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The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
by Terry Ryan
Tuffy's Adventures in Promotion & PR
The following appeared in #229 (4/4/01) 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 MEETS THE SPACKLE SISTERSHere we are winging our way to Los Angeles, where a TV studio and media coaches await the arrival of my partner Terry, who wrote a book about her mother as a way to handle mourning and now finds herself faced with a Today Show appearance that sends her into apoplexy.
Just making this trip brings up a question critics like me often ponder in this post-Jacqueline Susanne age:
How do unknown authors who've never been comfortable in the limelight find a way to "sell" their book to the public? How do people who write in solitude welcome (even exploit) radio/TV/newspaper/magazine interviews as though they've been accustomed to media attention all their life?
Two more loving and wise mentors in the world of media relations you cannot find, and Terry, who discovered resources she never knew by reading her book aloud for the audio abridgment (see #223 and #224), seems to relax when they usher her away from (rather than toward) TV cameras for the first hour.
Terry's book is called "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less." It's about the contest era of the '50s and '60s when Madison Avenue invited consumers to save boxtops and coupons and write jingles, poems and limericks extolling the wonders of advertised products.
Evelyn Ryan, Terry's mother, developed a gift for filling out lines such as "I wonder where the yellow went" for Pepsodent toothpase ("The yellow battled/As it went/(But it didn't make/A PepsoDENT)" or writing such hope-chest jingles as "Dial is wonderful:/Sweet young things/Declare that Dialing/Gets those rings."
As her family got larger and her alcoholic husband drank away a third of his paycheck, Evelyn started winning more and more big prizes - cars, trips to Europe, gold watches, refrigerators, color televisions, washer-dryers, a jukebox - as well as small cash awards ($1 per poem), toys, sports equipment, accordion lessons and (Terry always gets a laugh at this one), three pairs of Arthur Murray shoes.
The book has a playful, witty and often very moving side that Terry knows is perfect commercial fare for radio and TV. She has even perfected the reading of some of her mother's entries that make people think of Erma Bombeck or Ogden Nash, such as:
Victims share a symptom,
And she has figured out answers to questions she believes interviewers will ask: What's this book about? Why did your mother win so much? How did it feel growing up in such a household? Given enough practice (and enough drugs to stun an army), Terry figures if she just knows the questions the Today Show will ask, she'll be all right.
This, of course, is her first mistake. "If you wait for the 'right' question," says Stacie, "you'll fail to get your book across and leave the interview sputtering. This is known as squandering your time.
"You have to remember that TV interviewers are different from newspaper reporters. They're under incredible time pressure, probably haven't read your book and worry they don't know enough to make the interview work.
"So you can help them look good by leading the discussion - using segues, anecdotes, facts and humor. They'll not only let you do this; they're anxious for you to take over.
Terry's mouth is open. Moths are flying in and out and planning their vacations. "Taking over" an interview on national television was never her agenda.
"And that is your agenda," Stacie continues. "As subtly and powerfully as possible, you are going to take every question asked and give it your own 'right answer.'
"If an interviewer rambles all over the place because he's been given a synopsis of your book only an hour before, your job is to get him off the tangent and back to the book. Don't worry, we're going to take this very slowly so you'll learn as you go along."
So for the next hour Terry, grateful that she still hasn't been led to slaughter in the TV studio proper, works with notepaper and pen on what Betty calls "the basic tricks of the trade":
LIFE RAFTS - these are the warm and fuzzy anecdotes that bring a book alive, that instill visual images, that put us inside the story and make it memorable to readers.
So when Stacie asks: "Now Terry, what was it like to grow up in the house of a mother who won so many contests?" Terry launches her first warm-and-fuzzy:
"Well, it was chaotic, of course, but a lot of fun, too. We rarely used the kitchen sink because Mom was always soaking the labels off soup cans and peanut butter jars. The cabinets were stuffed with so many boxtops and coupons that we kept our food in the dishwasher, which never worked anyway."
All right, says Stacie: Now that is a great Life Raft. Who could forget those cans soaking in the sink.
FACTOIDS - to distinguish the book from every other, give listeners facts (colorful, funny, poignant, telling) they can remember.
"Sometimes interviewers will make this easy because they often ask shallow questions," says Stacie. "For example, what was the biggest/silliest/smallest/least useful prize your mother even won? Listen for this kind of question and deepen it with factoids.
That's interesting, I think: A silly term like "factoid" will stick in Terry's mind far longer than a dull word like "fact."
Sure enough, Terry comes up with some doozies: Her mother had an incredible "win rate," she says, winning 1 contest for every 4 she entered. Also, the total cash value of Evelyn Ryan's winnings (in today's dollars) would be well over a half-million dollars.
As to the shallow question, how about this: "The biggest contest my mother won was sponsored by Dr. Pepper," Terry says. "The Grand Prize was a Ford Mustang, two trips to Switzerland, two gold watches and $3,440.60 in cash.
"But the reason it was the biggest to us was that my father had taken a second mortgage on the house without telling anybody, and the bank was going to foreclose on our house in about three days unless Mom could pay $4,000."
Stacie and Betty's eyes are as wide and shining as reflector lights. "Now there, see what you did: A life raft and a factoid in one!"
ASKING FOR THE ORDER - without ever being overt about it, you want to motivate listeners and viewers to rush out and buy your book, Stacie explains. Hit a nerve, trigger a response, refer to something they know and like.
Wow. How to be blatant and unseen at the same time. Again the language is fascinating: Most writers would never think about "asking for the order" - they are here to spread the news, period. They are here as the author, period.
