Around Labor Day I appeared twice at California Expo State Fair Author’s Booth in Sacramento, CA. There were 38 of us writers scheduled to appear over the two-week period. I was thrilled because a year before I had been on the other side of the booth, listening to other writers talk about their books. And now I had the chance to be one of them.
The booth was in the center of the first floor of a building overflowing with enticing displays from all the California counties. It was an old barn of a warehouse in fact, without lighting, wireless access, enough electrical outlets or sound insulation. I sat with four other writers looking out long picnic tables where fairgoers devoured chocolate-covered berries, sticky cinnamon buns, thick pizza, sourdough chowder bowls and funnel cakes. Our job was to talk to people, sell our books, and read our work if we chose.
I learned from the other authors how to take charge no matter what the environment. The engaging journalist-historian and a children’s writer on either side of me wooed the crowd in different ways, using their passion for their books to fuel one-time intimate conversations. When not talking, the journalist took copious notes from an old book about Sacramento, his next history project. In a very soft voice, the children’s writer prompted passers-by to lean over the table to better hear her.
The experience of carrying on conversations with strangers about my book or any book was fascinating, if nebulous. The second time I appeared was a Thursday and a slow day for the fair. Some people stopped to look, some to talk. I met a man who worked for the National Park Service and was the planner for Chaco Canyon National Park during the 1980s. He actually got the rare chance to go to the top of Fajada Butte and see the sun dagger during the solstices. After our enthusiastic conversation about the primitive terrain into the canyon, he bought my book.
Unlike opening day when there had been no microphone, this time there was one and I was determined to read. I had signed up to appear at 3:15 PM, allotting a little over a quarter hour for my appearance. My young friend, Josh, was there to accompany me with his Native American singing and drumming. Still I felt challenged, knowing my audience was hit-or-miss, random folk milling about. Would I be able to attract their interest enough to stop and sit down on the folding chairs and be caught up in my story?
I did find an audience. There was one family of four, including children, who sat near the front. The father listened intently as I read about the Navajo and Hopi views of a vision quest. I remember a few single people sitting at the end. There was at least one couple toward the back. An intent young man near the center. Who else? My good friend, Rose, from Concord was there to support me. I felt so grateful.
I had practiced all the previous week, talking into my tape recorder, writing out an outline. But looking out at the people wandering by, only vaguely aware of me on the stage, I became distracted. Rushing past my own confusion, I started reading from Chapter 16, Vision Quest, where a group of people from a San Francisco Bay Area sweat lodge ends up in Chaco Canyon.
I held the microphone to my lips as Josh drummed four different times while the scenes changed and then finished by singing a Sundance song. His song was great. But there was so much noise in that cavernous building! So many distractions; for example, a rock climbing demonstration area was located right next to the stage.
Time flew by. From my proceeds, I wrote a check for California Sales Tax to Naida West, the Author’s Booth organizer and an outstanding novelist of California history with a Native American point of view. I won’t forget those people who talked with me, who listened to my story, and I to theirs. My spirits were high when I drove home.