How interesting. I was invited to read in a church basement in Nanaimo by C, a friend who would be performing his original songs on guitar. We set up this morning. I arranged my books on a table, and people began filing in. Twenty-six people, to be exact. I know. I counted.
The audience was talkative, and a game of cards broke out. (I'm not sure, but I heard some rapping going on and am guessing the game was 31.)
C pulled a stool into the middle of the tables and tried to introduce himself and his music above the din. Only the closest could hear. He began singing. People talked. They walked around. They helped themselves to coffee, sandwiches, and Christmas sweets (including Nanaimo bars). We were in their environment, and we didn't know it would be like this. They were just doing what they always do. Fair enough.
After three songs, C looked defeated and turned it over to me. I'm sure no one heard him introduce me. Nor did they learn the fact that I was there to read from my newest book, I Wasn't Always Like This (essays).
Clearly, there was no way I could read in this venue, but - aha! - there was a piano in the room. I sat down and began playing Christmas carols (and also slipped in the Beatles' "Let It Be"). One woman walked over and asked if I could play "O Holy Night." I could. People still talked. Cards were still played. After a time I passed the metaphorical baton back to C.
It went like that this morning. At one point I picked up C's guitar and played Cat Stevens' "Moonshadow."
I didn't read a word.
And slowly, one by one, people began making their way over to the table where I'd spread out my books. They could take their time, and not feel any pressure to buy. Then they'd pick one or two titles that appealed and approach me, and ask me to sign this or that book -- my God, someone even bought poetry! -- and we would talk for a bit. Several folks seemed excited about my offer to read in private homes -- I call these events literary salons. (The host invites a dozen or so friends to attend -- perhaps a book club, but not at all necessarily -- and it's more of an interactive event than a reading; I'm interested in what ideas the work generates for them, and want to hear stories from their lives).
I met a woman from southern Saskatchewan. Elaine. We played what I've deemed "The Saskatchewan Game" -- I maintain that I can speak to anyone from my home province and inside of five minutes we'll know someone in common. I think Elaine and I made it to 45 seconds before we "clicked" on the Slade family from Tompkins. My friend, Art Slade, is a prolific, GG-award-winning author, and his mother, Anne Slade, is a dear. (I even take a little credit -- possibly undeserved -- for Art's connection (and later marriage) to another friend, writer, songwriter and performer Brenda Baker.)
I'm not sure how many books I sold and signed today during my non-reading reading, but more, I'm sure, than I've sold at some readings (where I do actually read), and way more than the two I sold at a recent Christmas craft fair in Nanaimo (with the table rental fee factored in, I LOST money at that quiet event).
What is the lesson here? Perhaps it's to read the audience, not the work, and roll with it. I was not at all disappointed with the morning. I met some lovely west coasters, and am delighted to think that my books will be placed in the hands of readers as far away as Geneva.
People everywhere have interesting stories. That's the other lesson here. And the older I get, the more I realize my father was right: listening is learning.