The Stone Lantern

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

May 28, 2006

Here’s what happened in Cambridge. I go to pick up my son from college. I tell him to start loading up the car while I’m just going to check out a couple of the bookstores. (Why does this remind me of the mother of a friend I had growing up, who would tell us to go out and play while (I much later realized) she sat inside and drank? There’s something addictive to this whole book selling business.) I walk into a bookstore and start talking to the young girl at the cash register about my book. She looks about sixteen. I make the same points as I did in New Hampshire, and hand over all the cards I have left. She’s real perky and she tells me she’s going to hand the cards to the manager as soon as he comes in. I realize I’ve made a mistake: of course no manager is going to be at the bookstore at ten a.m. on a Saturday morning of a three-day weekend. I want my cards back but don’t want to look too cheap to the sixteen-year-old girl, so I just say thank you and wander around the bookstore, trying to find the poetry section. It takes me a long time to find it -- not a good sign. I think to myself, When my book comes out, it will be here in the poetry section. But if it had already come out, and if it were here, I would take it and move it There, at the front of the store, in that bin with the sign “New and Notable.” I walk out of the store, wondering if there is a law against that, or if bookstore owners blackball authors who come in and toy around with their shelves.

I go back to check up on how my son is doing loading up the car. He’s doing just fine, so soon I am back on the streets of Cambridge checking out more bookstores. There’s this gorgeous little boutique, with a sign hanging outside that comes right out of Dickens, Grolier Poetry Book Shop. (I suppose nowadays we would say the sign comes right out of Harry Potter.) I walk in and I am charmed. I walk back out and go back to the first bookstore, find the sixteen year old, and ask her if I can have some of the cards back. (Really, I do that.) Now that I’ve got the cards, I go back to Grolier’s. It’s a humid, steamy day in Cambridge and my hair, which is naturally frizzy on a dry day, is sticking out about a foot all around. I pull it back and down before I go back into the bookstore, a hopeless attempt to make myself look more main stream.

My son told me he thought Grolier’s was closing, but when I ask the gentleman at the cashier (who also happens to be the manager), he explains they’ve been saved. About two months ago, Nigerian poet Ifeanyi Menkiti, a professor at Wellesley College, bought the bookstore which has been in existence for almost eighty years. The manager shows me a picture of Professor Menkiti on the wall and points to a book of his poetry. We talk some more, about what kinds of people write poetry, and to illustrate a point, he leads me to a shelf and pulls out a poetry book by a zoologist. I listen, but I really am focused on selling my books today, not on reading those of others. The manager accepts my postcards, and suggests all kinds of things might be possible. I assure him that I am game for anything. Even washing windows, I think to myself but don’t say.

I walk back out, and it dawns on me that I didn’t even have the courtesy to buy a single book. Like the woman in the New Hampshire bookshop said, everybody wants to have their own poetry read; nobody wants to listen to someone else’s. I promise myself I’ll buy a poetry book from Grolier’s next time I go in. Meanwhile, I think my son has finished loading the car.

May 27, 2006

I’m back from New England. Here’s what happened. First, I stopped in a small independent bookstore in New Hampshire. The young man at the register led me to a friendly woman in a small room at the back of the store. She is surrounded by books and is facing a computer. Her keyboard could use some cleaning and I think that if I had some Windex, I could really do something for her keyboard. I hand her some postcards. Hi, I’m Abigail Friedman and I’ve just written this book, The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan. I come through this area fairly frequently to visit my daughter and I wanted to let you know that I’d be happy to do some book signings, readings…. My book is a Book Sense pick for June…. This last bit of information gets her attention. She takes the cards, reads one, looks up at me and confides, Here’s what I’ve found with poetry: Everyone wants to come in and read their own poetry, but no one wants to listen to someone else’s poetry. I tell her that my book doesn’t have much of my own poetry in it – that’s the apprentice part in the title. It’s a memoir. It’s about Japan. A memoir? She perks up. Oh, I can do something with that. Japan also seems to be a draw, at least more of a draw than poetry. She tells me she is going to order some of my books right away. I think she means it, too. I’m making headway here; this is starting to be fun. I try not to think about the economics of it all (How much did I spend on gas driving down here? What’s the percentage again that I get on each book? How many books is she ordering?) I want to tell her to make sure not to stick my book on the poetry shelf but on the MEMOIR shelf, or the JAPAN shelf. Or maybe both. But I think I shouldn’t push my luck. I leave her my email address and tell her that I’ll come back to sign all those books.

Outside, my daughter who just failed her driving test that day is fuming. What took you so long, mom? You said ‘five minutes.’ I drove in a circle around the parking lot three times while I waited for you. You what?! I swear to myself that never again will I leave her the car keys so that she can listen to music on the radio.

May 25, 2006

Publication date is this month. Every night I secretly Google myself to see if the book is out yet. I pretend to myself that I am someone else each night, Oh, let’s see if that book by Abigail Friedman is available yet on This week, my publicist sent me a nice surprise, a stack of about five hundred post cards featuring the cover of my book and a couple of blurbs. It looks great. I want to send it to everyone I know, then realize how much time it will take for me to write all of the addresses. Not to mention the money for stamps. There has to be a less time-intensive way for me to make use of these cards. Because the whole problem with marketing a book, I am learning, is that it takes TIME. Time away from writing, creating, dreaming, imagining.

I’m going down to New Hampshire and Cambridge, to take my daughter who is away at school for her driving test and to pick up my son from college the next day. I’ll take a batch of postcards with me, and stop in bookstores along the way.

May 24, 2006

When he sent me the contract to sign, my publisher added in his e-mail, “This contract is contingent upon your being a willing participant in the promotion and publicity.” What’s that about? I wondered. I imagined loners in skyscrapers writing books, furtively opening the door to the hallway when they were done, stuffing their book down the U.S. Post Office chute and scurrying back to their rooms to write more. Someone at a kitchen table in the backwoods of Maine, a pencil in one hand and a bottle of Early Times in the other, finishing up a few pages and staggering down to the end of the driveway, forcing the pages into the mailbox for the postman. As for me, my publisher could have made our contract contingent upon my washing his windows once a week - I would have signed just about anything. Getting my book, my first book, published was the thing.