“I’m famous. It sucks.”

Saturday, Apr 11th, 2009 @ 08:49 pm

Since childhood, I’ve been an avid reader of the advice column “Dear Abby”. Most of the time, the problems she addresses have nothing to do with my own life. But recently, a question came from a newly successful author about a problem that I’m sure few people would ever imagine complaining about: Fame.

The person asking for advice writes:

I have recently enjoyed the success of having my first book published. However, this achievement has begun to change my life in ways I hadn’t expected. I am a somewhat shy and reflective person by nature, preferring to live quietly rather than being in the spotlight. … However, since my books’ debut, I have felt myself pulled into a different sort of world… My in-box is inundated, and I am expected at speaking events and signings … I am becoming more and more uncomfortable and stressed. How can I be who I am without feeling like a disappointment to those who believe in me?
– Not what I expected in the Midwest.

Abby told her: “You are among the lucky few who has been published, and you now have a responsibility to yourself and to your publisher to promote your work and do public relations.” In other words, stop whining about your success and just deal with it.

I can hear everyone out there rolling their eyes at this woman who dared to complain about the downside of success. What’s wrong with her? Doesn’t everyone want to be famous?

I’m reminded of a conversation I had a few months ago with a very successful novelist. We’ve known each other for awhile, and over dinner, he confessed that he’s starting to withdraw more and more because people suddenly make him uncomfortable. This would certainly surprise his fans, because in public he seems like such a gregarious guy and he’s a wonderful public speaker. At book events, he can turn on the charm, but after the event’s over, he just wants to hide away in his hotel room. “I’m starting to feel more and more like Greta Garbo,” he said. “I just want to be alone.”

I don’t think this is all that unusual for writers. Many of us became writers because we feel most comfortable in our imaginary worlds. We’re very good at entertaining ourselves, and we’re awkward in crowds, unable to maintain the scintillating conversations that our own characters manage to pull off so easily in our novels.

I happen to be one of those people. I confess that, after a media event, you can usually find me holed up alone in my hotel room, watching TV and eating a room service dinner. I’m not lonely; I’m happy!

So I felt sorry for the woman who wrote to Dear Abby and didn’t get the sympathy she needed. Yes, it’s wonderful being famous and successful. But the poor woman also found it scary and stressful. If her books are nonfiction or advice books, I’m afraid she’s in for some tough times, because her future as an author is going to hinge on her personal story and personality — and that requires engaging directly with the media. She can’t hide away and expect the book to do well on its own; she’ll have to force herself to be out in the public eye.

But if she’s a novelist, she may well be able to enjoy success without media attention. I know of a number of authors who are afraid of flying and won’t go on tour. Or are so painfully shy that they won’t do interviews. Think of VC Andrews, who was bedridden and never appeared in public. Or J.D. Salinger, who hasn’t been seen or heard from in decades. Or the many beloved authors whose faces remain unknown to us because no photographs of them ever appear. They’re famous, yet able to maintain their privacy.

Unlike actors, whose faces are practically in the public domain, authors can creep about unrecognized. And if they write under pen names, there is no reason anyone will ever notice them. It may be unsatisfying for those who crave movie-star fame.

But for those who crave their privacy, it’s a way to achieve fame … without consequences.

20 Responses to ““I’m famous. It sucks.””

  1. datahog says:

    I was famous once, when I lived in a small city in China for two years. Not many WASPy Americans there. I got used to the constant scrutiny very quickly, the stares, the shouts in my direction, being targeted by peddlars of this and that, the interest of the ladies for the exotic foreign guy. About the only thing that really irked me is I couldn’t pick my nose in public. If I ever write a best seller I’m ready. :)

    Eric

  2. therese says:

    Dear Tess, This is the type of insight that is so important to share. And you do!

    Dear Abby should have responded more like: The authors with “staying power” will learn to balance the requirements of fame, with their personal needs, to continue to be, writers.

