MY BANK TELLER said that three people on the Long Island Railroad were reading my book last Sunday. My old roommate called from Los Angeles to tell me that it was sold out in five different bookstores there. A cousin from Indiana wrote that he saw me on television. The governor of Rhode Island sent me a citation praising my novel.
And what am I doing amidst all this?
Well, yesterday I was being followed around by a store detective in a Doubleday bookstore on Fifth Avenue.
You see, I had gone in to the store to see if they had my book. Actually, I knew they had it. What I really went in to see was where they had it. And I didn't like where they had it. Which was way in the back, in the FICTION section, under H -- spine out, no less. This may seem like as good a place as any for a novel by an author whose name begins with H. However, I've learned that how the book is displayed affects how it sells. Even if someone should wander all the way to the back of a store, once they look at my row they'll see HELLER, HEMINGWAY, HUXLEY. They'll see books face out, not spine out.
So, I took two copies of my book and walked around the store in search of a better place for them. Preferably under BESTSELLERS. Or NEW AND NOTEWORTHY. Of course, the store detective didn't know I was trying to sell my book. He thought I was trying to steal my book. Once I knew he was on my tail, I started to feel very guilty.
What am I doing? I thought. How did I end up a shoplifting suspect? All I wanted was to be a writer. A published writer. Suddenly I'm losing sleep over book displays, tracking reports and Tama Janowitz.
I am a woman obsessed. Daily I visit my neighborhood bookstores to count the number of copies they have of the book. When my editor called to tell me that it was Number Four on the Doubleday bestseller list, my reaction was indignant. "The way they display it," I thought, "I'm surprised it sells there at all."
What has happened to me?
My fiance is quick to remind me that not long ago I was grateful, meek, awestruck. "Bantam bought my book," I'd say in amazement. "My little book." Back then, I thought writing the book was the hard part. I thought books were somehow -- magically, perhaps -- sold. I thought a "dump" was where you brought garbage, the ABA where lawyers met.
All of that was when I was a nobody. The January day that I had my book jacket photograph taken, I stood shivering in front of St. Patrick's cathedral for hours. Messengers whizzed by on bicycles and shouted obscenities at me. "Boy," one said as I smiled nervously into the camera, "you are u-u-u-u-ugly." A woman walked right up to me, shoved her face into mine, and grimaced. "Aaaaaah," she said, disgusted, "you're nobody."
Joan Baez. Barry Manilow. Vanna White. They are somebodies. At the ABA -- not the American Bar Association but the American Booksellers Association -- people flocked to their autobiographies. They were ushered through the crowds, flanked on all sides by bodyguards, publicists, fans. I, on the other hand, kept forgetting my name tag and walked around wearing Phil Caputo's girlfriend's. No one even noticed.
Until the book signing. The day of my book signing, I was told not to be disappointed if no one showed up. After all, I was an unknown. A first novelist. Certainly not a household name like Vanna. I imagined a line made up of my fiance, my agent and a couple of curiosity seekers.
As we approached the area, my publicist said, "Wow, look at all the people waiting for Arnold Palmer."
Then we got closer.
"My God!" the publicist said. "All those people are here for you."
This was not only my first taste of success, it was also my first taste of book promotion, which Bantam, I'm delighted to have learned, does superbly.
For one solid hour I signed books. To Addie. To Lewis. To Cathy with a C, with a K, with an I at the end. Around book number 193, I could hardly hold the pen anymore. My hand twitched. I found it hard to concentrate. I looked at the person whose book I was going to sign. "To . . . . ?" I said. He answered in what sounded like a foreign language. "Excuse me?" I said. It seemed to me like he was speaking in tongues. I tried a different tack. "How do you spell that?" I asked. He rolled his eyes. "J-I-M," he said.
Those pre-publication days were wonderful. People were always congratulating me on its pending publication. I was invited to functions as a writer. I was treated like a writer. But no one had read the book! There was nothing for them to like or not like. Nothing to criticize. Once, I saw a saleswoman in a department store reading a Vanity Fair article about my book and the Bantam line that it's a part of; I became so overwhelmed that I ran from the dressing room and out of the store.
