Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

Kentucky fried…rice?

Yesterday’s mail brought the exciting news that Good Luck With That Thing You’re Doing has been selected for inclusion in the 2015 Kentucky Book Fair.

If you’re asking, “Why Kentucky?” my reason is simple: how could I resist a state whose initials are the same as mine?

The KBF takes place on November 14 in Frankfort, a city I’ve never visited. In fact, I’ve set foot in Kentucky only once before. And when I say set foot, I mean it. While in Cincinnati years ago, I walked across the John A. Roebling Bridge that spans the Ohio River and connects Ohio to Kentucky, and then I promptly turned around. Thanks to the KBF, I’ll have a golden opportunity to expand on my one-step tour of the Commonwealth.

I perused TripAdvisor for things to do in Frankfort and saw that two of the top ten attractions are cemeteries. Because a death motif can be detrimental to tourism, there is also bourbon, and places where you can taste it. Add to that a candy museum, which creates the tantalizing possibility of combining bourbon and chocolate, and I’ve got pretty much everything I require in a destination.

I will also have everything I require in a travel partner, because Mom wants to come with me. I called my parents as soon as I got the letter yesterday afternoon, knowing their excitement would meet and possibly exceed mine. By the time I hung up with Mom, she had already scouted flight options.

The next person I told was my friend Angela, who hails from Kentucky. In addition to being a dear friend, Angela was my elementary school librarian. She helped nurture my love of books and, by teaching me to be a discerning reader, contributed to my writing. She could have considered her job done when I graduated from Orange Hunt Elementary, but instead, she has picked up the pompons and become a tireless cheerleader for my book. She even came to my event at Park Road Books in Charlotte a few months ago and watched me receive my temporary Jewish credentials. (I bet she couldn’t have seen that coming decades ago when I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of her library.)

I got so caught up in this surge of positive emotions that I lost track of time. I had invited my friend Dan over for dinner and I still needed to do a fair amount of prep work. Dan and I have known each other since high school–we worked on the newspaper together –and we have an easy friendship based on ample common ground, coupled with acceptance of and respect for our differences. For example, I’m an agnostic, but I admire Dan’s strong religious convictions and enjoy talking to him about his faith. Those conversations always make me think and never leave me feeling like I’ve been evangelized. My approach to religion doesn’t faze Dan, nor does my irreverence. In fact, he just returned from a faith-oriented trip to Fatima and would have been the first person to laugh had I said, “My friend went to Portugal and all he brought me was this lousy rosary.”

Because Dan is comfortable, fun company, he wouldn’t have cared one bit had I forgotten to cook dinner altogether, but I was determined to treat him to a nice evening. When he arrived, he found me and the kitchen in a state of mild disorder. Appetizers were on the table, chicken was ready to be grilled, and a honey cake sat cooling on the counter, but I still needed to roast the asparagus and cook the rice. I had also stranded all sorts of pots and pans on the stove, including a saucepan coated with a film of honey-based syrup.

As Dan and I caught up on our recent goings-on, including his trip to Portugal and my upcoming trip to Kentucky, the mild disorder in the kitchen upgraded itself to moderate chaos. I sent my pal outside to grill the chicken while I dealt with the sides. I dumped chicken broth in a pot and, while I waited for it to boil for the rice, put the asparagus in the oven. Fifteen minutes later, everything had finished but the allegedly quick-cooking rice. It had boiled over at one point, so I had lowered the heat, perhaps slowing the cooking in the process. As I stirred, I noticed it had taken on an unusual hue. I figured it had something to do with the boil-over and opted not to worry about it. With liquid still remaining in the pot after 20 minutes and our dinner rapidly cooling, I jacked up the heat, threw some parmesan cheese and basil into the pot with the rice, and declared it done.

Dan and I sat down and dug in. The chicken and asparagus had turned out perfectly. I put a forkful of rice in my mouth, expecting to taste chicken, cheese and basil. Instead I got honey. A second bite that was crunchier and more cloying than the first confirmed that I had somehow made honey rice and it was inedible.

“Don’t eat it,” I said to Dan, who was already eating it.

“It’s not bad,” he said, making me wonder if they’d confiscated his taste buds at Customs.

“It’s terrible,” I said, “And now I’m wondering what I put in that cake.” Dan said something nice about how, if my excitement caused some ingredient confusion, it was a small price to pay.

We agreed there was only one way to find out. I cut into the cake. It smelled promising from a socially acceptable distance, so I put two pieces on dessert plates. Dan took a big bite and looked thoughtful as he chewed.

“Tastes like chicken,” he said. I took a nervous bite. On tasting no poultry and just honey, I realized my friend is no slouch in the humor department.

I haven’t even booked a flight, but already this trip to Kentucky is proving pretty sweet.

Honey rice, or as I call it, Kentucky Fried Rice

Honey rice, or as I call it, Kentucky Fried Rice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A writer looks at 43

I turned 44 a month ago and, like Jimmy Buffett taking a pirate’s look at 40, I’ve decided to take a writer’s look at 43.

