Speaking Truth to Unpleasantness

I’m reading another how-to book to energize my writing career. YOUR BOOK, YOUR BRAND by publicist Dana Kaye advises us to brand ourselves, first of all by analyzing our work and figuring out who we are as writers, then to identify our target audience, and then to polish up our brand and put it out there on social media and in other public places where our particular audience can find it and be impressed.

This is great advice. For me, it’s easier said than done.  My work is all over the map in terms of theme, historical period, characters. What all of it is is quirky with a buried edge of cynicism. And funny. So I guess that’s me as a writer. I try to look at things clearly and describe them accurately, so that even my cozies aren’t as cozy as they might be, and this is offensive to some.

Only my intimates know the worst about me, how I curse like a sailor’s parrot, how I can carry a grudge for sixty years. (Don’t get me started about my orthodontist, may he rot.) I’ve always known that my public utterances might gain or lose readers for me, and as a result I’ve tried to be careful. Maybe this is a mistake. I’m a deeply political person. Maybe I should acknowledge that.

When I was twenty-two I was a union organizer. I worked as a clerk-bookkeeper for AT&T, when it was the only telephone company. Being something of an idealist, I took on the position of shop steward in an office full of meek clerks, thinking I could work to uphold the rights and dignity of the working man (or, more accurately, the working woman). Not many of the ladies in the office were union members. My first task, as I saw it, was to recruit them.

My apartment was half a block from the office in Washington, DC, so I invited all the clerks over for lunch one day and hustled them to join the CWA. Only a few signed on, one being the boss’s secretary, an absolutely sweet woman whose name, alas, I have forgotten. She came to me the next day, full of apology, and asked for her membership papers back. The boss had talked her out of joining the union.

Actions have consequences, you see, and not always the consequences you were hoping for. Just before George W. Bush took us to war in Iraq I went down to Washington for a couple of peace marches. I tell you what, when you are upset with the government there is nothing more satisfying than to stand in the middle of Sixteenth Street and scream your lungs out. But the consequence of those marches was not peace. Instead we went to war, but not before ten women were arrested, grandmothers some of them, famous writers. I saw them led away in handcuffs while a squad of beefy motorcycle policemen came roaring up to menace the rest of us.

On November 21 a number of us are going to Washington again, this time to protest the policies of Donald J. Trump. I expect to stand in the street and scream. I also expect the people who love Trump, love him because his victory encourages them to abuse women, persons of color, foreigners, the disabled, and educated folks generally, to show up and be unpleasant to us. The police will be working for Trump. Can I say shitstorm on public media? Will that ruin my brand?

We’re going anyway, called to speak truth to power. You can come too. But be aware that it might not be a nice outing.

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The Press Interview

NEWSPAPER_BDAlthough it’s becoming increasingly unlikely in the modern day, what with the folding of so many newspapers and the laying off of so many reporters from those that are left, it may be that in the course of your literary career you will be asked to give a press interview.

It will help you to know who you are dealing with when you deal with The Press.

Ideally, your interviewer will be a kindred spirit who likes your writing and wants to make you look good (while getting paid by the news outlet to write the story). These people are lovely to find, and you might even stay friends with them in later life. Less than ideally, your interviewer will have been assigned a story he or she is not keen about. At times like that it is helpful for you to have written the interview yourself, beforehand. (“You probably want to know how I got started in spear fishing. It was the summer of 1993…”)

Then there are reporters with an axe to grind.

In 1984, when my first book was published (Unbalanced Accounts, Little, Brown, now available on Kindle for $2.99), the publisher sent review copies around to all the newspapers. That’s how things were done then. The book received quite a bit of attention, most avidly at the entertainment desk of the newspaper where my ex-husband used to work. I got a phone call from a woman on that desk whom I hadn’t seen in fifteen years, not since the break-up.

The break-up was one of those horribly unpleasant messes that used to happen to people in the early seventies, and that’s all I’m going to say about that, except to mention that when the dust settled my ex was married to Zoe, a big noise at the paper.  (Names have been changed so that I may speak freely.)  So I got a call from this woman who used to work with Zoe. Silly me, I thought the interview was all about me and my book. My very first newspaper interview. I had no clue.

We met at a Chinese restaurant near my place of employment. I had a good career going in software by this time, was married to the great love of my life, and had an adorable baby. I spotted Tillie (let’s call her) waiting at a booth inside. I was all set to brag about my new life and my new book.

“Katie!” she said. “What happened to your hair?”

“I got it cut,” I said. I’d had a few haircuts and re-stylings in the years since the ex and I used to sit around Tillie’s living room drinking  and watching the hipsters smoke dope. She didn’t exactly look the same, either.

“I just want you to know that we all hate Zoe too,” Tillie said.

“Er…”

“We call her Venom Lips.”

“I see. But about my book…”

The rest of the interview sort of went like that. She said she wanted to know all about my life from the time I was born, and then tried to pick out things to put in the paper that would embarrass my ex and his new wife. I did my best to stonewall her. As for talking about the book: “This character in your book who cheats on his taxes. That’s your ex, right? We all know he cheats on his taxes.”

“I certainly hope not,” I said. “I signed those forms for ten years.”

The paper sent a photographer to my house in Lambertville, luckily nobody I knew from the old days. He took an interesting and totally posed picture of me lolling on our porch in front of one of Harold’s Persian rugs. It was pleasingly androgynous. I was thinner then. They put the picture and Tillie’s story on the front page of the paper. It was continued on page three and ran on for many columns. There was something strange about the story. Everyone who read it said so. It wasn’t really about me or my book.

But no ink is bad ink, as they say, and sales of the book went quite well.  Still I drew a moral from the event. Know why you’re being interviewed. Be prepared to steer the conversation.