    I lived in a marginal fame as a child, and didn’t realize it until years after it was gone. It can be nice, to be normal. But I am comfortable being odd, and hope to only be as famous, as a good writer.

    We’re rather mysterious creatures who can get away with comments like, “I really need to be alone – to write.” We have the wisdom of Garbo to quote – so we should.

  3. alanorloff says:

    “you can usually find me holed up alone in my hotel room, watching TV and eating a room service dinner. I’m not lonely; I’m happy!”

    Yes, yes, yes. We’re not lonely, we are happy to be left to ourselves. We like people, just not all the time.

    Some people just don’t understand.

  4. BernardL says:

    It’s too bad so many people strive and sacrifice for a goal, and when they reach it, they’re unhappy – but once what they’ve achieved is gone, they’re bitter. I like Abby’s advice a lot. Hiding will always be an option if an author quits writing or no longer sells. :)

  5. bob k says:

    It makes me wonder Tess, if you and many other authors are actually natural introverts. I know I have had people tell me they are surprised I test strongly introverted on Myers Briggs, etc. – I can mingle with a crowd and chat for hours, lead a meeting or a class…but it drains my energy and I then need alone time to recover. Whereas an extrovert draws energy from these activities.

  6. Tess says:

    Bernard, writers don’t necessarily strive for fame — they just want to tell stories and make a living at it. If and when they do get famous, the consequences aren’t necessarily what they expected, or worked for.

  7. GerritsenFever10 says:

    I’m guessing that author you mentioned was SK…if I had to guess though, that is. But what about you, Dr. G? Do you ALWAYS hate publicity or are there times when you’re more likely to engage in media events and such than others? But you were a doctor at one point so that may have an affect on how you view publicity as well. Just wondering.

    Happy Easter!

  8. Tess says:

    GF10, it wasn’t SK, but a different guy who’s certainly been on the bestseller lists.

    And no, I don’t really hate publicity. There are things I enjoy doing — such as radio interviews and prepared speeches. What I notice, though, is that I find interacting on a personal level, with many people in a group, really exhausting. I’m really bad at small talk. I think I have many characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome. It’s something I’ve only come to recognize recently, especially since meeting other Aspies. My dad was the same way.

  9. GerritsenFever10 says:

    I wouldn’t peg you for having Asperger’s and I hope it’s not severe if you do have it…and I was so sure about SK haha he’s so reclusive (well he is to me at least).

  10. PackingPadre says:

    Tess,

    I can identify with your desire to spend time alone. Small talk doesn’t come easy to me either. Even when I was a news writer covering politics, I enjoyed the interviews to gather stories, but disliked parties with sources or colleagues, unless they were one on one.

    I sometimes fear I am even neglecting my dog as we can go a full day without my saying a word to her, although she does get pats and scratches.

    I screen my phone calls. Yet I have done sales and was reasonably good at it.

    Asperger’s is an interesting possiblity. The autism spectrum wasn’t really know about when we were children, so it’s facinating to speculate about now.

    Daniel

  11. Abe says:

    Tess,

    Would this author feel any different when the checks start rolling in? I’m not talking about the checks for writing her book. I’m talking about the monies that this author would get from public appearances/book signings. Once you get your book published, you’re ALREADY in the public eye. Go to your book signings, go speak at functions. Remember, it is the public who buys the book. After your book functions, then take time for yourself. I’m sorry to say this, Tess, but if this author did not anticipate all the hype the book was going to cause, why become an author? You’re an experienced author. I can tell just by meeting you that someimes you’d rather be “holed up” in your hotel room. But it’s fans like me who appreciate all that you do for your fans, and in turn, we buy your books. I agree with what you said above: stop whining about your success and just deal with it, and after the hype winds down, then take time for yourself. Would Father Daniel (#10 above) become a clergyman if he was afraid of public speaking? He’d be on the golf course every Sunday instead of in Church.
    Abe

  12. caite says:

    Gosh, I remember thinking the same thing about me and Asperger’s when I first read The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night Time…lol

    I know it is common, since you and other authors write about it, but I truly do not get this big push to get authors “out there”. Maybe I am just too much of an introvert to care, but I don’t really want to know an author’s personal story, I don’t care if they blog, (yes, I realize I write this as I read an author’ blog..) I don’t care if they Twitters or are on Facebook and make appearances. I just care that they turn out a great book…and hopefully more great books in the future.