I considered doing one of those 360-degree assessments beloved by Corporate America, but since I’ve reached an age where I’d just as soon ignore the view from behind, I’ve decided to go old school and treat it like a standard six-subject report card. I’ve replaced math and science—subjects I excelled at but disliked—with subjects I like and actually encounter in daily life but perhaps do not excel at, such as “love life.”

  1. Health/Sports: 95. If the human body were a house, the major systems in mine are all still humming along after 43 years. If the body were Planet Earth, continental drift has not occurred…yet. And because my parents sprang for extended warranty coverage on my joints at birth, this year’s athletic pursuits included running the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler and doing the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim with four awesome dudes on a team called Capital Punishment. (Capital Punishment is poised to make its triumphant return, by the way, so stay tuned.) I continued to captain the hapless, but not entirely winless, Smash Hits. We even managed to soldier on when our beloved CeCe passed away unexpectedly, though that’s one loss from which we’ll never recover.
  2. House: 71. My home behaved like a high school senior whose college acceptances have already rolled in. It performed solidly for the first three quarters and then just gave up altogether, ending the year by leaving me with a basement that required major waterproofing and an oven that needs a neurologist.
  3. Writing: 100. I finally wrote a book, fulfilling my lifelong dream (and my family’s worst nightmare). Few things rival the joy of holding a bound volume of words you wrote, but pretty much everything beats the pants off of actually writing those words. The process stinks, and anyone who tells you it doesn’t is either lying or not really a writer. But just like going to the gym, if you do it with consistency, you get better (usually), and the results make the grueling, painful, sweaty agony worthwhile. Almost.
  4. Travel: 88. My book dragged me all over the lower half of the East Coast. It connected me with readers at a beer garden in Arlington and a book festival in Charlottesville, as well as bookstores in D.C., the Northern Neck of Virginia, and Elizabeth City and Charlotte, North Carolina. That last stop was a doozy for two reasons. First, it was the backdrop for a reunion with my beloved elementary school librarian, who just happens to live in Charlotte. It is one thing to hold a bound volume of words you wrote; it’s another altogether to read those words to a woman who helped you learn to love and aspire to great writing. My event at Park Road Books also created an unexpected opportunity to get in touch with my Jewish side. I expect to release Mazel Tov With That Thing You’re Doing any day now.
  5. Absurdity: 100. By any measure, Year 42 should have set the high water mark. Any year during which two single men materialize from the ivy in your fenced-in backyard is going to be very tough to beat. Not only that, but that same year I took a trip to Alaska with my parents, both of whom are in their seventies. Over the course of that trip, the three of us went whitewater rafting (referred to more accurately as “getting a glacial facial”), flew in a tiny plane that set us down at the base of Denali, and zip-lined in the treetops of Skagway. You haven’t lived until you see your parents outfitted in construction helmets and a harness that looks like a seatbelt diaper. It had taken some convincing to get Dad to go on that last excursion because he’s afraid of heights. (Every Yankosky fears heights, but Dad’s got it really bad.) Naturally, he was the only one of us to wind up stuck mid-zip, dangling like the lone grape on a vine. Against that backdrop, you’d think 43 wouldn’t have stood a chance, absurdity-wise, yet it met the absurdity challenge admirably. In August of 2014, I got ordained by the Universal Life Church and presided over a wedding. Not only that, but the blog post I wrote about the whole experience led the ULC to contact me. The ULC has a pretty great sense of humor as churches go – disorganized religions are smart enough not to take themselves too seriously –so a fun correspondence began, as a result of which I was featured in the ULC blog, keeping company with ordained elites like Lon Burns, “America’s Favorite Jewish Cowboy Minister.” (And High Priest of Niche Marketing, apparently.) I’ve made new friends in high places, at least latitudinally speaking. My other favorite absurdity from last year? A copy of the book I wrote that started out in the hands of my oldest sister wound up in a sewer, from which it was rescued by my 16 year-old nephew.
  6. Love Life: 53. A score like that would have led my elementary school teachers to dub me “remedial,” but it might not be as bad as it looks. I went on lots of dates last year, and many of them were even with the same person for a stretch. Though nothing fit quite right, articles like this remind me that my struggles in this area are far from uncommon and lead me to view this much like the scores I got on practice tests I took before the bar exam: anything over 50 is quite respectable, and nobody’s acing it.

My average? 84. Not bad, but it makes a pretty good case for staying in school.

karen and mom

I failed to mention that Mom, my #1 fan, was there to watch me get my Yiddish on at Park Road Books.

 

I went back to Charlotte armed with a few books and a whole lot of chutzpah

I went back to Charlotte this weekend to do a book reading and signing at Park Road Books. I’d been excited to go back to the Queen City ever since I visited in February and did time, er, spent time, with my brother’s in-laws and an incomparable book club called the Page Turners.

