Over the decades, I’ve done many readings, and each one has a story behind it.
All kinds of things can go wrong at readings. Nobody shows up – that’s the classic “worst fear” of newer (and experienced!) writers. Sooner or later, it happens to all of us. I consider the experience part of being a working writer interacting with the public. It’s not a reflection on my work or me personally, it’s just the way things go. I wait for a reasonable amount of time to accommodate late-comers before deciding it’s a no-go. What’s reasonable depends; I’ve had people come in as late as five minutes before the next reading. The important thing then is to be gracious and friendly. Conventions are busy places, and I appreciate any effort to get to my reading, particularly if it’s scheduled in an out-of-the-way place or at the same time as something really popular.
Then there are solo readings where only a few people come and half of them leave, and those who stay have the pained expressions of those who find themselves in the wrong place but are too polite to leave you with no audience at all. At times like these, I don’t plod through what I’ve planned (unless, of course, those stalwart few are perking up in surprised delight). I may cut it short or do something outrageous to liven it up, like interspersing paragraphs with interpretive dance. Or I pass the manuscript or book around, round-robin style, asking for dialog to be read in silly voices. In other words, I try to make the reading a fun experience, even if my audience is there by mistake. If I’m reading from a print-out, I’ll autograph it and offer it to a lucky winner.
Multiple-author readings present different things that can go wrong, the most common being other readers who don’t respect the time limits. You’re supposed to share a 50 minute slot, and they go first and then read for 45 minutes and take questions for another five. Or their delivery is so boring (loud, etc.) that it drives people who’ve come to hear you out of the room. You sit there, trying not to fume and yet getting more and more agitated inside. When you finally get a shortened time with a decimated audience, there’s no way you can present your material well. Over the years, I’ve become less polite about sharing time. I try to get to the room early and state my strong (nay, emphatic) preference for going first. This runs the risk of late-comers missing part or all of my reading, but at least I’m doing it on my terms. Then I sit near the back. I have yet to sneak out of another reading (that is, indeed, rude) but I feel more relaxed about staying, knowing it’s an option. It also makes it easier for folks who want an autograph to find me.
I have heard accounts of readers (usually male) making condescending remarks to or about other readers (usually female) and I’m still thinking about how to handle this. On the one hand, I like to think I can trust my audience to spot an arrogant idiot when they see one; on the other hand, I don’t think such professional disrespect should go unchallenged. I think something along the line of an interruption, saying, “These folks,” meaning the audience, “have come here to listen to us read. Let’s keep the focus on what we’re here for.”
Sometimes everything goes right. Your audience, even if small, gets right into the reading, and energy flows back and forth between speaker and listener. They laugh at all the right places and hold their breath in the most gratifying manner during tense moments. A lively discussion ensues, followed by a rush to the dealer’s room to purchase the book. Or the other readers are courteous and genuinely interested in hearing one another’s work, so that the entire reading session becomes greater than its constituent parts. It becomes the occasion for new friendships and professional networking.
Then there are the adventures getting to the reading, the “incidentals.” My recent reading from Collaborators, Finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, falls squarely into the adventure category. The reading was to be held at the San Francisco Public Library. I live in a small down waaay up in the mountains near Santa Cruz (up many miles of twisty road). When I had gotten most of the way up and then down the aforementioned twisty road, the bright red triangle/exclamation point PAY ATTENTION RIGHT NOW warning light on my dashboard went off, complete with outraged beep. The disaster proved to be very low oil (even though it had been checked earlier that month) for which I had a supply, although likely not enough. However, I could not budge the oil cap. In between grunting and cursing the arthritis in my hands, I tried to keep the nasty greasy grime off my flowing silk tunic, still with no luck. While I waited for my husband to make the long trek, two young women (sisters, in different cars) stopped to ask if I needed help. In short order, they removed the oil cap, showed me how to pour the oil without spilling, using the dipstick as a guide, and agreed with me that I needed more oil than I had.
Now comes the cool part. When I explained where I was going, both of them got very interested. One had just finished taking a course on gender issues, which I examine in Collaborators. When I offered to give them a thank-you copy of the book, they insisted on paying for it. Since they are local, only a few miles from where I live, I’m hoping this will turn out to be one of those friendships that arise from readings, even if the “reading” part was more “getting there” than actual performance.
Even though I was late, the reading went splendidly. The other readers, all from different categories, were varied and for the most part excellent. I went last, and I used many of the techniques for livening up a reading, although not resorting to interpretive dance. A good time was had by all.