I didn't choose Betty. She chose me.

I didn't choose Betty. She chose me.
The Betty Crocker Kitchens 1940

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Book Tour

(I've had a few requests for this essay I wrote, so I'm re-posting)

The Good, the Bad, and, the Book Tour
by Susan Marks

After they recovered from the shock of learning that I actually wrote a book, the first question out of people’s mouths was, “Are you going on a book tour?”

I think they asked because a book could be just a book, but a book tour suggests something a bit more grandiose – maybe even glamorous. So, I think I sent everyone reeling again when I answered, “Yes.”

Now, I know from glamorous and my book tour was bound to be anything but. I had no illusions of a Carrie Bradshaw-type book launch followed by the kind of celebrity author tour that involves violating fire safety codes with scores of people crammed into bookstores and auditoriums. No, I knew my tour would be small, humble, ever-controversial and mostly tiring. Still, if people wanted to believe I was destined for something more brilliant, I wasn’t about to stop them and besides, I couldn’t wait to go. What first-time author doesn’t dream of her book tour, even if she knows better?

The first stop on my 5-city tour was actually my hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota – so that worked out well. Prior to the release of my book, I made the rounds with a month’s worth of radio, magazine, newspaper and television interviews.

Besides the standard questions about Betty’s portraits, recipes and cake mixes and true identity, I heard everything from how I could be Betty’s daughter to jokes about Betty’s illicit affair with the Gorton’s Fisherman and Kingsford Charcoal man. The whole buildup to the main event and jam-packed publicity schedule was an intoxicating cocktail of high-octane adrenaline, nerves, giddy excitement and shameless vanity. The end result was a massive Betty induced hangover that took me about me about 8 months to shake.

With equal parts fear and excitement, I braced myself for the book launch at the Mill City Museum along the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. I was to stand in front of a live crowd, answer tough questions about how Betty both defined and marginalized women while I likely groped around in search of something clever, entertaining and historically accurate to say.

To my surprise the crowd swelled to hundreds of overwhelmingly supportive people – some of whom I didn’t even know. They watched a rough-cut of my documentary film, The Betty Mystique, laughed in the right places, smiled at me afterwards and asked intelligent questions. In fact, my 5-year-old nephew was so moved by the Spirit of Betty that he started witnessing to anyone who would listen that Betty Crocker came upon her great cake baking skills by praying to the good Lord above.

A television crew from CBS Sunday Morning covered the book launch, helping to heighten the excitement, as all the copies of my book sold out, and three hours magically sped by in a matter of seconds. More importantly, a foreign feeling swept over me as if I had done something right – really right.

It retrospect, I should have seen it coming. The rest of a tour didn’t feel quite as “right” but it wasn’t without its moments.

New York, LA, Boston, Miami, and Seattle wouldn’t have me – but the Midwest and Canada couldn’t wait to get their Betty Crocker on, so I was off with the requisite press and signing events. For the most part, I’m not sure what I said or what I wore, but no one kicked me off their show for dressing indecently nor did I get banned from any bookstores for carrying on inappropriately. However, I did disappoint some people – and not just your garden-variety disappointment. The fact that I didn’t have a recipe to prepare, my hair was in a ponytail, I was not Betty Crocker, and my book cost $23 really riled a few people.

The disappointment portion of my tour began upon arriving at a television station where a producer “greeted” me with a panicked-stricken expression, looking all around me, asking where my equipment was. Turns out, he thought I was appearing on the cooking segment of this morning talk show and that I would be preparing something from a Betty Crocker cookbook. The very thought of me cooking LIVE on TV would have every single person I know laugh out loud. When I explained that I was just an author of a history book about Betty Crocker, he replied stiffly that he “was given different information.” Now, the little misunderstanding was on his end because my publicists at Simon and Schuster were pros, but I was too polite to tell him so.

I shrugged it off thinking the little misunderstanding would end with a chuckle and I would head for the green room to sweat it out, but no. My lack of cooking equipment prompted phone calls, conversations in hushed tones, and worried expressions directed my way. Truthfully, it wasn’t like I was dying to get on this show. If they decided to boot me, I would have chalked it up to inevitable glitch in their early morning television system and headed out for coffee and maybe a muffin. But finally the producer approached me with a sigh and told me they could still fit me in. The anchor fell silent, shook his head and sighed too.

