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STRANGER THAN FICTION

The Baltimore Sun

Best-selling author Jodi Picoult won't ever forget what happened at one of her recent book signings. She was promoting her novel My Sister's Keeper at a library in Michigan when someone in the crowd raised a hand and asked why she didn't write nonfiction.

"I'd be paralyzed" with worry, Picoult answered, noting the importance of keeping facts scrupulously straight in a book. After all, she said, look at what happened to James Frey, who was publicly assailed by Oprah Winfrey for making up parts of his memoir she'd chosen for her television show's book club.

The book signing continued smoothly until the library's director brought over a local couple and introduced them to Picoult. They were Frey's parents, who'd overheard her comments.

"I nearly swallowed my tongue," Picoult wrote in an e-mail.

When big-name authors go on a book tour, anything can happen. Most of the year, novelists are sequestered with their computers and coffeepots as they delve into the imaginary worlds they create. But when their books hit stores, they need to shake off their hibernation and meet readers in an effort to amp up sales - which can lead to scenes that are more entertaining than fiction.

Take Karin Slaughter, whose new book is titled Beyond Reach. Slaughter's weakness for chocolate-chip cookies kicked into high gear when a fan approached her with a plate of homemade cookies just before Slaughter gave a reading.

"The whole time I'm doing my spiel, I'm thinking, 'Cookies, cookies ... how long until I get to eat the cookies?'" Slaughter said, laughing. Then the thought struck her: What if they were poisoned? (She writes thrillers.)

Slaughter eyed the author escort who was spending the day driving her to interviews: "He'll be my canary in the coal mine," she decided. She urged him to eat a cookie. He survived, but Slaughter wasn't convinced that her fan hadn't used a slow-acting poison. (Plot twists like this are why Slaughter sells so well). So she left the cookies in his car, reasoning that if her escort were still breathing when he picked her up the next morning, she'd devour them. The next morning, he showed up looking extremely healthy. One might even say well-fed. The cookie plate? Empty.

"But you kept telling me to have as many as I liked," Slaughter recalled him saying. Then, she said, he twisted the knife: "And they were so good!"

Possibly worse than fans proffering plates of potentially arsenic-laced cookies are no fans at all. Just ask Jennifer Weiner, whose string of hit books didn't guarantee her the glamorous author experience she'd dreamed about.

"I was standing behind the information desk at Borders in D.C., [signing] a stack of In Her Shoes," Weiner said. "This woman was looking at me, and I'm like, 'Maybe she read the book and she's working up her courage to say hi. She's smiling, and I'm smiling, and she walks over and I get myself ready, thinking, 'This is my moment!' And she says, 'Can I have a token for the bathroom?'"

If speaking before a crowd is one of the greatest fears of humans, then speaking to an empty room must be the biggest fear of novelists.

Larry Doyle, a former writer for The Simpsons, endured an excruciating reading in San Francisco when his first novel was published a few months ago. Doyle entered the bookstore in style, accompanied by an author escort, only to find that an audience of one was waiting for him. ("The traffic," Doyle said. "It must have been the traffic.")

"Do you still want me to read?" Doyle asked his fan, who was a middle-age woman wearing big eyeglasses. She said yes, so he stepped away from the podium and pulled up a chair in front of her. He read from his novel I Love You, Beth Cooper for about 15 minutes while she blinked at him with her "tiny eyes" and showed absolutely no emotion.

Then she left without buying a book.

"It's almost worse than having no one show up," said Doyle, who moved to Baltimore two years ago. "If no one shows up, you go get a drink.

No author, no matter how successful, seems to have escaped the terror of a row of empty seats and a stack of freshly minted books that their publishers are counting on them to sell.

"When I started out," remembered chart-topping author Harlan Coben, "I had the most depressing book signings." He was speaking via cell phone from Belfast, Northern Ireland, during a book tour that included stops in London and at the premiere of a French movie based on his novel Tell No One.

But life wasn't always so exciting for Coben: In the beginning, "the most common question [I got] was, 'Where are John Grisham's books?'" he said.

That's depressing enough, but pity the author whose book comes out on the same day as one of Grisham's new novels. Or worse still - on the same day as that plucky boy wizard with the lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead. Novelist Ayelet Waldman must love kids - she has four, after all - but it's probably safe to say that she wishes Harry Potter had succumbed to Lord Voldemort long ago.

Waldman, author of Love and Other Impossible Pursuits and the wife of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, remembers a book signing that was almost as isolating as the writing process.

"My very first book was published on the same day that one of the Harry Potter books was published," she said. "I sat at a table at Waldenbooks telling people, 'Right down the hall and turn left.' I didn't sell a single book, but I gave many, many people directions" to the stacks of new J.K. Rowling books.

Which raises the question: Is it worse to have no fans show up at your reading, or to face a fan who may be a touch off-kilter?

Eric Jerome Dickey, author of the recent novel Waking With Enemies, remembers an encounter with his biggest fan, a woman who could give ankle-smashing Kathy Bates a run for her money. She appeared normal at first, just another smiling face in the long line of people waiting to buy Dickey's novel. He greeted her, then autographed his book and added a little personal note, as is his custom. His fan had brought along a friend who was also buying his book, so Dickey signed her book, too, before moving on to the next person in line.

Then a shriek erupted: "You wrote more words in her book!"

His fan forced her way back into line, tears filling her eyes, as her so-called friend made smug faces and all but did a victory dance. His fan forced Dickey to add another line to his inscription in her book, then triumphantly thrust the book into her friend's face.

"Scary," Dickey said. "They actually counted the words."

It's enough to make a novelist head back into hibernation - at least until the next book tour.

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