Park Road Books helped promote the event by reaching out to various community groups and media outlets that might want to spread the word to their following. I got an email from such a group—one that had the word “shalom” in its name –on Thursday afternoon:

Park Road Books has let me know that you will be coming to do a book signing this weekend. I would like to help them promote this on the Charlotte Jewish News website but I need to confirm that you are actually Jewish. I tried to google you, but discovered that you either died in 2009 or made aliyah to Israel with your husband Ken. Neither one sounds right. So please let me know what “Jewishy” things I can say about you and your new book. Thanks.

I considered writing, “How ’bout ‘Mazel tov with that thing you’re doing?'” but thought better of it and instead responded:

Hi! While I would regard posthumous book-touring as both a major personal achievement and a big boon to my religious standing, you guessed correctly that I walk and write among the living. I was briefly married, though to someone I now call “the Lawnmower” and never once called “Ken,” and our short union didn’t produce anything as noble as a pilgrimage (though it certainly lent me some writing fodder). So you were quite right to eliminate that, too. As far as my Jewish credentials go, they consist of consuming Manischewitz on occasion (though not always on the correct occasion), knowing when to say “Oy vey!” and dancing ineptly to “Hava Nagila” at my cousin’s wedding. I know about passover only in the sense that it’s how I react to most second date requests these days. From all of this you may be inferring, correctly, that I’m not Jewish. I’m a recovering Catholic. But your note was absolutely hilarious, and because I happen to be in between religions at the moment, I feel compelled to make an impassioned plea for temporary honorary Jewish status. Perhaps it’s time for a “Shiksa Spotlight” segment on the Charlotte Jewish News website? I am willing to change my middle name to “Matzoh.”

In closing, I told her I’d be thrilled to meet her if she happened to be at Park Road Books on Saturday. She sent a cheeky reply about maybe showing up with a camera to confer temporary Yiddish credentials on me. I thought I had ample cause to assume she was kidding. Never for a moment did I expect to see her come hurrying down the aisle just as I was about to start reading with a huge smile on her face and her arms outstretched.

“You’re not dead!” she said, enveloping me in a warm hug.

Not only was I was alive and well in the Queen City, but I was having something very close to a religious experience.

"Charlotte collage" by Greengrass090 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charlotte_collage.jpg#/media/File:Charlotte_collage.jpg

“Charlotte collage” (by Greengrass090 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charlotte_collage.jpg#/media/File:Charlotte_collage.jpg)

 

The Tampa Bay Swim and other forms of Capital Punishment

You know how something sounds like a perfectly good idea at the time and you find yourself saying “yes,” only to regret it later?

Well, the Tampa Bay 24-mile Marathon Swim was not such a thing. It sounded pretty sketchy when it was first mentioned to me, if I’m being honest.

Despite that, three things made me say “yes”:

1) A sense of athletic pride. This is a seriously misguided sense, one that forgets I’m 43 and recently injured myself taking out the trash. And I’m not talking about trash that included, say, a grand piano. I hauled out one measly kitchen bag loaded with nothing heftier than coffee grounds and blew out an elbow.

2) My good friend and longtime swimming buddy, BillI like Bill a lot, even though he attended the party where I met my now ex-husband and made no move that night to steer me toward something more harmless, like the cheese tray or a pack of rabid wolves. Anyway, Bill hatched a plan to form a relay team –the only sane way to swim 24 miles–and needed at least one woman to make it co-ed.

3) The team name: Capital Punishment. I have long believed that a great team name can obscure a serious lack of skill, as evidenced by my tenure with the Smash Hits.

 Capital Punishment began as a six-person team, which meant each person would have to swim four miles. This sounded manageable, since all of us are lifelong swimmers who crank out two miles or more regularly(ish). But shortly after registering our team, we lost a dude to injury. (The other members of Capital Punishment are both older than I and responsible for trash removal in their respective homes, so really, it was just a matter of time.)

Five miles per person seemed doable, but then a family event crossed another name off our roster. At six miles per person, Capital Punishment was in trouble and Bill knew it. Desperate to get our ranks up to at least five, Bill enlisted the aid of the race organizer, who helped us draft a dude from Tampa.

I don’t know any of my teammates except Bill, and I won’t meet them until I’m in Tampa, but I’m not worried about that. Because each person will swim for 30 minutes at a time while the rest of us hang out in the boat, awaiting our turn, I figure I’ll have upwards of ten hours to get to know the other boys in the boat.

 I also have yet to see a course map—Capital Punishment’s pre-race prep centered on securing deluxe accommodations  near a restaurant with a rock-solid wine list –and am opting just to be surprised.

But I did force myself to take a gander at the weather. The Saturday forecast calls for air temps between 80-90 and water temps around 80, which sounds great to me. What does not sound so great is the likelihood of a 15-mile per hour “sea breeze.”

