Thanks to all our awesome new friends at Water Street Books in Exeter, NH
How To Busk Your Way Into The New Yorker: How Heth and Jed Weinstein Went from Street Performers to Published Authors
The other day, we got one of the best emails an author can get. It was from two dudes and it said, “Recently we released a memoir (Soft Skull Press) called, Buskers: The On the Streets, In the Trains, Off the Grid Memoir of Two New York City Street Musicians. We never could have done it without you AND your book The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published. We wanted to say hi and thank you!” Of course, we wanted to know more. So we wrote back and said, “Do tell how it all happened!” and they did. Here’s their story:
We would be hanging out at a party, getting our drink on, and guests would find out we were street musicians. That’s when the Q’s & A’s would fly fast and furious. No shit? How much do you guys make an hour? (between $0.00 & $200.00) Do you need a permit to play on the streets? (not unless they catch you) Is there a union you had to join? (what are you, nuts?!) And folks ate up our juicy busking war stories. Like the time we beat a mugger into submission with our trusty microphone stands after he helped himself to about two hours worth of hard earned tips. The conversation would almost always end with: “You guys should write a book!”
Yes, but how do we do that? The answer remained a mystery until destiny intervened. A mutual friend at Simon and Schuster recommended we pick up a copy of Arielle and David’s book The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published—that’s when the veil of confusion lifted. EGGYP provided the road map we desperately needed for organizing our thoughts into a solid proposal. With our confidence bolstered, we spent the next six months meticulously focusing on each and every component, until the Outline, Overview, Competition, Sample Chapters etc… became a part of what several literary agents eventually deemed “the most thorough book proposal they’d ever seen.”
Next, by adhering to the guidelines in the righteous chapter, Locating, Luring, and Landing the Right Agent we managed to concoct a rather killer query letter. Here is an excerpt . .
My brother and I are street musicians in a duo called Heth and Jed ( www.hethandjed.com ). Perhaps you’ve seen us playing in the subways. Over the last four years we’ve performed in excess of 1,000 shows, and sold more than 50,000 copies of our independently released CDs–all without ever leaving New York City. Together we’ve written a proposal for a book entitled, Buskers: The-On-the-Streets, In-the-Trains, Off-the-Grid Memoir of Two New York City StreetMusicians. We’d be thrilled if you would review our proposal and consider representing us.”
Then it was GO TIME! With the book proposal and query letter “in the can”, we plunked down twenty bucks to join publishersmarketplace.com and sifted through a list of the Top 100 Deal Making agents. After boldly firing off an arsenal of query letters we sat back and hoped for the best. Within hours our inbox was filling up with top agents requesting a look-see at our proposal. For the first time we held out tentative hope that we might someday know the thrill of having our magnum opus published. The more we sat and thought about the whole thing, the more surreal it became. Here we were, two accomplished musicians who couldn’t get a record company to give us the time of day, but within hours of the initial mailing, the gatekeepers of the literary world appeared to be welcoming two guys with the combined SAT scores of around 900, with open arms.
In the end, we met with a bunch of prominent agents and eventually signed with Andrea Somberg at the Harvey Klinger Agency. We swear we didn’t sign because she was the only one schmoozing us over pitchers of Brooklyn Lager . . . or maybe we did! At any rate, she was way cool and we believed she could sell our book.
Soft Skull Press subsequently published Buskers and our band was finally on the musical and literary map, receiving recognition not from the previously envisioned Rolling Stone or Spin Magazine, but in the form of book reviews from such sweet ass publications as theNew Yorker.
Presently, our book continues to unlock unexpected creative doors as we begin the process of adapting our story for the stage. Having our book “out there” has also separated us from the generic rock n’ roll pack and we couldn’t have done it without Arielle and David by our side. Like those two rockers from Aurora, Illinois once famously said, “We’re not worthy!”
Boston Writers: The Book Doctors bring Pitchapalooza to Porter Square Books, interview in Phoenix
Last summer I went to the Chester County Book Store in West Chester, Pennsylvania to pitch my book, The Biggest Scam You Never Heard Of at Pitchapalooza, which was billed as “American Idol for authors (only without Simon.).”
The creators of Pitchapalooza are the husband and wife author team of David Henry Sterry and Arielle Eckstut. Approximately 25 contestant’s names were picked at random, and each person selected would have a maximum of 60 seconds to deliver a pitch of their story. But not one nano-second longer than 60 seconds!
