by Hugh Gilmore
Well, not exactly a bar. Right next to the bar, the Bombay Room of the Chestnut Hill hotel, last Friday night. And this was to quench their thirst for knowledge by getting a seat close to the free wine and cheese the Chestnut Grill had set out for literature lovers and other hangers on.
It was a thrilling night for me to be reading from my new book (“My Three Suicides: A Success Story”). About fifteen minutes before the scheduled starting time of 7 p.m., the room was less than half-filled, and I started to worry, but a sudden surge of punctual people arrived, and soon there was standing room only. That was exciting. I am a good speaker once I lean into the mike and start talking, but before that magical moment I am visibly nervous, floating in a La La Land of fear and brain freeze. I usually need to rest my book on the podium ledge so my shaking hands don’t distract the listeners.
Authors never find peace in their quest to pick the best passages from their book to read for an occasion like this. The purpose of a book launch is to introduce one’s book to the world, but which parts of it? A photographer or painter can string his or her work on a clothesline and everyone can walk along and see the photos or pictures at his own pace. But even a sample of a book asks an audience to surrender much more time and to do it in a passive way.
In my case I decided to try for two 15 to 20-minute sessions with a five-minute break in between. Then maybe a brief question-and-answer session. But what should I read? I still wasn’t certain after I started by reading the dream-like prologue of the book.
I was talking a lot, too, in addition to reading. You’re really not supposed to do that, according to the strictest standards of authorial read-alouds, but I always figure that the audience wants to get a sense of what an author is like as a person. Especially when the book being featured is a very personal memoir such as mine.
I read the three opening chapters of the book – 10 pages – and then we took a break. I am not distanced from my material the first time I read it for an audience, and I tend to read with much emotion. I hope it helps the listening experience because I have little control over how I feel when I read serious stories from my childhood.
After the break, I wasn’t sure which of my other tabbed stories I should read for the second half of the program. I decided to read the one story I would most regret not having read: a tale from my college days about a scary and guilt-inducing interaction between me and my father at night. It lasted just long enough to draw a shudder from the crowd and also to exhaust me.
Then the host of the program, Marie Lachat, chairperson of the Chestnut Hill Book Festival Committee, asked if I would take questions. Of course. The questions genuinely surprised me with their depth and complexity. For example, Did I feel I UNDERSTATED any of the rough things I described? How does one consider a lifetime and select only certain things to include? And: Since I wrote so much about my parents, were they the audience I wrote for? Did I think, for example, my mother was in heaven now and knew what I was writing? And did that inhibit me?
A few people raised their hands to make comments. Much of my book describes my struggles to survive a childhood lived in the shadow of an abusive alcoholic father. And of my struggles to love him anyway. Those who spoke at large expressed their sympathy with what I’d written because they too had grown up in similar circumstances.
Later, in a more private setting, many others – I was surprised by how many – told me they too had had similar childhoods. They said I had done a good job of speaking for those of us who grew up trying to live with and cope with the shame of having an addicted parent. One woman said I had written an “important” book. My head spun with that comment.
The entire evening had a feeling of mutually shared affection and admiration. I’ve never experienced such professional joy. It made all the sacrifices I’d made to get the book written and produced worthwhile.
As an after note: On Saturday night, before going to bed, I checked my sales status on Amazon. For one brief while my book stood at #83 in the Amazon Kindle store’s Top 100, in the category of Young Adult/Teen biography. (A surprise category to me…this book has some rough language at times and even sex, of a certain incompetent, nearly humorous kind.) I was flying high when I came up to go to sleep.
Sunday morning brought the expected crash. But for a brief while: “Made it, Ma! Top of world.”
“My Three Suicides: A Success Story is available in both print and e-book formats, most easily through Amazon.com.