• Far too many of you out there, wistful writers and blissful non-writers alike, vicariously picture yourselves living The Life of a Published Author. Admit it. You fantasize about sprinting to your glam book-signing event past lines of adoring fans. Getting cosy late-night calls from your agent, announcing the latest kindle numbers for your book. Chilling in the Green Room before your Oprah interview.
• This week you’re in for a treat. You’ll live vicariously, all right—in my armchair tour of the dark underbelly of book promotion. Yesirree! Step right up! Meet the author as trained seal, valiantly endeavoring to shout over the cacaphony of expresso machines. Squirm to the real-life trials, tribulations, and humiliations endured by even the best wordsmiths.
• Authors Steven Saylor, Vicky Alvear Shecter, Ruth Downie, Adrienne Mayor, Caroline Lawrence, and Gary Corby—my terrific gang of six—
rashly volunteered to undergo my grilling about their worst book-peddling experiences. As writers, they run the gamut of genres, from children’s books to historical fiction to nonfiction. Their common thread? All six authors have new books out this year on Greco-Roman themes or set in Greco-Roman times.
• While watching movies like Spartacus and playing with Roman toy soldiers as a boy, Steven Saylor never dreamed he’d grow up to write novels about ancient Rome. His sleuth Gordianus the Finder uncovers crimes in the age of Julius Caesar. In his novels Roma and Empire, Steven takes a more panoramic view of the ancient world.
Q: Welcome, Steven! We’re hungry to learn—what’s the most embarrassing book event you’ve ever done?
A: Years ago, I took part in a group signing for Mystery Week in the San Francisco Bay Area. Everything went wrong. The bookseller had no idea who we were and put none of our books in the window. A handyman on a ladder went about rewiring a light fixture a few feet away while we sat at a table for two hours. No audience. It was gruesome—until a shopper who was headed for Italy happened to drop by –and I got to sign a book! Gratifying—but also embarrassing, since it was a group event.
Q: Most bizarre question you’ve ever gotten from an audience?
A: On my first trip to the north of England, a man raised his hand and in a broad Scottish accent, asked, “Mr Saylor, I read ye book, and I liked it but—why must ye have a murder?” I was speechless. Naturally, that night in my hotel room I came up with an answer: the murder is the Pandora’s box, the rip in the social fabric that allows all the other secrets being kept by the characters to tumble out.
Q: Oddest or most poignant comment you’ve received?
A: At a signing a male reader once asked, “What does it mean that, over the course of your series, you’ve created an ideal father in Gordianus?” Something I’d never realized, but he was absolutely right. The reader at times sees patterns not seen by the author, who’s like a painter standing too close to the canvas to see the big picture. Gordianus as an ideal father is a theme that runs all through the series, even though I never intended to do this. I’m still thinking about what it means.
Thanks, Steven! (P.S. to shoppers: Steven’s books are available in hardcover, paperback, audio CD format, and Kindle e-book format.)
• Vicky Alvear Shecter writes for teens and younger readers on figures of ancient Greece and Rome. Her lively language enthralls kids; educators and parents alike praise her meticulous research. Both Alexander the Great Rocks the World and Cleopatra Rules! are large format, heavily illustrated books with plenty of extras.
Q: Welcome, Vicky! Prepared to lose your last scrap of dignity? Tell me, what’s your most humiliating book event ever?
A: When a big box store invited me to do a signing but never a mentioned a word of it to anybody. I spent the entire time listening to chirping crickets!
Q: Hm. Would this have been a pet store, I wonder… OK, what’s the most bizarre question an interviewer or bookseller has asked you?
A: I’d just completed a storytelling session for kids in a popular bookstore, and went to thank the manager, where the conversation went like this:
Me: Even though the audience of toddlers was much too young for my book, I appreciated the opportunity.
Manager: The parts of the stories I could hear over the wailing toddlers were really good.
Me: Thank you. May I tell you a little more about who my books are written for?
Manager: Yeah. But first, what’s your favorite cookie recipe?
Manager: I’m putting together a cookie recipe book featuring the authors who come to my store.
Me: Oh, I don’t really bake. Still, I do want to clarify that my books are best for children nine years and older…..
Manager: (interrupting) Oops, gotta go! Email me that cookie recipe when you can! Thanks, bye-bye!
Q: Funniest comments ever received from a fan?
A: A girl about 11 emailed to say how much she enjoyed my first book. “I normally hate history,” she wrote, “but reading your book was fun. I’m going to write my report on Alexander the Great. But I should tell you, as soon as I finish it, I’m going to forget everything I read. Just thought you should know.”
Thanks, Vicky! (P.S. to shoppers: Vicky’s books are available in hardcover online and from other fine bookstore and museum retailers.)
Ruth Downie is author of what will soon be 4 books, set mainly in Roman Britain. They feature army medic Gaius Petreius Ruso and his inability to avoid murder mysteries. She loves doing the research and has developed a worrying habit of gazing into holes dug in the road in case the workers have turned up something ancient and interesting.
Q: Welcome, Ruth! You’re in for it now. What’s the most embarrassing book event you’ve ever done?
A: That would be the one attended by me, the organizer, one other person (which is why the show had to go on), and the nice couple who were there to lock up the building afterwards. Halfway through, two more people wandered in, but I think they came to see why the lights had been left on.
Q: What about the oddest or funniest remark you ever gotten from a fan? Or a non-fan, for that matter?
A: I had a lovely email from a reader who must have sussed out my deep insecurity. After I had responded to her, she wrote back, saying, “Thanks so much for taking the time to reply to me—a real writer would never have bothered.”
Thanks, Ruth! (P.S. to shoppers: Ruth Downie’s books are available in hardcover, paperback, and various e-book formats, including Kindle and Nook.)
How to stun an author: buy a book, for pity’s sake!
• Can’t get enough of these unsavory literary doings? Stay tuned for my upcoming blogpost. Part 2 of our wrenching, rollicking exposé will continue with more of the everyday ghastliness that confronts authors of every stripe.