After I finished writing my first book, Sweet Survival: Tales of Cooking & Coping, I realized I would have to promote it. What I didn't expect was that I'd inadvertently become a caterer.
I have no talent for this. Though I worked briefly for my cousin's bakery in 1995, I've never been paid to make anything look pretty on a plate. But the book is about food, and how cooking a pan of roasted cauliflower or a mind-blowing layer cake with buttercream frosting can make you feel better about almost anything. So I quickly learned that part of enticing people to buy and read the book was to bake something yummy for them to eat first.
The bookstore owner where I'd done an early reading, arranged for me to do another reading at a local school and sent along an email: "I had a thought...do you want to bring a simple something from one of your recipes? No big deal if not - just thinkin'!" How could I say no? I had already brought chocolate meringues when I had done the reading at her bookstore and the book had sold out. Maybe there was a correlation. So I made more cookies and felt my profession begin to shift. At every reading since, I have brought my gluten-free chocolate meringues (p.64). These cookies are delicious and intensely rich, with all that bittersweet chocolate, cocoa powder and powdered sugar powering a nice buzz through your veins. Am I using cookies to lure and addict readers? Yes, shamelessly.
Becoming an author is a three-act play. In act one, you write your book. In act two, you get it published. It's act three--the marketing and selling of the book--- that's the toughest part. If you're like me, you don't initially realize there's real work to be done in act three. This is where you find your readers. Unless you are Stephen King or Alice Munro, this is all pretty much up to you.
I didn't quite get this until a friend of my mother's, the author Arthur Vanderbilt, emailed me after Sweet Survival came out and nudged me to get out there and sell. He's written several books, including the wonderfully blunt and funny The Making of a Best Seller: From Author to Reader. In it he writes, "In Chatham on Cape Cod where I go to summer, there is a tiny bookstore in town, the Yellow Umbrella. Every summer, Mary Higgins Clark, yes, Mary Higgins Clark!, is outside sitting at a rickety card table, signing copies of her latest book! She knows no matter how famous, an author has to keep hustling his or her wares."
And so, I started to hustle. Not just scheduling readings at bookstores and schools and wherever else would take me, but also committing to baking cookies for those readings. My book came out six weeks ago and during that time, I have done six readings. For every reading, I have baked dozens of chocolate meringues. (They don't all come out so perfectly, so I give the burned ones to my kids.) Last Saturday night, my brother and sister-in-law threw my editor and me a book party. I promised to make recipes from the book: Upside down "ugly" apple cake, decadent white layer cake with buttercream frosting and raspberry filling, shrimp with cumin, turmeric and coriander, and of course, those chocolate meringues. After five hours of baking, I fell into bed and asked my husband, "Do you think Stephen King and Alice Munro are busy bringing food to all their readings?"
My husband said probably not.
But I'm a first time author. The cookies are my swag. My book is all about food, although it's also about mental illness, kidnapping, suicides, divorce, depression, birthday parties, break fasts, Passover, Easter, and all the events that bring us together and occasionally drive us insane and apart. It's a book about cooking your way through life's dramas, fastening yourself to your stove whenever events are unfolding that you can't control, and all you can do is lean in and, with any luck, roast a chicken.
When I was about to make a video to promote Sweet Survival, the first thing I did was bake chocolate meringues. As I pulled up to the house where we were filming, I saw that there was construction on the street. I knew the construction noise would be a problem for the camera crew, so I offered the man in the truck some cookies if he would move the truck to another part of the street while we were filming. He was happy to oblige. One of my friends expressed shock that I had negotiated this with cookies, rather than, say, the promise of oral sex. I told my therapist what had happened. "Those cookies are oral sex," she said.
Do I really need to keep bringing cookies to readings? It's time consuming and all that Ghirardelli chocolate I keep melting is expensive. But the time I have spent in the kitchen, separating whites from yolks, melting bittersweet chocolate over a double-boiler, measuring out powdered sugar and cream of tartar, has been soothing beyond words.
If you're reading about your life in front of an audience, it's like putting on a play: You're the actor, your nice black blouse is your costume and the book is your script. The problem is you're not actually an actor. Maybe you took an acting class one summer at sleep away camp or had a small part in Macbeth or Henry IV, Part 2, in college, but it was a part so small you can't remember what it was. But there you are, standing in front of a crowd, acting out your life, sometimes in front of strangers. You're all alone up there and it is undoubtedly a situation that calls for chocolate.
So those hours I spend baking cookies before every reading actually serve a crucial purpose: They calm me down. These days I remind myself: I am not a caterer. I am merely a writer who copes through cooking. So come to a reading. I'll give you a cookie.