  13. PackingPadre says:

    My friend Abe raises a good point, sometimes we have to just suck it up, rather than say it sucks. Pretty much every job involves some public contact and there’s no way to avoid it.

    There are ways to minimize, I am more of a hermit, and an internet counselor, than I am a public speaker. But if necessary, I conduct services in public. It goes with the job.

    Tess, despite your desire to isolate, you are one of the most generous celebs with your time for your fans.

    I’ve wondered before if being an author of popular fiction was fun anymore because of technology such as e-mails, Facebook and Twitter, if anyone can tell me what the sense of that site is.

    Daniel

  14. therese says:

    What fascinating comments!
    Hey Abe! Contact me again soon – long story.

    Tess, I guess I have to check out this Asperger’s thing. Or maybe I won’t. Being odd is comfortable for me. I’m not sure I want to relate to a syndrome.

    Daniel, I know technology well, and place strict limits on it. Generosity and humility are different coins, as are public speaking and private counseling. I keep a box of wine available in the house, and try to avoid public posts, after glass two…

    Oops. I think I’m on glass three. So my advice…

  15. Evie-Africa says:

    I’m such a fan of your books and your writing style- a new fan. I looked up your website to see read a little more about you. Interesting reflections on this blog. Well, I don’t know much about publicity and not liking it or not liking it. What I do know is that when I like an author’s work, I want to know more about them. How disappointing it would be if there was nothing publicly available.

    When you put out a book, which I see as a piece of yourself, I think it comes with the territory that you (must?) share more of your personal life with the public. Not all of it, just more of it than the average person. Otherwise it’s ghosts writing the stories we love.

  16. ec says:

    Writers today are expected to promote. If you don’t (or can’t) travel, you can still connect with readers by maintaining a website, keeping a blog, writing guest posts on other blogs, visiting message boards, doing interviews, participating in live chat room events, answering email, and so on. Writers are more accessible than ever. In many ways, that’s a good thing. Many readers like this and more than a few have come to expect it.

    But sometimes I wonder about the gray territory between the writer’s need to promote and the reader’s need to suspend disbelief. At some point, too much information about the writer as a person imposes itself on the reader’s consciousness, a silent reminder that the story they are reading is a created thing.

  17. TomYoung says:

    Promoting is what helps sell books and recoup the publishers costs in printing them. I suppose that if someone really desired to keep their ‘life’ and be a writer they could always self-publish and let amazon do the selling. But of course, they’d stay poor and never become a ‘famous’ writer.

    Which is the reason I still work…. LOL

  18. TomYoung says:

    didn’t mean to make it sound like writing isn’t work.

  19. annaaleta says:

    I agree with Evie-Africa. Writers share a piece of themselves in the stories they tell. Being a writer myself, I can honestly say that there is always a character in the story that echoes the voice of the writer.

    Tess has put it right when she said not all writers strive for fame. If fame comes as a consequence of good storytelling, then writers should welcome it with open arms. I’d like to think that all writers have learned to compartmentalize their time, at least into two–among many others– there’s ‘Multitude’ time (socializing with friends, being in the public eye, doing research) is as necessary as ‘solitude’ time (being holed up in a room writing, writing and writing…then enjoying a Tess Gerritsen book after):-)

  20. Novella says:

    I am a writer, as many of you all are who comment. And I wish to be published as well…when I actually finish a book that is. I am also a very very private person, and I guess even though I want this, I want to stay private. *shrugs* It’s an on an off kind of thing.

    A part of me longs for that spotlight, just for a little while, and another part of me is screaming “your an idiot!” because It would change everything I am all about. It is very conflicting.

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