The advertisement said that the Pitchapalooza winner would be introduced to a literary agent who is appropriate for their book – who would help them get published. That caught my attention right away. It’s something that I was trying to figure out how to do for the past year. I’ve had a potential non-fiction story that’s been gnawing at my insides for over 5 years, and I was hoping this might be the forum for my project to finally gain momentum. I was in the process of writing a book proposal by using a template that a published writer friend – Randy Radic – had sent me. But if I could figure out a way to win Pitchapalooza, it seemed like I could cut out the middle man and get a direct introduction to a literary agent. Which – as an aspiring writer – is like getting fixed up with the hottest girl at the party.
Now I had to get prepared to go into battle. I’ve worked in financial services marketing and writing for over 15 years. I’ve written everything from national TV commercials at Aegon to website content for Vanguard and executed complex marketing plans for other companies in between. I’ve always worked well with deadlines – often thriving with them. When I was a writer at Aegon, I remember conceiving the guts of a TV commercial on the back of a bar napkin at Flannigan’s Boathouse near closing time. That TV commercial – originally sketched out on the napkin – eventually generated millions of dollars in premiums for Aegon. But that seemed easy…because I was writing about fictional characters in a life insurance commercial…not about my own personal story about being a victim turned Federal Witness in The Biggest Scam You’ve Never Heard Of.
About my story… I was one of thousands of victims in the largest securities fraud in U.S. history involving a privately held company – National Century Financial Enterprises (NCFE). The fraud started in the mid-1990’s and was exposed in 2002 when $3 Billion of funds was suddenly missing from NCFE’s accounting bank accounts. (Whoops!) NCFE was essentially a bank for over 300 healthcare companies. NCFE soon filed for bankruptcy, creating a vortex of financial doom that sucked in over 275 of their healthcare client companies, driving them into bankruptcy as well. This included the healthcare software company where I – and thousands of other people – invested our hard-earned money.
In 1999 – thinking everything was smooth sailing – I started investing in one of NCFE’s partner companies…a high-flying publicly-traded software company that NCFE and their pals secretly owned, controlled and eventually looted.
Based on slick press releases and insider message board hype, my fellow investors and I were a fraudster’s wet dream – buying stock at a frenzied pace – like heroin addicts going on a year-long binge. We didn’t have needle marks on our arms, but we had empty brokerage accounts and wallets that were in pain.
Unbeknownst to my fellow shareholders and I at the time…the company we invested in was a technology company with no technology (vaporware)…funded by a bank with no money (NCFE)…listed on a stock exchange with lax rules (American Stock Exchange)…overseen by a government agency with no perceived teeth (Securities & Exchange Commission). In hindsight, my fellow shareholder victims and I never had a chance, as we became lambs led to the slaughter.
By November 2002 – $3 Billion of investor funds was discovered to be missing from NCFE’s bank accounts – prompting the FBI to swiftly raid NCFE’s offices in Columbus, Ohio. It was now painfully obvious that my fellow shareholders and I had our financial throats slit by the NCFE crooks and their pals. The scam was being referred to as “The Enron of the Healthcare Industry” by a few bloggers. I had lost a pile of dough – over 6-figures – as well as lost my faith in humanity. Now I had a choice. I could wallow in self-pity, or become an empowered victim and try to help solve the crime. I chose the latter.
On the Yahoo financial message boards, I created 25 unique aliases to stir the pot and to attempt to draw out information from anyone who would provide it. I hit the jackpot. Company insiders – along with their friends, enemies, and ex-spouses – started discussing what they knew about the fraud. Insiders were actually casting the blame at each other…and in some cases…providing details about how their former alleged cohorts (and spouses) were involved in the scam.
As I continued to post my findings, I made dozens of friends – and enemies – on the Yahoo financial message boards. More importantly, the predators were now becoming the prey. In 2006, I received a death threat from one of the company insiders, based on my fact findings and aggressive message board postings. When the death threat didn’t shut me up, some of my Yahoo message board aliases were sued for slander by a company insider.
Being sued was something that wasn’t in the gameplan. I didn’t have the funds to hire a hot-shot greaseball attorney to defend myself. So I improvised. I was about to become something I despised as much as a politician, a telemarketer, or a used car salesman. I became a practicing California attorney and successfully defended myself against a frivolous lawsuit. Armed with only a Broadcast Journalism degree from Penn State and the stubbornness of a mule, I became victorious, and I’m currently 1 and 0 as a practicing attorney!
