A Good Conference and Great Doughnut

Tori and I spent a great day in Houma, Louisiana, at the Jambalaya Writers Conference Saturday. Here are a few of the highlights.

Before I talk about the conference, let me say this. At the opening, when people were checking in, they had THE BEST doughnuts I have eaten in my life I’m not kidding, the very best doughnuts ever, and I’ve eaten a few doughnuts. They were by a local bakery called “Mr. Ronnie’s Famous Hot Doughnuts,” and they were so good. A little doughier than you usually get, but not too chewy, and yeasty and – well, just delicious. So there’s that. If you’re ever in Houma, do not miss the doughnuts. I had five.

Now. About writing.

“You have to confront your worst fear, and maybe your worst fear is you’re not as good as you think you are.” But you’ll never find out if you are or not if you don’t try.

That was Washington Post reporter and crime novelist Neely Tucker, who looks a LOT like Billy Bob Thorton. Not that his physical resemblance has anything to do with him as a writer or a speaker. It’s just a thing. I missed his keynote speech after lunch, had to go out to the pickup and don my pirate gear for the book fair portion of the event, which followed.

But he spoke again in an afternoon session. I’d love to have made that a full quote, but that’s all I was able to hear. His mike was dying and it was a big room and at that point in the talk I was only picking up about half of what he said. But the context was that fear that you’re not good enough is NOT a reason not to write, and what he said after the bit I couldn’t quite make out wouldn’t have made any sense if he was saying “You have to confront your fear, so don’t even think about being a writer.” I’m confident that what I’ve written there is what he was saying, if not the exact words.

And it’s good advice. As Tori and I often said when contemplating our move from Oregon tot he Caribbean, “You’ll never learn if you can fly unless you throw yourself off the cliff.” Either way it makes sense. You’re itching to tell a story, but you’re afraid you’re not good enough? Scratch the damn itch.

A Long Flight

Another presenter was a guy who has been an editor for Random House for 31 years. He was talking about “the state of the publishing industry today. (Short answer: Upset, worried, unsure, but like 31 years ago.)

But he also told the story about the longest day of his life. This happened before he had learned one of the first rules of being an editor at a major publisher – if someone asks you what you do for a living, so you’re an insurance claims adjustor, or an actuary (no one actually knows what an actuary is, so unless the person who asks actually is one, you’re safe) or a pastry chef, ANYTHING besides a book editor. Because if you tell someone what you really are, they’re going to pitch their book, and sometimes you’re trapped.

Sure enough, sometime around 30 years ago he had just gotten on a plane. The guy sitting next to him was chaperoning a church group of young people on their way to the Holy Land. And the guy asked him, “What do you do for a living?” And he said, “I’m an editor for Random House.”

Wouldn’t you know it, the guy had written a book! Who could have guessed that? And not just any book, oh no. Not even any church related book.

No. This guy had translated the Bible. The whole Bible. The holy scripture, the revealed word of the lord, so to speak.

And nothing so mundane as a rate language. He had translated the Bible into …

Wait for it …

Limericks. That’s right. The word of god as if the almighty were a bawdy Irish storyteller. Can you imagine? I’m just guessing, because the editor said, with some regret, that he no longer had the manuscript, but it might have gone something like this.

The Lord set it off with a word –
The earth, every tree every bird.
But a snake spoke to Eve
With a trick up his sleeve,
And now paradise is deferred.

OK. Not very good. But I’m not pitching it to an editor, either.

I Surprised Myself

I was at the conference because I had been asked to do a presentation on “getting the word out” on your book. Marketing. I don’t know why they asked me. I’m not sure how they even had a clue about me. I had been to the library last October for their book fair, sold a few, had a nice time. I was as surprised as anyone when I got the invitation to present. But I took the risk. Kind of goes back to what Neely Tucker said about writing. Maybe I’d be awful, and then we’d know that and could move on.

But I was pretty good. In fact, I had a room with about 30 or so people who listened, smiled, interacted ­hell, some of them even took notes! That surprised me, to look out at them and see people with their heads in their notebooks scribbling. What had I said that was worth writing down? Maybe it was my presentation.

They put me and Tori up a the Marriott across the street from the library. My presentation was in the first round of the morning so we had the rest of the day to attend others. I’ll pass on some of the stuff I picked up later this week, along with what I had to say – after I go through my script and figure out what it was I said that was interesting enough to take notes on.

Houma, Sweet Houma

The tricky part about being an author at a book festival is remembering that you’re there to sell books, not buy them.

At Books on the Bayou in Houma, Louisiana, Saturday, there were some really interesting looking books, some that sounded like good reads. It was all I could do to keep from picking up several of them, took a lot of self-control, discipline. Not qualities that come naturally to pirates.

John and Tori – or Ol' Chumbucket and Mad Sally – at the Books on the Bayou event at the Terrebonne Parish Public Library in Houma.
John and Tori – or Ol’ Chumbucket and Mad Sally – at the Books on the Bayou event at the Terrebonne Parish Public Library in Houma.

When we did the event two weeks ago we had a small setup at the back of the room. The other two authors at that event had much fancier spreads, and we knew we’d have to step up our game. Tori took it on with her usual passion, and Saturday we had far and away the most eye catching, fanciest display. The small chest we had picked up a year ago at a yard sale specifically for displaying books. Tori added a burlap table cover and netting. She painted our easel and we had a poster made of the cover photo. And she added all the little stuff, the beads and the old-looking doubloons. Even the sign-up sheet got the treatment. Instead of a yellow legal pad, she found a leather-bound journal that fit the theme and seemed to make people eager to give us their names and email addresses.

So we sold some books and went home with fewer books than we came with. That’s the ideal.

But we didn’t sell as may as the priest.

Sitting right next to us was an older gentleman, Father Todd, selling a book of daily devotionals, stories for each day of the year with a message. And everyone walking through the lobby of the (very, very nice) Terrebonne Parish Public Library knew him, stopped by to chat with him and – usually – forked over the $25 for his book. How do you not buy your parish priest’s book, especially when he’s sitting right there looking at you and telling you how to use it?

One book we did end up getting was “Before the Saltwater Came” by Wendy Wilson Billiot. It’s an illustrated children’s book on saltwater intrusion – yeah, sounds like something the kids are clamoring for, right? But it’s a terrific way of introducing an important subect – care of the environment – to young learners. It tells the story of an otter whose life is changed by the effects of human development in the freshwater marshes and asks its young readers “What will YOU do?” Good book.

Houma is about an hour southwest of New Orleans, in the heart of the bayou – Cajun country. They are colorful people, those Cajuns. During a lull in the proceedings Darryl DiMaggio, one of the local authors, whose book “Swamp Eagles” was a compilation of stories from his years as a seaplane pilot in the bayous, turned to us and said, “I haven’t had this much fun since the hogs ate my little brother.”

Colorful.

We had a good time and sold some books in Houma, met a lot of interesting people – a former sniper selling his adventure novels, a retired teacher who now has a slew of funny kids books out, and the irrepressible DiMaggio. We learned a few things from everyone. And I saw a book title that tickled an idea in my mind. I emailed my pirate partner, Cap’n Slappy, about it, and he’s gun ho, and already at work on the concept. More information on this, I hope, to come.

We finished the day with a late lunch at Big Mike’s BBQ Smokehouse, where they have great ribs! So all in all, a terrific outing. And we sold some books!

(And a big thank you to Captain John Swallow, for alerting me to this event, and the Terrebonne Public Library for making it happen!)