Jennifer Egan at Politics and Prose

C O N N E C T

 

  • Between 500 and 600 writers a year speak at Politics and Prose
  • The bookstore counsels writers to read for 20-25 minutes
  • Most audience questions are on process, not content
  • Fiction writers are most often asked ‘Why did you write the book?’
  • P&P audience is loyal and fervent, connect with them at the outset

Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan came to Washington, D.C. independent bookstore Politics and Prose in October to talk about her new novel, ‘Manhattan Beach’. Her talk lasted an hour and presented a study in how female fiction writers can reconnect with fans in the many years between novels.

Politics and Prose is a Washington, D.C. institution, a traditional bookstore with two locations and a third on the way. Every year between 500 and 600 writers present their work. For very famous writers, Politics and Prose can accommodate 1800 people in an auditorium; the original bookshop on Connecticut Avenue where Egan spoke hosts about 50 people. The audience is educated, established and they buy books with evangelical fervor. Get one of them to like your book they will press it into the hands of five of their friends.

Warming them up

Egan came on a Monday evening and the audience was baby boomers, mostly female, with a smattering of millennials. Chairs were set up in rows but they were filled quickly and roughly half the audience stood. It was stuffy and surprisingly bright; some people had just come from work and looked tired. Still, there was a buzz-y quality to the place, as if a rock star was about to take the stage.

Egan came modestly to the podium, stylish in red dress, boots and a cardigan. She marveled at the size of the crowd, offering that she read at Politics and Prose on her first book tour. “Maybe 20 people showed up for that reading?” she quipped. The audience,  proud of their bookstore’s role in a famous writer’s life, roared with laughter.

Metaphor and humor

It’s important to know that Jennifer Egan has rare talents. Beyond the writing thing, the woman can read a room. She employed metaphor to connect with her audience: “Voice is like stock for a soup. If the stock is good you can throw in a shoe and it will taste good.” She made a joke about the docks. “I was spending so much time at the Navy Yard I started to feel like a water rat.” She was funny, and that can’t be taught, but she was also prepared. Turns out it’s easier to be funny when you are also prepared.

Jon Purves, marketing manager for Politics and Prose, says the bookstore does a pre-performance run through with authors. Egan was encouraged to read about 20 minutes and told to expect questions on the process of writing rather than the book itself. “You want them to buy it afterwards,” he wrote me in an email. Instead, he suggests authors consider these questions – why did you choose to write this book, how did you go about it, and why does it matter to the audience?

Egan did indeed talk about the research she did for the book: reviewing old maps and pictures, one-on-one interviews and listening to oral histories. In so doing she appealed to the nonfiction lovers and military buffs in the audience, and also addressed, right off the bat, why she wrote the book.

Audience questions

Then she read from ‘Manhattan Beach’. This took 20 minutes and seemed a little long. People started to filter out into the book stacks and sit down. When she finished they wandered back and she invited questions. There were plenty of questions about writing process and tone and decisions made. My suspicion that the audience held many writers was born out when Jacki Lyden, an NPR correspondent a writer herself, introduced Joel Achenbach, another writer, in the course of her question. This illustrates how venues like Politics and Prose are different from other bookstores–most of the audience likely has a deep and personal relationship with writing, either at work or at home.

The questions themselves took longer than one would expect. People seemed to want to impress Egan or at least talk to her about their reading lives. “You and I don’t get to talk very often,” one man said with real sadness.  He went on to ask her about the death of narrative fiction and what writers she admired. She handled the second question first then reluctantly went on to talk about the death of narrative fiction.  “I don’t even know what I would be responding to there,” she said clearly exasperated. She went on to talk about the rise of technology and the limits of postmodern fractionality and the flexible, swaggering nature of 19th-century literature.  The mild smackdown probably worked in that it discouraged other similar questions, but a less august writer would want to take a lighter approach. It’s amazing how far a person can get by starting with “That’s an interesting observation…” and then talking about whatever they like.

After that the communal urge to connect with Egan seemed to overtake reason. A woman stood up and spent 1 minute and 47 seconds making observations about reality TV, Egan’s short story ‘Safari’, what didn’t work in ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ and something about the New York Times Book review. She ended with a glancing question about the way Egan writes about children. Egan leapt on this and told an endearing story about taking her children to the zoo and how little she likes to read about domestic life. The contrast between the author as doting mother and hard-headed reader was winning.

She ended the talk, about an hour after starting, by saying she would make her way to the book signing table. She offered to take more questions there. It made the experience feel cozy, the idea of Jennifer Egan futzing with books, answering our questions, behind a table like the village librarian.

What to do if you are on a book tour and you get the opportunity to speak at Politics and Prose:

Connect with the audience. The store is called Politics and Prose. The audience likes references to American Presidents, name dropping and all things bipartisan (even though most of the audience is liberal). If you have ever admired the store or been to Washington, DC mention it at the open.

Prepare. People want to know (1) why you wrote the book and (2) how you did it. Do you write by hand? What do you think of technology? What do your mornings look like? Who reads your drafts? Be ready to answer those questions. If you are a fiction writer be ready to talk about craft. At Egan’s reading there were two questions about how she came to find her voice for Manhattan Beach.

Establish your bona fides. We aren’t all Pulitzer Prize winners. Tell the audience about your research, your years crafting and honing and bleeding for the book. It’s impressive, and this sort of audience (not immune to schadenfreude) finds it appealing.

Pivot to where you want to be.  You must be polite, but you don’t have to answer every question exactly as it is put to you.  If you are asked questions you find vague or pretentious or off topic, use the “ABC” technique.

Acknowledge the question, Bridge and then course Correct.

Acknowledge:

“Oh wow, I have to say I haven’t heard that..

Bridge:

“That’s interesting but… ”

Course Correct:

“what I tend to think about is…”