Sunday, October 4, 2009
Desolation and Desperation: Flogging Jane Austen at the West Hollywood Book Fair
Me Selling Books (not)
Number of billionaire celebrities met: 1
Number of books sold: 0
Price paid for a cupcake: $4
Oh, Lord, I suppose when the Women's National Book Association asks you to speak on a panel about women's books at the West Hollywood Book Fair, any old writer worth her salt will pant like a steaming warhorse at the sound of battle. So I duly accepted the invitation, and went, fortunately escorted by Paul, who knows his way around West Hollywood and helped me find the megalithic monumental Pacific Design Center where we were to park, as I couldn't have found the entrance to that monster electric blue cube if my life depended on it. From there we crossed the street to the park where all the fair booths were set up, and we found the "Women Rule" Tent. Friendly, deft speaker Kelly, president of the local WNBA chapter, met us, and the other speakers arrived: Dori Carter, who's written a book of cynical short stories about Hollywood expressively entitled We Are Rich; Syrie James, author of the big best sellers Lost Memoirs of (respectively) Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte; and Estherleon Schwartz, whose self published book Tears of Stone and My Deal With God tells of her escape from Nazi Germany, living as a welfare mom in a cockroach infested apartment (in Beverly Hills, that is), and becoming Head of a Clothing Empire (House of Cashmere) and a Cantor.
The Panel: Estherleon, me, Kelly, Syrie, Dori
I couldn't conceive how Kelly was going to bring this panel together, though the omnium-gatherum panel title "Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Lives," was some clue. But she accomplished it, and I was impressed - she did her homework, seemed very familiar with all our books and stories, and pounced on the things that connected them. Dori's talk about how little the veniality of Hollywood has changed connected to my talk about my grandmother Winnie's time in Hollywood; there was a Jewish thread through all the talks; and of course Syrie and I are both Jane Austen writers. Kelly asked questions and gave each of us a chance to talk a little about our books, so I talked about both Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma and Onoto Watanna as celebrations of women writers, and also pointed out that my grandmother was an ordinary woman who led an exceptional life, while Jane Austen was an exceptional woman who led an ordinary life!
So far, so good. The panel ended with Estherleon and her Indian-from-India partner singing one of her poems, which she did in her best cantor style, fluting like a shofar, really very moving. For a sample, check out her website: http://www.estherleon.com/index01.html She was a very sweet lady, who admirably combined the qualities of glamor and soulfulness, and although her story sounds unbelievable, it turned out to be interesting and genuinely emotional. Syrie's work is commercially super successful, and I've met her at a few Jane Austen events; she knows how to sell, and I feel I can watch her and learn! I found Dori intriguing, too. It turns out that her husband is Chris Carter, the creator of The X Files and Milennium, but neither of them were at all what you'd think...he was a very unassuming, pleasant, approachable guy, there to support his wife. Dori herself was reticent rather than pushy, and gleams of wit and cynicism about the movie business and its rich denizens kept breaking through attractively: we liked her. They live up in Montecito with dogs and horses and like Jackson Hole a lot (as do we).
Estherleon and her Indian Friend, Singing
The disappointment was the usual thing: We gave a party and nobody came. There really weren't many people at the fair, mostly just the few dozens of assorted invited authors, all hawking and balking, i.e., hawking their books forlornly and balking at buying each other's. Except for meeting the other speakers, we could've stood in bed. And I felt guilty that Book Soup had taken the trouble to order books of mine and nobody was buying. I flogged Jane Austen and my grandmother with all I had (well, truthfully, rather half-heartedly and resignedly), but it was no use. They wouldn't look. They wouldn't buy. The expensive cupcakes moved faster than the books.
On the way back to the parking, a cheery guard of whom we'd asked directions before, asked if we'd had a good time. "Well, no," I replied, "we didn't sell any books." "Oh, that's no surprise," he said. "Let me show you something. See that building there? On the corner of Melrose?" We looked. Yes? "Well, from there - down three full blocks - there is not one single store that is still open. Not one. Three blocks down there's a bar, that's still open, but for four blocks beyond that, not one store. They have to keep the windows looking nice, so you can't tell, but this whole stretch of Melrose Blvd. is out of business." And indeed, only when you peered hard could you make out a "For lease" sign or two. On what used to be one of the busiest parts of one of the biggest fashion streets in Los Angeles. "And the Pacific Design Center, here?" the guard continued. The megalithic cube, yes. "Well, only one suite is rented now. This whole place is a shell. You know, I don't think the recession's going to get any better. And Obama will be a one-term president."
You heard it from the security guard.