The Word from BEA

Opening Proviso

So to begin with a caveat lector: there’s just no way I will be able to adequately “cover” Book Expo America 2013 with any kind of clarity or neutrality. The emotions were too strong. Almost overwhelming after eight years of solitary work on a book I was never sure anyone would publish, much less read. It all had a dreamlike quality, and at times it still feels made-up and implausible.

Wednesday

My wife Eleanor and I arrived in New York on Wednesday evening. We didn’t quite make it in time to hear the presentation that Liese Mayer, my editor at Overlook Press, gave to a room of journalists, booksellers, and librarians. I’ve just listened to an audio recording of her amazing speech; a good summary of the panel can be found at Publisher’s WeeklyLiese’s most quoted comment was her description of the fictional city in the novel as “somewhere between Kafka’s Prague and Batman’s Gotham City.” I received this photograph of Liese speaking:

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In the evening we attended the “BEA Bookrageous Bash” at Housing Works Bookstore. The theme of the night was writers recommending books they loved. It was cool to hear Nathan Larson, author of The Dewey Decimal System series — set in a crumbling library! — whose novel was the first added to the towering haul I barely crammed into my luggage.I’m pretty sure that was the loudest bookstore I’ve ever been in. When we got out I was hoarse from screaming at the people next to me, but well-buzzed from the free drinks provided by Kobo, which some joked were “downloadable.”

Thursday

I could go on and on about the intimidating qualities of the Javits Center, situated in a strange pocket of midtown Manhattan along the Hudson. Suffice to say an evil mastermind in a Bond film would feel right at home in this looming bunker of glass. The construction all around the site, angry truck drivers hauling loads of mineral slag, and crisply blazered publishing professionals loitering at the doors also brought to mind the industrial dystopia of Antonioni’s Red Desert:

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Daunting stuff for a provincial writer not much given to conferences; but then again, one thing I learned at the Expo was that people from St. Louis get around. Within ten minutes of arriving, I met the wife of one of Eleanor’s colleagues, working at the Slicebooks booth (a new company that “slices, remixes, and publishes” e-books). I was soon shaking hands with one of my old patrons from Carpenter Branch. It was comforting to encounter some familiar faces in the vast expanse, and it made the whole thing seem a little less crazy.

I entered a curtained space that was actually called “the green room” behind the Downtown Stage. Behind the curtain–several bottles of water and a bored assistant. Fitted with a clip mic and an attached box that I wore somewhat unfashionably in my jeans pocket, I took the stage along with the other writers on the Authors’ Buzz Panel. Four of the six books this year were nonfiction, and five of the six by women; a lot of the press coverage focused on this, along with the darkness of the books’ subject matter. I was lucky to share the stage with five accomplished women of intellect and imagination. The moderator introduced me as a librarian, which won some instant goodwill and scattered hoots from the crowd. I managed to string together several coherent grammatical sentences and operate my larynx, which I am going to count as a victory.

Later there was an appearance at the Overlook Press booth, where I signed free ARCs — that’s advance reader’s copies — of The Facades. The highlights were signing one for my old colleagues at University of Minnesota Press, where I worked as a receptionist and editorial assistant ten years ago, and meeting a prison librarian, who asked me to sign one “To the men of Collinsville.” An Egyptian writer named Yaceb also stopped by the booth. There was a large international presence at BEA, something I would have loved to explore more if I’d had the time.

Meeting Overlook publisher Peter Mayer was a true honor. I wish I’d brought a dictaphone to record the stories he told me, with an raconteur’s feel for suspense. Unfortunately, Peter was in an accident several months ago and is wearing a neck brace, but his energy and sense of humor are irrepressible. Everyone at Overlook has been beyond cool to me.

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“Looking somewhat shell-shocked”

Friday

The Expo experience shifted into a lower gear after the big day Thursday. I met with the coordinator of the Barnes & Noble Discover program, who told me some stories I can’t repeat here if I want to get past the library’s filtering system. (She also added about ten titles to my already massive TBR list.) Don’t ever order a scone at a breakfast like this — they are way too hard to chew and I don’t think I got through half of mine, leaving a dry mangled slab in the napkin.

Later we attended a dinner thrown by Overlook at a restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Hanging out with booksellers is never a bad thing. It was delightful to see St. Louis’s own Kris Kleindienst, the co-owner of my favorite bookstore, Left Bank Books. I was worried that Kris would be mad at me — I had a brief and inglorious three-day tenure as a Left Bank bookseller back in 2007 — but she barely remembered the episode, which made her laugh. Turns out my three-day career at LBB wasn’t even the shortest in the bookstore’s history; another employee left for her lunch break on the first day and never came back.

Saturday

Eleanor and I had breakfast with Agent Renee. One of Renee’s other clients is Maddie the Dog (otherwise known as “The Dog Who Stands on Things”). Maddie is a big deal, much like her feline counterpart Grumpy Cat (see below), so of course there is a Maddie app for phones. Renee used it to take this picture of Eleanor:

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It is not easy to go along on a trip like this. But Eleanor held up through all the fetes and shop talk, charming our new friends along the way, as I knew she would. She also got to visit the Transit Museum in Brooklyn and introduced me to the oral history project they are doing about Miss Subway (a mid-century MTA promotional program). Eleanor is an expert on urban issues, and as always she saw a lot of the things I passed over or ignored; at times it’s like being the sidekick of someone with X-Ray vision. She also brought me the best pistachio baklava I’ve ever had. What would I do without this woman?

Sunday

In the post-Expo press coverage, one thing was agreed: the darling of the fair was Grumpy Cat. Throughout the trip, people had been asking: “Who is this Grumpy Cat, anyway?” Well, you all know who she is, right? If not, Google’s only a step away, or wait a few months — the film deal is done. This cat had an epic line for her appearance at BEA, easily outdrawing other celebrities such as Jim Carrey.

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So when it comes to the Word from BEA, I’m going to have to quote my mom: “Don’t let it go to your head.” Remember, Grumpy Cat will always be greater than you in the order of things. Which is only right and just. It’s hard to emulate GC’s sublime indifference to the buzz; according to the Wall Street Journal, she slept through most of her appearance. This trip marked the realization of an ambition I’ve harbored for half my life, and I will never forget it. But I’m also glad to be back home, among patrons, colleagues, and the members of the STL Scribblers, under the high windows at Central Library. The sunlight in New York was intense and scorching; we returned to a surprisingly mild St. Louis summer day, having missed the storm that swept the cool air in.

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