Sunday, March 16, 2008

How you're supposed to minimize reading at book "readings"

by Jennifer 8. Lee

I'm running around trying to pack and get all the logistics together before I go on a two-week book tour for my new book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, on how Chinese food is all-American. (The itinerary roughly goes Washington --> Philly --> Boston --> San Francisco/Bay Area --> Los Angeles -->Seattle. I arrive in the Bay Area on a Saturday, March 22, speak at Book Passage on the Tuesday, March 25 and leave the area on the Thursday).

I have packed for two weeks at a time while doing research for my book. Packing for two weeks if no one cares what you look like is easy (jeans, T-shirts, sneakers), packing for two weeks when people do care what you look like is headache-y (suiter, portable steamer, three (!) pairs of shoes, pantyhose -- I swore during college I would never take a job where I had to wear pantyhose every day.)
The next thing on my mind is that on book tours, people expect you (the author) to do readings.

But audiences also want to be entertained. Now hearing someone reading from a book is not actually always that entertaining. In many cases, the energy level actually gets sucked into the paper as the author loses eye contact. The same text delivered while reading is actually of lower energy than if it was delivered extemporaneously.
I actually have a very amusing 20-minute Apple Keynote presentation for my book (like Powerpoint, but not) which is full of funny images and insightful points (no bullet points!) on Chinese food. It's designed for libraries and institutes and colleges. I have every adapter available from the Apple Store (to VGA, to DVI, to video) so I won't be stuck looking at my laptop and looking at a cord and trying to make sure they go together.

But this projection screen format does not work so well in book stores, I am told. So I actually have to read. But the problem is that I am a much better speaker than I am a reader. I get lost in the page. Also sentences designed for the page are different than for stage (longer, more parenthetical asides).

So talking to my friend Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Bliss, he recommends a blend of talking and reading, talking and reading. And my publicist recommends that I do just one story arc in a reading (meaning, something with a beginning-middle-end, tension, protagonist)

So in designing my (non laptop) presentation, I have done a few things.
  • When I can speak, I speak. I actually only read three or four paragraphs at a time, and often the most literary paragraphs that would be weird to burst extemporaneously out of my mouth.
  • I am trying to memorize those paragraphs the best I can, so I can maintain eye-contact during the presentation.
  • I am trying to interweave the story behind the book with the book. Assuming, of course, that the audience that shows up to hear you speak cares about you as author-person.

My new presentation, per the recommendation of my publicist, is to focus on the story of the Chinese family that went to rural Georgia to open a Chinese restaurant, which originally triggered the idea of writing this book. And if you show up in a few weeks, you can judge for yourself if I actually pulled it off.

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