Dogged by Fame

I became a writer because I like to write. But I also did it for the attention. At one point, I wanted to be just like J.D. Salinger -- but when it turned out he was a recluse, I dropped him. I would make a terrible recluse. On the off chance that I managed to write spare, funny, intensely moving accounts of our life and times, I wanted to be pestered by an adoring public. Even at a young age, I understood that being fussed over and feted -- in short, being a Famous Writer -- would be a lot more diverting than actually sitting around, writing. And so I set out to become whatever the opposite of a reclusive writer is called. A ham bone? A showboat?

But these are not the right words to describe my first encounters with Famous Writers -- the people who came to my school to lecture during the writing portion of Women's Day in the early '70s. Gloria Steinem was charming and funny and extremely babe-a-licious in her suede miniskirts with matching boots. Novelist Lois Gould was even better -- she read aloud to us from a work in progress, and within three sentences she had uttered the words "excitable adolescent cock," getting the attention not just of the eighth-grade English class, but of all the moms who had come to have their consciousnesses raised. Given the chance, I knew I would love to write dirty scenes and read them aloud in public.

For many years, I also knew that if I wanted to both write and stand around on a stage getting attention, I would have to do them separately. Thus I wrote at home, and in public played piano and sang in a local band -- a band that, for a brief, glorious time, opened for national acts. I learned that if you play your cards right, you can siphon off some of the attention that's supposed to go to the third Neville Brother, for instance, and no one will be the wiser. Just having been in the same dressing room as John Hiatt or Warren Zevon made me pseudo-important.

That was only what I pseudo-wanted, though, so I kept writing. Eventually, I sold a book to a national publisher, was given an advance against royalties and even wrote the book. And then, finally, came a book signing at the Tattered Cover. It was heaven. The audience, which consisted of everyone I'd ever known plus everyone I'd ever written about, was receptive to my amusing remarks. My right hand cramped up from signing autographs, and people kept asking me very personal, writerly questions: What was my schedule, how do I treat my subjects, where did I get my inspiration and did I, for God's sake, have any advice for younger writers? It seemed I had arrived.

Over the next two months, however, I found that my Tattered Cover experience was an aberration. What happened in my actual life as a Famous Writer was this: I would go to a Borders bookstore in some suburb, where I would sit at a table near the magazines, trying desperately to make eye contact with men who had only popped in for the latest Sports Illustrated. Or I would stand up before a crowd of two sleepy old ladies and deliver an hour of "remarks," my voice growing louder and more desperate by the minute. Occasionally, I sold one or two books, in which I wrote long, affectionate inscriptions.

My Famous low point came in Seattle, where I appeared at Third Place Books, a very enticing shop with a multicultural food court and stage at its center. Here I howled my off-the-cuff witticisms into a microphone, disturbing some thirty people who were just trying to eat their fajitas and who kept changing tables until they were as far away from me as they could get. After that, I sat alone before a pile of books for a half hour. Then I spent $110 on other people's books and $6 on a burrito. The irony did not escape me: Here I was, living the life of a literary recluse -- in the middle of a book tour, no less.

I decided to limit my public appearances to groups that did not want to hear from a Famous Author but did want to hear about gardening, the subject of my book. In the past year, I have talked and signed at Elks lodges, Kiwanis clubs, Toastmasters meetings and ladies' garden clubs. The free lunches have been generous, the audiences more so, and I've felt at home.

So I was surprised to receive a call earlier this year from the Denver West Barnes & Noble. The events director, Elaine McDaniel wanted me to do a book signing in the spring. I thought it over and got back to her with a counterproposal: I would do the signing, but only on the eve of Mother's Day, and only if someone a lot more famous than me was appearing the same day. I figured this strategy might work as it had during my music days, when people had to sit through me if they wanted to hear Peter Himmelman. Elaine was very understanding and read me her entire roster of visiting celebrities.

There was only one whose crowd would be immense, whose appeal was international, upon whose coattails I might coast to stardom. I wanted to be on the same bill as Clifford the Big Red Dog.

The day of Clifford dawns snowy and soggy, and my babysitter cancels. I pack up my three-year-old daughter, Gus, and set off into the storm, arriving at Barnes & Noble several hours early. Several signs are displayed, including one advertising a "howling good time" with Clifford and a horrendous poster of me looking like Erma Bombeck on acid with a wheelbarrow.

