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The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

by Terry Ryan

Tuffy's Adventures in Promotion & PR

The following appeared in #232 (5/1/01) of Holt Uncensored, a twice-weekly email column and website about books and the book industry written by Pat Holt, former Book Review Editor and Critic for The San Francisco Chronicle.

Tuffy's Great Audio Adventure
(adapting the book to audio format):
Part I | Part II

Media Training in Hollywood:
Tuffy Meets the Spackle Sisters

The Home Town Responds:
Tuffy's Big Day in Defiance Ohio

The Midwestern Publicity Tour:
Terry Meets the "Knuckleheads in the News"

The Prize Winner on TV:
CBS Sunday Morning News, Part I
Part II | Part III

The Prize Winner Goes to the Movies:
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V

TERRY MEETS THE "KNUCKLEHEADS IN THE NEWS"

It's the early morning commute hour in Cleveland, Ohio, and we're watching four boisterous men in a glass-enclosed studio making war cries - or they may be calling for the cattle to come home.

"Time for KNUCKLEHEADS IN THE NEWS!" they yell together, singing out the word "NEWWWWWS" as though in a bar. Their voices sound genuinely enthusiastic and fake at the same time.

"A couple was brought into the hospital emergency room because they got stuck during sex!" one man announces gravely. "How did THAT happen?" another asks. "What are the - you know - medical details?" [Muffled guffaws.]

Ah, gross-out radio, that great American tradition. By this time (the second week in her publicity tour), my partner Terry Ryan is used to the phenomenon of Guy Radio - that is,fast-talking men whose conversation goes like this: banter, banter NEWS; banter, banter SPORTS; banter, banter INTERVIEW. It's silly, macho, adolescent - and entirely listenable if you're stuck in traffic or at home before school.

But it's also a bit frightening if you're an author like Terry, who's written a book about her mother that may not stand a chance with this crowd.

Her book, "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less," is such a mouthful that by the time Terry is ushered into the booth to sit among 'em, the four men in Cleveland stare at her in awe. Mention of anybody's mother puts them in a respectful trance.

Wow, what a title, they say: What does it mean, and what was your name again? By now Terry has her agenda (see #229) at the ready:

"Well, it refers to my mother," she says, "who won hundreds of contests in the '50s and '60s that enabled our large family to pay the bills. She won cars, trips to Europe, gold watches, a washer-dryer, jukebox, refrigerator, many color TVs, toys, bikes, baseball mitts, dozens of clock radios and the most useless prize of all, three sets of accordion lessons." This last usually gets a laugh.

Hey, accordion lessons! They shout. Who took those? "Not a one of her ten kids," Terry tells them. They laugh again. "But Mom won a lot more than that because she had a system." Hey, a system! Tell us about that!

CONTEST PIGS

The show is one of the top-rated morning radio programs in Cleveland because it takes the Bantering Two Guys format we've seen in other programs to another (not necessarily higher) level.

In most Two Guys programs, we've noticed, the co-hosts are always excited - "That's mind-boggling!" they say. "Talk about fortitude!" So Terry's story, rather than competing with their cleverness or forcing them to slow down, fits right in. "Your mother was incredible!" they say.

We learn at one Two Guy show that anybody who's good at jingles earns immediate respect today because of a phenomenon one of the announcers lets slip (off the air) called "Contest Pigs."

What are those? Terry asks. "Well . . . " they respond sheepishly, as if caught being naughty. In radio, of course, it's not kosher to speak coarsely about listeners.

"Okay, we'll tell you. There are people out there with multi-line phones who listen to three or four radio stations at a time. As soon as you even MENTION a contest, they're the first to call in.

"Usually we just ask a trivia question, but many times the contest requires a jingle or a poem." They pause. "You'd be surprised how much the common person doesn't understand the concept of rhyme."

