Thursday, June 23, 2005


Recently I did a signing at a mall bookstore as part of the paperback release of A SON CALLED GABRIEL. I call it 'Mall-sitting.' It's been a while since I did it. I despise malls. No matter how airy and full of color they are, I find them souless, the people's enjoyment as artificial as the smells wafting from the soap, Cinnabon and candy stores.

Is it because I'm Irish and malls have made no headway into that culture? Do Americans love there malls? I don't know. All I know is I grew up in a province that, although steeped in violence, had small towns which had beating, vibrant hearts. People shopped at their local butcher, greengrocer and grocery. Even today, though huge supermarkets like Sainsbury's (Brit) and Safeway have moved into the suburbs, the towns do very well because the Irish and Brits like to shop in their towncenters and are very fussy about where their meat and vegetables comes from. They insist on knowing that sort of thing. Imagine that...and have no tolerance for hormones and genetic engineering (except for darling Dolly, who was never meant to enter the food chain, anyway).

The signing was at a Borders Express. I was seated at a table strewn with a maroon cloth just outside the bookstore entrance, with mounds of Gabriel novels on either side of a fan of flyers bearing my name and heralding my appearance. Everytime I take my seat at these signings, I'm conflicted, and I cringe inside like a doggie being reprimanded.

First, I debate as I rearrange the book mounds whether I'd rather be doing a reading or just sitting waiting for people to stop and browse. This debate occurs as consistently as my fidgeting, whether the signing's at a Borders Express or just inside the door at a Barnes and Noble. (Independent bookstores usually don't have just signings.) I'm sure sitting at a table appears infinitely easier. I mean, one doesn't have to obsess about the horror of perhaps only two or three people showing up to listen to one read from one's precious work--at least that's the theory. But readings don't have the inbuilt cringe factor.

Why do I cringe, you might ask? Well, it's at time like this, I'm feeling most aware of myself, and I'm transported back to my boyhood when I felt extremely shy and never put myself forward in public. As an adult, I'm not like that, am actually quite assertive, but the shy boy lurks just beneath the surface, and out he comes. I think it's good to have that connection to oneself, but still it's uncomfortable, because the connection only comes into being at times of pressure and unease. I also cringe because I feel like a used car salesman, my sole purpose being to reduce the size of the book mounds upon the table. Quite rightly the book store wants to move copies of my novel (as do I), and the staff are wonderful and friendly, but inside at these moments is this feeling I'm a car salesman, not an author.

Selling a book at a mall is an interesting lesson in psychology, I've discovered. Some people assiduously avoid eye contact lest they might have to stop and get roped into buying something they don't want. One can always spot a book lover, because they stride over like they've found a new love; or they'll drink in the book's cover if they're in a hurry and you know, you just know, they'll check it out when they have time. Mall-sitting has definitely elevated my opinion of our youth. Contrary to what some people will have us believe, they're not all stupid and on drugs or alcohol, and many of them do have an interest in books. I could be cynical and remark those are the ones that do their homework and are bound for our nation's better colleges. The airheads are always easy to spot; the girls usually overly-tanned though not necessarily svelte, and they sport tops with no midriffs and travel in a posse, all carrying carrier bags stuffed with shoes and clothing (I can't help thinking they're the ones destined for the perfume counters in a few years); the boy posse wears fashionable clothing--baggy and designer--and either walk macho or slouch. The smart set--in which the Goths are well represented, I might add--will stop, actually pick up the novel, examine it in the way anticipated by the publisher, and ask intelligent questions. They'll say things like, "What a cool cover", "Is this your book? --Cool!", "You're a writer?". And, if mother is present, she'll invariably add proudly, 'My daughter [or son] writes as well.' And she should be proud of their interest and ability. I love these interactions. On Saturday, I even had two teenage chaps stop by whom I thought would be smartasses. I was wrong. They examined the book meticulously and asked intelligent questions. In this case, I was the one who learned a lesson, or rather was reminded of an old lesson I'd learned and forgotten. I was reminded never to prejudge...well, except when encountering airheads.

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Debra Hamel said...

As a shy-ish person myself, I would feel awkward on either side of that table. And it's for the same reason I don't like tag sales. As potential buyer, you're supposed to stand a couple feet away from a person and assess their stuff--in the case of an author the product of his labor and heart--and quite possibly spurn it. And as the author, well, you're the spurned party, and that's never a good thing.

On another note, I don't like malls myself--or shopping, generally--but I do appreciate the relative impersonality of large grocery stores and the like: see the above paragraph. I'm not always up for a friendly conversation with people who know me. Sometimes I want to slip through life and the grocery aisles unnoticed.

Damian McNicholl said...

It's a myth that you can't go into your local shop, etc. and not get out fast because everyone wants to talk. People just say, "I'm in a hurry" when they don't want to chat. But I do see the point about wanting impersonality. But we've become too impersonal a society, I think. Where I live, in the countryside, the old ways are dead. For example, I don't know many of my neighbors--my fault as much as theirs--and my friends are scattered all over the county. People rush too much, want anonymity too much. There's very little sense of community as our parents and grandparents understood it. That's not so good. A balance is necessary and we haven't found it yet.

Carol Gee said...

Damian, it must be hard to put yourself "out there" when you're shy. But those of us who read find it a special privilege to put a face and voice with the name of the author. That in-person or television experience helps to bring the book's pages more to life for us, gives us context, and assists us to connect more fully with your writing.

Damian McNicholl said...

Thanks for sharing that, Carol. I do enjoy reading to an audience and love to meet my readers.

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