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From Phyllida's Desk

Bette Davis Performs in North Carolina

No, this is not simply an excuse to say "What a dump," although I sure felt like saying it when I got back to my dusty apartment from my "mini-tour" of western North Carolina.

My reference to the movie star is about her persona, not any particular quotation. After my launch party for Pride/Prejudice (at which I tried to read a very dramatic scene without a working microphone in a noisy bar) my editor took me aside and explained about readings. People want more than just an author reading from her work, he said. He himself performed songs, accompanied by a pianist, between readings from his own novel when it came out; another writer he knows does some sort of craft work, giving everybody a crocheted doodad to take home; Myrlin A. Hermes, whose wonderful book I blurbed (The Lunatic, the Lover and the Poet) apparently has a friend play the Celtic harp at her readings.

That's the problem: I don't sing or dance or crochet. Like my idol, I have only the one talent. I'm Bette Davis in a world that demands Ginger Rogers.

But what a talent Davis had! She was "only" an actor, just as I am "only" a writer. And surely there's still room for a writer like me who can switch on a witty, confident and comic persona to not only read from my work but introduce it and talk about it, answer questions, and engage an audience in a real discussion afterward.

At least that's how it went during the three events on my "tour." I'm not going to take all the credit for my three small successes. I couldn't have done it without the energy I got from the three audiences--each different, but there because they wanted to be, and eager to hear what I had to offer.

I am eternally grateful to these small bookstores, hanging on in these tough economic times, where reading--and buying--printed books on paper is increasingly seen as a luxury we can no longer afford. I'm grateful that they let me come and perform my act for them, even though it seemed at first as though the "bisexual Pride & Prejudice" was not always a good choice for the location.

On my first stop, Blue Ridge Osondu in Waynesville, more people came to see me because they had heard I was a librarian than because of my writing. There was more talk about the relative merits of the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress classification at the beginning of the program than about fiction. This was the most traditional of the towns I visited, and I unwisely chose to read a passage that my friends described as "giving it to them with both barrels"--a flashback scene in which Mr. Darcy, distraught at Elizabeth's rejection of his first, arrogant proposal, recalls the exploitative relationship with his foster brother, George Wickham.

It hadn't occurred to me that this scene, with its references to boyhood "sodomy" and other misdeeds, was any more or less shocking than the scenes I usually read. But despite the gap between reader's and listeners' sensibilities, people were talkative and curious, asked many perceptive questions, and we ended up having a fascinating discussion about Jane Austen, the writer and the person, and why her work is still growing in popularity.

My second stop was meant to be the highlight of the tour: Malaprop's in the cosmopolitan city of Asheville. I had great expectations for Malaprop's, as this was the store that had actually requested my appearance, not been strong-armed like the other two by my cousin and friend, Nan Watkins, and her companion, Thomas Rain Crowe. But a store with a reputation for excellence attracts excellent and famous writers, and I suspect that when people deciding which event to attend saw my poster next to the following day's headliner, Chuck Palahniuk, most of them went with Chuck.

And like the amateur performer I am, I was affected by the disappointing turnout; my energy ebbed and my judgment wobbled. I was still using notes, and my talk was somewhat rambling at first. But people did show up, including Thomas's gracious and charming mother and sister, and more came in as I started to read. Nan and Thomas, having attended too many conferences and presentations where an author gives the same canned speech every time, felt the fact that mine varies with the circumstances is a good thing. All I have to do is make sure it's interesting and tightly focused. And since the book is good and I read well, less talk and more reading is the better approach.

Nobody left, except that one person who's at every reading and who's clearly expecting something very different than that author and book. This audience had two types of readers I hadn't encountered before but surely ought to have: slash fiction fans, and people who were excited at the idea of a woman choosing or preferring a bisexual husband with a boyfriend. The discussion here went on every bit as long as at Blue Ridge Osondu, and was every bit as animated.

And then I came to City Lights in Sylva. I was eager to appear at City Lights, as this was the place closest to where my friends live (Tuckasegee); and I had only just reconnected, through Facebook, with a coworker from years ago, Susan Metcalf, who lives in Sylva and might be at the reading. Nan is good friends with Jessica who works at the store, and my e-mail correspondence with her in preparation for my reading had been friendly and encouraging.

Even before I began, the level of enthusiasm in the store was like a shot of adrenaline. Plus, I had had two previous nights of "rehearsal," as Thomas, a poet with long experience of difficult readings, calls them. I was "on" at City Lights, giving by far the best performance of the three. I jettisoned my notes, and found I was able to introduce my work and talk about it without losing my train of thought or bogging down in a "lecture."

Best of all, I made people laugh, both in my talk and in the readings. As at Malaprop's, I read a lighter scene from P/P, not the "dark side of Mr. Darcy," but an early scene in which Elizabeth learns the nature of Fitz and Charles's relationship, and then discusses with her friend Charlotte what to tell (or not tell) her sister Jane.

I was glad that the gay men in the audience, including Chris, the owner of City Lights, were not put off by the idea of the bisexual man as romantic hero, but got a kick out of it. Susan Metcalf and I had a chance to catch up, and she remarked that she hadn't known I possessed such a sense of humor back when we worked together at the Brooklyn Public Library's business branch. I said that it was the writing, far in the future when she knew me, that finally gave me a way to express the humor that had always been there.

Jane Austen, perhaps tongue in cheek, enjoyed finding a moral in her stories. This story may not have a moral, but I certainly learned a few valuable lessons: If I ever have such a luxury again, a full hour all to myself to read from two novels and talk about them, don't use notes; always have a glass of wine beforehand, preferably two; and most important, go for the laughs. A good stand-up routine beats arts-and-crafts every time.

My profound thanks to Allison at Blue Ridge Osondu; to Alsace, Sadie and Steve(n) at Malaprop's; and to Jessica and Chris at City Lights.

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