Skip to main content


August 8, 2011


Posted by Stephen

domestic.JPGLike a lot of people who are totally cool and not at all nerdy, I’m a big fan of author readings. For those of you who have never attended a reading, it’s a little like going to a rock concert, except there’s a lot less alcohol, and instead of dancing, you’re encouraged to be very still and quiet. Another difference is that almost everyone in attendance suffers from some sort of social anxiety disorder.

Of the many readings I’ve attended, two have stuck with me over the years as being truly memorable. This is because both authors were very famous, and because both readings were highlighted by moments so awkward that the simple act of committing them to type is making me feel like I need to take a mood-stabilizer.
When my wife and I went to Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., to see my all-time favorite writer Richard Russo read from his book The Bridge of Sighs, things started out great. We listened as he read and politely answered questions, and then we lined up to have him sign our book. It was a lovely evening, I was in a great mood, and there were no signs whatsoever that I was just moments away from being emotionally scarred forever.
But then, as we stood there making married-couple chitchat, my anxiety level began to rise.
My wife, who was pregnant at the time, could sense this and encouraged me not to humiliate her in public. Her concern, admittedly, was valid. I have an impressive history of getting nervous around celebrities (and often non-celebrities) and blurting out really stupid things. This was not only a Pulitzer Prize–winning author, this was the guy who created Hank Devereaux, the narrator of the novel Straight Manand my favorite fictional character ever. For people like me --- super-cool people and wannabe novelists --- this kind of thing is a pretty big deal.
So, when our time finally came, I stepped up to the little table and handed Mr. Russo our new copy of The Bridge of Sighs. He smiled up at my wife and me, friendly as could be, and said “Hello and asked us our names so he could inscribe our book. And then apropos of God knows what, I said/ shouted, “Hi, if we have a boy, we’re going to name him Hank!”
Now, allow me to defend myself for a moment. In my mind, informing Mr. Russo that he’d created my first child’s potential namesake sounded like something that a perfectly reasonable person would say --- it’s a compliment! Turns out, it actually sounded like something that a serial killer would say, similar to, “Hi, I have a lamp shade made of human skin in my den,” or, “Hi, I brought you my mailman’s head as a souvenir of this blessed occasion.”
For about five seconds, the awkwardness was staggering. Thankfully my wife, who is not an idiot, was prepared. She swooped in and said something charming about upstate New York and totally diffused the situation. I didn’t actually hear what she said, though. By then I’d burst into tears and run out into the parking lot.
The second awkward reading moment was also in D.C. This one involved another of my favorite writers, Jonathan Franzen. But this time, I’m pleased to report that the awkwardness, although equally as soul-crushing, didn’t involve me at all.
After Mr. Franzen’s impressive reading, during the Q&A portion, a young, nervous-sounding guy asked, “How much of this book is autobiographical?”
Whenever this question comes up at readings --- and it comes up a lot --- authors are almost always annoyed. Most of them simply shrug it off and give a canned, unfulfilling answer. But not Franzen. For a moment, he looked down at the podium and fiddled with his hair. And then, obviously irritated, he asked the guy why he wanted to know. A few people in the audience laughed, assuming that this was a rhetorical question. But, as his gaze remained fixed, it became clear that he wanted an answer. “I’m genuinely curious,” said Franzen.  
“Why does it matter to you?”

What followed was awkwardness so devastating and so unspeakably profound that I imagine it was visible from space, like the Great Wall of China. There had to have been two hundred people there --- which is the equivalent of a football stadium in the world of author readings. I don’t even remember the poor bastard’s answer, but I remember my heart breaking for him as he struggled to dig a hole in the floor with his program and disappear forever.

In Domestic Violets, my main character’s mother, a high school English teacher, tells her son that all first novels are autobiographical. As a blanket statement, I doubt that this is completely true, but there’s usually some truth to comments like this, otherwise people wouldn’t make them --- even fictional people. Now that I have a first novel of my own, though, I find myself wondering the same thing that that random guy in D.C. wondered --- right before getting bitch-slapped by a New York Times bestselling National Book Award winner.
How much of this book is autobiographical?
I’m not going to lie, the evidence against me is pretty damning. My main character, Tom Violet, is a white male copywriter in his thirties with a wife, a daughter, and an emotionally needy dog. Me, too. And, when the book starts, Tom is at a job that he believes is slowly killing him, like asbestos. OK, I’ve been there myself. And, like Tom, my inner monologue consists almost entirely of movie references.
I guess if I’m being completely honest all I’ve done here is taken someone who’s a lot like me and made him better looking, less afraid of authority, more at ease around women, a little taller, much more charismatic, quicker on his feet, more self-destructive, a cooler dresser, and hopefully a hell of a lot more likeable. And then I unleashed him on our nation’s capital during a full-blown financial crisis.
All right, fair point. But allow me to defend myself again. In real life, my dad isn’t famous, neglectful, or a philanderer. My parents aren’t divorced. My daughter wasn’t even born when I started this book. I’ve never been anywhere near important enough to have my own office. I don’t live in D.C. My dog isn’t really that needy. And, well, none of the things that happened to Tom in this book ever actually happened to me. At least not exactly. For the most part. Give or take.
So…how much of this book is autobiographical?
I guess you’ve probably figured out by now that I don’t really know. Unlike Tom, I was never an English major, so all of these labels are frightening and confusing to me. Maybe all of it’s autobiographical. Maybe none of it is. Either way, if you ever happen to see me at a totally cool and not-at-all-nerdy author reading, you sure as hell better not ask me if it is. Because if you do…I promise that I will embarrass the living crap out of you. How’s that for a canned, unfulfilling answer?