Even though people think I write some freaky shit*, I’m actually a classically repressed, can’t-high-five-without-cringing, Northern Ohioan when it comes to talking about “the realness.”
But that doesn’t stop people from talking to me--or within obvious earshot--about everything. I mean, holy crap. Supposedly, Stephen King said he got the inspiration for IT when a cigarette-smoking clown sat next to him on an airplane. I think King referred to himself as a “weirdness magnet.” That’s how I feel sometimes. But my friend Debra, the folklorist, likes to remind me that the most interesting part of a story is not the story itself, but why the teller is telling it. Deb’s a professional interviewer and listener, so her “why” is the curious, caring kind. My “why” is more like this:
(I love this pic, and I'm going to keep posting it where appropriate. For the record, Trilly had that hat on all of 12 seconds. I never do awful things to her)
What does this have to do with the Main Street Martinsburg Chocolate Festival and Book Faire, you never asked? Well, last Saturday was my second time as a participant author, and same as last year, it was both profitable and weird.
Last year’s highlight was meeting a man who was a frequent extra on SeaQuest 2032. He told me Michael York was awesomely cool, but Michael Ironsides was a jerk. This year brought full slate of folks with stories to tell. Here's me before the weird set in:
Beginning with the author next to me, who had just self-published a memoir. By the time I arrived at the gallery to set up my display of books, she was already on site and settled in with three friends, and they were all in a “lively” conversation about how they had picked out the suits they would bury their spouses in and how they wanted their own remains to be dealt with. When the conversation turned to a 96-year-old relative who underwent a double mastectomy and refused to be put to sleep for the procedure, demanding that the doctors just put some headphones on her with decent music, and she'd be fine. I was beginning to dread the thought of being there for the next 6 hours.
Let me be clear. The gallery was lovely. The day was lovely. The author with whom I was sharing the space was lovely. The buffet table of brownies and other chocolate delights was lovely.
The only problem was I felt like I was at a stranger’s Thanksgiving dinner. As if reading my mind, one of the women remarked, “Well, some people don’t like to talk about death. Some families are that way, but I don’t see any sense in it.” And then she started listing the places where she wanted her ashes scattered, using the term “bucket list” in a way I’d never heard before. In this case, the bucket was the container for her ashes, and the list was of the places she’d go aftershe passed away.
At this point, I was texting “helllp meeee” to Pandamoon central on our Glip channel, letting the other authors know what was happening.
(And help eventually arrived, in the form of the lovely Pandamoon Publishing Editor, Ashley Hammond. The pandas are so well distributed that there is at least one of us everywhere)
Later, I learned that the memoirist had taken twenty years to writer her book, and that she’d never done an event like this before. Her companions had quite suddenly—like, that morning—decided to take the 3-hour journey to sit with her, basically turning this new world of being an author into their kitchen table, where dammit, they could talk about whatever they wanted to.
Okay, that “why” was a pretty good one.
Up next was an energetic hat-lady who hovered over my table and said, “Crybaby Lane! What an interesting title.” Now, on the occasions that I tell stories, I am often testing people to see what their fear-to-humor ratio is. So, I took the opportunity to tell her the Crybaby Lane legend about how folks claimed to still hear the ghost cries of children down a road where an orphanage was burned down by a priest. The woman screwed up her face and said, “Oh, that reminds me--”
And she started to tell me a story about a local factory where they couldn’t keep workers because they were all driven out by the ghost cries of children and horses. Somehow the locomotive had been disabled, and all the train cars had to be moved by hitching them to draft horses that pulled them to the railyard. It was a community spectacle, so all the children were let out of school to watch. Everything was going along fine until the horses collapsed on a steep incline. The train cars pulled the horses down, jumped the tracks, and slammed into the children. Carnage everywhere.
The point goes to the hat-lady. Horses and children haunting a factory? That’s the Applebee’s Topped & Loaded of ghost stories. By the way, I casually searched for this story, though I didn’t find it, there is a book called HAUNTED MARTINSBURG that includes a story about Stonewall Jackson’s troops seizing the train cars and fitting them with road wheels, so that horses could drag them to Virginia.
Finally, I met C--- , a man I believe is a time traveler who has crossed his own timeline so many times that it’s permanently scrambled. He swooped by my table and announced, “My favorite book is Catcher in the Rye, by William Faulkner.”**
“I think you mean J. D. Salinger.”
“That’s right, Salinger. Faulkner was the other guy. Anyway, I read that when I was in 9thgrade, living in Germany. I really like how he doesn’t like the F-word.”
C--- then started to spout some German and push his sleeve up, like he wanted to show me something but was afraid of getting in trouble. According to C---, the Martinsburg police harassed him daily. “I lived in Las Vegas for 29 years and nobody bothered me.” Then he added, “People don’t know prostitution isn’t legal in Vegas. You have to travel sixty miles out of the county for that.” Finally, he got his sleeve up to show me a crude 1957 tattooed on his upper arm. “I’m a spades man.” He paused to deal from an invisible deck. “But these three guys cheated me when I was in prison, so when I lost the game they gave me this tattoo with a staple.”
So, I’ve met a few former “guests of the state” in my time, and I know the etiquette is to be kind, listen, and try not to ask too many questions. Questions will take you down the rabbit hole.*** But dang, C---. That was a lot of life, right there, all balled up. I fully expected Chapter Two to introduce the aliens, but a crowd entered the gallery, and that spooked him. He scuttled out, leaving the faint perfume of booze in his wake.
By four pm, the festival was over and the streets were empty except for a couple of screaming guys up the block. You couldn’t tell if they were happy or mad, but I knew I’d had a good day because I had a pile of cash. I wouldn’t know how good until later, because you never count your money when you’re sitting at the book table. As soon as I started stacking up my books, the memoirist and her friends whipped out rolling suitcases and scooped up her books. They half-apologized for being so chatty, and I half-joked that I would put them in my next book.
The truth is that I probably will use some of the more memorable moments from the day in my fiction. My characters are quirky because people are quirky, and the story of my life is about everyone else. You can’t make this shit up. Not entirely, anyway.
*I’ve been reading Matt Coleman’s passionately funny blog and listening to Tyler Mahan Coe’s excellent Cocaine and Rhinestones podcast, so I’m feeling a bit sweary these days.
**Now, this is not unusual at book fairs. Anyone who comes to your table intentionally, will do one of two things: 1) Ask you about your books/how you got published, or 2) tell you about their relationship to literature.
***My brother Sam would disagree. He was a passionate talker/ranter/musician who hated silence. Once I called him to find that one of his kids recorded several minutes of one of his tirade-style lectures on the answering machine. I couldn't tell what he was going on about, because there weren't many concrete nouns in the sample. At thanksgiving one year, my mentally ill sister stood on her chair to announce that God was coming down in a spaceship to marry her. Sam started arguing with her--on her own terms--choosing to treat her delusions as debate points, while the rest of us were contentedly eating turkey. That was the weirdest thanksgiving ever. And, oh yeah--there was the time when Sam went to visit a relative incarcerated in Leavenworth, and he asked the other prisoners, "So, what are you in for?" like it was small talk.