In the novel Erasure, written by author and USC professor Percival Everett, the lead character Thelonious Monk Ellison, also an author and a college professor, provides the following commentary on book readings.
I found the whole custom rather idiotic. “Read the damn book,” I always wanted to shout and just sit down. Once I considered taking a couple of boxes of books and having the audience read silently while I read silently, then point out that they didn’t need me after all. I was not a popular reader, a fact that never hurt my feelings…
–Erasure, Percival Everett
Last night at Brazos Bookstore after a gushing introduction by the event’s organizer, Percival Everett mumbled his thanks and began reading from his self-referential novel Percival Everett by Virgil Russell. Two pages in, he stumbled on the line, “Father liked smiles. Smiles made…” He looked up and said, “Interesting slip. I meant to say simile.” Nervous laughter from the audience. He continued through the opening without enthusiasm and then flipped to the end to read a few more pages. When he finished, he placed the book on the table, looked into the room and said, “Questions?”
Q. “When did you write your first real novel?”
A. “Next Thursday.”
Q. “What book did you read most recently?”
A. “A book on zero. It was a zero.”
Q. “Have you ever been star-struck by any celebrities in LA?”
Q. “Which of your novels is your favorite?”
A. “I don’t know. I forget them as soon as I finish them.”
Q. “What’s your writing process?”
A. “I don’t really have one. I don’t work on a set schedule, like ‘I write from 10-2 every day.’ If I did, I’d probably kill myself… I don’t obsess on my work either. If my family says, ‘Let’s go to a movie,’ I go to a movie.”
Q. “How do you handle rewrites?”
A. “If I have to rewrite a chapter, I just drop it in the trash and start over. You lose the overall rhythm of the words if you try to fix individual sentences and phrases.”
Q. “How do you pick the art for the covers of your books?
A. “My publisher shows me a few options. I say, ‘that one seems nice.’ Then they select a different one. I don’t really care either way.”
Q. “In an interview, you once said —”
A. “I just make up stuff during interviews. You shouldn’t take them seriously.”
Then came the best of the worst:
Q. “What’s the last thing that tickled you pink?”
A. “Well it would take a lot to tickle me pink.”
I suspect that most of the audience at this reading had never read Erasure and the above-mentioned Ellison passage in particular. And so while some may have been cringing at his apparent discomfort, I watched the whole thing with a satisfied grin. He was my new hero.
When he finished, I approached and said, “You know, naming your character after Monk was a really nice touch.” I explained that I was a jazz pianist. “Oh, who’s your favorite?” He asked. I said Wynton Kelly and Red Garland, to which he replied, “Mine is Bud Powell.” We exchanged Powell stories. I told him the one about the pianist banging his hands against a wall and saying to Miles Davis, “Don’t you love this chord?” He liked that. He asked if I had heard the story about Bud and Art Tatum, which I had (Powell was accused of lacking the left-hand technique of Tatum and so he sat on his right hand and played a be-bop song with just his left). He then thanked me for what I admit was the only question of the evening ABOUT one of his novels (on the use of Sidney Poitier movie plots as episodes in I’m Not Sidney Poitier).
This was my first time attending a book reading. I’m afraid I have to agree with the fictional Thelonious Ellison in that I’m not sure I see the point. At least, the reading portion of it. But having recently read two of Everett’s novels I now realize after hearing him speak that he talks just like he writes—dry, cynical, insightful. And really, really funny. Miles Davis once said, “I can tell how good a player is by the way they walk.” I suspect the same holds true for authors and their casual conversations.
Long live Percival (Thelonious Monk Ellison) Everett.