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Smells like victory
Suzanne Burns

Diary of a First Book, Entry 4: Still Loving Morrissey and Shopping at the Gap

October 23rd, 2009
by Suzanne Burns


Don’t ever agree to your book being published if you have a fear of public speaking. I can say that, over the past five months, I have almost completely conquered this fear. I have beaten it out of myself. My husband has stood by, helplessly watching the self-berating, doling out the necessary Kleenex and gelato cups, weighing in on every outfit I’ve tried on. My vain (in more ways than one) attempt at looking just the right combination of serious literary writer and hot-ass bitch has culminated in committing the worst of sins: I bought a black T-shirt from the Gap.

My post-Goth street cred all but ruined, I resigned myself to following the flow of a reading tour for Misfits. I was one of the reader’s at last month’s Loggernaut Reading Series in Portland and all the insecurity I thought I’d grown out of came flooding back. As I sat there, surrounded by many MFA students in a giant coffee shop at the edge of an industrial part of town where we fought over the last parking space with a slow moving bread truck, I felt dumb. Literally. I can’t put my finger on why. As much as I rally against what I see as the ridiculous notion that writing can be “taught” I was keenly aware of all these people, a lot of them a good decade younger, seeming to be in-the-know about my literary tricks. It was a tough crowd, mainly because they were studious and intent on learning craft and not distracted by my flamboyant outfit or my amazingly uncomfortable shoes. Plus the man who introduced me said such kind words about my book that I almost had a crying jag in front of all those serious strangers. Per my usual coping mechanism, my husband drove me to the nearest Voodoo Doughnuts after the reading—since I still don’t eat before I perform—and I indulged in a Marshall Mathers (yes, a doughnut covered in M&M’s).

The next night found me at a small bookstore that shall remain nameless, if only for the fact that said store forgot to tell anyone I was giving a reading there. Including the ten people browsing about ten minutes before I started. Okay, so I was seriously ready to call the reading off and hide in the small movie theatre up the street and watch Jennifer’s Body without shame when four people showed up. An elderly couple who, and I can only explain this non-delicately, had the look of loving Baby Jesus in their eyes, and a young couple I mistook for gutter punks. I was bummed. My husband was pissed that we got stuck with what I assumed would be an unappreciative audience.

I started reading my tried and true standard, Tiny Ron, which revolves around not only the world’s smallest man, but the world’s smallest wife beater.  The young couple, who I found out were organic farmers from England hitchhiking their way across the country, laughed in all the right parts. The old couple, not so much. (Note to self: Christians, especially the fundamentalist kind, don’t take kindly to words like “pussy” nor do they enjoy hearing how the world’s smallest man can turn a finger cot into a condom.) After the reading, the old couple came up to me and said, “Unlike you, our daughter is a REAL writer. She’s written sixty Christian romance detective novels. And unlike you, she is a REAL writer who doesn’t have the time to get an agent and get published blah blah blah…” I blocked out the rest of what they said as they wandered out of the store.

The young couple was amazing. I knew I had made fast friends when I saw a profile of Morrissey stenciled on the guy’s skateboard.

“Is that…?” I asked

“It sure is,” the guy laughed. “And it used to say ‘Sister I’m a poet’ underneath the picture.”

We approached each other, both tentative, and I told them they were my angels and I would’ve cried if they hadn’t shown up. (Another note to self: don’t book readings to coincide with being in the throes of PMS.) I gave the couple one of my books and the boy gave me a stack of his homemade ‘zines from England. There was something touching about this exchange of work. I felt part of the writing community in a way I didn’t feel in Portland. There will always be a sweetness to a boy offering you a ‘zine. I am a great sentimentalist, and this gesture reminded me of being a teenager, writing poems that no one would see for many, many years, holed up in my bedroom, positive only Morrissey and Robert Smith understood my obvious pain.

I took the ‘zines back to our motel and pored over the photocopied gems. They were funny and political and bawdy and a great treat to end another strange leg of the Misfits book tour. I’d like to tell everyone that I have stopped worrying about how I look when I perform, that what matters is touching that one person in the crowd that will maybe, just maybe, touch you back, but those damn Gap T-shirts do amazing things in all the right places. Curses. And thanks…

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Comment by G. Xavier Robillard
2009-10-23 07:10:21

Great post lady! I’ve been there and thus cringed as I read it. But nobody has ever lectured me about Christian detective romance novels. Which by the way sounds so hottttt I just had to write four extra tease.

