by Pat Holt
Tuesday, July 24, 2001
EVERY AUTHOR'S DREAM - OR NIGHTMARE
Dateline: Portland, Oregon
Authors on publicity tours sometimes fall into a Blissful Zone where they feel nothing can go wrong. No question from the media will ever surprise them. No bookstore signing, even if poorly attended, can disappoint.
It's a false sense of security, because so much of American media has become too polite.
Without time (or, increasingly, inclination) to read the book, some interviewers use questions sent by the publisher. They want to sound positive and encouraging, but the result is usually puff-piece journalism - not a bad thing (the interviews can be entertaining and even informative) but one-dimensional at best.
I think of this while accompanying Terry Ryan, who's been in the Blissful Zone ever since the Midwest tour for her book, "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less."
Now on Day One of her publicity tour in the Pacific Northwest, Terry has not yet crossed into that Territory of the Benumbed where touring authors forget what city/country/hemisphere they've been sent to. She's ready for adventure and challenge - even the scary kind - without knowing it.
Enter, then, a woman named Jack (no last name given) who works at KBOO-FM Radio in Portland, Oregon, one of those great alternative radio stations where everything smells like mildew, old carpet and ripe ideas.
Jack, a magnificent presence with buzz-cut hair, construction boots and historic (worn a long time) jeans, seems to kick in the door to announce her arrival and slowly eyeballs the waiting room. "Terry." She announces the name like Rommel advancing across the desert in tanks.
"Jack." Terry is immobile or immobilized, hard to tell.
"Get the f--- in here," announces Jack, who's got one of the most refreshing foul mouths I've ever heard. When we mention walking to the studio from the hotel, she says, "Well. What do we have here, a couple of fitness motherf- ?" Indeed, we say. One doesn't want to contradict Jack on the way in.
Jack stomps down the hall toward a studio that looks like it's been put together with battered cardboard and sits down, swearing at the console in front of her. We can tell she's begun the interview when her language gets a little cleaner.
But Jack's cussedness - adorable to her listeners - never fades. She interrupts, makes bad jokes, glowers at Terry with mixture of accusation and affection. She refers to the "big honking contest" Terry's mother won in 1953, insists there's a dental school in Payne, Ohio ("you know, PAIN, Ohio") and makes it clear she thinks Terry's mother wrote "saccharine and sappy" contest entries.
This is, then, Every Author's Nightmare, or Every Author's Dream, depending on how you look at it: Jack brings a fresh and welcome critical sensibility to the interview, yet is she cantankerous in a playful way or just plain hostile? Is she having fun or out to Get the Guest?
One thing is certain: Jack is the first interviewer who isn't charmed to the bone by Evelyn Ryan's jingles and poems. In fact, whenever Terry recites one of her mother's winning contest entries, Jack just sits there, shaking her head slowly and mournfully.
"Too hokey for me," she tells her listeners. "Got anything with more bite too it? Something dangerous, maybe?"
"No," Terry says, "my mother wasn't a very dangerous person."
"Too bad," Jack says.
But Jack also brings her own brand of compassion to the interview. She has read every word of the book and speaks with surprising emotion and insight about the profound isolation of Evelyn Ryan. "Your mother saved your family time and again all by herself, until one day she found a community of contest-winners who wanted to be her friend. That must have been some discovery."
Jack is also the first interviewer to delight in the farcical nature of the Ryan family.
"Now Terry, let me get this straight: Every night, your dad is drunk in the kitchen, where he keeps throwing your mother's winnings out the window. Mom is doodling away at her jingles as though nothing's going on. All ten kids are crammed into the living room because you can't go near Dad. The kitchen cabinets are so full of boxtops that food has been stored in the dishwasher, and the sinks are filled with soup cans because your mom is soaking off the labels. Now, does any of this seem a little wiggy to you? Something out of Disney, maybe?"
Terry starts to add, "you forgot the bananas in the dryer," but says instead, "No, it never seemed odd to us. We -- ."
"Well, did you know how damaged you would become by all this? Are you going to Al-Anon or Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings?" Jack seems to be kidding, but her questions demand answering. "Did your mother's contesting friends go into a Prozac flurry when contests of skill disappeared?"
"A Prozac - ?"
At this point, an author like Terry has several options. She can pretend to enjoy herself; disappear behind Jack's interruptions; banter with Jack; stick to the agenda she's used (clung to) since the beginning; give up the agenda and shoot the shtick with Jack - or join in on the sense of irreverence at KBOO and Jack's careening interview manner to say some things one doesn't often hear on mainstream radio.
Jack: "So Terry, your parents were Irish Catholics, right? No birth control in a family of 10 kids?"
Terry: "Well, they practiced the rhythm method, which means they had a new baby every two years."
Even Jack has to smile at that one. But she begins to glower again when Terry describes her mother's "Name That Sandwich" poem, which won the Grand Prize over 60,000 other entries in a Beechnut Gum contest.
"I can tell you're going to recite it for us," sighs Jack.
"Yes, Jack, I am. The fun part is that contestants had to name this impossibly huge hero sandwich, which was about four feet long and two feet wide, and they had to write the name as a lyric to this tune: My tum-te-tum-te-tum / tum-te-tum-te-tum sandwich."
"Great," moans Jack. "A song AND a poem."