In my world, a sea breeze is a cocktail, not a euphemism for a wind strong enough to blow a hat off your head. (I will be wearing a bathing cap, and if the sea breeze blows that off my head, then Capital Punishment is officially on its own.)

For every person thinking, “How could this possibly go wrong?” there’s another asking, “and how can I see it?”

You can watch our progress here. As spectator sports go, this open water swim promises the kind of heart-stopping excitement rivaled only by watching your arm hair grow.

If ever a situation cried out, “Good luck with that thing you’re doing,” this is it.

I've got goggles and a suit that's visible to astronauts orbiting Earth. The only thing I'm missing is a flask...

I’ve got goggles and a suit that’s visible to astronauts orbiting Earth. The only thing I’m missing is a flask…

My book and I returned to Elizabeth City like moths to a flame. A very old flame, in fact.

A few readers noted that my Easter recap post said nothing about my usual role as the neighborhood Easter Bunny. (They know it takes a special person to dress up as an oversized rodent with a face straight out of Poltergeist.) Sadly, when the date of this year’s Easter Parade rolled around, I had to step aside.

What would cause me to leave the infliction of lasting psychological trauma in the hands of an understudy? A book signing in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

If you haven’t heard of it, E.C is a town of roughly 18,000 people that was founded in the late 1700s and sits on the Pasquotank River near the Albemarle Sound. My personal history with E.C. dates back to the fall of 1999. My then-boyfriend (hereafter “TB”) moved there seeking a respite from the chaos of Northern Virginia, so I made the four-hour trip to see him often.

I always enjoyed the time I spent there, whether wandering down historic Main Street and imagining life inside one of the beautifully restored Victorians, sitting on a bench at Mariner’s Wharf and staring out at the Pasquotank, or shopping for my next great read at Page After Page bookstore.

But in August of 2001, after a summer of living together unhappily, TB and I split. We parted amicably in the sense that we managed to refrain from setting fire to each other’s possessions. As I drove away, I had every intention of leaving both the relationship and the town in the rear view mirror.

Two things changed that—a fence-mending and the book signing. I’ll come back to that second one, which couldn’t have happened without the first.

I initiated the fence repair this past September. My friend Philippa and I had recorded an episode of “Women of Uncertain Age” that focused on good courting, and I found myself holding up my relationship with TB as a shining example. As I talked about the relationship, I realized I viewed it in mostly favorable terms despite our terrible ending.

I decided TB deserved to know that, so I found him on Facebook and blasted out of the past bearing an olive branch. He accepted it quickly and gratefully. I guess I wasn’t the only one who cringed any time I thought about that breakup. TB soon friended me on Facebook, saw that I was writing a book, and joined Team Karen as an enthusiastic cheerleader and beta reader. We’d always been great friends, so I was glad to have my pal back.

When Good Luck With That Thing You’re Doing came out, a return to E.C. and Page After Page –this time as an author—made perfect sense. The bookstore and I set a date for April 3, when the downtown merchants would be hosting their First Friday Artwalk.

Page After Page set me up at a cute little table near the front door. It was a great location, but I wondered whether I would attract the attention of anyone other than TB, who’s already read my book twice and bought enough copies to stock a Bookmobile. Mother Nature threw my friend a block by giving E.C. glorious spring weather, ensuring a steady flow of traffic into the store.

That created a new dilemma: What was I supposed to do when people came in? Say “hello” and hope they’d stop to chat? Sit there like a pen-wielding mannequin? Do interpretive dance?

I went with a blend of the first two, mainly out of consideration for TB, who has a reputation to protect. TB, by the way, maintained a vigil while seated in a chair opposite me near the front door. Every now and then someone would show some interest in me and Good Luck, but most people just smiled and kept going. Eventually an older woman sat down in the chair next to him and I got my hopes up. She then politely explained that she just felt like taking a load off while her daughter shopped. I was seriously tempted to try the interpretive dance.

As the woman rested, patrons continued to come into the store, several of whom stopped to ask about my book. I explained its title, described my connection to E.C., and then offered an anecdote from the book that I thought the reader might enjoy based on our short conversation.

Ten minutes later, the woman’s daughter returned and said, “Are you ready to go, Mom?”

“No, I’m not,” the woman said with a slight drawl. “I’ve been listening to this lady talk about her book for a while and now I want a copy. And I want her to sign it.” After TB helped me pick my jaw up off the floor, I was only too happy to oblige.

The woman told me her name was Faydie, which I’d never have known how to spell. As she came to my rescue, she explained that it’s a feminized version of “Lafayette,” a last name that carries important history in her family.

I felt honored to be the recipient of that story and of Page After Page’s incredible Southern hospitality.

The store’s thoughtful selection of books is complemented by a warm staff and enthusiastic owner (and also a guardian Chihuahua named Sadie). Thanks to Page After Page, TB, and the many patrons who bought my book, my return to E.C. was nothing short of triumphant.