Comment by Suzanne
2009-10-27 16:24:30

Thanks Greg! Have you recovered from Wordstock?

Comment by Will Entrekin
2009-10-23 07:17:55

Nice post. I can’t wait to learn all about readings and such. Love the old couple, because seriously: wtf? I never understand how some people can really believe some things are kind things to say. Although I do love that their daughter is so busy being a REAL writer she has no time to get published. Do you think they have a shrine of all sixty of her Christian romance detective (?!) books? Also, the triple adjective prompts so many questions: what is a Christian romance? Is the detective Christian? How does a Christian detective work? Does he/she look for clues or just wait for God to show the way, illuming the perp in a wash of angry smiting?

Enquiring minds etc.

Comment by Suzanne
2009-10-27 16:25:11

Thank you Will. Yes, those people were so totally nuts I didn’t even take it that hard! Geez!

Comment by Amanda
2009-10-23 07:59:52

A couple years ago, I did a reading with three other writers in San Francisco. Like you, I felt dumb; like you, I spent ages beforehand wondering if my shirt would expose me as a jerk, poseur, fraud, shitty writer…etc…

The audience was a wacky and mixed bag, and I was happy when I was asked to go first, because then the agony was over and I could sit back and enjoy the rest of the night instead of inwardly sweating, barfing and screaming. As I stepped down to take my seat, the series curator announced that there would be plenty of time to ask me about my great story during the Q&A. Touché: a whole new batch of worry!

The Q&A was ok, but along the lines of your gutter punk assumption, I’d wrongly pegged the audience as a bunch of stragglers in from the rain with no real engagement in the literary or art community. This misconception curiously worked in my favour, insofar as it helped me remain calm while one audience member asked me question after question after question.

Only later did I learn she was the same performance artist who’d captured my heart in the pages of Interview magazine, when I was 11 and living in the prairies and wishing that was me in the photo spread, showing off my Manhattan artist’s loft and wearing underpants as clothes.

Well done on your tour! : )

Comment by Suzanne
2009-10-27 16:25:37

Totally LOVE this story!

Comment by Richard Cox
2009-10-23 09:00:31

Congratulations on conquering your fear of public speaking. That’s a tough one to overcome. One of the best things about speaking publicly about your writing, though, is you’re talking about yourself and things important to you, which helps.

The first reading I ever scheduled was at a sci-fi convention here in Tulsa. I do not consider myself a writer of sci-fi, and I don’t read it much, but my novels generally contain a speculative scientific element. And the convention really is more about getting published than dressing up like funny creatures, so I agreed to sit on panels and scheduled the reading.

Anyway, this was my first novel, and I thought I was really special because my novel was a hardcover with a major publisher. I was represented by a fancy literary agent. I assumed people at the convention would be duly impressed since most of the other attending authors were regionally published or on genre imprints and/or mass-market originals. Still, I was fairly nervous about reading for a half hour in front of people I didn’t know, and I prepared diligently.

This was a captive audience of several hundred convention-goers, and the reading room was directly across from the main banquet hall, where the vendors were selling books and costumes and ray guns. There was no shortage of foot traffic.

And no one showed up. Not one person. Well, my girlfriend, but I wasn’t about to read to just her.

That’s as close as I’ve ever come to crying in public. Ha.

Comment by Suzanne
2009-10-27 16:26:10

I would have been happy to sit in your audience! I would be the “audient.”

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-23 09:45:49

Great, great post and congratulations for overcoming your fear.
I had a reading once in a chain bookstore sandwiched between the cafe and self-help books. They arranged a few folding chairs and even gave me a podium - which was like a bow tie on a hog kind of thing - but, whatever, I was impressed that they cared enough even tho truth be told the podium just added to my nerves. So the time comes to start and I’m reading to five people (none of my family was available that day)- and I’m just at the point where my nerves have started to abate a little and I’m beginning to get my voice to stop that quivering thing when I notice a woman making a beeline towards the podium. I continue reading figuring she is going to stop and find a seat but she keeps on coming all the way up to me and she leans over the podium and says: “is the bathroom back there?” I’m so taken aback that I stand there like an idiot and point back in the direction of the cafe to which she hisses: “it is NOT back there genius. And I really need to go.” At this point someone from the “audience” shouts out that the bathroom is on the other side of the music department and she turns in a huff and stomps back down the aisle. It took a few minutes but I eventually continued reading and managed to finish. It was the most horrific thing I’d done since I tried to find a seat in the lunchroom the first day of middle school. No joke.

