A few readers have asked about unusual or bad reading/signing experiences. So here are my top five. I'm sure there are writers who have had much stranger experiences.
#5 – World Horror Convention II, 1993
My reading at the second World Horror Convention, in Nashville, Tennessee, was probably the lowest point for me of any reading. No one was there except my wife, Ann. I was going to just leave, but Ann insisted I read anyway. So I launched into “The Bone-Carver’s Tale.” About fifteen minutes into the reading, two people showed up. It was still the loneliest reading I’ve ever endured and I came out of it convinced that I was never going to amount to a hill of beans.
#4 – Disease Guide Reading, Undisclosed Location to Protect the Guilty, 2003
The craziness that constituted the readings in support of the Night Shade hardcover edition of the fake disease guide covered chain and indie bookstores in several major cities. (We had amazing support from, among others, Borders.) However, some of the bookstores clearly hadn’t done their homework. At one reading where we all showed up complete with our stethoscopes, plastic livers, stuffed animal disease microbes, and lab coats, I was cornered by a bookstore clerk who wanted me to diagnose a chronic problem with his knee. “No, I’m not a doctor,” I explained. “You need to see a professional.” “Okay, so maybe it’s not your specialty, doctor,” he replied, “but you could still take a look at it.” “I’m not a doctor,” I insisted. “Just take a look, doc,” he said. “It’s been hurting for a long time.” Eventually, I got free of this guy. But it took most of the night.
#3 – New Orleans, Independent Book Fair, 2002
The fair took place at the marvelous Barrister’s Gallery, with the readings occurred in a space behind the gallery: a phalanx of white plastic chairs, with a single chair and microphone stand at the front. It looked a little like the kind of space in which someone reads a eulogy to the dearly departed. The reader before me, a poet who did not seem to know her good lines from her bad lines, who went from atonal renderings to really wonderful rhyming couplets, as lithe as a hummingbird hovering over a flower, finished on a triumphant note to polite applause. The audience consisted of about 15 to 20 people, including writer Mike Korn. The organizer of the event introduced me and I went up and explained a little about the hardcover City of Saints and the imaginary city it describes, Ambergris. I then launched into my gallery scene, in which our hero, the artist Martin Lake, must endure conversation with a potential buyer who thinks the painting in question is too large and wants it reduced in size. The excerpt includes Lake’s laughably arch arrogance, an aside about the use of earwax to establish amber tones in paintings, and much else besides.
Three paragraphs in I was certain I had crashed a funeral ceremony, only where was the body? Gradually, I realized the corpse was me, not yet boxed, still behind the microphone. I looked up from time to time to a sea of indifference and mouths set as straight as dashes. As I went into the funniest parts, the silence grew and became more intense. I found myself rushing to get through the reading, knowing that It had Gone South, into the Gulf of Mexico, carried by the silty waters of the Mississippi. Any success I might have had was bobbing up and down in the waves right about now, along with other flotsam and jetsam. By the time I reached the font note section, I might as well have been in a morgue reading off body parts in a monotone, or among the stainless steel tables of a forensic pathologist’s laboratory. The white backs of the plastic chairs were like tombstones. Not a smile. Not a flicker of a smile. I was sweating. I was laughing—I couldn’t help it. The scene was just too surreal.
Mercifully, the reading ended and I rocketed off the stage and back into the insanity of the book fair. Never one to give up, I read the same material at the World Fantasy Convention to much laughter, but I can honestly say the reading I did at the New Orleans Book Fair, to a bunch of supposed anarchists, was a complete failure. I felt as though I should turn myself in to the police.
After that, it was more despondent heat. Mike Korn did his best to reassure me, even though I was beyond reassurance. "It wasn't that bad," he said. "It didn't suck." "They weren't the right audience." "You can't trust these Bohemian types to get it." "Well, I was laughing. At least I was laughing."
#2 – Eastercon—Blackpool, 2004
I’ve never encountered a situation where it appeared that the con organizers did not want the public to be able to attend the author readings. (While I was thrilled to be there, I couldn’t help but wonder when I saw that the day after the con, the convention center would be playing host to a double billing of Engelbert Humperdink and Sean Cassidy.) At the appropriate time, I tried to find the location. It was nearly impossible. After much backtracking and a fair number of questions to passersby, we finally figured it out. The readings turned out to be down a long corridor, across a ballroom dance floor, up a spiral staircase, through a bewildering number of wood-paneled rooms, and through yet another door, where Ann and I found ourselves confronted by...about a dozen writers, all of whom had found the place eventually. No audience members had. (Rather reminded me of the Monty Python skit where the lascivious woman invites the milk man in, only to imprison him in a room with about a hundred other milk men.) The room wasn’t marked. The directions weren’t in the schedule. So Jeff Ford, Liz Williams, Gwyneth Jones, Jay Caselberg, Neil Williamson, myself, and several others stared at each other for about twenty minutes, before deciding to disperse. This was after having discovered that Blackpool itself could seem a bit like Clock Orange mixed with The Prisoner mixed with pigeon vomit.
#1 – Seeing My Own Blood, Tallahassee, 2004
The Tallahassee disease guide reading, with Michael Bishop, Nathan Ballingrud, R.M. Berry, and Brian Evenson, was a great success. But, at the signing afterwards, disaster struck. I looked up from the book I was signing to talk to the person I was signing it for, and I managed to stab myself in the skin between thumb and forefinger. I had been holding the book open with one hand and trying to sign it with the other. I’d missed the page and sent the pen deep into the meat of my hand. And I was now bleeding all over the book. This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever done at a reading. But the person I was signing it for was elated that I’d bled on the book. So I guess it all turned out okay.