The first day I actually saw the book in a store, I fondled it. I beamed over it. I didn't care that it was under H, spine out. It was there! In a store! My book!
Then, suddenly, it was everywhere. Sightings came in from friends in Miami, Maine, Michigan. I began to go to bookstores all over New York City. I first I just went to gaze. To marvel. Then, I began to count. Day after day I went to one particular store that I had randomly, illogically, chosen as the yardstick for book sales. If this store didn't sell these books, no store would. That it was a good 10 blocks out of my way didn't deter me. I had to get there. It was especially fun to go twice a day. Once in the morning and then again late at night. Truly, I thought, that would provide the most accurate indication of sales.
I had friends going in there to count, too. Every so often we would compare numbers. There were eight copies at 6 o'clock, I might be told. But I needed details. Eight including the one in the window? Including the one standing up on top of the pile? In one night, five of us went in there to count within one hour of each other and amazingly didn't run into the others over the pile of books. When a friend reported to me that there were six books at 2:30 one afternoon I said, "It can't be. I was in there at three and there were 10 books. What are they doing? Multiplying? Cloning themselves?" "No," she said. "I think they're probably restocking the shelves." Which should have showed me the futility of my inventory system. Still, I persisted in counting.
Then there was the Saturday when a friend and I went to eight different bookstores in one afternoon, taking cabs uptown, downtown, crosstown. If we didn't see the book, she asked for it while I ran and hid. "Do you have "Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine" by Ann Hood?" she'd say politely. Yet it seemed to me like she was shouting and that everyone in the store at any moment would turn to me, point their fingers, and say: "She wrote that book."
That I actually had written the book was sometimes easy to forget. I spent, in fact, almost two years writing it. Back then, people would smile and nod at me sympathetically -- "Oh, you're writing a book. All of that time writing and revising seemed to fade when I began promoting the book. Sometimes after it came out I would open a copy and read a passage to remind myself that I had written this, that I was indeed a writer.
Then came "Good Morning America." GMA. The day I got the news that I was going to be on, I immediately stopped eating and joined a Jack Lalanne Health club. Television, I was told, adds 10 pounds. I then went to my closet and rejected everything I owned as completely wrong for television. I stopped going to bookstores to count books and went instead to clothing stores to try on dresses. Everyone had fashion advice for tv appearances. "Don't wear white." "No silk." "No patterns." "No pastels." "Look yuppie." "Look funky." "Not too sexy." "Not too short." "Something black." "Red." "Turquoise." It seemed all the stores in New York were against me. The only things for sale were white silk mini-dresses.
"I can't go away for the weekend until I find something to wear on GMA," I told my fiance.
He gazed longingly in the direction of the Berkshire Mountains, where we were supposed to be headed. "GMA?" he said. "I remember when you called it 'Good Morning America.'"
Once the dress was bought (A black, only slightly short one with a semi-funky belt), I wrote postcards to everyone I knew, asking them to watch on June 16. No sooner had I dropped the cards in the mailbox than a phone call came advising me of a change. I'd been bumped to the 18th because there was too much news scheduled for the 16th. It was a surprise to me that news was scheduled at all. I thought it just sort of happened. Now, I couldn't very well call 22 people nationwide and tell them to ignore the postcards they were going to be getting and watch "Good Morning America" on the 18th. instead. I had sent postcards in the first place so my long distance phone bill didn't skyrocket. So half the people missed seeing it anyway.
The day of the show a limo picked me up and took me to the studio, which is about five blocks from my apartment. Needless to say, it was a very short ride. But I did learn from the driver that Paul Simon, Gary Carter and Gregory Peck are all very nice people. I was met at the studio door by a page who ushered me into the Green Room, which I expected to be plush but in fact looked like my college dorm room, only smaller. There was a giant urn of coffee and an incredible array of pastries but I didn't have either because I was afraid of being on TV and having a) food in my teeth b) coffee breath or c) to use the bathroom.
The make-up woman said I looked fine. "Except for those dark circles under your eyes." (Who can sleep when they're going to be on television at 7 o'clock the next morning?) The hair stylist kept lifting chunks of my hair and shaking her head. Then she sprayed me with some super-hold hair spray that I wouldn't be able to get out for three days.