My work on the message boards was gaining the attention of Federal Agents – and I couldn’t have been happier. In September 2006, I gave my Grand Jury testimony to a DOJ agent and an armed Postal Inspector in Room 420 of the Hampton Inn in Lionville, PA – about 100 yards from where I played Little League baseball 30 years earlier. Talking about my knowledge of the scam was one of my favorite pastimes. During downtime in my first 5-hour meeting with the DOJ, we also talked about sports, Philly cheesesteaks and offshore money laundering. I had a blast with the Feds! They loved my knowledge of the scam and I loved their fight for justice.
My personal investigation continued. My Dad always told me that spreadsheets don’t lie – so I used them to chart my data. I scoured old SEC filings and other online financial documents, and discovered a slew of insider trading data. Sometimes insiders held company stock in their girlfriend’s or kid’s names…and sometimes they held it in layers of obfuscation within family trusts. According to some insiders who tattled on each – some of the proceeds from the stock sales were illegally moved overseas. One husband and wife team – nicknamed “The Bonnie & Clyde of Penny Stock Scams” – used a family trust, held in the wife’s undisclosed maiden name, to attempt to throw people off the scent. But I was developing the nose of a German shepherd (better late than never) and was learning how to think like these jokers…and pick up their fraudulent scent.
Once, during my lunch break, I found out how some of the company insiders secretly funneled approximately $100 Million in shady stock sales through a tiny P.O. Box in Beverly Hills. It was not their only suspicious activity. Not by a long shot.
The DOJ Agent who took my Grand Jury testimony described me as “an air traffic controller of information”. I had become somewhat of an Information Broker, and was adept at getting the right information into the right hands – especially with the Feds. That DOJ Agent also said that if the scam was a game of Trivial Pursuit, that I “would clearly be the winner.” He has become a good fried of mine over the years.
Along my quest for the truth, I wore many hats, including: mortician, private investigator, attorney, fisherman, air traffic controller, therapist, computer hacker and priest. My Pennsylvania Dutch heritage would come in handy. Aside from having tremendous bacon cravings and wide feet, we’re known for our off-the-charts stubbornness and determination. I was not going to stop until my mission was accomplished.
By 2010, a dozen people connected to the scam went to prison for securities fraud, money laundering, tax fraud and witness tampering. Their sentences ranged from 5 to 30 years. It ended up being one of the most prolific and colorful scams in U.S. history, but it never quite gained the national attention of other colorful scams like Bernie Madoff, Enron, WorldCom and Tyco. I was hoping to change that. Which is why I knew I had to attend Pitchapalooza and hope I’d get the chance to tell my story.
Once I committed to attending Pitchapalooza, I knew I had to get prepared…pronto. I was reverting back to my high school and college days, when I got an adrenaline rush from doing homework at the last minute. For some reason I seemed to thrive in the creative process when I was knee deep in chaos. Which I was.
The night before Pitchapalooza, my first practice pitch timed out at 2 minutes and 37 seconds. Ummm…Houston, we have a problem! It reminded me of an appearance by Dolly Parton on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson when I was a kid. She was talking about her top-heavy figure, and how sometimes she was prone to wardrobe malfunctions. Dolly described it as trying to fit 20 pounds of potatoes into a 10 pound sack. I could relate. I had quite a few extra potatoes in my pitch that I need to deal with. But by the next morning – a few hours before the event – I had gotten my pitch down to a consistent 58.5 seconds…and all my potatoes were accounted for.
At the Pitchapalooza event, I first bought David and Arielle’s book – The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. Then I was hoping I would be one of the 25 or so lucky people that would be randomly drawn to give their pitch. I knew that even if I didn’t get called, I had just bought a really helpful book, which came with a special 20-minute phone consultation with David. Not a bad deal at all. Suddenly I heard my name called to be “on deck”…and I got a little nervous.
