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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

We, The Publicists

"Once a book is written, often the most important individual in an author's life after the editor is the public relations person. . . . Stuart S. Applebaum, chief spokesman for Random House Inc . . . describes his job this way: 'In giving life to a book, if the editor is the midwife, then we the publicists are the neo-natal nurses. All-purpose caregivers to both the newborn and the author-parent in those first six weeks.' "
--Martin Arnold, "Pitchers at the Fair," The New York Times, May 2, 2002.
When I woke up that morning there was a strange man lying in bed between me and my wife.

The stranger hadn't been there when Esther and I fell asleep last evening, shortly after the ten o'clock news. He must have crept into the house and insinuated himself in the middle of the night with the grace and guile of a cat.

Surprisingly enough, I did not immediately scream or yell or flail about or threaten or bolt from under the covers. (The stranger, thank God, lay atop the duvet, not beneath.) My unnaturally gentle and accepting reaction had more to do with the stranger's reassuring looks and calm demeanor than with any resort to common sense.

The intruder wore a very expensive suit, remarkably unwrinkled despite his night's recumbent posture. He was a clean-shaven Caucasian, fairly young, sporting an affable grin. He boasted a very nice haircut. From his hands folded across his stomach sparkled a college ring I recognized as belonging to a Princeton grad.

Generously allowing me a few moments to compose my thoughts, the stranger continued to beam at me, his tilted face just a few inches from mine. Then he reached into a coat pocket and pulled out a business card.

Feeling as if I were still dreaming, I took the card. I found my specs, donned them, and read the card.

Hapwood S. Stutterbalm, Chief Publicist
Rumdum House Publishing

Stutterbalm extended his hand for a shake, and I timorously took it. "Mr. McFoozel--may I call you Ken?--it's a pleasure to meet you at last. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed your book in manuscript. It's Rumdum House's very great privilege to publish your authorized biography of Britney Spears, She's Stoopid to Conquer, and I'm here now and for the next six weeks to make sure we maximize all the impact and rewards from your hard work and authorial brilliance."

Of course, these were the kind of words every author dreams of hearing from his publisher, and I felt somewhat more kindly disposed to Stutterbalm, despite his unconventional entrance into my life. Still, I was at a loss as to how to treat this nocturnal intrusion.

Esther, always a heavy sleeper, moaned and mumbled, "Ken, shut the clock-radio off. . . . " She pulled the covers up over her head, and I could see that she was going to be absolutely no help in this situation.

"Mr. Stutterbalm--"

"Hapwood, please. Or Hap. Whatever makes it easier for us to work together."

I found it impossible to raise any anger in the face of this disarming desire to accomodate me. "Well, uh, Hap, could we continue this conversation in the kitchen, please?"

"Certainly."

I slipped out of bed, scuffled into my slippers, donned my robe, and headed for the bathroom.

Stutterbalm vaulted agilely out of bed, and seemed ready to follow me into the john. He had a PDA in his hand and seemed to be inditing notes with his stylus.

"Please, er, Hap, could I have some privacy for just a moment?"

"But Ken, it's so important that I monitor all the intimate aspects of your life. There's no telling what small detail might lead to a valuable tie-in for your book. For instance, based on what brand of toothpaste or toilet tissue you use, we might be able to bring onboard a co-sponsor for your book-signing tour. We've already got you booked in forty-five cities, after all, at not inconsiderable expense."

Forty-five cities? I had needed six months to recover from my last tour, a ten-city number for my YA biography of the Russian president, Rootin' Tootin', Sure-shootin' Putin. What had I ever gotten myself into by accepting this latest assignment? The last female pop singer I had enjoyed listening to had been Carly Simon. I silently cursed my agent, and swore that I would never do another book on any starlet younger than seventy-two.

Stutterbalm waited patiently, stylus posed, a cocker-spaniel eagerness on his face. Forty-five cities indeed implied a certain level of sales. . . .

"Oh, all right, you can come in. But at least turn your back while I use the toilet."

"Of course, Ken!"

In the kitchen, Stutterbalm insisted on brewing the coffee and fixing me a large breakfast, all with gourmet provisions he had brought with him. When he placed my plate in front of me, I noted that he had made no arrangement for his own breakfast.

