You never forget the first time

(Everyone, sorry for the late post today. I keyed it in yesterday, but today it was gone so I keyed it in again! Please don't let tardiness keep you from welcoming Cara Black back to Murderati!
–see you next week, Pari.)

by Cara Black

At the San Francisco Writers Conference a few weeks ago a woman picked up my book and said, "You wrote this?" Actually it was more of an accusation.

"Guilty." I smiled, eyeing the coffee urn behind the book display.

"You wrote all of these books with murder?"

Cara 1rain Nonplussed for a moment, I didn't have a short answer on the tip of my tongue or even a long one for that matter. It knocked me for a loop. I was not caffeinated, it was too early in the morning and I definitely needed that coffee. Before I could say, "Well, I write about Paris, too." She slapped my book down, frowned and moved away from me like "eeeuw!"

Did I have cooties?

Clare Langley-Hawthorne's books were next to mine and her books deal with murder and several other mysteries were on the table. I mean this was a writing conference, there were workshops on writing mysteries! But I felt a foot small and snakes of insecurity wound in my head.

True, sometimes I do spend part of my day here. But this woman's behavior flashed me right back to my first ever book signing for Murder in the Marais, my first book ever — ten years ago. Before my bookstore event not only was I shaking but I felt about to throw up. I'd spent three and a half years writing this book and now I had to get up and talk about it? Could I really call myself a writer with this one book? What if people pointed, shouted "Imposter" and ran out of the bookstore?

Cara2 coco   Cara3parischic And I wasn't French but my book took place in Paris with French people. I pictured someone saying, "How can you write about Paris? What do you know, you can't even tie your scarf like a French woman and so on."

I'd say, "Well I know I'm not French and their chic is not about having the perfect little black dress, red lipsticks, nor even the perfect red scarf. French chic at its core is an attitude, more elusive than the perfect pump.

Well, I had that memorized but the queasiness didn't go away. Yet here I was at my local bookstore four blocks from my house, there was a room of my closest friends, all my family, my mother, and Tracey my local indie bookseller who kept hugging me and saying, "You go girl . . . now get up there and talk."

I was paralyzed. 

It was my best friend who took me aside and said, "Look, just tell them what you told me for years about why you had to write this story . . . be yourself, you can't be anyone else. Good God we all know you and how dirty your kitchen is tonight."

Cara4 musicians I took her words to heart. And after all, no one would throw rocks with my mom and young son sitting right there, or so I hoped. Here was my chance to give vent to the passion that propelled me to write this story and what it meant, to bring people into the fictive world that I hoped I'd created. I remember I thanked everyone for coming, thanked my bookseller, read a few pages and  then just started telling the story of where this book came from. And what I had to write what had been gnawing at me for years based on the true story of my Parisian friend's mother who'd been a hidden Jewish girl during the German Occupation of Paris in WWII.

Then it was time for a Q & A . . . that went fine too. I mean everyone asked me questions about things I hadn't mentioned or had forgotten to say and I hadn't even paid them. I'd taken a breath reading for the last question when a woman stared then pointed at me.

"Why would someone like you, a normal looking person who I've seen in the sandbox at the park with your son, write about ugliness, sordidness, murder?" she said. My jaw dropped. "Your book sounds too dark for me." She shrugged, started to stand.

Well that was a show stopper. I just gulped and stood there speechless, dying, my mind a blank. Then Betsy, a mother in my son's fourth grade class, turned around in her seat, fixed the woman with a look and said, "I'm a district attorney and lady, my real work is uglier than this. I meet murderers, rapists and work with them every day. But hell, I don't get to do it in Paris and this book is much more than just about murder, it's a human story. I loved it and still can't believe she wrote this. You don't know how many field trips she's driven on . . . but if you don't read this book I'm sorry for you."

The woman left after that and didn't buy the book. Fair enough. It wasn't going to be to her taste. But I wanted to take Betsy with me to every bookstore I went after that. It really meant so much because Betsy doesn't BS. . . . she could have turned around and said, "Lady, I agree with you."

But it taught me something. Something I'd forgotten until confronted by the woman at the SF Writers Conference. How do you handle the wonder in people's faced when they see a "normal personwho seems nice and smiles" who explores a dark side of human nature in murder mysteries or crime fiction? Maybe the writer's face doesn't match the contents of what's written, but does it matter? There's a wonderful quote by Margaret Atwood concerning wanting to know writers: "Just because you like pate doesn't mean you want to know the duck."