When I’m on deck in a softball game, I know exactly what to do. Swing a bat a few times, stretch, scratch myself, and maybe spit at something on the ground. It’s familiar turf. As the on deck person at Pitchapalooza, I stood apart from the group, about 20 feet from the podium while the person ahead of me did their pitch. I didn’t know what to do. Should I try to seem confident? Or would that be perceived as cocky? Oh crap…now I was starting to get nervous. What if I looked too nervous? Thank God I could stand behind a podium. It would keep people from seeing my leg twitching. I tried to keep calm with some deep breathing…which only made my heart beat faster…like a little bunny. Then I just thought to myself…dude, keep it together. You’ve no better or worse than anyone here. You’re just a guy that wants to tell a story…
Before I knew it, I was called to the podium. It was show time. I hoped my preparation served me well. Then I gave my pitch:
In 1999, I invested in a company that ended up being part of the largest securities fraud in U.S. history involving a private company. $3 Billion was suddenly missing – then the company went bankrupt.
I went from being poor to a millionaire to completely broke by 2002.
Rather than wallow in self-pity, I became determined to find out how I got scammed. I went undercover on a financial message board using over 25 different aliases to meet other victims and gather information.
I became a self-taught expert in money laundering investigations. Once during my lunch break, I pieced together how one of the crooks secretly laundered $100 Million through a PO Box in Beverly Hills.
I received a death threat from one of the crooks in 2006 then became a Federal Witness. Along the way I assumed the roles of coroner, fisherman, therapist, private detective, computer hacker, air traffic controller, librarian and attorney.
In the end, I helped justice be served. My story is called: THE BIGGEST SCAM YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF
It’s Erin Brockovich meets Boiler Room meets Invincible. You’ll laugh…you’ll cry…you’ll clutch your wallet in fear.
I heard someone exclaim: “Wow!” It was David – the co-host of Pitchapalooza! I took that as a good sign. After my pitch, I got some preliminary positive feedback from the David and Arielle (a.k.a. The Book Doctors) as well as from 2 other judges. Then I waited for the rest of the participants to give their pitches.
In the end, I was one of 2 winners chosen. The other winner was a teenaged girl who had pitched an idea that I think was geared to the youth market. Our pitches and backgrounds were night and day…and it was all good. I was just happy that my book project just cleared about 5 major hurdles in a matter of minutes.
As a winner, David and Arielle had plans in place to introduce me to a prominent literary agent in New York City who they worked with on a regular basis. I couldn’t believe it was really happening, but it was. I was officially on the road to becoming a published author. I was finally getting the forum to tell my crazy true story about The Biggest Scam You’ve Never Heard Of…and my role in it.
Since then, David has given me outstanding guidance in preparing my book proposal and marketing plan. I’m not quite finished, but I’m almost there. Then David will deliver my finished book proposal to the waiting literary agent. (When David told me who it was…I looked up his agency…and I was very excited. He’s a heavy hitter with an outstanding reputation.) I’m looking forward to becoming a successful graduate of Pitchapalooza…and I couldn’t have done it without the guidance of David and Arielle and their book – The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.
Thank you David and Arielle for the wonderful experience of Pitchapalooza! I hope to do you proud as I work through the necessary hurdles to become a published author!
John Gregory Dommel
P.S. Please follow my journey to getting published…on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Thank You!
Panting and sweating, I walked through the doors of the 86th Street Barnes & Noble not knowing what to expect. I only knew I was supposed to be there.
I had never gone to a Pitchapalooza before mostly because there had never been a Pitchapalooza before, but now that there was one, I would have been a fool to miss it. I wasn’t a fool. But I was chronically late, which is why uncertain I was in any way prepared for what I was about to do, I abruptly stopped pacing and practicing and packed up my pitch.
It’s not like I didn’t try to create the most dramatic, phenomenal, awe-inspiring pitch Pitchapalooza participants had ever heard, but it’s hard when you’re writing about yourself and you’re not Lady Gaga or Charlie Sheen. I’m not saying I’m completely boring or anything, but making your life sound riveting takes some doing, and I didn’t know if I had done it. Even after my multi-day, non-stop pitching bender, I wasn’t convinced.
Still, bleary eyed and a little disoriented after 48 hours straight writing and rewriting, editing and revising, questioning and lamenting I was taking my pitch to the professionals. There I would get my answer. There I would find out if my writing held up in the publishing Mecca of the world.
But I had another problem. The pitch I had worked on up until the moment of the event vanished from my brain whenever I went to recite it. I simply couldn’t retain any of it. And it was about me. I just couldn’t seem to remember a single thing about my own life.