Comment by Suzanne
2009-10-27 16:26:50

Thanks so much for sharing this. It’s about the BEST story I’ve ever heard to capture the humiliation of reading in public. Bless you!

Comment by Zara Potts
2009-10-23 10:06:20

Oh I started feeling anxious just reading this!
Those stupid old people - what a pair of assholes.
I have only read my stuff once, and I was horribly nervous about it. But when I was a journalist I often had to do live crosses into the news bulletin and they made me feel like throwing up. So many times I came close to feigning an asthma attack or simply pretending I couldn’t hear through my earpiece in the hope the director would can my slot. But I pushed through and always did it. I hated every moment, but it was never as bad as I thought it would be. Strangely enough, though- the more I did it, the worse I felt about it. So well done you for conquering your fear!

Comment by jmb
2009-10-23 10:18:08

Ain’t no shame in the Gap.

Saint Morrisey
is blessing the hands
of TNB this week.

Comment by jmb
2009-10-23 10:19:29

Give me Glenn Danzig though.

Ooh, he should make a record
with Morrisey.

Sweet and sour
and crunchy and lite.
& darkness.

Comment by Don Mitchell
2009-10-23 12:20:43

Love it. My most fraught reading experience was at a convention of anthopologists (the big group, aka American Anthropological Association) in 1995, where about 6 or 8 of us were scheduled to read ethnographic poetry. OK, so what? Well, this was early in the humanistic anthropology game, when anthropologists doing that work were looked on as very weird. Some of the major figures in our discipline (some of you may have heard the name Marvin Harris) — senior fucks, all of them — had put out the word that they disapproved and, it was muttered, that their graduate students might disrupt the proceedings.

The room was packed, and nothing happened, but it made me both nervous and pissed off, and my reading partners felt the same way, except for our 75 year old leader, Edith Turner, who didn’t care at all. No disruptions, but no discussion, either.

Comment by Steve Sparshott
2009-10-23 16:15:00

Sixty Christian romance detective novels.


Christ on a bike.

Comment by Don Mitchell
2009-10-23 16:29:42

That would be the Christian Biker Novel.

Comment by Tom Hansen
2009-10-23 19:41:22

“Unlike you, our daughter is a REAL writer. She’s written sixty Christian romance detective novels.”

That was where you were supposed to feign illness and throw up on them. But really, congrats on conquering the fear. I had it, and it took over a year of twice a week open mike readings (of my bad poetry no less) to get over it. But now that I have, I still don’t like doing them. I guess I’m philosophically opposed to it somewhat. Daphne du Maurier said “Writers should be read, neither seen nor heard.” I see problems with this new ‘experiential’ culture where writers don’t make squat on their books but get paid for appearances and speeches. It’s why ZZ TOP are still making a mint touring when they haven’t produced a decent album since Tres Hombres. That was like what? Forty years ago? Hello. It should always be about the art not the artist. Ok. Rant over

Comment by Suzanne
2009-10-27 16:27:37

Love the rant, though!

Comment by Marni Grossman
2009-10-25 15:19:55

I wasn’t aware that the Christian romance novel was a big seller.

Maybe it’s the Jew in me, but I’ll take your book any day.

2009-10-26 14:49:27


I’m embarrassed to admit that I have actually read a Christian romance (of the non-detective variety) once upon a time and I can say, without a doubt, You Are The REAL Writer.

I can’t tell you how many times a week I still reflect on things you wrote in MISFITS.

2009-10-26 14:50:09

Oh, and when I eventually get myself to Portland, we are SO going to Voodoo together.

Comment by Suzanne
2009-10-27 16:28:54

We are So going to Rock Portland!!! You let me know when and where. I’m about 4 hours south of there in the sticks but we’ll have a blast up there. (But maybe not in the wintertime. You wouldn’t believe Portlan’s chronic rain! Yuck!)

(Comments wont nest below this level)
Comment by Simon Smithson
2009-10-28 13:40:23

“Christians, especially the fundamentalist kind, don’t take kindly to words like “pussy” nor do they enjoy hearing how the world’s smallest man can turn a finger cot into a condom.”

Oh no! All of my cherished beliefs have been shattered!

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