal for them, to make it special. Instead of just reading aloud, I would tell them why I’d written this book, how I’d written it, and why it meant so much to me.
The book, The Soloist, is a novel about a failed concert cellist. The story catches up with him in his 30s, when he is teaching and mourning his lost career. He is impotent and has not yet had a sexual relationship, because his identity problem has made him too self-conscious to become intimate with anyone. He is called for jury duty and must hear evidence in the trial of a young man, a spiritual seeker diagnosed with schizophrenia, who has beaten his Zen master to death as a solution to the koan "If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him."
I spoke to these three people from the heart, so you can imagine my dismay when I noticed that the two men in the front row were glancing at their watches, and the one in the back stared out the window as if he were bored. I pulled out all the stops, telling them about my own failed career as a cellist and my experiences in Zen monasteries in China, but nothing worked. When I’m giving a reading, if there’s one guy frowning, his is the only face I see. After 20 minutes I gave up and asked for questions. No questions.
"All right, then," I said. "If you’ll just form a line starting here, I’ll sign books."
The two in the front row became suddenly animated. They sprang from their chairs, shook my hand vigorously, then lifted the huge briefcase onto the desk in front of me and opened it.
"Mr. Salzman," the older of the two said, "we’ll be straight with you. We admire what you do, and your work sounds amazing, but we’re not really readers. We’re herbal-medicine distributors, and we read in the article in today’s paper that you’ve written about your struggle with impotence, and we wonder if you’re aware that traditional Asian medicine offers alternative, natural treatments for it."
I looked into the briefcase. From my time living in China, I recognized the usual pieces of deer antler and ginseng root. The jars filled with powder, I assumed, were derived from animal parts that were similarly firm and penislike.
"Someone in your position," the man said, "could do a lot of good as a spokesperson for alternative medicine — that is, if you were so inclined."
I said, "My book is a novel. The character is made up. It’s true that I’m a failed cellist, but my, you know, thing works okay." They exchanged a glance, and I got the feeling that the younger of the two of them was going to get yelled at outside of the store. They thanked me for my time and left.
By now, my dismay had turned to annoyance. The young man in the back stood up and walked toward me, his eyes never meeting mine. The design on his T-shirt was a small exclamation point.
He extended his hand for me to shake. I expected it to be clammy, but it was feverish and dry. He said, still not looking quite at me, "Hi. I’m a Zen student."
I thought: He’s come to lecture me about Buddhism.
Still clutching my hand, he said, "I’m also schizophrenic."
Everything slowed down. My eyes scanned the bookstore for the media escort. I hoped to see her in a three-point crouch, preparing to throw her body between mine and the fan’s in case he pulled a gun. That’s part of the escort’s job, after all — protecting the author. But she was in the Ethnic Studies section, talking on her cell phone.
I turned to face the schizophrenic Zen student. I hoped he was not familiar with primate behavior; anyone who has ever seen a terrified rhesus monkey, I figured, would not have been fooled by the expression on my face, which was supposed to be a smile. He raised his eyes, glanced for half a second at me, then let go of my hand and reached into his puffy coat.
He pulled out a copy of my book, which looked as if every third page had had its upper corner folded down to mark a place. "I loved this book," he said in a flat voice. "It meant a lot to me. Would you sign it?"
Reeling from a mixture of shame and adrenaline, I wrote an inscription to him that began on the title page and didn’t end until it had spidered down the margins of Page 3 of the story. When I finished, he thanked me, stuffed the book into his coat and left the store. No fuss, no awkward conversation, no requests that I read his work and give my honest opinion. I watched him cross the empty parking lot, then lost sight of him in the blizzard. He didn’t appear to have come by car. He was the best fan I’d ever had.Mark Salzman’s novels,The Soloist andThe Laughing Sutra, and his nonfiction books,Iron and Silk andLost in Place, are available as Vintage paperbacks.
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