Whether I managed to keep a thought in my head or not, I was going. With some luck, a little talent, and a bit of humor the secrets I had lived with and scribbled down until that night might win some notice. Soon after setting out for city, though, found myself ensnared in traffic. As I inched up the highway, praying I’d reach the Lincoln Tunnel sometime before the next millennium, my stage fright faded as I started to worry I might not make it to the event at all. At last I spiraled down into the tunnel and with 20 minutes left I cut across town and shot up the east side. At precisely 6:59 p.m. I careened onto 86th Street. With one minute left I navigated the four-lane commercial strip at mach speed while simultaneously trying to locate the Barnes & Noble among a florescent sea of storefronts.
Although it was a brisk November night, I arrived at the Barnes & Noble with streams of sweat running down my face. Red-faced and disheveled, I raced though the aisles of books in search of the event. I stopped short when I came to a row of plate-glass windows. Before me was a crowd spilling over into every corner and inch of available space. The Palooza was packed and already in progress. Silently, I slipped in, tip toed along the back wall and braced myself. The real drama of the night was about to begin.
Waiting for my number to be called from the pitching lottery, I simultaneously prayed to get picked and to not get picked. In the end my prayers were answered. I didn’t get picked, but the experience that night was a valuable one. I had heard some incredible stories, and I had learned what a good pitch sounded like: smooth and effortless. I also got a free education from industry insiders, and, most importantly, I became a groupie.
Later when Pitchapalooza rolled into my part of town, I went again. This time I did get picked. Unfortunately, I bombed. I had considered the tips and pointers pitch-masters David Henry Sterry, Arielle Eckstut and their expert panelists gave in revising my pitch, but like writing itself, pitches are a process, one that requires time and reflection, edits and revisions and sometimes a wholesale overhaul. I bungled it, but I learned what I did wrong, which would help to make it right.
The real magic for me, though, occurred just before and right after the event. As I sat in the audience nervously looking around the room, my palms dampening the note cards I would later read off of verbatim like an auctioneer in an endless, barely decipherable stream, I spotted a person who looked remarkably like my next-door neighbor sitting in the seat behind mine. She had her head down reviewing her notes so she didn’t notice me.
“Herron?” I asked, unable to comprehend what my quiet, blond neighbor who fit into one category of my life was doing at the book-pitching event, which fit into a completely separate category.
She looked up and smiled. “Hey, what are you doing here?”
“That’s what I was going to ask you,” I replied.
“I asked first.”
“Well, I can’t tell you. You’ll just have to see if I get called.” Although this was my second Pitchapalooza, and twice I had prepared to reveal my biggest secret to a roomful of strangers, I wasn’t about to reveal it to someone who actually knew me. The thing was, I was crazy. I was crazy and I knew it, which is why I spent the better part of three decades trying to hide it from everyone I met. Unfortunately for me, if you want your writing on mental illness published, you are most likely going to have to tell someone. I was working on publicly admitting I was crazy, but when Herron asked me I wasn’t ready to blurt it out – not unless I was doing it into a microphone at a podium in front of an entire audience.
“I didn’t know you were a writer,” I said. “Do you have a pitch?” For the past 10 years Herron and I had lived a few feet apart, our houses directly facing each other, and the whole time neither one of us ever knew the other was just across the street laboring in solitude on writing she hoped would one day take the shape of a memoir.
“I don’t know. I’ve had all these poems piling up for years. I thought I should do something with them.”
“Good for you. Good luck.” I spun back around as Master of Ceremonies David Henry Sterry stormed the podium. Then it was show time. I was called up, and after bumbling my way through, I scurried back to my seat, both pleased I had the nerve to do it and disappointed I repulsed everyone in the room with my dirty thoughts (not dirty kinky but dirty dirty. I had obsessive compulsive disorder with a concentration in germ phobia). But the incisive critiques by Arielle Eckstut and her panelists were dead-on and without that feedback I might have been lost in pitch writing madness forever, never picking up my game and improving my pitch.
The kind woman with short salt and pepper hair sitting next to me whispered, “You did good.” Then she was called up. She spoke of her novel about the transformative powers of yoga for a teacher struggling to maintain her sanity while instructing former high school drop-outs turned inner-city adult students. Herron went next. She pitched her novel idea for a memoir told in poems. Then the tall, slender woman next to her went. She was a parenting expert whose book called for parents to stop listening to the advice of parenting experts (except her) because after years of providing child-rearing guidance she found the best advice is a parent’s own wisdom.