Everyone laughs at this because the Two Guys are so earnest. It's as though they need sympathy and attention from Terry, rather than the other way around. In the small studio Terry's family - her brother, two sisters, three nephews and me - bursts into cheers and applause at how great it's been just to see the Two Guys in action.

THE ENTOURAGE

Terry's almost halfway through her 11-city tour, and some producers and directors frown when she arrives at a TV or radio program with what might be called an entourage. Not only do we all troop in with her wherever she goes, we are dying to enter the studio and promise to sit very, very quietly to the side while the interview takes place.

For an author to travel with such a crowd is unheard of in the publicity-tour circuit, but Terry's book is about this very family, after all, and about the mother who protected them all from poverty and from an alcoholic father by a belief that anything is possible if you keep your sense of humor, and keep writing them jingles on the square end of the ironing board.

And Terry, whose cheeks used to quiver so violently at the thought of making a public appearance that she would have to lie down for the duration of the day, now sails through her schedule like an old pro, largely because a few of her sisters and brothers are there.

She's also good at this because of learning The First Rule of "The Today Show" Aftermath: It's a myth that after you do "The Today Show," all the other interviews are going to be so easy they'll just slide into place.

After missing a few cues and hearing herself stumble on a 6:00 a.m. TV show in Fort Wayne - not noticeable to most viewers but a big shock for her - Terry knows she has to prepare for every appearance as though it were "The Today Show." She has to get her adrenalin racing, review her notes and be ready with her agenda before ANY interview, on the air or in print, by phone or in person. "Thank heaven nobody was awake in Fort Wayne," she will say about 37 times afterward, hoping against hope this was true.

THE WAY THINGS WORK

And I have to learn my lesson, too. I used to envision Terry's publicity tour in Ohio as a slow-moving line of minivans winding their way through sun-bleached cornfields with signs planked on their sides reading, "The Prize Winner Tour of Ohio."

From town to town we'd go, with so many of Terry's relatives packed in the vans that whenever a bus station or airport came into view, we'd drop off a few Ryans and say goodbye, then pick up a few more and continue on, with fresh troops, as it were, through the fields with their boxy white-washed farm houses to, say, Toledo, Lima, Columbus, Piqua, Dayton, or Cincinnati.

But no. As explained to us patiently by Simon & Schuster publicist Tracey Guest, the driving part of a tour like this can't be during the day - that would waste time. It has to be at night to accommodate early-morning TV and radio programs in each city.

This means that after every bookstore signing ends (around 8:30-9 p.m.), we drive for about two hours to the next city, have dinner (Terry still can't eat before an appearance, nor can the rest of the family), go to bed about 11:30 p.m. and get up at 5:30 a.m. to be ready for the next early-morning radio or TV.

For the most part, this is "doable," as we now say in our trade, and it offers a new experience for everyone, even media veterans. Few TV or radio hosts ever have an audience they can see, it turns out, and the feel of Terry's family walking in the studio waving and sitting in the shadows, as well as their cornpone way of clapping and cheering after every interview, delights the most jaded professionals among 'em.

For example, radio talk show host Mitzi Stone in Toledo is so overjoyed that she exclaims in the reception room, "Omigod! I just read about ALL of you people!" and nearly races us back to her booth.

At the microphone, she tells her listeners breathlessly, "I'm so excited I don't have any spit in my mouth, because I just went out to Reception to get Terry Ryan and lo and behold, here's her WHOLE family, well, some of them, and when you read the book [and here she whispers conspiratorially, turning her face away from us as if she doesn't want us to hear], and I know you ALL are going to buy it at Thackeray's Bookstore tonight, you'll see why this mother should get the Perseverance Award of the Century."

As to TV, while it's true that TV anchors may be notoriously unprepared and lack the knowledge to go for deeper answers, it occurs to us many times that this is the fault of the medium, not the interviewers.

