Book Launch Cancelled (And Everything Else for the Next Two Years, Too)

by Roy Freirich

One of the lesser, but no less real, downsides of the pandemic was lost opportunity.  For so many, it was opportunities that may not come again—the closing of a window of peak ability for athletes (think of Olympic hopefuls set to try-out), or of distribution for an indie film years in the making, or, yes, even a canceled book tour long in the planning.

There’s been plenty of press about authors who’ve had their tours cancelled. 

But on March 12, 2020, the day of my first author event at legendary Book Soup in West Hollywood, nobody called me to put off my event—no one made the decision for me. Even with plenty of wise counsel from my wife and family, scuttling the evening’s event wasn’t an easy call, but in retrospect absolutely the right one. The very next day, March 13, California Governor Newsome prohibited all public gatherings.

I had spent the week before searching for hand sanitizer to bring to the reading, visiting every Rite Aid and CVS in a thirty-mile radius, to no avail.  My (lovely, ever helpful wife and) editor and I tried to mix up some DIY out of aloe and rubbing alcohol, and then stumbled on CDC guidance arguing against it. We finally snagged a box of baby wipes from Amazon but dithered about the aesthetics and efficacy of placing those beside snacks on the goodies table.  

But what kind of snacks? The obligatory cheese platter, crudité, charcuterie?  To sit out exposed to aerosolized droplets of Coronavirus alighting invisibly but dependably on an innocent carrot stick, an oblivious slice of jack cheddar, an unwitting Saltine? Certainly not. My wife imagineered “pandemic-appropriate” snack concepts—individual hand-selected mini-bags of upscale potato chips and individually-wrapped sandwiches we designed and talked our local Whole Foods delicatessen department manager into creating the morning of. 

No government agency guidance mandated or even recommended against my author reading that evening.  I had already sent semi-humorous messages to everyone about “elbows” instead of hugs. We had responsibly prepared refreshments. There remained the vast majority of attendees who hadn’t (yet) sent regrets.  I had made friends with my own microphone on a boom stand—way more adjustable—and practiced pitching my voice and annoying the neighbors with a Karaoke amplifier. I had erudite, wry repartee with my “in convo” partner at the ready and pauses for laughter planned. A boxful of books would be stacked at the checkout counter, gleaming beneath flattering lighting. I had perfected my signature with just the right pen, even while wearing Nitrite gloves. All good. But should I read the opening two pages, or just plunge right into the sex scene?  In front of family? Maybe not. What about that jokey bit I had prepped about “my process?” Oh, I’ll just read the room.

And the after-party at buzzy Mo’s Axe Bar in Koreatown?  Three pre-paid reserved lanes, not an easy get, but guaranteed to be a hit! Who would’t love loosening up after a cramped literary event with some artisanal IPA, a plate o’ ‘que, and some axe throwing? 

That morning, the first emails and texts came in early. Ding! Ding! Like the set-piece press-briefing scene in a sci-fi movie where journalists begin to receive cellphone notifications of an impending extinction-level event—zombies or asteroids, or nuclear war. One text was from friend worried about passing anything on to her elderly parents, another (a health professional) advised against.  My nieces (upon whom I can always depend for opinions) suggested “postponing.” One suggested a live Facebook streaming event, which I abhor (that’s a euphemism — being utterly unable to see audience reaction in the moment frankly horrifies me much more than seeing it).

Ding, ding! It’s a college friend with the sniffles, worried about being patient zero at the event, and apparently more so than looking forward to hearing exclusive, compelling excerpts from a well-reviewed new novel which required years of writing and rewriting in a cluttered, cramped atelier. I respond quickly, thanking him for thinking of others and for letting me know.

So then — but — what about someone who is asymptomatic, blithely opining about my prose style, too close to the person next to him or her?  What if all the attendees who haven’t yet opted out show up, and one — just one – brings it back to their children or parents, or to the spouse who had preferred to stay home and watch Tiger King instead of hearing me read a selection of especially vivid, wrought sentences? 

Ding!  Ding! Ugh,another regret (from a studio executive!)!  

What time is it? If we don’t call Whole Foods and cancel those sandwiches but have to cancel the event, it’s a hundred and twenty-six dollars gone. Well, we could donate them to people experiencing homelessness.  But to which organization?  Or do we just go and hand them out at the tent city by City Hall? And would we need to do that today, since we don’t have space to refrigerate them to ensure their freshness? How long before ham goes bad, before the bread turns soggy? Maybe the panini bread wasn’t the best choice.

CNN, MSNBC—what are they saying?  Ding! Ding! We need to confirm now with the axe bar!

But—what? Tom Hanks? The Everyman of America has Covid?

And so it began, my series of apologetic phone calls.  The event person at Book Soup, a skilled and determined advocate for authors, understood and admitted they were thinking of closing the next day. My “in convo” partner, who suffered gamely though my performance anxiety and too many rehearsals, understood, too.  We still talk.

My mass email to the attendee list began, “Dear All…” What responses I received varied from earnest relief, to “whhaaat? No axe throwing?”

To all, I promise, we’ll throw axes one day. And maybe I can greet good friends and interested, kindly strangers in person, and see them lean forward to listen, and see their faces as I read and know in that very moment that my words are heard — if only I remember to project.

And now that my tireless, tenacious publisher is re-issuing Deprivation, I may yet.

I’m still not sure about going with opening pages, or the sex scene.  The jokey bit is a keeper, though, I’m pretty much almost completely certain.

Residing in Malibu, California, Roy Freirich leads multiple lives as a writer—of novels, movies, and lyrics. He adapted his debut novel, Winged Creatures, for the film starring Forest Whitaker, Dakota Fanning, Kate Beckinsale, and Guy Pearce. He’s written songs for stars such as Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin, and screenplays for Fox, Dreamworks, Warners, and Sony.

On a razor’ s edge between speculation and reality, Freirich’ s psychological horror Deprivation tracks the spread of the next epidemic — insomnia. Over a week, as sleeplessness engulfs a New England summer resort island, the hapless Chief of Police struggles to keep order, a blurry doctor searches for the cause and the cure, and a teenage girl competes with her friends in an online game: who can stay awake the longest? Impaired judgment spirals into delusions, the island is cut-off, and hysteria descends into mob rule and murder. For some, suicide is the only way to close their eyes.

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