I Am Not Tom Wolfe: Celebrating Ten Years of Piano Girl

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New York City, 2005, Piano Girl launch!

Rewind: 2005, Book Expo America, New York City

I am not Tom Wolfe, although I do own a white suit. But today I am wearing a pink dress, purchased this morning during a panicked twenty minute shopping spree at Anthropolgie. What does an author wear, anyway? I’ve got the Piano Girl wardrobe covered, but I can’t very well sport a black evening gown at eleven in the morning. Tom Wolfe stands next to me, and he’s wearing the suit. He looks just as he appears on his book jackets—eccentric, a little arrogant, foppish. I’m bonding with him, even though he has cast nary an eye in my direction. His agent, his publisher, and two or three other well-dressed minions hover nearby. Perhaps one of them keeps the suit clean.

I don’t have an entourage or a minion with me, but I do have lovely Nina by my side. Nina is the PR director for Backbeat Books, my publisher.

We’re guests at Book Expo America, held at the Javits Center in New York City, a convention hall with bad florescent lighting, rock-hard floors, and acres of space for publishers to hawk the newest additions to their catalogs. Because Piano Girl has been awarded a Publishers Weekly Starred Review, I’ve been invited to take part in the traditional Autograph Circle, a name that brings to mind large gatherings of businessmen playing African hand drums. I’m not far off—there’s a lot of chest thumping going on here today. The Autograph Circle, as far as I can tell, offers an efficient way for publishers to create buzz. It also gives conference attendees a chance to score free books from their favorite authors. I’m flattered to be in the small group of authors selected for this event, but a little concerned about the set-up. As a debut author, I’m hardly anyone’s favorite anything.

Writers sit behind podiums next to stacks of their books. A long empty aisle stretches out in front of each author. When the bell rings—ping!— a gate opens and loyal fans swoop down each aisle. One at a time, they meet the favored author, and collect the coveted book, along with the author’s signature. A fine system, assuming one has loyal fans.

“Nina, no one knows me. This is my first book. It’s about playing the piano in hotel bars. The people who like me are currently circling the Marriott Marquis bar, slurping down pina coladas, knocking back martinis, and eating pretzel nubs. Who will be in my line? No one!”

“Don’t be silly,” Nina says. “There’s a lot of buzz about your book. I know about buzz. And besides, that pink dress is, like, perfect. You might want to check your lipstick, though. It’s getting cakey. But really, I love the dress.”

“No match for the white suit,” I say.

“I know,” she says. “Isn’t Tom just dreamy?”

We’ve got Piano Girl books piled high on a table. I can’t imagine who will want them. Maybe the people I wrote about? Tempest Storm, the Gay Baron, Hans the International Tenor, Grandpa Bookie Brown, Roy Boy? They’re busy, dead, or too drunk to care. Tom Wolfe has sold millions of books. I’ve yet to sell my first copy. And what’s all this nonsense about buzz, buzz, buzz? As far as I can tell, the only buzz we’ve created occurred yesterday afternoon, when Backbeat hired a bartender to stand in front of the Piano Girl display and serve happy hour Blue Hawaiian cocktails to anyone willing to talk to me. People lined up for the blue drinks, not for the book, but, hey, buzz is buzz.

Today, for the Autograph Circle, we’re missing the cocktails. No bartender, no buzz, no crowd. At least not in my line.

The bell rings—ping!—and the gates open. Fans flood into Tom Wolfe’s aisle—a mad dash down the lane to the man in the ice cream suit. For a second I think a riot might break out as fans jostle and shove to get to the front of Tom’s line.

“Nina,” I say. “There is no one in my line. No one. I told you this was a bad idea. We need the bartender.”

“We could only afford the bartender for one day. And we’re giving away free books. Isn’t that enough?”

“Evidently not.”

“Look, don’t panic. Sit there and smile,” Nina says. “I‘ll think of something.”

Nina “Buzz” Lesowitz always thinks of something; she’s beyond resourceful. But today, I’m doubtful. Hundreds of people propel themselves—human scud missiles—towards various authors. But my lane looks like Death Valley at the Javits Center, a parched canyon of solitude.

Wait! A solitary figure ambles down the aisle toward my desk. Waddles, actually. Is she limping?

“Look!” says Nina. “A fan! See? You have a fan!”

The aisle stretches a good fifty yards. I have to squint to see my fan. The woman draws closer. I’d recognize that walk anywhere.

“Nina, that’s no fan.”

“Of course it is,” says Nina.

“No it’s not,” I say. “That’s Sue.”

“Sue who?”

Sue, that’s who. She’s in Piano Girl. The college student with rigatoni stains on her sweatshirt? The philosophy major? I didn’t write very nice things about her.”

“Who cares,” says Nina. “Sue is in your line. We love Sue! Sue is our best friend. Sue is your fan.”

“Nina, she might be here to kill me. Look, she’s got that Kathy Bates Misery gleam in her eyes. She might have a baseball bat in her NPR tote bag.”

Misery was a great film.”

“Nina! What should I do?” Sue is gaining ground and she might be packing heat. I look like a stuffed author—a fan-less target, a literary bullseye. Maybe if I remain very still, Sue will think I’m either a memoir-writing taxidermy specimen or made of wax. Maybe she’ll walk away.

“Stay here and talk to our friend Sue while I recruit some more fans.”

“Nina! Wait!” I’m scared to stay here by myself. And I don’t think it’s possible to recruit fans. Either they’re fans or they’re not, right? But Nina has fled into the crowd, poaching fans from other authors and bribing them to step over to my aisle. Take a walk on the wild side. What’s she promising them? Drinks? Cash? Sexual favors? I almost don’t care. A few of my new fans begin to trickle towards me. But first I must deal with Sue.