IMG_5160

 

Comedy Corner at the Virginia Festival of the Book

On March 21, I went to Charlottesville to participate in the Virginia Festival of the Book, an annual five-day event that draws thousands of readers. Renowned authors like John Grisham, David Baldacci, and Rita Dove lead panel discussions about their writing while authors like yours truly set up tables at the book fair outside and try to hawk their writing. We authors of lessor renown get the panel experience, too, it’s just that ours is more of the Two Men And A Truck variety.

The book fair was scheduled to go from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., which struck me as an awfully long time. In my wildest dreams, the 50 books I brought to sell would fly off the table even before the first panel discussion began and I would suffer a terrible case of autograph-induced carpal tunnel syndrome. My more modest dreams conjured up a day where the books would saunter off the table at a 20-books-a-day pace, leaving me with perhaps a mild case of signature fatigue. My humblest dreams, which we might as well go ahead and call nightmares, painted a picture of a 7-hour slog where I would try to spread the joy of my book to people who reacted as if they’d rather experience the joy of colonoscopy.

Reluctant to brave such uncharted territory alone, I brought my mother for backup. A cheerleader, publicist and Sherpa all rolled into one, I figured at least she would buy a copy of my book. Mom and I strolled into the atrium of the Omni Hotel at 8 a.m. that Saturday, found the half-table reserved for me, and began to set up our little bookstore that could.

I soon learned the other half of my table, as well as the whole table next to it, belonged to Cedar Creek Publishing, an outfit that publishes Virginia authors. When the owner of Cedar Creek found out that I’d written a collection of humor essays, she decided to station her humorist next to me, probably using the same logic that compels parents to set up a kids’ table at Thanksgiving.

Copies of her humorist’s book arrived at the table before he did, so I knew the book had an excellent title (Ads For God) and that the author had the kind of name humor writers routinely make up (Tony Vanderwarker). I flipped over a copy of the book and read the Kirkus review about this “snarky, rollicking” comic novel in which “a jaded adman gets a chance at redemption when God taps him for his marketing campaign.” Sounded like a terrific premise, though I wondered what it said about Tony himself. I could only hope I’d be in for a rollicking day of snark.

While I waited for the book fair to begin I introduced myself to Rick Britton, another Cedar Creek author who writes about Virginia history. I’d watched him meet a few of his readers, greeting each one with a huge smile and the easy warmth of a lifelong friend. He gave me the same treatment, making me think he’s simply a kind soul who likes people, the sort of person you just want to know.

Tony showed up moments later and a morning rush began. (We had the good fortune of being situated near the coffee station, guaranteeing constant foot traffic, if not actual transactions.) If Tony had any qualms about being stuck at the kids’ table, he hid them well. In between greeting his readers, he asked about my writing and my book, touching off a conversation that would last all day.

After watching me describe Good Luck With That Thing You’re Doing to prospective readers a few times, Tony decided to take me under his wing. The wing was a nice, sheltered place in which he told me in the kindest terms that my pitch pretty much stunk. Tony knows a thing or two about life under the wing, having been mentored by none other than John Grisham. I decided to implement his advice right away, which elevated my pitch from “stinks” all the way up to “still smells, but almost in a good way, like bacon.”

I must have been doing okay, because pretty soon, Tony was telling his prospective readers about me and my book (and vice-versa), and the kids’ table had morphed into Comedy Corner.

Our next triumph was conscripting Rick. At first he dealt with me and Tony from the safety of the grown-ups table, tossing the occasional witty comment in our direction. But pretty soon he couldn’t help himself and came over to slum it up on the Corner. I soon learned that, though Rick writes about Virginia history, he can trade jokes and one-liners with the best of ‘em. I tested some standup comedy material on him, in exchange for which he did a bit about Olestra that caused Comedy Corner to lose all semblance of structural integrity and collapse into a useless heap of laughter.

I was still trying to recover when I was visited by a childhood friend who happens to live in Charlottesville. We hadn’t seen each other in over twenty years but he’d been cheering on my book ever since he heard about it.

“I’m really proud of you,” he said, his words bringing tears to my eyes for a different reason.

I sold only ten books that day, but I left with those words in my heart and two more cheerleaders than I came with, along with the realization that I’ve gone so much further for so much less.

bookfest

Me and my new cheerleader, Tony Vanderwarker

 

 

 

 

 

Another book club meeting and I’m in the hot seat

A book club in my sister Lynne’s neighborhood picked Good Luck With That Thing You’re Doing for its February selection and invited me to join their meeting to discuss it. Though Lynne isn’t an active participant in the club, she knows all of the members (not to mention the author) and starred in several stories, so they invited her, too.

I had such a great time making a cameo appearance at the Page Turners‘ gathering in Charlotte that I accepted this second book club invitation immediately and was the first to arrive Tuesday night. That gave me a chance to ask the hostess, Erika, how my book wound up on the club’s reading list.