I've always remembered what PD James said; her detective novels are just a structure, a framework to hand a story. It's about the characters, the sense of place, the history of that created world, the relationships that go south, events that go haywire and obstacle after obstacle.

I don't think much about the deep meanings and why and wherefores of this genre that allows writers and readers to explore the dark side, the incomfortable things. Well for one I'm sitting safely at my laptop writing, or reading in bed with my dog at my feet and the cover pulled tight. It's a ride to uncharted territories that pulls me right in, engrosses me and makes me turn the page. And then the next. People say a crime novel should mirror life and the untidiness, the loose threads, the bleakness. People say a lot of things. I just know that what I write, and the books I love to read, offer some form of resolution, a kind of justice that probably you, me, and the underdog can't always get in real life.

But I'm keeping what that woman said in mind as I begin the tour for my ninth book, Murder in the Latin Quarter. "Always prepare," someone said, "and get ready for a curve ball."

Do I still get that queasiness in the pit of my stomach, feel like an imposter when I get up to talk at a bookstore or library? You bet. But it lasts a few seconds now.

Cara5LawrenceOlivier I'll try to remember what Sir Lawrence Olivier said when asked about his great performances, his technique for preparing before the stage, if there was anything he did ie voice modulation, exercises before curtain time. He laughed. "I'm just trying to breathe and not throw up."

Well I'm not inthe same field or class as Sir Larry but I take his words to heart.

I'd love to hear about your first time — your first event in a bookstore or in front of a roomful of people. What's your story? Any pearls of wisdom to share?

Cara Black writes the bestselling and award nominated Aimee Leduc Investigations set in Paris. Murder in the Latin Quarter, the ninth in her series, received a starred Kirkus review and is an Indie Next Pick for April. Murder in the Latin Quarter just hit the bookstores. Look for her on tour all over like a cheap suit at at events.

19 thoughts on “You never forget the first time

  1. pari

    Cara,I’m so sorry this post got up late! I had it all in yesterday, but for some reason Typepad ATE IT!!!!!

    So at 7:30 this morn I typed it in again. Argh!

    It’s a great post. When I have a minute I’ll try to write about my *first* time.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hey Cara, great to have you here!

    Since I started in theater, made a living pitching to studio executives and have taught everyone from incarcerated gangbangers to teenage prostitutes to adult dancers, stage fright isn’t much of a problem any more (try teaching WHILE dancing – I agree with Sir Laurence – as long as I’m breathing and not throwing up, I’m ahead of the game).

    I am mystified and more than slightly appalled by these people who ask us how we can write such dark stuff. Do they not read the newspapers? More to the point – do they know nothing at all about their friends and family? Because anyone who claims that they don’t know anyone who’s ever experienced the darkness we write about is either oblivious or lying.

  3. Cara

    Hey Alex,Good point. Maybe it’s that elephant in the living room thing everyone ignores? Both of these women were older and had definite life experience.

  4. pari

    The first time was at my children’s childcare; the owner bought little puffed pastries and made tea and as the parents came to pick up the kids, they got treats and bought my books.

    The second time was the “talking” signing at one of our local indies. More than 100 people showed up for my big debut and all I really remember was the feeling of it being a major love-in. I developed a talk for it that I still use — though I update it often — called “Ten things I’ve learned since becoming a published writer.” Yeah, I know, it’s not a sexy title, but it’s a funny talk and people seem to enjoy it quite a bit.

    So my advice? I love index cards with “talking points,” little reminders of things I want to be sure to mention. No one minds that I use them and that way I never freeze.

  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Cara

    Welcome to Murderati! I remember doing that panel with you at LCC in Bristol, and you were great.

    My first ever event was at Lancaster Library, and I still have great affection for the people there. In fact, one of the librarians, Andrew Till, became an FBI agent character in FIRST DROP.

    I’ve been asked what must be all the usual strange questions at events, from do I need multiple personalities in order to write, to would I be prepared to write Tony Blair’s autobiography (sic)?

    I think the best lip-curling response to the subject matter of my books, though, has to be from the paramilitary evangelist who mugged us at Baltimore airport on the way home from Bouchercon. She really did look like I’d waved something very smelly and very unpleasant under her nose when I explained I wrote crime novels, and then proceeded to tell me about the (far superior, obviously) book which she had written and published on the miracle of her own life.