“Welcome, Sue! Wow, what a delight to see you.”

“Hello, Robin.”

“So! Sue! It has been, how long?”

“Twenty-six and a half years. Loved Piano Girl. I got an advance copy,” she says. Her eyes shift back and forth. I wonder what she has in that tote bag. I envision a chain saw or an ice pick. Maybe a bloodied sledgehammer.

“Oh. Really? Thank you. Love your sweater.”

“Will you sign this for me?”

“Sure. So what brings you to Book Expo America?”

“I’m a publisher,” she says. “Science books.”

“Wow. Science books.” Yesterday’s rigatoni-stained college student is today’s purveyor of chemistry textbooks. There’s a lesson to be learned here, but I don’t know what it is. I wonder what kind of drinks they’re distributing upstairs at the science booth.

“Next!” yells Nina, who has returned from her fan foraging. She practically pushes Sue out of the way. Having coerced a dozen Tom Wolfe fans into my line, she sets about trying to make me look busy and successful.

“Nice to see you, Sue!” I say. Sue turns around and clumps down the exit aisle. I feel like I’m in Walmart. Clean-up, aisle four!

“Step right up,” says Nina, somehow managing to combine California élan with circus-barker barking. “Meet Robin Goldsby.”

“Hello!” I say—perhaps a tad too enthusiastically—to the next man in line. Would you like the book personalized, or with just a signature?” Nina told me most of the fans prefer a simple signature, so they can give the book away later or sell it online.

“Don’t care,” says the man. “I’m your friend Robin Spielberg’s second cousin by marriage. She told me if I didn’t show up in your line she would never talk to me again. I really wanted Tom Wolfe’s book, but I’ll settle for yours.”

“Well. Glad to be of service. I’ll be sure to tell Ms. Spielberg you stopped by. Thank you!”

“Next!” yells Nina.

It’s Harlan Ellis, my New York City music agent.

“Nina said you needed fans, ” he says. “I was trying to get the Wolfe book and she yanked me over here. Just pretend I’m a fan and sign the damn book. I’ll hang out until the line fills up.” I have lots of reasons to adore Harlan. This is just another one.

“Next!”

After Harlan leaves, I meet and greet a good fifty people, most of them disappointed spit-backs from Tom Wolfe’s line. Tom’s new book is called I Am Charlotte Simmons. My book should be called I Am Not.

“Next!”

I sign; I smile at strangers and hand each one of them a copy of Piano Girl. I don’t know whether to be happy or sad as I watch tiny pieces of my musical story escaping, one note at a time, into a crowded and noisy world. Happy seems like a good choice.

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Ten years and three books later . . . .

2015, Cologne, Germany

Ten years have passed since that crazy day. My friend Carole says if I keep writing Piano Girl stories I can call myself Piano Geezer. My literary adventure—combined with my career as a pianist—rewards me every day with new challenges, new obstacles, new ideas. Anyone in the business will tell you—working musicians have a million stories, little gems that, with a bit of polish, make for great cocktail party chatter—vaguely amusing anecdotes that cause people to giggle or guffaw or shout out, “You really should write a book.”

So I did. For better or worse I selected a handful of my finest and most idiotic moments and whipped them into a readable froth.

The publication of Piano Girl changed my life in delightful and unexpected ways. Concerts, interviews, a small but loyal group of actual fans (!)—all the things you might associate with a book that has received some critical acclaim. But that’s not why I wrote it. I wrote it because I love musicians. We lead noble lives, worthy of stories. We keep going because we have something to say. In a fragile world, musicians remain, in so many ways, unbreakable. Good for us.

If you’re thinking about writing your own book, I say go for it. Put on your bathrobe and some black socks and hole up in your office for a year. Avoid vodka if possible (it’s not). Take the risk. You never know what might happen once you release your book into the wild. You might feel intimidated. You might feel free. You might get to sit next to a United States President or play for a German Chancellor. You might get invited to the United Nations or to Paris or Rome or Oslo. You might receive letters from wonderful people and more than a few from prisoners and favor-seekers. Maybe you’ll pick up a stalker or two. You might meet a few of your idols or be reconnected with people you never wanted to see again. You might reinvent yourself, midlife, by realizing through writing, that you’ve grown up. Your mother might be proud of you; your children might be a little embarrassed (or is it the other way around?). You might do readings for full houses or empty ones, agonize over royalty payments, teach a few writing workshops, question your own judgment, work with your very own Nina, worry about what to wear to the launch party.

But forget all that. Here’s what counts: You might find you own a voice that people want to hear. A voice that you want to hear. Look! People are listening. At last. You have a few fans. Music lives in your words. Go on, buy the white suit.

**

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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  • Nina Lesowitz

    That Nina sounds like a real character! This had me in stitches. You
    recapture moments in time, and bring them to life so vividly it feels
    like 10 minutes ago, not 10 years ago. Sue! Completely forgot about her,
    but now I remember how thrilled I was when she walked up. And how
    horrified you were. And Robin Spielberg’s second cousin did tell us he
    was obligated to show up. We were so grateful, I recall. Hilarious!

    Anyone
    at BEA can relate to the human scud missiles targeting in on the
    celebs. But the ones who found their way to your line were fortunate to
    land one of the best reads in that entire convention center. Music does
    indeed live in your words. Along with rare comedic talent. Love this.
    Love you!

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Love you, too, Nina! Couldn’t have done it without you (and RJ, and Matt and Kevin). Hope we can work together again sometime soon. xoxo In the meantime, watch out for Sue!