"Now remember," I tell Gus, "your mom is an author. When I get up to talk, you have to be quiet, because people will want to hear what I have to say. Because I'm an author. An au--"

"Ptooey!" she says, laughing so hard she falls to the floor.

"You know who else is going to be here?" I ask.

"One more auptooey?"

"Clifford," I say casually. "Clifford the Big Red Dog."

Gus climbs back on her feet and fixes me with a penetrating gaze. "Here? Clifford?"

"Yes," I say. "Back there, in the kids' section."

"Oh," she says. "My gosh!"

With an hour to spare, we move to a very good spot by the children's stage -- but we are by no means the only audience members who have arrived so early. The children are strangely quiet and well behaved, while their parents fidget like adolescents, trading Clifford jibes. Our children have never seen Clifford on TV, we assure each other. We do not read our children Clifford books because they are so stultifyingly dull. Nothing happens in Clifford books -- his owner, Emily Elizabeth, just points to Clifford, and Clifford stands around looking very big next to things like apartment buildings and elephants. Clifford himself is nothing like any of the fine dogs of children's literature: Jack, in the Little House books; or Old Yeller; or Silver Chief, Dog of the North; or Snoopy. He acts more like a cat. You can't call him Cliff, either. What a tightass.

Of course, the Clifford we are about to see will be a function of whoever wears his big, red costume. The Clifford suit, as well as ensembles for Madeline, Raggedy Ann, Harry Potter and other notables, moves around between the various Barnes & Noble stores. Any bookstore clerk who wants to can play the part, Elaine said. It sounded like an excellent break from routine to me, but Elaine thought she'd find the experience claustrophobic. "A lot of people wear that suit," she said. "I'm sure it doesn't smell great." A clerk named Angie will wear the suit today, I happen to know. She's done this kind of thing before, she told me earlier in the week: Her parents ran a company "kind of like Hooked on Phonics," and they'd dress her in animal costumes to drum up crowds at conferences. But now, Brando-like, she was too busy getting into character to allow me in her dressing room.

"How about this?" I hear Gus tell a handful of her peers. "Clifford the Big pink dog!" The children find this very funny.

Elaine warms up the crowd by handing out red Clifford masks "so that Clifford won't be scared." She reads a Clifford book. Every once in a while, a ripple of anticipation rushes through the audience and the kids crane their necks around -- someone thinks they may have seen the Dog, but no. Several false alarms later, Elaine invites us to count down to Clifford time. At zero, Clifford again fails to materialize.

"Wonder where he is?" Elaine says pointedly. "Where could that Big Red Dog be?"

And suddenly, there Clifford is (although I see Angie's small, studious face through one of his eyeballs), being led right past us.

"Oh my gosh!" Gus squeaks. "I touched his leg! He's so nice! He's so fuzzy!"

With no thought of separation anxiety, my daughter rushes away in order to get in line for a picture with Clifford, who continues to sway gently into the crowd, his legs squeaking, his inner thighs (I can't help but notice) a bit threadbare. Once seated on the stage, he executes a few peek-a-boo gestures with his big red paws, then sits patiently as one child after another gets up on his lap for a picture. Gus's portrait turns out solemn -- but then, do you grin like a monkey when you pose with the Pope? There are at least seventy children convincing their parents to buy at least seventy Clifford books. Sensing the time is right, Elaine invites them all to mosey over to the Starbuck's area for a "discussion and signing" with me.

I grab Gus and rush back to my station. I put her in a chair, reminding her to be quiet, and clip on my microphone. A few minutes later, I hear some familiar squeaking: Clifford is approaching! Yes, he is coming over to get things rolling for me. Although he's no longer trailed by seventy kids -- much less seventy parental units and wallets -- several coffee drinkers who had been reading Martha Stewart's book on weddings are now looking around with interest. Clifford arrives in the coffee area. He starts shaking hands. He lifts his arm and indicates that everyone should me! I shake his hand. I pat his back. I take it away.

"Ladies and gentleman," I say. "That was Clifford the Big Red Dog. We are in the presence of greatness." Then I launch into my spiel, sell a half-dozen books and call it a good day's work.

But it is more than that for Gus, who sits spellbound through my whole talk. "Clifford knows you, Mom," she finally says on the way home. "You're an author."


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