None of us won that night, but possibly something even greater happened. The four of us formed a writing group. Although I knew almost nothing of these women, I recognized I was in the presence of three talented, intelligent, serious writers. These were the people I’d been searching for my whole adult life, but had failed to find: funny, honest, real women who had something meaningful to say and were struggling to say it.
At the time I had no idea how our writing group would turn out. Would the arrangement be awkward? Would we connect? Did we really have anything in common aside from attendance at Pitchapalooza and an interest in writing? But all my concerns were assuaged at our first marathon meeting, and it was reinforced with every subsequent one. These women weren’t just the writing buddies I had hoped for – people to trade information with or look to for a thoughtful critique – they were the most supportive, encouraging, genuine group of people I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet.
In between our monthly sessions we traded emails rooting each other on, cheering each other’s progress and expressing our gratitude for the generosity of the group. We became, in essence, each other’s fan club.
Pitchapalooza, of course, attracts members of the writing community, but what the four of us found there was more than that. Ylonda, Mary Ann, Herron and I discovered we were not just a writing group. We were kindred spirits. We connected in a way rarely experienced – instantly and intimately. We also soon discovered several similarities that link us together in unexpected ways.
Herron and I not only lived on the same block, but also we were born on the same day. And while the two of us practically shared the same street address, Mary Ann lived on a street of the same name but in a different town. Two of us were teachers and three of the four had written professionally. Both teachers were single and without children of their own while the other two members were married with kids close in age. We were all Pitchapalooza groupies.
Together we attended another Pitchapalooza, where Ylonda actually won, and Herron was approached by a panelist interested in her book idea who was an editor at Simon and Schuster. We weren’t published yet, but we were on our way. At one meeting Ylonda summed up how we all came to see David Henry Sterry and Arielle Eckstut: They were our Fairy Godparents. That cold night in February Sterry and Eckstut’s Pitchapalooza drew four virtual strangers together, and by pure luck a powerful, lifelong bond was forged.
But then again, as David Henry Sterry said 98% of success is just showing up.
Keep Austin Weird! We kept seeing that slogan plastered everywhere: on clubs with Tex-Mex music blaring, on the sides of restaurants with Tex-Mex food wafting, on t-shirts sported by ancient shitkickers, dreaded-up post-hippies, and UT hook-’em-horns, Bevo loving students. And it is weird. In the best way. Where else could you be signing books across from Lisa Loeb, & the dude who wrote Go the F*ck to Sleep. We ate amazing “Interior Mexican” tacos, we swam in a Texas sized fresh water pool, we saw protesters fighting the death penalty.
One of the highlights of the day was attending Pitchapalooza with Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. The blurb in the festival schedule says they “are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company dedicated to helping authors get their books published. They are also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully. ”
Randomly selected audience members were given one minute to pitch their books and then received feedback about it. The panelists were nice about it, too, and gave every single person good advice. Guess what? I was randomly selected! It was scary, but exciting. My nonfiction book, Catgut and Toenails: A Guide to Musical Instruments, was met with enthusiasm and helpful comments for improvement, as well as ways to successfully market myself and the book. Every panelist chimed in, which was inspiring.
As I made my way back to my seat, a tween sitting nearby whispered, “I’d read your book!” It made my day.
2 Pitchapaloozas in 24 hours. 3,000 miles apart. They said it couldn’t be done. They were wrong.
It all started on a beautiful Virginia Saturday afternoon at the James River Writers Conference, in the shockingly excellent city of Richmond. JRWC came into our lives as the result of brutal failure. Two years ago I set up a DC area mini-tour for an infamous book I put together. My girl Shawna Kenney (whose memoir I Was a Teenage Dominatrix–which is about when she was a teenage dominatrix) was just optioned by Vince Vaughn) booked us into Poets & Busboys in Washington (packed to the rafters!), Atomic Books in Baltimore (filled to the gills!), and Chop Suey in Richmond. When Shawna and I walked into Chop Suey, there were exactly 0 customers in the store. There were
about 15 folding chairs. None of them had audience asses in them. Just as we were ready to call it a day, in walked a couple of brave souls who looked like they actually wanted to be there. One of them was a colleague and dear friend of Shawna Kenney named Valley Haggard. A ridiculously intimate show like that can actually be liberating, because let’s face it, since there are only four people, it really doesn’t matter, and you can just let loose. So I actually had an ecstatic rhapsodic performing experiences. This is one of the reasons I do it. Afterwards, Shawna and I went out with Valley Ha
ggard. First of all, is that not the greatest name ever? Valley Haggard. Born to be an author. Or a country singer. Second of all, she was so smart, and funny, and generous, and goofy. At a certain point she told me she was part of a writing group: The James River Writers. I told her about Pitchapalooza and BOOM! Next thing you knew, we were on a beautiful Virginia Saturday afternoon about to unleash Pitchapalooza on Richmond. Beautiful old buildings, a rabid writing community, and the sheer NICENESS of the people make it a go-to destination. And I am not being paid by the Richmond Visitors Bureau to say that. Although if they did want to pay me, I would certainly take their money. One of the cool things about doing a writer’s festival is that you get to actually hang out with lots of pretty spectacular authors and writers. Plus, I did about a dozen seven-minute consultations.