I may not agree with producers' orders to limit interviews with people like Terry to 3 minutes (4 on "The Today Show"), but I've come to respect mightily the unabashed love for a good story that is demonstrated by one TV anchor after another from Lexington to Chicago. How they genuinely show delight, react with amazement, crack up with laughter and seem to personally absorb what they're learning when they do 6 or 8 interviews a day must be an art in itself.

ONWARD TO THE BOOKSTORES

It's very easy to talk about the importance of neighborhood bookstores and the contributions they make to local communities, but until one sees that magical process of linking authors and readers in one store after another, it's hard to know how deep and abiding - and personal - this connection can be.

In THE LITTLE PROFESSOR OF FORT WAYNE, INDIANA, for example, which is a bit over an hour from Defiance, many of the 25 people laughing happily as Terry reads Chapter 3 aren't aware that others sitting just a few chairs away knew Terry's mother, or went to school with Terry, or taught her brothers and sisters at Defiance High School, or had a relative who grew up there and knew them as well.

So aside from the delight of this beautifully appointed bookstore with its 10,000 square feet of selling space, a cheery, welcoming ambiance and wonderfully attentive staff on a very stormy night, the audience is ripe for some emotional surprises.

The reason is that people who were best friends in Defiance 20 years ago but have lost track of each other since suddenly recognize each other and leap up during the question-and-answer session and race or reach across chairs and aisles to embrace each other with tears in their eyes. This happens enough times that everybody feels tears well up as well, and you'd think the place is filled only with Ryans.

At THACKERAY'S BOOKSTORE IN TOLEDO, the media turnout adds to the excitement and also gets in the way. A cameraman from a Toledo TV station crawls through the crowd and seeks an interview right in the middle of the event as Terry, bookended by two giant light reflectors set up by the Bowling Green Magazine (she's an alumna) photographer, tries to talk to the crowd.

Thackeray's is a great community bookstore with its signs for Teachers Appreciation Day, its table of coffee and cookies and its helpful staff trying to muffle constantly ringing phones all around us. People come and go, totaling perhaps 50 and often buying books by the handful. Even when the store runs out of copies, manager Chris Champion gets out the bookplates for Terry to autograph, encouraging latecomers to buy books where they may - and indeed the dread Barnes & Noble bags begin appearing almost instantly.

In BOOKS & CO. in DAYTON, a huge yet personal store with a contagious atmosphere of unhurried browsing and a strong sense of independence (though bought by Books-A-Million some years ago), a beautiful staging area has been elevated right in the middle of the store.

Something about the way Terry introduces her brother and two sisters stimulates crowd interest - by now enough people have read the book that it's like seeing characters in a novel - and they become wonderfully responsive, laughing and shaking their heads at every other line.

At JOSEPH BETH BOOKSELLER in CLEVELAND, CINCINNATI and LEXINGTON (KENTUCKY), I wish everyone could have the Joseph Beth experience of walking comfortably through what feels like across acres and acres of books (in about 40,000 square feet of selling space) often in a rambling two-story expanse where readers are encouraged to browse and chat and even (in Cincinnati) read by the fireplace.

The ceilings are so high that giant banners welcoming Terry to the store almost overpower even this large family (Joseph Beth rolls these up and mails them to authors - "put 'em in your garage," says the smiling staff). While the turnout ranges from 25 (Cincinnati) to 15 (Cleveland) to 3 (Lexington), Terry feels "wonderfully cared for" even when she gets sick in Cincinnati and misses the event. There her sisters carry on nobly with a crowd that seems even more engaged because Evelyn Ryan's kids really do stand up for each other.

And at BARNES & NOBLE in Columbus and Chicago, the family learns for the first time (and I for the dozenth) how heartwarming it is to see dedicated booksellers alive and well in a B&N and working so hard that they can even make a chain store feel like home. Though the retching sounds of the coffee machine and the front-entrance talk of customers can be distracting, Terry's focus is fully on the crowd.

