This weekend, I attended the 25th annual Writer’s Institute conference in Madison, Wisconsin. It was my second time, and the first since self publishing my first novel, Ojibway Valley. It also felt like the beginning of spring after what was a long and brutal winter, in more ways than one.
In the prior months, as the winter progressed, I could feel my Parkinson’s disease symptoms worsening. There were balance problems, including a couple of falls (nothing serious, fortunately), increased issues with my speech, and an overall decrease in stamina. The combination of these symptoms and the solitude of being locked up in my house while outside the snow was deep and the air was frigid lead to feelings of isolation and depression. The result was, even though I had lots of time to do nothing else, I got very little writing done, particularly on my second novel. Bottom line, I was in a rut.
In addition, after self publishing Ojibway Valley in January and seeing some early modest sales, by the time March arrived, sales had completely dried up. I knew I wasn’t marketing very aggressively, and I knew I was in this thing for the long haul, and that huge numbers of sales were never important to me, but it was still disappointing. I had registered to be a part of a book sales / book signing event at the conference, but given the funk I was in, and per my general neurotic nature, I expected depressing results, having visions of sitting alone at a table with copies of my book, being ignored and humiliated.
So as I drove to Madison on Thursday night, my expectations and enthusiasm for the conference were low. I got there late, checked in to the Madison Concourse hotel, where the conference was held, and tried to start writing a short story I had an idea for, but after a clumsy hour of trying to plow through the disjointed words and phrases that passed through my constipated brain, I gave up and went to bed.
I woke up Friday morning, took my meds and a shower, and made my way downstairs to the conference. I looked for an acquaintance, Thomas Cannon, a fellow writer from Oshkosh, who had also just self published his first novel, The Tao of Apathy. He wasn’t hard to find, as he must be about 6’8”, and towered above everyone else. We talked in the hallway between sessions, and met up and ate lunch together in the hotel restaurant.
Friday morning, I attended an excellent session about independent publishing hosted by the independent author Kimberli Bindschatel, who’s first novel, A Path to the Sun was a quarterfinalist in Amazon’s breakthrough novel award. Her presentation was great, and gave me some much needed confirmation that I’d taken the correct path in self publishing Ojibway Valley.
The topic of the next session was writing about home and included a writing exercise. I was able to put aside the self consciousness I felt about my voice to step up to the microphone and read a passage of my writing, feeling completely at ease and comfortable. This was a big moment for me, as I’ve always had a morbid fear of speaking in public, heightened by the speech impediments Parkinson’s has imposed on me.
By the time Thomas and I met for lunch, I became aware that I was feeling good. Really good. I was enjoying the conference more than I expected to, and I felt the dark cloud of the funk I’d been in being lifted. It occurred to me that I was in my element, surrounded by people with the same passions.
Saturday morning kicked off with a panel discussion in the grand ballroom with local booksellers, including Joanne Berg, owner of the Mystery to Me bookstore in Madison and John Christensen, manager of Arcadia Books in Spring Green, Wisconsin. They lead a very entertaining and informative discussion about the future of independently owned and operated book stores, and how they can’t compete with the price and convenience of buying books on-line. What they have to offer is the bookstore experience; the magic of walking off of a busy street into the hushed presence of fully stocked bookshelves, the feel and the scent of a new book in your hands, the difference between discovering and searching. Google can return things searched for, but it can’t discover things the way you can wandering through the aisles of a bookstore.
Then it was time for the keynote address, “Writing From the Heartland,” delivered by New York Times best-selling author and Wisconsin favorite son, Michael Perry. Perry is one of my favorite writers and something of a hero to me, coming from and writing about the same landscape I wrote about in Ojibway Valley. I had the great pleasure and privilege last year to interview him via e-mail for the 2nd First Look website; later I had the opportunity to meet him in person, at a book signing event in Chicago. His address was outstanding, funny and personal, and when he talked about how he loved the act of writing more than anything else and how lucky he was to get to do it, it resonated with the whole room. For me it perfectly articulated what the conference had already done for me, and reminded me of how much I love to write.