It’s shocking how fast get to know someone in seven minutes. So it was fun to see all these people that we had connoitered with, filling the auditorium. By the time we started it was pretty much full, 150 writers and those who love them waiting in breathless anticipation. We had a very funny and savvy panelist, Michelle Brower, from the Folio Literary Management. As we do at every Pitchapalooza, we heard many crackerjack pitches. A middle-age dragon (Michelle said that a menopausal dragon would be hysterical, and in doing so brought the house down). I Do, I Did, I Don’t, a novel about a society where marriages have to be renewed every 10 years. Dystopian apocalypses, literary opusi, zombies, werewolves, vampires and hard-boiled dicks. But our winner was a cut above. He’s a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, where he worked very closely with trained military dogs. Dogs of war. His novel, Boots on the Ground, Paws on the Ground, about soldiers battling in life and death circumstances, and their relationships with these brave, loyal, and extraordinary canines brought Arielle to tears. In 1 minute. Plus, his man’s-man lantern jaw, buff hulking hunky humble manner, and his AWESOME story made him an absolute crowd favorite. Hurt Locker meets Rin Tin Tin, it just seemed to have bestseller written all over it. And it was just one of many pitches that screamed: BOOK!
As soon as Pitchapalooza Richmond was done, and I had said heartfelt thanks to my new Richmond peeps, I whipped back to the hotel, grabbed my baggage, got the kind of hug only a four-year-old can give from Olive, kissed Arielle a fond adieu, and was whisked away to the airport. It was a mad blast to have Olive with us, but we had decided she would go back with Arielle on the train, while I would fly solo to San Francisco, and do Pitchapalooza in San Francisco all by myself.
Having been awakened that morning at 7 AM by Olive begging me to play Biting Piggy (a game we made up about a month ago), I stumbled, mumbled, bumbled and numbled my way off the plane at 1 AM (4 AM EST!), feeling like someone had inserted nozzles into my ear holes and blown cotton candy into my skull. Red-rimmed pupils, baggage under my eyes bigger than the suitcase I was lugging, guts rumbling from too much bad trail mix and caffeine, I shuffled through the disorientating post-midnight fluorescence of SFO. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve heard too many zombie pitches lately, but being in an airport in the wee, wee hours will totally make you believe in zombies. As I threw myself into bed at 2 AM (5 AM EST!) I felt the sting of a tickle catch in my throat. A cough barked out of me. Followed by another cough. Then another. I could actually feel a flu bug attacking my larynx. HACK! HACK! HACK! Knowing that the thing I needed most in the world was a good deep night’s sleep, I tossed and coughed through a miserable night’s stupor. In my fevered dreams, zombies were pitching me books about werewolves, vampires, hard-boiled dicks, and yes, zombies. All while eating chunks of my flesh. It’s so depressing when you get out of bed in the morning, and you’re more exhausted than when you got in the night before.
Lead-headed, wheezing and sneezing, I coughed my way out the door. Luckily it was a rare robin-egg-blue sky day in Baghdad-by-the Bay, and a brisk but toasty breeze blowing lifted my spirits. Once I got to North Beach, I found, to my surprise and delight, that the massive annual street fair was raging. Columbus Avenue shut down, tables four deep set up on sidewalks outside restaurants, revelers and tourists and looky-loos cramjampacked in one of my favorite neighborhoods in the world, where Old Italian cannoli/espresso/gelato culture rubs elbows (and many other body parts) with drunken scruffy post-Beat writer types who scribble away in notebooks.
