Monday, May 17, 2010

Guest Post by Phyllis Theroux: Meeting Mrs. Chen

Recently, I was invited to a luncheon by a good friend in northern California who wanted to introduce her book club to me and my new memoir, The Journal Keeper. The food was delicious, the setting serene, and for several hours I was in the company of eight thoughtful women whose eyes sparkled with intelligence, curiosity and good humor.

One of them was Nancy Chen, a diminutive 82 year old Chinese American who had come to the United States in l948 for graduate school and never returned home. She listened intently as I read a passage from the book about my mother who came to live with me when she was 80, five years before her death.

One evening, while we were having our usual drink before dinner, the subject turned to what it would be like for me after she died. “You may not believe this,” she told me one evening, “but after I’m gone I’ll be even closer to you than I am now. All the barriers will be dissolved.”

When I finished the passage, Mrs. Chen leaned forward with a question. “Did you understand at that time what your mother was telling you?”

“Yes, I did,” I answered.

“I am the most senior person in this room,” she said. “And I can tell you that just before the end of life most people my age don’t understand what it’s all about. They are confused. Your mother was most enlightened.”

I live in Virginia. A good argument could be made that flying 3,000 miles across the country to sit around eating tuna salad with a handful of people – none of whom know Oprah Winfrey or the non-fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble – is not the most cost-effective way to market a new book. I have made that argument myself and I try as hard as most authors to maintain my little tower of importance, and do everything my publisher asks of me. But it is very chancy work.

Strike one: the important NPR interview, secured because I know her best friend, is cancelled, (a recently released Iranian hostage journalist pre-empted me). Home run: the woman napping next to me on a plane, turns out to be a lead reviewer for a major newspaper and she reviews my book. On Monday, you are flooring 1200 people at a major book and author luncheon,. Tuesday, you are in a book store, addressing five people, three of whom came with you in the same car.

Up, down, up, down. There comes a time in the book promoting process when you realize that the entire thing is basically out of your control and you might as well sit back and enjoy the very thing that makes being a writer such a wonderful, soul-satisfying profession. You get to meet people like Mrs. Chen, who are never in short supply. And soon, at Kepler’s Books, I will get to meet you. Or not. People have a lot of demands on their time. Maybe this time, you will not be there. But I have gotten into the habit of passing around a spiral notebook and asking people to please put down their name and e-mail address. It cuts down on the separation anxiety. After we have said goodbye, I have something to look back upon to remind me that you were real, that we were together, and that books are the best way in the world to expand your life. Some people have a limited capacity for new friends. But who would turn down a Mrs. Chen if she presented herself? Not I.

The Making of Book Cover from Kathy Abbott on Vimeo.

Phyllis Theroux


  1. Phyllis:

    Loved your observation that it's impossible to prepare for anything in this business. It's all about making even one person in a five-person audience feel special, I guess. Enlightening! My son's music guru tells him to never care about how many people there are in the audience but to go out and do his personal best. It's the same thing, isn't it?

    Kalpana Mohan

  2. Dear Phyllis,

    Thank you for the lovely post. And for reminding us that it's the people we meet along that way that makes the experience.