A weekend trip to my hometown last summer, while on my tour for SOMETHING MISSING, illustrates this well.
I had two appearances scheduled for this particular Saturday: The Blackstone Public Library in my hometown of Blackstone, MA and an indie bookstore down the road a bit in Uxbridge. I was also scheduled to appear at the public library in neighboring Millville later that evening, but when the Town Council reminded the head librarian, a former classmate, that events could not be scheduled simultaneously in their tiny town, I was bumped in favor of a pancake social.
Not so good for the authorial ego.
I was scheduled to appear with local author Stacy Juba, who was instrumental in setting up both events. Appearing alongside another author was something I did quite often last year and enjoyed a lot. Being a new author, I found that combining forces with fellow writer often provided for larger audiences and greater opportunities to make new friends in the writing community. I made a handful of new friends last year, and they have played important roles in my life as an author. Earlier this month, for example, I wrote a guest post on Stacy Juba’s blog to coincide with my own book launch, and the two blurbs on the back of UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO are written by authors who appeared alongside me in Chester, Vermont earlier this year.
My wife often says that one of the unexpected blessings of my writing career has been the new and interesting friends who we have made along the way, and I couldn’t agree more.
The first appearance of the weekend, at the Blackstone Library, was full of notable highlights.
My high school English teacher, and the man who inspired me to become a writer, was the first to arrive at the library, and I was honored to be able to shake his hand and thank him for all that he did to change my life. He was joined by a handful of former classmates and friends, including my high school sweetheart, Laura, who I had not seen in years. When it came time to name Martin’s love interest in SOMETHING MISSING, I chose the name Laura as a nod to her, and so I was pleased to see that she was able to attend the appearance.
Wendy, the girl who I took to my sophomore semi-formal, also attended the event, and she came bearing a gift: a photograph of me from fourth grade, standing onstage and performing during our class’s end-of-year musical. This photograph was important for a couple of reasons:
First, I have very few photographs from my childhood, so every photo that I have is precious. To add even one image to the pile was very meaningful to me.
But this photo was especially important because it captured the moment leading up to my very first kiss, an onstage, choreographed peck on the cheek with Patti Catalano.
I remember the moment like it was yesterday. Weeks before the performance, our music teacher, Mrs. Carroll, had called upon me and Sean Trudel to perform a song and dance that would culminate with each of us dipping and kissing our dance partners. Mrs. Carroll claimed that she was choosing us for our high level of maturity, but Sean Trudel was the most poorly behaved kid in the class, so the maturity argument was nonsense and I knew it.
Just moments after this photograph was taken (I’m the one in the white shirt with the red bandana), I dipped and kissed Patti Catalano onstage in front of friends and family, much to my horror and probably the horror of poor Patti, who was on the receiving end of my amateurish offering.
My first kiss, courtesy of Mrs. Carroll and her inexplicable decision to cast me for the part. And her equally inexplicable decision to have nine-year olds kissing onstage.
And all this from a book tour stop.
From the library, we proceeded to an independent bookstore about twenty minutes away.
Sitting in the audience at this appearance was another familiar face: Mrs. Allen, my middle school social studies teacher. Mrs. Allen was the person who inspired me to install a stage in my classroom after I spent my middle school days in her similarly-equipped classroom. She was a magnificent teacher and I think about her often in terms of my own teaching career.
And once again, she came to my rescue.
I was asked during the question-and-answer session about how I choose the potion of my book to read aloud to audiences, and I explained that the decision was a difficult one for me, so I routinely asked my agent and editor to help me decide.
“What if you were to choose without any help?” the woman pressed. “What would you have picked?”
“The last chapter,” I said, trying to keep from smiling. “That way I could’ve spoiled the story for all of you.”
The audience failed to react, apparently finding my comment significantly less amusing than I had envisioned, but after a moment of awkward silence, Mrs. Allen spoke up from the rear of the room. “He hasn’t changed a bit!” she growled, bringing the room to laughter and letting me off the hook.
This is where the things took a sour turn. When it came time to sign books, a woman in her mid-thirties pulled up a chair beside me and began talking to me about her life as a writer. Her book, her writing process, and her repeated attempts to get published. After several minutes, it became readily apparent that she was not the kind of person who fully understood the concept of boundaries and the needs of those around her. As the line of readers grew longer and longer, each waiting patiently for m signature, she leaned in closer and closer, attempting to abscond with all of my time and attention.
Eventually I offered to read the first ten pages of her manuscript, as I do for any writer who asks, and she agreed to send them along and finally made room for the next person.
Whenever I offer to read a writer’s work, I always make sure that he or she understands that it can take me a while before I get to the piece, depending on my schedule. At the time of this appearance, my school year was in full swing, report cards and parent teacher conferences were approaching, and I had just begun working on the final revision of UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO. With this in mind, I explained that it could be a month or two before she heard back from me.
She said that she understood.
A month later, she politely inquired as to my progress via email, and I responded by explaining that with Thanksgiving approaching, I was hoping to read her pages during my time off. Unfortunately, I did not get to the piece during my mini-vacation, but I managed to read and comment on the pages during the following weekend, in between football games. On Monday morning, just as I was putting the final touches on my comments, I received an email from her:
Dear Matthew, please delete the e-mailed chapters. I am developing a zero tolerance policy for hollow promises.
Like a fool, I attempted to play off her comment as an obvious joke, explaining that I had actually just finished reading her pages, had enjoyed them a lot and had some comments ready for her.
Dear Matthew...totally serious - and it has nothing to do with "read me, read me" mentality. It's the broken promises, from you and the long line of lip-servicers behind you. I am the type of person that can be taken at my word - and make every effort to fulfill a promise.. Please do not take the request to delete personally...I just no longer wish to expend expectation energy after the second (eighth, in some cases!) promise. You are a busy man. I understand completely that you didn't get to the chapters.
In addition to writing an interesting and humorous story, she is also apparently quite capable at delivering the passive-aggressive, backhanded compliment as well.
And yet I still gave her one more chance, explaining that publishing can be a difficult waiting game, and while I understood her frustration, the opportunity to receive a critique from a published author should not be disregarded. Even an author with as few credentials as me.
Dear Mr. Dicks...please delete the three chapters... I still feel that you are deflecting accountability for your early November e-mail to "read it next week."
Note the change in salutation.
And all of this from a simple book tour appearance.
But for every negative experience come dozens of positive ones. Last weekend I spoke at RJ Julia in Madison, CT and I was once again surprised, this time by my former Manchester Community College English professor, who also came bearing gifts:
Two recommendation letters that she had written for me in 1997 that helped me gain admission to Trinity College and be named a member of USA Today’s Academic All American team. I knew at the time that the letters had been written, but until this week, I had never seen them. They were very kind, and they brought back many, many memories of my community college days.
Like I said, you never know what to expect while on tour. Mostly good, some bad, but always interesting.
Matthew Dicks' new book Unexpectedly Milo is available now. He will be reading and signing at Water Street Bookstore on Saturday, August 21st at 6pm. In the meantime, check out his blog where he's been known to write about such things as wheeled luggage, around-the-table photographs, and Jerry Maguire.