Let’s Panic About Public Readings

We at TTB are excited to welcome our newest contributor to the Debut Diary – following in the lofty footsteps of KJ Howe and Kellye Garrett – Kathleen Barber! Her debut novel, ARE YOU SLEEPING, came out in August to rave reviews, and can be found on the “staff picks” or “popular reads” table at your local bookstore. She graduated from law school (don’t hold it against her) from Northwestern, and practiced in Chicago and New York before writing full time. After you finish her column, take a moment to follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/katelizabee.

By Kathleen Barber

I don’t think I’m going to shock anyone by saying there’s a lot of stress involved with publishing your debut novel. What if no one likes it? What if no one buys it? What if you only get one-star reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, and everyone laughs at it, and your publisher publicly denounces you as a failure? Okay, so that last one might not be a thing that happens anywhere other than in my nightmares, but WHAT IF?

Suffice to say I found plenty of things to freak out about leading up to publication. What I didn’t expect to worry about, though, were the public readings. Seriously, how could those be anything other than fun? Getting to share my work directly with readers? Sign me up!

And that part, of course, is beyond fantastic. Discussing the book I’ve worked so hard on for so long with readers has been the most rewarding, and most surreal, part of being a published author. I always just want to hug and squeeze every single person in the audience. But, holy schnikes, you guys, readings stress me out like nothing else.

The obvious worry is that no one will come. The week before my launch, I was in a constant state of near-panic over this, imaging it would just be me reading to my husband, mother, agent, and publicist in an otherwise empty room while an irritated bookseller looked on.

When I wasn’t freaking out about attendance, I found time to stress over timing and content. My publicist recommended I speak for 20-30 minutes, but that seemed interminably long when I practiced at home. I couldn’t imagine anyone would sit still and listen to me for that length of time; I was sure any poor souls I was able to trick into coming would lose interest and start Facebooking or playing Candy Crush or, worse, live-tweeting about my failure.

What if I lost my place while reading? What if I got my tongue twisted? The part I usually read contains the phrase “she said she,” which isn’t quite “she sells sea shells by the sea shore” but, when I’m reading in front of a crowd, it might as well be. What if I had to cough? WHAT IF I GOT THE HICCUPS?

There were so many things that could go wrong! I’m a Virgo and a bit of a control freak, so I behaved the only way I know how: I practiced and I panicked, and then I practiced some more.

On the night of my launch party, I was essentially one living, breathing mass of anxiety. I did my best to camouflage this by trading my usual author uniform of yoga pants and low-rise Converse for a pretty lace dress and heels, getting a blow-out, and painting my nails yellow to match the book’s cover, but I don’t know that I fooled anyone.

I expected my anxiety to decrease when I saw that, in fact, people had shown up for my reading, but, if anything, it only intensified. Now there was an audience to watch me flail. What had I gotten myself into? This was a terrible idea; was there still time to back out? No, there wasn’t, and suddenly everyone was seated and looking at me expectantly.

I smiled and thanked them for coming and absolutely did not tell them that I thought I was going to vomit on the podium. I launched into my prepared talk, and, despite the constant, thrumming panic vibrating through my body, everything seemed to be going fine.

And then my ankle started twitching. In my past experience, ankle-twitching is a precursor to the edges of my vision starting to fade, which is a precursor to passing out cold. I was terrified that I was going to just, you know, faint right there in front of everyone, which would have been the most mortifying thing to ever happen to me, but there was literally nothing I could do other than keep going.

I made it through the reading without losing consciousness and everyone applauded. I don’t know if I conned everyone into thinking I had things under control, or everyone was just too polite to mention that I looked like a petrified mess, but it didn’t really matter. The public speaking portion of the evening was over (thank God!), and it was time for the chatting and wine-drinking portion of the evening, which I’m much, much better at.

So here’s the bad news: If you’re anything like me, preparing for public readings may nearly incapacitate you with anxiety at a time when you’re already consumed with stress. But the good news is that it gets better. A couple days after my launch in Brooklyn, I read in my city of Washington DC and my ankle didn’t twitch at all. I was less nervous—comfortable, even—when I read the following week in Chicago and Peoria, Illinois.

Last week, I read at the public library in Galesburg, Illinois, where I grew up. In some ways, I was more nervous about this appearance than any of the ones before it. It was my largest crowd by far, and the audience was filled with my former teachers and people I’ve known all my life, as well as my mother’s friends and my brother’s colleagues. This was a roomful of people I really, really wanted to impress—I mean, two of my former English teachers were in the audience, and it’s a weird sensation reading your writing to the women who once graded your English homework.

And you know what? Despite the pressure I was putting on myself and the fear that my English teachers would be thinking that’s not how I taught her to structure a sentence, didn’t she learn anything in my class, my ankle did not twitch and I did not forget what I was going to say. I did stumble a bit over “she said she,” but, well, you can’t win them all.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of aspects of being a debut novelist for me to lose sleep over—how are sales going? will anyone ever want to read a book from me again? why haven’t I written a second book yet? —but I’m quite pleased to strike public readings from that list.

Kathleen Barber was raised in Galesburg, Illinois. She graduated from the University of Illinois and Northwestern University School of Law, and previously practiced bankruptcy law at large firms in Chicago and New York. When she’s not writing, Kathleen enjoys traveling the world with her husband.

To learn more about ARE YOU SLEEPING, click on the cover below: