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June 2002
 
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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

Press One for Literature

"The May meeting of the Bedford-Shire Book Group was a bit out of the ordinary. . . . [T]he phone rang [and] on the line was Donna Woolfolk Cross, the author of the group's reading selection. For the next hour and a half, via speakerphone, Ms. Cross led a discussion about her historical novel Pope Joan. . . . [S]ince Pope Joan came out in paperback nearly four years ago, she has placed calls to more than 350 book groups, sometimes devoting four or five evenings a week to the practice. . . . [On her website] Ms. Cross offers to call any group that chooses the book. . . . "
--Pamela LiCalzi O'Connell, "Authors Go Directly to Reader With Marketing," The New York Times, May 28, 2001.
Of course the phone rang just when the whole blessed family was sitting down to dinner. I had worked for hours that day making the family's favorite meal: fried chicken according to Aunt Minnie's classic recipe, pineapple jello salad from a feature in Woman's World, fresh green beans with almond slices (that garnish was my own idea), and, for dessert, peach cobbler. And now the whole beautiful banquet was going to go cold (or in the case of the jello salad, get warm), due to some stupid telemarketer. Sam and the kids looked at me expectantly. Not one of the four seemed willing or able to get up from the table and answer the ringing phone. So I sighed, wiped my hands on my apron and said, "Oh, all right, I'll get it!"
"Cut 'em off quick," Sam said. "I can hardly wait to dig in!"
"Me too!" chimed Greg, the oldest. The twins, Lisa and Amy, weighed in with a wailed "We're starving!"
Naturally, I was a little curt with my hello. But the perky female voice on the other end of the line didn't seem to notice or mind my irritation.
"Hello! Am I speaking to Wanda Jo Brasch?"
"Yes. How can I help you?"
"This is Nora Roberts, the author, calling."
I could hardly believe my ears. "Is this some kind of joke? Madge, is that you?"
"I'm not your friend, Madge, Wanda Jo. May I call you by your first name? I'd like you to call me Nora."
"Well, that's all right, I guess--Nora." Sam and the kids were making shoveling motions with their empty forks to indicate I should wind this up. But I couldn't just end this interesting interruption so abruptly, without letting this woman tell me why she was calling. What if I really was talking to the one and only Nora Roberts?
"Wanda Jo, a little bird tells me that you're currently reading one of my books. Is that correct?"

"Why, uh, yes, it is. However did you know?"
"Oh, just a simple combination of access to your purchase records at Border's and some friendly neighborhood snooping by a reputable nationwide agency. May I ask how you're enjoying it?"
"Oh, it's great. Maybe not as good as your last one, but easily as enjoyable as the one before that."

"Wanda Jo, I appreciate your frankness. Such candor is precisely the reason I'm calling. I need feedback like yours to help make my next book as good as possible. And I want to insure that you enjoy this current one as much as its hopefully minor flaws will permit. Do you have an hour or so free now so we can have a cozy chat about the novel?" Greg was clutching his stomach and miming cramps. Sam had buried his head in his folded arms upon the table. The twins were turning red as they held their breath.
"Um, Nora, this is not such a great time. Could you call back later tonight?"
"Certainly, Wanda Jo. I understand intimately the unspoken depths and heights of family dynamics. That's why the last five of my novels have all perched on the bestseller lists for an average of ten weeks apiece. We'll talk later. Goodbye, and thanks for your time."
I hung up, feeling rather dazed. Luckily, not one of my "starving" family members even inquired about the nature of the call, which was fine, since I didn't feel I could really explain.
Just as the basket of chicken was being passed around, the phone rang again.
Sam bolted to his feet. "I'll get this one! We're not going to have another gabfest with strangers stalling our dinner!"
Sam practically yanked the phone off the wall and yelled, "Yes, who is this!" But he immediately calmed down. "Well, of course I do, I just bought a copy. Man, you know I do! Right now?" He glanced toward me and his glowering offspring, then said, "Jeez, I can't right at the minute, Kenny. You'll call back? Great!"
Returning to his seat, Sam was practically glowing. "Can you all guess who that was? Kenny Rogers! He knew somehow that I had picked up his autobiography yesterday at the airport bookstore, and he wanted to fill me in on some of the saucy stuff that his lawyers made him leave out!"
Greg said, "Cool, you got a call from some boring old hillbilly. Can we eat now, please?"
"Greg, you watch how you talk to your father. Apologize right now."
"Oh, man. . . . Sooorr-ee!"
Our plates were half filled when the phone rang yet again. As if to make up for his smart mouth and maybe to deal more quickly with these annoying calls than his elders could, Greg jumped up to answer.

"Wassup? No way! Yeah, Mick, it rocked! An hour? Can't do it, big guy. Later for sure, though. Chill."
Now it was Greg's turn to strut. "You know anyone else at Ogilvy High who gets calls from big name pro wrestlers? That was Mick 'Mankind' Foley, asking me what I thought of his last book. I figure I'll tell him to put more pictures of half-naked chicks in."

Well, boys will be boys.
We managed actually to savor a few bites before the phone rang again. I caught it this time.
"Girls, it's for you."
Lisa and Amy held the receiver between them so they could both hear. Immediately they let loose that dual squeal of theirs that once actually shattered Uncle Henry's commemorative Gallo wine decanter. "Oh, that is so fabulous! Sure, we're wearing your clothes right now! And your book! Of course we've got your book! Oh, darn, we're in the middle of dinner. You really don't mind? Okay, bye!"
The two girls practically threw themselves on me, almost making me spill some Crystal Light. "Mom, Mom, that was Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen! We talked to the Olsen Twins! Everyone at school is going to be like so super-jealous!"
"Well now, girls, the Olsen Twins might very well be calling other people up tonight too. We can't be the only lucky ones in town. In fact, I bet authors all across this great nation of ours are phoning households everywhere even as we speak, just to see if their readers are happy. That's what makes them such special people, worthy of our respect and admiration. Now, sit down and tuck in."
We ate in silence for a while. All of us, I guess, were contemplating what they'd say when they got their return calls tonight from Nora, Kenny, "Mankind" and the Olsens. A niggling little worry occurred to me then. But Greg, God bless him, opened his mouth and I was certain he was reading my mind and would say something about adding another line to the house when he surprised me instead with, "I will just have to read President Clinton's memoir next!"

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