I was late to the next TV station, but they still greeted me with a, “Betty Crocker’s in the house!” And nobody sighed, shook their heads nor asked me to cook anything. I could have stayed there all day, except people all over town were waiting to get a piece of me.

Oddly, it was my hair that was so objectionable it prompted the next grand wave of disappointment. It seems that the effects of the heat and humidity were just too compelling to pass up. A woman/troll greeted me at a cool little independent bookstore and started in on how she barely recognized me because my hair looked nothing like it did in my author photo. And then Haggletooth, (I’m pretty sure that was her name) went on to say that she liked my hair a lot better when I wasn’t wearing a ponytail and seemed to want some sort of explanation. I tried to plead my case saying that humidity just has its way with me. Haggletooth actually winced on my behalf and cut the conversation short.

I was mortified! Not for me, but for her. Sashaying up to an author and announcing that her hair isn’t as lovely as I think it should be is among the many things I would never do. In fact, I was raised to NEVER tell anyone that their hair looks bad. No matter what. And I have been tested on this! For ten years, I have been friends with a certain someone and I have never once told her that her hairdo makes her look like she’s playing the part of a witch in a community theater production. Perhaps truthfulness in friendship should trump good manners, but that’s a can of wicked witch hair I just don’t want to open.

And for my next act of disappointment, I caused a minor scene in a chain bookstore. Before the event started a patron, I’ll call her Crazy, excitedly hurried into bookstore. Crazy showed up early, hoping to get a good seat to hear Betty Crocker give a little talk. But when she saw my photo on the event poster, she downward spiraled. Who the hell was I? She wanted to know. I certainly wasn’t the Betty Crocker she had gotten to know over the years. Booksellers rushed to her aid as other patrons started looking a bit spooked. Crazy was so furious that she wanted only to talk to a manager, in a voice that was way too loud for a bookstore. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make Betty magically appear, nor could he convince her to stick around a learn more about Betty’s true identity. I made a joke to the small crowd that I didn’t want to be around when she found out the truth about Aunt Jemima and Capt. Crunch, but people just smiled courteously, and looked embarrassed for me. Admittedly, it wasn’t the best way to begin the event, but honestly is it my fault that people don’t question advertising until it’s too late and/or forget to take their medication? There was no reason to be embarrassed for me. I was fine. And yet, I couldn’t fight the feeling that a pattern was emerging.

But in all fairness, some of people were amazing. At various events they came out in their red hats and purple dresses, some sported pins from the Betty Crocker Search For Homemaker of Tomorrow Scholarship program, some brought their well-worn copies of their kitchen bible, Betty’s Big Red cookbook and other people just smiled and smiled at everything I said. Bookstore managers graciously welcomed me and other folks lined up just to talk and several even thanked me for writing the book. And some radio and television personalities and newspaper reporters could not have been more interesting, smart and fun. Salt of the earth – these people.

Meanwhile almost everyone asked me when I was scheduled to make an appearance on the Today Show. Oh I wish I could have announced that I was jetting off to NYC to spending the morning at Studio 1A in Rockefeller Center, but the invitation never came. (For the record, Oprah, Letterman and Ellen didn’t invite me either – at least not yet!) But CBS Sunday Morning (one of the best shows on television) did a segment on the book and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. Most of the people I talked to know and love the show, but there are many who never heard of it, or they made some vague connection, mumbling something like “Isn’t there some Charles guy on that show…no wait, there was a Charles guy and then another Charles guy took his place…” I stopped telling people about it after awhile because the disappointing tables were starting to turn.

But these were little things. I chalked it up to life on the road. Life in the trenches. Life of an author. The good, the bad, the book tour. And I soon gained a better understanding of whole writer/booze connection.

But all the wine in the world couldn’t have helped me with my most appalling book-signing event. It took place the weekend after Thanksgiving in an upscale cooking store. From the moment I walked in, I knew it wouldn’t end well. I now wish I would have run in the other direction when I saw that the only people in the store were the employees – on the busiest retail weekend of the year. Even though I was more than humbled, I felt worse for the store’s owner. When I suggested that we cancel the event she flew into a fit, “What? Do you only do events where people are lining up outside the door!?” While flustered, I rallied enough to reply, “Yes and no – I’ve had as few as 7 show up and as many as 450 show. I’ve just never actually done an event where no one has shown up.” But as luck would have it, two people arrived at that moment, got their own private Betty presentation, asked where the bathroom was, and left without buying a thing.