I learned that a book club member who happens to be a friend of mine from high school had brought a copy of Good Luck to a neighborhood holiday party. There, it became part of one of those dubious gift exchanges and somehow found its way into Erika’s hands. I pictured her staring down a tough choice between Good Luck and a mooning lawn gnome and, inexplicably, choosing the book.

With the selection mystery solved, I waited for the meeting to begin and wondered whether these women could possibly meet the ridiculously high standards set by the Page Turners. Would they have thematically appropriate food? Would they actually discuss the book? And, most importantly, would they have wine?

I need not have worried about the wine.  In an impressive display of thoughtfulness and efficiency, Erika had poured several glasses of red wine and placed them on a silver tray. Nearly every woman who entered the room grabbed a glass before finding a seat. Additional bottles of pinot noir stood on an end table like reserves, ready to be called into battle at a moment’s notice. The last thing an author wants is a sober book club, so all of this put me right at ease.

A coffee table held an elegant display of hors d’oeuvres and chocolates that had no discernible connection to Good Luck. I could hardly blame Erika for choosing to do her own thing, food-wise. Had she tried to conform the menu to the contents of my book, the guests would have been snacking on Cap’n Crunch and Spam.

Soon, Erika called the meeting to order, which had the effect of a bartender yelling, “Last call!” Once all wine glasses had been refreshed, the official business began. Though no one had printed out a list of questions (mine is a book more likely to generate wine pairings than probing queries), these ladies looked serious.  I began to fear they might be gunning for the Page Turners’ record-setting twenty minutes of uninterrupted book talk.

I took a seat in a large, wing-back chair–one that left me plenty of room to squirm–and the questions began.

At first, they threw me softballs such as, “What made you decide to write a book?”, “How long did it take you to write this?” and “Would you like more wine?”

Then came a more thought-provoking question: “How did your family feel about what you wrote?”

Since my family members generated so much fodder for my book, you’d think I would have asked them how they felt, yet I never did. And until that moment, I’d never considered whether I should have.  I caught Lynne’s eye across the room and she gave me a smile I couldn’t quite read.

As I began to answer, I spoke not from my head but my heart. I told the group that, as far as I could tell, my family had supported me and my writing unequivocally and enthusiastically from the moment it all began.

When I enrolled in a writing class called “Getting Started” in the fall of 2011 as a respite from the misery of my divorce-in-progress, the whole clan cheered. (Lynne may have cheered loudest because that class got me out of her basement one night a week.) Their encouragement continued as I started my blog and did not waver when it featured the occasional story about them. I considered how they might feel about becoming characters–a role for which they did not audition — but I didn’t actually ask them.

I just plowed right ahead, writing with honesty, sticking to whatever facts I knew, and  poking fun without malice. I trusted that my loved ones, a group of people who’ve never taken themselves too seriously, weren’t about to get uptight now. I also assumed they know I have a (reasonably) healthy sense of boundaries and would never sacrifice my cherished relationships for the sake of entertainment.

After explaining all of that, I was about to tell the book club that my relatives would speak up if I wrote something that bothered them, but then I realized I’m not so sure they would. My family has displayed such unselfishness towards me and my writing that it would take something egregious for them to protest. Knowing that, I try my best to write stories that, while poking fun, also pay tribute to a group of people that truly deserves it.

My parents, siblings, siblings-in-law and niece and nephews continue to delight in sharing potential writing material with me –they didn’t hesitate to tell me about the Amelia Earhart of hamsters or that my book tour began in a sewer–so I think I’m doing all right thus far. But make no mistake: my gratitude and love for these characters who share my DNA is profound.

As I said to Erika before I left, every time I look at my family I realize I’ve hit the only lottery that matters.

(Forgot to snap a pic at this meeting so I'm using this never before seen footage from the Page Turners.)

(Forgot to snap a pic on Tuesday night, so I’m using this never before seen footage from the Page Turners’ meeting. Classy, eh?)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A royal welcome from the Queen City and the Page Turners

After I left Park Road Books, a place that deserves its reputation as Charlotte’s favorite bookstore, I set off for the home of my brother’s in-laws.

You might wonder why I would visit a set of in-laws that aren’t even my own, relinquishing in the process one of the greatest benefits of being single. I made the trip because Chuck and Debbie, whom I refer to as the “stand-in-laws,” are people I’d want to be friends with under any circumstances. Debbie is also a long-time member of a book club called the Page Turners, and they invited me to join them for their February meeting.

A lot of book club meetings are just wine tastings with a slightly literary bent. At such gatherings, the book is not altogether irrelevant — it generates the alibi for the attendees’ monthly escape and then acts as a prop on the night of the meeting itself–but it’s relegated to the background. I thought the PT’s meeting might fit that stereotype until Debbie told me the group meets in June to pick its selections for the entire reading year.

I’ve known book clubs that choose the wine that far in advance, but never the book.