    In grim and, I have to say, distressingly smug – detail.

    Now there was a woman who had, sadly, never heard of the elevator pitch… ;-]

  6. Jake Nantz

    Obviously I’ve never done a book signing, but I can tell you about my first snooty lip-curler just the same. I was in the tenth grade, and we had to do a project in English class. I wrote a (truly horrible, putrid, no one alive will ever read it) sci-fi story, and I read it to the class. Most people just nodded their heads or smiled weakly.

    Then this one kid–whose project was to show that there WAS an engine capable of running 50 mpg and lasting 100 years, but THE MAN wasn’t allowing it to be made so we could keep wasting money on Detroit every 7 or 8–raised his hand. “What’s the point?” he asked.

    I had no idea there was supposed to be one. I just shrugged, “Dunno, just felt like writing it.”

    “That’s stupid.”

    I felt horrible the rest of the day. That afternoon, it hit me. I should have said, “Entertainment for those who like it, intentional boredom and torture for those who don’t.” I was so pissed I didn’t think of it right then, but that’s me: Brilliant after the episode.

  7. J.D. Rhoades

    The only thing I remember about my first appearance was that no one showed up. I did have a nice chat with the bookseller, though.

    I did have an experience like yours at the Southern Kentucky Book Festival. It was one of those deals where all the authors sit all afternoon at long tables in a big ballroom while people cruise up and down, looking and occasionally chatting with the authors. Most of the people were quite nice, until one middle aged lady walked up. She was, to put it charitably, a little hefty, with the kind of face that can only be earned through years of petty malice and bad temper. She picked up GOOD DAY IN HELL and started looking at the jacket copy. After about 10 seconds, she made the kind of face a person would make if they’d just discovered that someone had shat in her handbag, then she THREW the book back on the table and stalked off as if I had written the book for the sole purpose of offending her.


  8. J.D. Rhoades

    Oh, and I’m lucky, I guess. I don’t normally get nervous at these events. Once you’ve been raked over the coals by a Superior Court judge, there’s not a lot that can scare you in a group of readers. It’s mot like they can put me in jail.

  9. Cara

    Pari – index cards – brilliant and they fit in the palm of the hand, thank you.

    Zoê – Course I remember the Bristol panel. I think you really shone at Janet Rudolph’s at home last year. Next time someone collars me I’ll say…great, now it’s the elevator pitch I want to hear. As if…

    Toni…perfect answer

    Jake N I’m so like that…I always come up with a retort in my head six hours later in the car. Never fails.

    Dusty, Dusty, Dusty they don’t know about…ahem never mind.

  10. Libby Hellmann

    Cara, You’ve learned to tie a scarf just as well as a Parisien. And drink expresso. And — dare we say it — smoke a cigarette. And your books are being translated into French. I’d say you have arrived. Wish we were touring together this year… eh, bien. C’est la vie. Congrats on the wonderful reviews for Latin Quarter! Enjoy… you deserve it.

  11. Louise Ure

    Hi Cara,

    My “first” memory is of Kirk Russell taking me by the shoulders and saying, “Remember, there’s no one here who doesn’t want to be here.” Hugely calming!

  12. cllanders


    I can’t believe anyone would be this incredibly rude to you. I’m so sorry. Ridiculous.

    A good book authentically portrays the reality of life–even and especially its ugliness–then resolves the storyline in a deeply satisfying way that real life rarely affords.

  13. Tom

    You know what, Cara? Envy has odd ways of presenting itself in those who can’t do the extraordinary . . . as you and your friends here clearly can.

    To paraphrase Elwood P. Dowd, “There’s a little envy in the best of us, my dear. And in the resentful, well, there can be quite a lot, with a sidecar of venom.”

    Okay, try to imagine it in Jimmy Stewart’s voice.

    How I’ve missed your books I don’t know, but I shall read them while listening to music of Poulenc and Auric.

  14. Kathryn Lilley

    Great post! Early on, I was thrown by the way there’d always be one weird person in the audience (usually an older woman wearing tons of make-up and possibly a fur coat and a hat) who’d want to talk about something WAY off-topic, like poetry-writing. To be polite, I’d dig way back to my Wellesley studies to come up with something useful to share with her before dragging the convesation back to mysteries and writing. It taught me how to go with the flow, but also to control the crowd!


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