To fill the rest of the time, an aging staff member, with questionable intentions, showed her support by bestowing me with unsolicited advice on how I should market my book, distribute my documentary film and manage my career. (Side note: This woman didn’t have a single original idea in her head. I was praying that she would get a customer and leave me alone, but it never happened). The funny thing about free advice and me is that I know the value of it and would sooner give up chocolate before I would take it or for that matter, give it. Yet, the frequency of unsolicited advice flying my way makes me convinced that there’s just something so floundering about my nature that I appear to have stumbled off the path of common sense, just waiting for a firm, guiding hand to set me right again. As I stood there in the empty store with Miss Pushy Talksalot babbling on and on, I grew nostalgic for Haggletooth and Crazy. Needless to say, I learned a valuable lesson right there in the cooking store: Empty stores are empty for a reason. (Update: that store closed down.)

Other signing events are slower to reveal their true colors. One of my most memorable events involved a speaking engagement for the American Association of Family Consumer Sciences (Formerly known as Home Ec). I sat at a table near the silent auctions and tried to pinpoint if I had ever felt quite so awkward and out of place.

For a long time no one said anything to me, except those people who asked me if my books are a part of the silent auction. And when I said no, you guessed it, they looked genuinely disappointed in me.

Someone wandered over and asked me where the decaf was. I pointed to the nearby orange pot. (It’s been said before, but doesn't everyone know by now that decaf is served in the orange pot?) But other than that, things were slow. I think I even saw a lone tumbleweed blow by my table. I was starting to feel like a bit of a party crasher so I made a bold move to engage people in conversation. "Hi" I said to a lady near my table, to which she replied, "What did you just say to me?" "Oh, all I said was 'hi.'" And before I got the last syllable out she lost interest in me and started conversing with her friend. A couple of people came over to my table and thumbed through my book and said things like, "What's this all about?" Or, "$23! That's way too much money." Or they would just flip through it with a look on their faces as if to say, "What kind of person writes a book on severed limbs?"

True, not everyone is a fan of Betty, but to make a face? When you are a card-carrying member of the group that no-longer-wants-to-be-known-as-home-economics?

Occasionally one of the event organizers would come by and reaffirm that I was invited and supposed to be selling books—which was nice, really nice. And then the awards ceremony started and didn't stop for a long time. Finally, it was time for the last award - Friend to Family Consumer Science and the winner was me! They even gave me a plaque and a corsage. I was utterly in shock. Everyone applauded and someone even cheered. I felt so honored and so unworthy.

And then I gave my little spiel on Betty and the crowd seemed happy and they cleaned me out of books and thanked me profusely and told me their stories about Betty. And one woman apologized for not realizing I was the author before and said had she known, she would never have said that $23 was too much to pay for my book. Another woman said she wished I was her granddaughter and until that moment I had never felt a pain well up so quickly and sharply in my throat. But I somehow managed to wait until I got in my car before I burst out in tears.

I have no idea what happened – but I will tell you what, by the end of the night I was ready to become a member and not just a friend.

Still, my all-time favorite event was the sold out Roseville Lutheran Church Annual Winter Tea. It was the second largest signing event with 400 people packed in to hear stories of Betty Crocker. It was also a homecoming of sorts considering I grew up and misspent most of my youth in Roseville – a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota.

Nothing spectacular happened at the event – besides the fact that hundreds of people voluntarily left the warmth of their homes on a snowy January Sunday. But it was nice and everyone was friendly and grateful. And lucky for me, if the crowd thought my hair looked bad or if they were convinced that I needed some career counseling – they kept it to themselves. The Master of Ceremony even went on and on about how young I looked (God Bless her). And those Lutherans served cake – delicious, heavy on the frosting side. Considering what I’ve learned about never underestimating the power of a friendly face and sweet, heavenly baked goods, I really couldn’t have asked for a better way to wind down the tour.

© 2006 Susan Marks