By the time I got back to the Green Room, it was full of people I knew from Bantam and the other author I was going to be interviewed with. We all watched the show on TV. A segment was on with Ron Reagan, Jr. and he was interviewing people who live in California and speak their own language. When that ended, a typewriter appeared on the screen and a voice said, "Coming up -- two common people who wrote novels." Yes, we joked, stay tuned for two people you've never heard of before.
The set looked like a big living room and everyone was nice and friendly, so I wasn't as nervous as I thought I might be. Afterwards, we all went and watched a tape of the show over and over. By the third or fourth time I wsn't even bothered anymore by the fact that during the entire interview I kept swiveling my head toward whoever was talking, which made me resemble Linda Blair in "The Exorcist."
GMA was followed by book signings in stores throughout Manhattan. Store managers wheeled out large quantities of books to be signed. A lot of people came up to me and asked if I carried Fodor's Ireland or the new Danielle Steele book and I had to explain that I didn't work there. "Then what exactly are you doing here?" one woman demanded. I told her that I was an author and I was signing my books. She compared my face to the one in the book, read the back copy, slammed the cover shut, and said, "Humph. Big deal."
Shortly afterwards, interviews started to become more and more frequent. I even stopped being nervous about them. I thought I was doing pretty well -- until a reporter called from my hometown paper.
The people in my hometown do not care if The New York Times gave me a good review. They will never read the Chicago Tribune or the Orlando Sentinel. What they will see is the interview in the Kent County Daily Times.
When the reporter called, he said: "Has anyone ever heard of this book?"
After I told him the plot, he said: "Boy, does that sound cliche!"
Every other question I answered he mumbled: "How hackneyed!"
I panicked. Mark Sherman, my high school boyfriend, would read this. So would everyone who graduated from West Warwick High School with me in 1974. My teachers would read it. My dentist. They would all think I was cliched and hackneyed. So much for interview confidence. So much for feeling like a real professional writer.
About a month after the book came out, my editor called and said, "You got your first piece of fan mail!"
"Open it," I said excitedly. I heard paper tearing, silence, then giggles. "Dear Ann," she read, "you may not remember me but I met you in a bar . . . . " "That's enough," I said.
Cousins started coming out of the woodwork. I got a wedding invitation from an old college friend who hadn't returned my calls in two years. Someone wrote to tell me that we had graduated from college together as English majors. He had become a photographer. "Next time you're in Rhode Island," he wrote, "may I take some pictures of you? Who knows? If you stay famous they may be worth something someday." One guy even called me at home. "Is this Ann Hood the famous novelist?" he said. "You don't know me but . . . . "
There have been a few times when I start to feel a little like the person whose face looks out at from the back cover of "Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine." Like the morning after my appearance on "Good Morning America" when people recognized me in a bookstore. And again in a coffee shop. And then again on Fifth Avenue, not far from the spot where only a few months earlier that woman declared me a nobody. Or the time when, after the book was optioned for the movies I found myself riding through Manhattan in a limousine with the producer. Or the day a newspaper quoted me in their "People" column, squeezed between Joan Collins and Ferdinand Marcos.
However, it's funny how just when I get a twinge of being "A hot young novelist," something happens to remind me that mostly I'm still the person who counts her books in the same store every day. Like the day a guy in the laundry room, when he found out I was a writer, said: "Oh. Then you must know Tom Wolfe." "No," I said, "sorry." He immediately looked unimpressed, picked up his detergent, and left. But wait, I wanted to shout, I know some famous people.
Usually, when I read an article or review about the book, I feel like I'm reading about someone else's life, someone else's book. And when, as has happened a few times, a person looks at me with awe and says, "You wrote 'Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine'?" I almost feel like an imposter. Because I know that although I'm the author, I'm also a person who searches endlessly for interview dresses, can't pay off her Visa card, and struggles every day at her typewriter to be a good writer.
Ann Hood, author of "Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine," is completing her second novel, "Waiting to Vanish," which will be published next summer.