Great Expectations

A lucky writer...a luckier human being

By Daniel A. Olivas
Published on LatinoLA: February 3, 2004

Great Expectations

All right, you should know up front that I do not intend to whine about the alleged suffering and wretchedness of a writer trying to sell his wares at a well-planned book signing in a major bookstore nestled near the food court of a immense Southern California mall.

First, I make my living as a government lawyer so I don?t need the $1.10 I make off of every sale of my short story collection. Second, I?m a father of a thirteen-year-old boy so I know from suffering and wretchedness (mostly mine, sometimes his). Third, I write fiction because I must; I have no choice. So, selling the final product is not the ends, it is merely an unfortunate byproduct.

Okay, that said, I have a secret: Despite being an attorney, I am also a human being. Yes, it?s true. And as with most human beings, I want to be liked. And if a person buys one of my books directly from me, it?s as if that customer is saying: ?I like you. You are a good person.?

So, as they say, I?ve shown you all my cards, right? Let?s move on.

I?ve done book signings before, and this one shouldn?t be any different. Except I have seen how signings work at this particular bookstore. There is no room for readings so it is strictly meet-greet-sell-sign. I?ve wandered past the forlorn authors sitting at the black-draped table just outside the bookstore?s wide corner entrance. I?ve witnessed people steer their course around these poor, abandoned writers so as to avoid eye-contact because acknowledgment means a potential obligation to stop and perhaps buy the latest book on terriers or winter baking. And I admit that I?ve done the same thing to avoid these suffering artists.

My signing would be different. Bilingual Press, my publisher, has touted me as a ?rising voice in Chicano fiction? (It must be true: it says so on the back of my book: Assumption and Other Stories).

My book has just received a glowing review from a large Texas newspaper. I had this brilliant piece of Lone Star writing blown-up and turned into a mini-poster for my signing table. The Los Angeles Times Sunday book section and LatinoLA had published notices heralding my upcoming signing (well, heralding might be an exaggeration). Dozens of emails flew from my computer through cyberspace to numerous family members, friends and colleagues. The bookstore had ordered a couple dozen copies for the signing.

Latino fiction is hot. Right? Those books would sell out in two seconds! So, I planned to bring along several copies to appease the literary mob that surely would be grateful for my planning ahead.

I arrive a half an hour before the noon signing. Ah! A beautiful, large poster proclaims my four-hour appearance. The assistant manager, a young woman who is all smiles and nods, helps me set up.

?Good luck!? she chirps.

I like her a lot right then. She loves books and she wants me to do well. God bless her!

I set up my table perfectly: the blow-up of the Texas book review to my left near a standing copy of my book. In the middle stands neat little stacks of my book. I also set out about a twenty copies of the book review and a little bowl of leftover Halloween candy as a special treat for my soon-to-be customers. Just in case there?s a lull in the literary festivities, I have a couple of writers? magazines to keep me busy. Okay, readers of Los Angeles, I?m ready for you!

Hour one: So far, the Halloween candy is the biggest hit. Two adorable tykes run up and ask if they can have a treat. I smile at the well-behaved children. I look up at their parents who quickly turn away to avoid making eye contact. ?Yes, of course,? I say to the children. ?Take two.?

Their parents say come along and they all disappear into the food court. As they leave, I hear one of the children ask, ?He was a nice man, wasn?t he?? They?ve moved too far for me to hear the answer.

Hour two: Okay, things are a bit better. Several people have actually spoken to me but I haven?t sold a book yet. But I learn a trick: if I look up from my magazine before a potential customers are ready to make human contact, they scurry away. So, like a fisherman, I have to be patient. Don?t reel them in too soon. Let them come close, get hooked by the book?s cover, the glowing review, my gentle visage. Though I sell no books two hours in, I have encouraged several people to take a copy of the book review and think it over. They all react the same way: they smile and look grateful that I?ve given them permission to walk away.

Then one customer wearing a grin the size of the San Fernando Valley walks up to me.

?You wrote this book?? the slightly disheveled, thirty-something smiling man says. He?s carrying a fresh, new bag from one of the department stores so he must have disposable income.

?Yes,? I say. ?My first short story collection.?

?I want someone to write my story,? he offers, still grinning. ?I?ve been abused by society.?

What do I say? This poor soul is hurting. ?Maybe you should write it,? I finally offer. ?It would be cathartic.?

?Yes,? he says. ?That?s what people tell me.?

He asks the price (very reasonable he opines) and says that he?s going to browse in the bookstore and then come back to buy a copy. I never see him again.

A very thin, well-tanned, un-smiling middle-aged woman comes up to fill the void and says, ?You wrote a book.?

I smile.

?Someone should write my life story,? she continues.

?Oh?? I say.

?My divorce alone would make a great book.?

I offer the same suggestion as I did to the grinning man. She nods and takes a book review. She leaves without opening her purse.

Hour three: One of the young sales women comes by to see how I?m doing. Kind of slow, I say. She smiles and buys a copy for her mother. I want to kiss her feet right there and then.

Hour four: ?There you are!?

I look up from an article about how to have a successful book signing and see an old friend of mine and her teenage daughter.

?Dante!? I almost squeal. I get up and we hug. Her daughter runs into the bookstore because she?s a big reader. Dante, a brilliant lawyer who used to work in my office, buys three copies. THREE COPIES! One for herself and her husband, one for a cousin and one for her mother. I sign all three with my very best penmanship. Things will pick up now! After a few more minutes of pleasant chat, her daughter emerges from the bookstore and we say our good-byes. I feel very liked.

And then another person comes to my table and he buys a book! And then several others come up and another book sells. I need to start packing up but I don?t want to lose any potential customers so I stay a half-hour past my scheduled time.

Several people are now gathered about my table discussing race relations, the recent recall election, and immigration policy. They don?t end up buying but they all take copies of the book review and ask if they can come by later in the week. Yes, of course. There will be autographed copies waiting.

The assistant manager thanks me and says that it was a good day. She?s sure people with book reviews in hand will make it back to the bookstore and buy. She is a saint.

I get home and my wife asks how it went. I give her a big hug and kiss.

?Great,? I say. ?Let?s get dinner. I?m hungry.?

My son perks up. ?Yeah,? he says as he grabs his jacket. ?I?m starved. Let?s eat at the mall.?

We jump into the car and head to the building where I had just spent five hours signing six books. As we drive, I make my wife and son laugh with stories of my recent literary adventures. I am a very lucky writer. I?m an even luckier human being.

About Daniel A. Olivas:
Daniel's second short story collection, Devil Talk, will be published this July by Bilingual Press. Visit his webpage at http://www.danielolivas.com.

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