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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

I only laugh when it hurts: writers’ golden memories

Years ago when my first “regular” YA novel was about to be published (after eight books for the Choose Your Own Adventure series), as a Christmas gift my dad gave me Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews & Rejections. I thought, What’s the message here?

I think it was: Be ready. The book world can be hard on writers. I did know that; my first book had been rejected 75 times, and by that Christmas I had collected somewhere above 115 total rejections on four books, none of which ever saw print. Still it was fun to see how reviewers old and new had trashed a truckload of actual classics: “A vulgar and barbarous drama,” Voltaire on Hamlet; “A gross trifling with every fine feeling,” the Springfield Republican on Huckleberry Finn; “An absurd story,” the Saturday Review on The Great Gatsby.

It’s helpful to bring humor to this work, especially to the business of getting out and promoting books, which I can’t believe anyone actually likes. My writer friend (and Vermont state senator) Philip Baruth once wrote a hilarious parody of the scene in Death of a Salesman where Willy Loman trudges up the stairs and lies to his wife, having completed a sales trip without making a single sale. In Phil’s version it’s a writer returning from a bookstore reading to which no one came. I asked, “Phil, did that really happen?” He nodded, ruefully. “In Brandon,” he said.

I once did a reading in Brandon, Vermont at which the only person who came was ... well, “my stalker” would be too strong, but someone who had made me very uncomfortable. She sat silently and stared as I read. And I did a reading in Montpelier, Vt. on a brilliant summer’s day where not one person came, but that time my young son and I were relieved. We didn’t want to be inside either.

But my best story comes from the St. Petersburg Book Festival in Florida. One Saturday morning there I gave a workshop, well enough attended, on how schools were working with The Revealers — and I’d been told that each author would have a designated time that afternoon, to sign books in an open-air plaza. At the table next to mine, the schedule said, would be Martina Navratilova with her just-published autobiography.

When I showed up, the tennis legend sat with her back to me, busily signing, as from her table stretched a fantastically long line of waiting people, every one clutching her book. On my table next to hers, someone had dumped a car seat with a sleeping child in it. That was it.

A photographer from the St. Petersburg Times was there, and I said “Ohmygod please take a photo of this! This is the funniest thing ever!”

I wish I still had that photo. I really truly thought it was hilarious. And anyway, at moments like that the best thing you can do is laugh.

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