It's clear to her that authors and publishers are charged with the responsibility of moving their books through all outlets available, because that's where readers go - to all outlets - and the 25 people in Columbus and 40 in Skokie might not be found anywhere else.

WHAT WE LEARN

Throughout the tour, we often talk about the "Knuckleheads in the News" program in Cleveland because it's this kind of show that reminds us why radio, not TV, is king in America.

If you're worried about whether democracy will survive so much homogeneity in the media (I do), you can take heart that diversity lives - mind you, it doesn't thrive or flourish, but it lives - in those local radio stations that entertain, drive you bats or actually enlighten wherever you turn them on..

From the shock jocks who cultivate the adolescent in all of us to the quiet eloquence of National Public Radio reporters throughout the land, a huge middle arena offers raging conservatives, opinionated talk show hosts, religious programs, "experts" of all kinds, kaffee-klatch chatter and news interviews, not to mention all the foreign-language and music stations Terry never sees.

Messy, raw, chaotic and full of itself, radio is so much like democracy that one wonders how anything gets done.

We also learn that working in another happy chaos are independent booksellers who continue to do the real work of cultivating literature, day after day, hour after hour, one customer and one author at a time. Regardless of lawsuits (see #230) or headlines or threats from predatory competitors (wherever they might hide), independents are now so magnificently organized, thanks in large part to the Book Sense campaign, that they can't miss the Terry Ryans of the world, those unknown authors who might never find their audience otherwise.

EVELYN SENDS A HAIKU

At least that's the feeling I have in Cleveland watching the 4 Guys howling about knuckleheads as Terry waits for the "news," such as it is, to be over so the discussion about her book, "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," can continue.

By now she has made all her points, and the men have responded in kind - they've even figured out, and are the first to do so, that Evelyn Ryan made the equivalent of a full-time salary while winning so many contests, "so she really wasn't trapped in Defiance after all," they say,

"No, in fact my mother always felt she was doing exactly what she wanted to do - what it was her destiny to do - all her life," Terry says.

Whoa. A word like "destiny" isn't exactly standard fare for this show, and it takes the 4 guys by surprise. Suddenly they're drained of ideas, staring at each other in dead space.

"I've inherited something of my mother's interest in contests," says Terry.

"Oh, yeah?" the leader says, clearly worrying that boredom has set in and he's losing all of Cleveland.

"Yes, my biggest was the haiku contest on the Internet" - oh lord, they seem to say, not haiku - "after the NBA finals last year."

"NBA?" All 4 lift their heads as though a light has just begun to shine from above.

"Yes, the contest was to write a haiku specifically about Reggie Miller. The winner was awarded the very basketball shoes he wore during the playoffs."

"His shoes!" they cry in unison. "That's fantastic!" "What did you write?"

"Well, like my mother I entered many times. You know, in haiku, you have to write the first line in 5 syllables, the second line in 7 and the third line in 5?"

They nod with a sincerity that could break your heart.

"Well, the usual kind would go like this:

"Reggie from downtown "Another big three-pointer "Reggie is the point."

A silence - not a dead silence but an intended silence - fills the room.

"Of something like 10,000 entries, the best 20 were posted every day, and it was great to see these macho basketball fans tending to a very delicate form of poetry in that blistering, smash-mouth sports fashion. Sometimes they'd just get into the language of the court, as in 'Reggie, who the man?' "

"Hey, all right: WHO THE MAN?" The 4 guys are stirred.

"I felt the best haiku I entered got into the purity of the game and of Reggie himself," Terry says. "Here it is." She takes a deep breath and nearly crows into the microphone:

"Reggie Reggie Reg! "Reggie Reggie Reggie Reg! "Reggie Reggie Reg!

"Another woman sent that in," Terry adds, "and hers was posted. Mine was entered early but not posted. For whatever reason."

"That's terrible!" they say. "Yours was better!" "You should have won!" "You're just like your mother! And what was the name of that book again?"


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