[Here again comes the pivotal question: Is the interviewer fighting the author, or is the interviewer's goofball attitude creating a different level of interest for listeners? Either way, Terry can't "play" her hand strategically. Jack runs the show so completely on instinct that she, Terry, has to return to her own core, the reason she wrote book in the first place - to tell her mother's story.]
"Mom's entry was: 'My frisk the frigidaire / Clean the cupboards bare sandwich.' Pretty good, don't you think?" Terry's smile, as proud and infectious as if her mother were alive today, does not fade when Jack shakes her head as though she's in excruciating pain.
"Oh, too hokey for Jack," Terry sings into the microphone. "Let's all feel sorry for Jack," and the briefest glimmer of a smile creases Jack's tough-minded face.
In the end this 30-minute interview turns out to be one of the most lively and varied that Terry has encountered. Jack does think Evelyn's entries were "sappy," but she also admires the pluck of "this woman who combined a small art form with scientific methodology to pay the bills."
Terry nearly falls off her chair at this unexpected compliment, but Jack is busy singling out the publisher as her new culprit.
"People think interviewers are too busy and too stupid to read a whole book," she tells her listeners, "so they send a list of questions for us to read out loud - as if all we need is to follow some publisher's agenda.
"Now Simon and Schuster, the publisher of Terry Ryan's book, provides questions AND answers, so we have a little script at hand -- ."
"-- in case we're both unconscious," Terry adds, and from then on, Jack stops herself in mid-sentence to ask, "Is this a good question? Here, let me consult the Simon and Schuster question-and-answer cheat sheet just to make sure . . . "
Perhaps the point of describing all this is not that Jack warms up to Terry but that part of the charm of KBOO Radio is its wariness and skepticism of all things slick and mainstream.
Authors like Terry are given grudging respect the longer they stay off the canned spiel because, we finally figure out, the place is loaded with softies. Like Jack's, their hearts turn to mush the more they sense something authentic in the book they're "rapping" and in the author they've allowed inside.
And one thing else is clear as we walk past stacks of old electronic components and weekly newspapers on the way out. The homey no-frills atmosphere of community stations like KBOO and their curmudgeonly interviewers give hope for nothing less than the future of the Internet.
As readers often point out in email messages to this column, radio was once considered very much like the Internet - as the great medium for individuality and independent thought that could not be stolen away. Very soon, though, radio got captured and divvied up by corporations, much the same way, many believe, that the Internet is currently being fenced off by companies from AOL to Amazon.
Yet over a half-century later, thanks to stations like KBOO, radio still allows, in fact insists on, voices that reflect a complicated, argumentative, opinionated and no-holds-barred America. (I started to say a "s-kicking America," but that's Jack's territory, thank heaven.)
Dear Holt Uncensored:
We already have an accurate method of determining Best Sellers. To wit: BAKER & TAYLOR, BOOKAZINE, KOEN and INGRAM distributors' sales to bookstores (which they already compile and code as bookstore sales - they even separate chain bookstore sales as a separate sales number) represent the most accurate number of books sold to bookstores.
We at Bookpeople would love to report our figures as well. We promise not to "double scan."
Also, let's not forget all the other wholesalers - Partners, Sunbelt, New Leaf and all the other members of the American Wholesale Booksellers Association at http://www.awba.com
Edwin Allen Bish
Dear Holt Uncensored:
This isn't a complaint, just a report. Amazon's page for my new book lists a used copy for sale, and the seller is Powell's! Maybe it's a case of joining 'em instead of beating 'em?
I can't complain because Powell's was a terrific supporter from the start, taking 48 copies as an initial order. Just making the observation.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re your story about our collection of donations to support the ACLU's case against the city of Anchorage, Alaska, for banning an exhibit on gay and lesbian history, your readers may want to know that the case has been settled, sort of.
Tim Pryor of the Anchorage Daily News reports:
"Anchorage Mayor George Wuerch on Tuesday reached a legal settlement with exhibitors of a gay pride display at the Z.J. Loussac Library, cutting short a court battle and agreeing to pay $10,000 of the exhibitors' attorney's fees.
"The agreement brings to an end a more than month-long struggle over a gay pride exhibit at the library, but it doesn't resolve a larger question of what kind of displays from outside the library will be held there in the future. "A temporary city ban on exhibits from outside the library will continue for now, Wuerch said. That means a six-city exhibit of Appalachian photographs and other arts and crafts will remain unassembled . . . "
You can read the whole story at http://www.adn.com/front/story/632084p-676281c.html .
It's revealing how the issue of homosexuality continually demonstrates how far people will go to suppress it - in this case, preventing the upcoming exhibit on Appalachia rather than dealing with the censorship issues at hand. I wonder if the mayor has seen the "Library Bill of Rights" on the American Library Association website, http://www.ala.org , which describes a perfectly appropriate policy:
"...2. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Material should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
"3. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment..."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Egad, don't bring up that dang Amazon.com "sales meter"! It bounces around like George Bush's credibility ratings, and it's about as accurate. Yet few are the authors and publishers whose eyes aren't cemented to it night and day, knowing it's based on second-by-second sales of hundreds of thousands of titles that wing through cyberspace, signifying nothing.
Indeed you may be right ... though it's difficult to say how sales of hundreds of thousands of titles signifies nothing when the discussion is sales lists. Regardless, I didn't say whether I thought it was worthwhile. What I said was that people watch it avidly because they think it's telling them something truthful about sales.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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