"Aren't you going to eat too?"

"Not right now. Truly dedicated publicists generally fast during the six weeks while they're nursing a book along. I'll have a protein shake at noon. Right now we have to utilize every minute to groom and coach you for the rigors ahead. Just let me set up this camera--"

Unpacking a duffel bag he must have previously planted, Stutterbalm erected a video camera on a tripod, as well as some small studio lights. He snapped on the fixtures and I flinched at the wash of harsh radiance. He activated the camera and sat down across from me.

"We'll skip the makeup just this once. Please, Ken, eat up! This will be good practice for conducting interviews over coffee and Danish. Now, I'll play the part of the interviewer, and you just be yourself."

The mock interview lasted half an hour, during which I failed to taste a single forkful that went into my mouth. When we were done, Stutterbalm reviewed my performance in the camera's small screen, clucking his tongue all the while.

"Well, Ken, I'm afraid we have a long road to travel before you're fit to appear on national TV. For one thing, we need to do something about that haircut."

"But, but--I've been wearing my hair like this for years."

"Exactly the problem. Let me make an appointment for you for this afternoon with my stylist." Whipping out his cell phone, Stutterbalm did just that. "Now, let's try on some new clothes I've taken the liberty of bringing."

As Stutterbalm was expertly hemming the cuffs on my new trousers, Esther drooped into the kitchen. She was taken aback at first by this impromptu fitting, but when I explained that it was all part of the publicity for my new book, she just shrugged and poured herself some coffee.

"Try some of those croissants, Mrs. McFoozel. They're from a little bakery on the Upper West Side."

"Mmmm, delicious!"

How cheaply and quickly Esther had been won over by this PR tyrant! Was I being an ingrate by harboring some small vestiges of resentment at this dictatorial treatment?

Stutterbalm erased chalk marks off my tailored jacket. "There, perfect! Now, let's see your walk, Ken. Pretend you're crossing the stage to receive a Pulitzer."

"For a biography of Britney Spears?"

"It could happen," said Stutterbalm, winking and making a money-rubbing gesture with his fingertips.

I pranced up and down the kitchen for ten minutes, trying vainly to follow Stutterbalm's suggestions about varying my stride. At last I had had enough of this vainglorious strutting, and said so.

"That's fine, Ken, we can work more on the walk later. There're plenty of other task to tackle. Let's see your standard signature. No, no, much too time-consuming. You want to shorten it. After all, you might be doing thousands per day."

"Th--thousands?"

"Let's work a little on your personal bio sheet. I've got the one from your last book here. The first thing we've got to change is your birth date. What say we make it, oh, 1972?"

"Do I look thirty years old to you?"

"Oh, don't worry, we've budgeted plastic surgery." Esther looked up from the newspaper hopefully. "Oh, yes, Mrs. McFoozel, for you as well."

"But I--"

"Now, about your hobbies. We've changed them to spearfishing, snowboarding and bungee-jumping. Naturally you'll need to acquire a modicum of proficiency in each of these areas."

"I can't swim! And I never go out in the snow without my galoshes."

"Tut-tut, Ken. Everything will soon be different. There's nothing that can't be accomplished with a little effort and enough money. Don't underestimate my determination or perseverance. You're looking at a fellow who's driven countless producers to madness and beyond."

I collapsed into a chair. "And that's just where you're driving me! I just don't think I'm up to the level of involvement in the publicity machine that you're demanding of me."

Stutterbalm patted me tenderly on the shoulder. "There, there, Ken. We've anticipated that possibility as well. Take a look at these photos."

I studied a sheaf of headshots. "Who are all these smiling idiots?"

"Eager young actors and models looking to bulk up their CV. Any one of them will happily stand in for you throughout this whole process. A simple Mission: Impossible-style latex mask is all we need to fool your fans. Your signature right here makes it happen--"

The documents appeared with suspicious alacrity. But I nonetheless signed the forms as quickly as I could.

"Very good. Never let it be said that we were unwilling to give you a chance at the limelight, Ken. I'm sorry it had to end this way, but I suspected it might, based on my many years as a 'nurse' to authors. After all, as we publicists traditionally say: an actor masquerading as a writer is always a better bet than a writer masquerading as an actor."

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