By Scott Graber
It’s Sunday morning and I’m sitting at our narrow, wooden-planked dining room table with my first cup of coffee. This simple, farmhouse style table seats six, although we have, on occasion, squeezed in eight people. Lately, this is where I’ve done my writing.
I have a small room, upstairs, that was once the venue for most of my writing. That room is decorated— floor to ceiling—with thin black frames containing old columns, black and white photographs of our young son, and fading posters that advertise book signings.
One of these posters says that Bernie Schein, John Warley, Pat Conroy and I will be signing books on Sunday, May 20, 2014, on the Concourse Level at the South Carolina Book Festival.
It’s important to know that I’ve done maybe a half dozen book signings. Most were humiliating affairs where I sat at a folding table, alone, waiting for someone to approach and ask for a book and a signature. Sometimes I would sell a couple of books, to a couple of good friends, and then slink out of the store putting a box of unsold books into the back of my 1992 Volvo.
In terms of the South Carolina Book Festival, I was not actually invited. Pat Conroy had been recruited, sought-after, and said he would attend if John, Bernie and I were also invited. And so, at 2 p.m. on a long ago Sunday afternoon, I found myself on stage staring-back at 500 book-loving festival folk.
Pat began with an expansive introduction of his three Fitzgerald-like friends and their three soon-to-be best-selling novels. He explained that each of us had five minutes to pitch our book. I went first.
My novel concerned a father trying to rescue his son from war-ravaged Congo. I knew going-in that nobody in the audience cared about Congo, or its endless civil war, and everyone present was here for Pat. So I was surprised when I got a little laughter, a smattering of applause and the notion that nobody was sleeping.
Thus emboldened, I began to think might sell some books; but unaware I was going past my five minutes.
John Warley came next and he, like me, knew these minutes were precious and (perhaps) John also went past his time.
When Bernie got the spotlight he was angry — but he was also funny and provoked and profane; and somehow compressed his story into the very few minutes that were left. But then — at the signing that followed — Bernie let John and me know the depth and breadth of his anger and our self-absorbed venality.
While Bernie ranted we were also setting ourselves up, at a table, to sign our respective novels. We were preparing our smile; our small talk; wondering whether we might experience a touch of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome at the end of a long evening of book signing. And from where we sat could see that most of the 500 folks in the auditorium had lined-up for books.
But, of course, it didn’t take long before we realized they had lined up for Pat. Not for us. I think Bernie and John sold a dozen books; I might have sold two.
This was painful for me because I had to sit, smiling, pen poised and ready, while hundreds of people slowly filed past me and my stack of unsigned, unsold books on their way to Pat — the master story-teller of our time. I also knew that Pat’s publisher had told him to stop signing after two hours; that these marathon signings were not good for his hands or his wrists.
But he did not stop. He sat there — finding a person, a teacher, an experience he had in common with the book-buyer. And Pat would give each of these persons (who sometimes carried five or six of his books in their arms) a moment they would never forget.
There was an “Author’s Dining Room” where the “Presenters” could find complimentary sandwiches and salads. I liked this room because I could meet real authors like Hanoch McCarty and Ron Rash. Often they would say, “Scott Graber? I don’t remember reading anything you have written.”
Then, after a 10-second delay, “Wait a minute! I know you. You’re the Congo guy. And you’re friends with Pat Conroy.”
Rather than feel defensive, I would feel proud, contented with this characterization. It’s strange perhaps, but I still feel that way.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org.