At the annual selection meeting, the PTs make a list of all the nominees and vote on them. They even track the candidates on a spreadsheet. This prevents inadvertent repeats and keeps hope alive for books that managed to land on the ballot but didn’t raise enough campaign money to get past the primaries.

February’s reading selection was the The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, a book I intended to read.  I never quite got around to reading it, but that didn’t worry me. Good intentions constitute excessive preparation by most book club standards.

I realized I had applied the wrong set of standards the minute I arrived at the home of the hostess, Cindy, and saw the table she had begun to set.

the spread

From the artfully placed sugar cane stalk to the chicken curry made from scratch and with authentic ingredients (Cindy has formal culinary training, I learned), every item evoked Myanmar, where the The Art of Hearing Heartbeats takes place. Cindy even replicated cheroots, the popular cigars that appear throughout the book, by baking shortbread cylinders, dipping the ends in chocolate and rolling them in nuts to resemble ashes.

Lest you think the PTs are not a glorified drinking club but an eating one, don’t worry: they drink, too. Wine flowed freely all evening. Between the food and the wine, you’d have thought the business of the book club was done. But here’s the really remarkable thing: they actually talked about the book. A few of the participants –I think there were fourteen that night– even printed out questions from a reading guide. I found the whole thing unnerving.

In fact, the PTs spent a record-breaking 20 minutes engaged in non-stop book talk before the wine dragged them off on a tangent about how we take care of elder family in this country, as compared to a place like Myanmar. That led to an even more interesting tangent about the places old people wander off to when you don’t keep them on a leash. And that’s when I started to laugh so hard my mascara ran.

I was still wiping tears from my eyes when one of the PTs asked a question about my book. I’d practically forgotten about it amid the festivities. But these women hadn’t, and theirs was not just a passing interest. Not only had they read the book, they brought up details I wouldn’t have expected my mother to notice. I felt honored that my book had earned the attention of this fine group of readers.

Writer George Steiner has described books as “the best antidote against the marsh-gas of boredom and vacuity,” a phrase that applies equally to the book-loving Page Turners.

Charlotte and the Page Turners

After stopping in Kilmarnock, my book needed an urban fix. It  headed to Charlotte, North Carolina, home to my brother’s in-laws, Park Road Books, and a book club called The Page Turners. I intended to visit all three.

I walked into Park Road Books with more than a little trepidation, courtesy of an experience I’d had at an independent bookstore in Atlanta two days earlier. My brother and his family live in the Atlanta suburbs and I go there pretty often, so I had hoped it would be a second home of sorts for me and Good Luck With That Thing You’re Doing.  The Atlanta store seemed open to indie authors based on a pre-trip email exchange, and I’d been looking forward to stopping in.

When I arrived, however, the lone employee greeted me (the lone patron) with all the enthusiasm of a cadaver. This proved to be considerably more excitement than he showed when I introduced myself and mentioned my desire to drop off a review copy of my book.

He looked at the book suspiciously, as if, instead of humor essays, it held a live case of the measles and the store hadn’t been vaccinated.  He mentioned the store’s space limitations and pointed to its shelves. I could see that they were far from vacant, but if bookshelves were cities, the population was at DC density levels, not Manhattan.

“You can leave it if you want,” he said, looking at my book as it sat untouched on the counter, “but I really can’t tell you what will happen to it.”

I didn’t need him to tell me what would happen to it; I could guess. Instead of rubbing elbows with bestsellers, it would end up sitting next to Snickers wrappers, banana peels, and other dumpster inventory. I nearly picked up Good Luck With That Thing You’re Doing and drew a chalk outline around the spot on the counter where it died, but I opted to leave it because I’m nice like that. Maybe the guy was having a bad day, or, even worse, he’d been innoculated against humor instead of the measles.

I tried not to take it personally but the episode left a bad taste in my mouth, like being force-fed a lemon slice when I’d had every reason to expect a nice, benign spoonful of vanilla ice cream.

What if Park Road Books, a place that also held itself out as receptive to indie authors, responded the same way? As I walked through the doors, I had to fight the temptation to drop to the floor, crawl on my belly to the counter, and place a copy of the book atop it without exposing anything more than my fingertips. It’s a good thing I resisted that temptation because, if I’d entered the joint on my stomach, I would have found myself eye-to-eye with a small, light brown dog of indeterminate heritage.

I soon learned her name is Yola and she’s a full-time employee. (She even tweets.) Unlike the guy in Atlanta, Yola at least showed enough decorum to act like the book and I weren’t the worst things she’d smelled that week. I appreciated the affirmation, even if it came from a canine, one of the least discriminating sources known to man. I proceeded to the counter, behind which stood a woman named Becky. We chatted briefly about my book and at greater length about other topics. Becky treated me with even greater kindness than Yola, perhaps because she’s an artist and understands how much work it takes to try to make a name for yourself.

After filling out a few forms, I browsed the store, bought a book, and settled into one of the comfy chairs towards the back to read for a while. I felt so thoroughly at home that I might have dozed off had Becky not come over to let me know that she’d put Good Luck With That Thing You’re Doing on the shelves already.