The fair was madness, in the best sense of the word. A WWII-type float with Andrews Sisters-look-alikes singing Roll Out the Barrel; a high-stepping marching band from Oakland rocking their synchronized syncopation; Chinese slow-motion tai chi masters; kilted-up bag piping bad boys; American flag flying, Harley hog-riders; wild west cowboys on a high-stepping horses, and cowgirls decked out in sparkly costumes that looked like a cross between Dale Evans and Liberace. It made me so happy to be alive.
I made my way to the Vesuvio’s, where I was going to be doing a reading for Litquake, the seismographic orgy of books that blows up San Francisco every October. For those of you who don’t know, Vesuvio’s is right across the alley from City Lights Bookstore, the beating heart and pulsating brain of San Francisco literati for 50 years. Everyone from Dylan Thomas to Lenny Bruce to Jack Kerouac have gotten polluted, plastered and plonkied while waxing poetic at Vesuvio’s. I felt a great wave of history as I walked in, an overpowering sense of honor, humility, and gratitude to be reading at this shrine where so many great writers have drunk until they passed out. The readers performed from the second floor balcony, looking down as if from Mount Olympus on the pulsating, hooch-fueled throng, shoehorned in wall-to-wall, cheek-by-jowl, the body heat wafting upwards, a crackling electromagneticity rocketing around the room, and ricocheting off those hallowed walls, which have seen so much literary history made over the years. I was up first, and my adrenal glands were spitting fire, my central nervous system all jacked up, while my heart felt like a hare being chased by the hounds. The din of the crowd was so loud it sounded like someone had turned the volume up to 11. I was worried that they wouldn’t shut up and listen to me. I underestimated the power of MC extraordinaire Mr. Alan Black, master of the pregnant pause and the growling punchline, a man who made his bones running shows at the Edinburgh Castle, where the Tenderloin sits like a festering sore on the bum of San Francisco. Like a lion tamer who uses a Scottish brogue and slashing wit as his whip and chair to control a room full of wild beasts, he subdued the crowd in 1.2 seconds. I love that feeling of a tightly packed mass of humanity waiting silently for the performer to try and conjure magic out of thin air. I took a deep breath, relished the moment, and plunged in. It was such a joy riding those words in that crowd through my story. Ridiculously gratifying.
Sadly I had to bolt as soon as I was finished, so I missed the show, and as I strolled back down Columbus Avenue toward the Pyramid Building, the adrenaline speed wore off and I was struck dumb by a numbing wave of exhaustipation. I had quite forgotten how depleted and drained my battery was, and I worried I’d have to call AAA to jumpstart me before Pitchapalooza Litquake, which was set to start in 20 min. Caffeine! my brain screamed. I collapsed into Starbucks. I coughed. I hacked. I wheezed. I drank. I made it to Market Street, rejuvenated, just in time to find the organizers starting to seriously worry that I wasn’t going to show up. It was my great good fortune to have two publishing stalwarts, Sam Barry and Kathi Kamen Goldmark (Write That Book Already!) as my copilots. They arrived like the cavalry providing reinforcement for my battle weary troops. And we were off! A meta-post-modern novel about a writer battling his own book. A rich girl getting back at her bad dad. A juicy, gossipy guide to the London Olympics. An Australian graphic novel about fast food workers who are actually crime fighters: fries and spies! Dystopian apocalypses, literary opusi, zombies, werewolves, vampires and hard-boiled dicks. But again, the winner was a cut above: a hysterically told tale set in Liverpool, where soccer is a combination of religious obsession and drunken life-and-death spectacle, and a woman finds she can predict the outcome of matches before they happen. Madcap antics ensue.
Suddenly it was over. I staggered in a stupor out onto Market Street, wrung out like a ragged rag, but wildly satisfied. That night I collapsed into bed moaning and groaning, wracked by hacking spasms. Slept for 12 hours. Next night I slept 12 more. When I awoke, the bug, the tickle, the hack and cough were miraculously gone. I’m on the plane going back to my Jersey hearth and home. Happily anticipating the kind of kiss only a four-year-old can give from Olive, and snuggling into my own bed with my lovely and talented wife.
To see all pictures click here.
We are so blessed to have a great article to share from Publisher’s Weekly, on our recent Pitchapalooza by co-owner of the AWESOME Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne VT.