But Stacie forces them to remember: They wrote a book; the book costs money; nobody can motivate people to pay for it better than the author.
"For example," says Stacie, "how do you feel when your book is compared to 'Angela's Ashes'? That's also a book about a poor Irish family in which the father is an alcoholic."
"Well, there's more family humor in 'Prize Winner,' " says Terry. "Maybe I could say the two books would be similar if 'Angela's Ashes' were written by Erma Bombeck."
Wow. Even I know this is a much-loved Hollywood concept called "relatability!" Make your story sound like something that's already proven and you've got a ready-made audience.
"Or how about this," Terry adds: "If you liked Erma Bombeck, you'll love my mother."
Gad, sounds like Lucy selling VitaMeataVegimin to me. "Perfect!" say Stacie and Betty in unison, nodding at Terry proudly. "Now you're cooking."
TURNAROUNDS AND BRIDGES - these are ways to take a question that doesn't serve your agenda, turn it to your advantage and ask for the order in one clean, simple, never-too-long answer.
For example, if the interviewer goes off on a tangent about greedy companies exploiting consumers to write jingles for free, try the following:
That's a little complicated but she's gettting the idea. By the third hour, Terry is given a room (still not the TV studio) to work on more examples as Stacie and Betty confer. After a few moments, they turn gravely to me. "What about her makeup?" they ask.
Well, I explain, although Terry is a person who's never worn makeup in her life, she's consulted with a professional makeup artist and in fact "did" her face in the Los Angeles airport before coming here today.
Two quizzical gazes stare back - they didn't realize she was wearing any.
Of course, Terry's willing to wear makeup for television, but it's important to remember that it shouldn't be too heavy, or she'll feel inauthentic and lose her confidence. Something that brings out her features is fine, but we'd never want to approach a Dolly Parton look, don't you agree? We wouldn't want her to feel like a clown.
"Yeah, well, get over it," Stacie says firmly. "We're going for Dolly Parton."
Wait a moment, I say. Maybe I didn't explain this right - sometimes these TV people go overboard, and the effect is appalling. Have you seen Regis Philbin? He wears so much pancake it looks like he just took a mudbath. You don't want a makeup person to just trowel it on --
At this they burst out laughing."Trowel it on? Are you kidding? You're looking at The Spackle Queens! This is television! You have to be bold!"
With this, they leap up to call James Higgins, the makeup expert they have used for years, and within minutes he is in the studio with what looks to me like a giant tackle box full of unctions and brushes where all the fish hooks and bait used to be - not an inappropriate metaphor.
Terry finally goes into the TV studio, but only to "run a tape" for about 15 seconds. Then she is in James' chair, where he regards her face like a rare canvas, painting and blotting and dabbing and penciling. Lashing, brushing, powdering and blushing. Covering, layering, plastering, cementing.
So we are well into the fourth hour by the time Stacy and Betty seat Terry in the interview chair with TV camera rolling for real.
Thanks to the magic of technology, their technician splits the screen, showing Terry on one side in her own makeup looking tasteful but a bit unfocused ("like a brown wren," they two mutter grimly); and on the other side looking, well, unusually colorful, like Dolly Parton without big hair.
"There! You see?" Betty and Stacie exclaim. "What a difference!" That's for sure.
And so we are down to the last tips that will make this unknown author look poised and collected for her big interview on the Today Show. As soon as Terry is seated, she is instructed to watch out for the:
NODDING PIGEON EFFECT - too much earnest agreement with the interviewer makes a person look clucky as the face goes up and down on the small screen. Keep the head still. Nod sparingly.
SWIVELING CHAIR - watch yourself; these things can twist around without your knowing it. Never swivel; the camera can't follow your torso movements and you look childish and silly
PRISON MUG-SHOT LOOK - don't face the camera straight on, even if it's right in front of you. Turn your shoulder toward the interviewer slightly. This creates the slightest of profiles that makes all the difference.
CAMERA DISTRACTION - never look at the TV camera; only look at the person you're talking to. Think of the interviewer as your conduit to the constituency you're trying to reach.
CHEAT SHEET SYNDROME - don't bring your book with you. You're not here to hawk it (openly); and don't use your book to hold typewritten notes in case you go blank. Learn to do television without a net! Besides, if you glance down at notes, you're back to the nodding pigeon effect.
I won't go into the way Bett and Stacie analyze (and reject) Terry's clothes, her tendency to count on her fingers (they like it but not below camera), her need for a volumizer (in her hair, that is) and "just a little more color around the lips, James!"
What is apparent to everyone is that something transformative is happening to Terry. Bit by bit, her personality seems to advance into the room through the camera. She seems animated, thoughtful, charming - even modest under layers of paint that would put Emmett Kelly to shame.
And the stuff stays on! By the time Terry and I are on the airplane leaving Los Angeles, I look at my seat-mate and feel like singing a chorus of "Nine to Five."
Since then, Terry has had about a dozen interviews, most of them on the phone, a few on radio, several with newspaper reporters - and zero TV.
It is the special tyranny of national TV shows that their obsession with exclusivity forces the novice author to go on camera cold, unless a publisher (in this case, Simon & Schuster) has found two master media chefs like Stacie and Betty.
But as they would say, "Hey, get over it. This is television! You can write your books someplace else." Terry's appearance on the Today Show is scheduled for tomorrow (Thursday, April 6) between 9:15 and 9:45 a.m. Let's see how she does.