That prompted a middle-aged man sitting on a sofa across from me to lower the newspaper he was holding and ask, “Are you an author?”

His question caught me so flat-footed he might as well have asked me to yodel the Gettysburg Address in Yiddish. I shouldn’t have been surprised by what he asked. It was, after all, a natural follow-on to Becky’s announcement. But my brain got stuck because, when it thinks “author,” it produces a roster full of names that hail from the major leagues of writing, names like Grisham, Sedaris, and Hornby. My name isn’t on that list. In fact, right now, Yankosky is not just a rookie scrapping in the minors but essentially a walk-on. After reminding my brain that everyone has to start somewhere and at least I’m in the game, I nodded.

“Congratulations,” said the man, smiling. For some reason I felt compelled to point out my rookie status, a comment he swatted away like a gnat. “Who cares? Writing a book is a major accomplishment.”  He asked a few more questions about the book and, after I described it to him, said, “You know, it sounds like it’d be right up my wife’s alley.”

I was beginning to feel that way about Park Roads Books.

I would have been happy to linger there for hours, but my plans with the in-laws and the Page Turners beckoned.  I made my way out of the store down an aisle I hadn’t yet traversed, one that let me know my book and I were definitely headed down the right road.

[Next…my evening with The Page Turners…]

park road books

Humor is alive and well here at Park Road Books, thank goodness.

 

 

 

 

Don’t judge the bookstore by its cover

My travels to the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck of Virginia led me to the Book Nook, a bookstore that knows how to be a hidden treasure.

For openers, the Book Nook lives in Kilmarnock, a sleepy little town that covers three square miles, is 70 miles from the nearest major metropolitan area (assuming Richmond counts as such), and has a population of roughly 1,500 people. It’s not the kind of town one just stumbles on to.

But if your stumbling has a bad sense of direction and takes you to Kilmarnock anyway (maybe you have a shine-and-dine hankering that can only be satisfied at the Carwash Cafe), you still have to put in a bit of effort to find the Book Nook. It sits not on Main Street but nearly a block behind it, on a one-way side street.

You won’t find a strategically placed sandwich board on the sidewalk to attract strolling customers, nor a website to attract surfing ones. In fact, if you didn’t know it was there, you wouldn’t know it was there.

The location and inattention to marketing might lead you, as it did me, to believe that the Book Nook is not all that concerned about being a going concern, but nothing could be further from the truth. The store has a clear mission –maintaining just the right inventory of books to keep its customers coming back, year after year –and it delivers. That became clear to me within minutes of meeting Jim, the owner, last week.

My friend Janice had told him about Good Luck With That Thing You’re Doing and was hoping the store would carry it, an initiative I decided to campaign for in person.

On the day Janice and I showed up at the Book Nook, our appearance increased the customer presence by 200%. But even if we hadn’t been the only patrons, I feel certain Jim would have given us the exact same welcome.  He immediately invited me to make myself comfortable in one of the two floral wingback chairs that sit in the middle of the store. (Between these pieces of furniture and the corded phone that graces one of the walls, I was reminded, not unpleasantly, of my parents’  home, circa 1982.)

Then he asked if I’d like coffee or tea, a question that took me aback.

As an independent author, I’ve come to expect a range of reactions from booksellers. Several have greeted me with consignment forms, which I understand.  Why should they take a risk on an unknown? Others have responded to my inquiries with thinly veiled hostility, letting me know in the clearest terms that they view self-publishing (especially through Amazon) as a threat to their existence. But an offer of refreshments? I definitely didn’t see that coming. It made me feel like an invited guest rather than a writer pitching her work.

Jim and I spent the next fifteen minutes chatting about writing, reading, and our tastes in music. It was like the authorial equivalent of speed dating, except that I never felt an overwhelming desire to escape by any means necessary, including spontaneous combustion.

As I listened to Jim talk about the store, I began to understand why he invests his resources as he does. He is all about his customers, whom he refers to as “the biggest board of directors.”  They decide what goes on the shelves and how long it stays there. And he knows they’re like hothouse orchids–a delicate species that needs careful attention to thrive–so he remains keenly attuned to their preferences.

This is not to say that technology has left him and the Book Nook in the dust. (I noticed they have a cordless phone to keep the other one company.) Jim, while quite aware of smartphones, tablets, and other modern electronics, laments society’s reliance  on them and their effects on human interaction.

His store essentially thumbs its nose at all of that and has staked its survival on thoughtful, personal service. It may be a thin limb he’s standing on, but I’m glad he’s out there. I hope he decides we’re a fit, something else real-life speed dating has never inspired me to say.

It really pays to travel with Janice. No matter what a bookstore thinks of my writing, they can't help but love  her restored MG.

It really pays to travel with Janice. No matter what a bookstore thinks of my writing, they can’t help but love her restored MG.