Last month, I went to a poetry reading, something I hadn’t done in years. This month, it’s an author reading/Q&A/book signing for a novel. The author is Robert Alexander, the novel, an historical one entitled The Romanov Bride. Robert Alexander is the pen name (for historical novels) of R. D. Zimmerman, who’s written 13 or 14 mystery novels under that name, and half a dozen children’s books under the name Robert Masters. I’ve known RD for a long time — it makes me feel old when I think of how long. I typed his first mystery book manuscript before he sent it off to his first agent. So it was a genuine pleasure to attend the reading last Thursday evening at a Barnes & Noble store.
Book reading/signings are an important part of marketing a book. The tours, however, can be grueling — the “if it’s Tuesday this must be Vienna, Virginia” variety. People are curious about an author, and if it’s a group of avid fans and loyal readers, they’ll want to meet the author and have him/her sign their copy of the book. I sat in an audience the other night of interested readers and fans, with one couple to my right who were simply curious about what an author reading is. They left about halfway through. I don’t think the subject matter interested them.
Barnes & Noble did a good job for RD. They had set up a display table with books directly in front of the main entrance. The sign on the table reminded customers of the reading. The event area in this particular store is open, clean, very well lit, and the sound system worked. They had set up another larger table to the right of the lectern for a display of all three of RD’s historical novels — stacks of novels. A table and chair stood to the lectern’s left for the signing afterward. I watched people trickle in — the majority female (unsurprising), middle-aged, a handful of younger women, a handful of middle-aged men. I spotted book group materials on chairs, and the young woman to my left held an open notebook and poised pen. The background for this event area was also pleasant: fine art books, an array of coffee table books directly behind the lectern.
RD arrived at the appointed time for the reading to begin. While he readied himself, the B&N employee in charge of events called us to order and outlined the evening. He gave RD a short introduction and then RD was talking about how he became interested in Russia, creative writing, and how the two influenced his life, finally coming together in his first mystery book. He told stories of his experiences living and working in Russia in the late 1970’s when the KGB took a great interest in foreigners. My favorite story to this day is when he missed the bus to his job on the touring USIA exhibit in Kazahkstan. No taxis, no alternative transport to get to the exhibit. So, he returned to his room, looked up at the chandelier hanging from the ceiling and asked, “Could I have a car and driver, please?” Clearly the KGB had bugged the chandelier. When he returned to the main entrance, a car and driver waited for him.
As I listened to RD describe what sparked his first historical, The Kitchen Boy, and his extensive research for it, I could hear excitement in his voice. He loved turn of the 20th century Russia, the Bolshevik Revolution, Rasputin, the Romanovs. I realized that it is true, anyone can write. However, not everyone is a Writer. RD is a great example of what makes a Writer: a lifelong obsession (Russia) with the desire to share it with others plus a passion for storytelling. Then it takes time to hone the craft of writing: being able to utilize all the elements of narrative to tell the story well, and of course, memorably. Not everyone can combine the two successfully.
RD never got around to actually reading from The Romanov Bride after he’d shared some photos of her and outlined her story from his research. I don’t think anyone minded. RD handed out bookmarks he’d had designed in Russia, then sat down at the table to sign our books. The B&N guy stood next to the table, asking each person if he or she wanted his book personalized. I thought immediately, “crowd control.” An effective way to insure an orderly line and not overwhelm the writer at the table.
It was great to see RD and hear about his Russian experiences and novels (click on his name in the first paragraph to check out his website). It was great to spend the evening with a Writer….