Afterwards, it was time for the book signing event, and as I lingered outside the ballroom for instructions on where to go to set up, I stumbled upon Perry. I said “Hi, Mike,” and as he looked at my name tag, a spark of recognition lit in his eyes and he smiled and said “Hey.” I told him it was as usual a great presentation, and he smiled a “thanks,” and I let him go.
About a half hour later, I was assigned a table to sell my book from, and I saw Perry setting up at a table not too far away. I was eager to show him Ojibway Valley and get some reaction, maybe some advice, but I was hesitant to approach him, fearing that I’d come across as Kathy Bates to James Caan in Misery. However, emboldened by our earlier exchange of pleasantries, I went up to him anyway. I took a copy of his latest book, From the Top, a collection of essays he wrote for the NPR show he hosts, Big Top Radio, and leafed through it, regaling him with my memories of two of my favorite episodes, one that featured Rickie Lee Jones, with Perry’s essay on being cool, and the episode featuring Steve Earle, where Perry’s essay included a mention that he knew the names of all of Earle’s ex-wives, which Earle (sarcastically) thanked him for later in the show. I commented that I doubted that Earle remembered all the names himself, to which Perry replied, “I’ll bet his accountant remembers.” We talked like that for a couple of minutes, and it felt like I was talking to an old friend, the exact way I feel when reading his books (even though on some level I felt like Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live interviewing Paul McCartney – “Remember when you were with the Beatles? That was cool.”). I appreciated this, and decided against thrusting Ojibway Valley in his face, that it would be an intrusion on his good nature.
The book signing event was much bigger than I thought it was going to be, with dozens of authors peddling their wares. All the nervousness I felt beforehand quickly faded away, and as we waited for the doors to open to the public, I went from table to table, talking to each author, asking about their books and how they published and so on. It was great, there were a lot of great books and writers, and I felt like I was one of them, like I belonged, and that all the cold winter nights I spent alone in my office trying to tap out something coherent weren’t a waste of time after all.
Then the event began, and the public entered. All told, in about two hours, I sold and signed four books. That doesn’t sound like much, but when it’s four more than I was expecting to sell, it felt like I’d made the New York Times best seller list. It was the conversations I had with people more than anything else, conversations about the book, about the cover (for which I received so many nice comments), about why I wrote it, about where they were from and what they did there. I had several people take my business cards, so maybe some will visit my web page, and maybe a couple more of them will buy my book on-line.
Near the end of the session, feeling brave, I took a copy of Ojibway Valley and approached Joanne Berg, owner of the Madison bookstore and panelist from the morning’s session. “Wouldn’t this look great on the shelves of Mystery to Me?” I asked. She politely took down my name and contact information, and as I thanked her and walked away, I saw her fellow panelist and owner of the Spring Green Arcadia Books, John Christensen, leafing through the copy of my book I had left with her. A couple of minutes later, after I’d returned to my table, John approached me and told me he thought my book might do well with his clientele, and gave me his business card, saying that maybe we could schedule an event at his store. I tried to project a cool and calm exterior as inside I was saying, “Yes, yes, yes!”
Later in the afternoon, with my Parkinson’s fatigue catching up with me, Thomas Cannon and I went to one last session, on “Demystifying Marketing,” again hosted by Kimberli Bindschatel. It was another great session, instead of the usual “have a web site, use social media, establish a platform,” focusing on understanding yourself, your customers, and the content of the messages you deliver. It gave me lots to think about, things I’ll be working on in the next few days.
Saturday night, I stayed in my room, stiff and exhausted, and watched the Badgers heartbreaking loss. I slept well, and woke up and packed my bags, deciding to get an early start home. Before I checked out, I took what remaining books I had down to the basement parking lot and put them in my car. On the way back to the ninth floor, the elevator doors opened, and there, standing in front of me, was my “old friend”, Michael Perry. “Hi, Mike,” I said, and he said, “Oh, you’re going up? I’m going down.” We waved to each other and the doors shut. I went back to my room, got the rest of my bags, and returned to the lobby to check out. I got to the front desk just as Perry was leaving.
We smiled and waved good bye to each other, just two writers going their respective ways.
Thanks to Laurie Scheer and everyone else at UW-Madison’s Writers’ Institute for a great conference!