(original version published in Money Web Life, July 2008)
Book signings, literary festivals, dead-time radio and TV slots... All the things you sniff at as a young wannabe writer, you end up doing as an older hack.
Nicholson Baker captured this dynamic in his 1992 essay, Reading Aloud, which offers a beautiful description of his first book event. We write to be heard, was the thrust of his piece. While no one is listening we are scornful of the machine that guides writers onto stages. But when people start to listen, it’s different. The sight of heads nodding in time to your rhythm is alluring, and easy to become addicted to.
And of course you want to sell books. As many as possible, because it is in the sales sheet that true validation lies. Reviews are one thing, but sales are an incontestable sign of that thing called progress. And so you do what needs to be done, and you enjoy it, despite yourself. And the grubby head of your ego peeks further out, into the light.
Which is how I come to be sitting next to Don Mattera at a book signing in the Rosebank Mall, perched deep in the shadow of someone who has lived as much good stuff as he has written.
One of the most fascinating things about watching Don work a mall is the ability of the man to sell books - his own, and others (mine included).
‘This is the new generation,’ he says proudly, pointing me out to a visitor, having known me for all of seven minutes. He guides the buyer into a hard cover copy of Azanian Love Songs, and into a purchase of my book as well. For most of the afternoon he has at least one person with him at the table, yet he is constantly on the lookout for more. He hails the floor cleaner with as much gusto as the business mover and shaker, pulling most passers-by smoothly into his orbit.
Don carries the charm and ease of someone who has lived many years, and who has put the vast majority of the hard yards in already. He will talk about anything to anyone within range. He can be a little nutty at times, and clearly some (self included) don't catch him - what he is saying and thinking - right off the bat. But for me the fascinating thing about the afternoon is the sheer number of people who slam into reverse on realising it is Don Mattera behind the table. Who come skipping back to thank him. For giving them a leg up. For putting them in touch with someone else. For teaching them so well. For introducing them to that person in the right place, at the right time. For getting them work.
‘Remember when you tried to get me a job at that newspaper?’ Pat Cash, the Kaya FM DJ asks, shaking a smiling head. Don laughs without saying anything, only remembering a faint whisper of the episode, but laughing harder as the picture refocuses. ‘Remember this? Remember that?’ It carries on all afternoon. The wonderful thing about it all is that Don is far away from his hood, his local suburb of Westbury. This is the Rosebank Mall, many miles from his ‘milieu’, as he puts it. Yet people stop all afternoon to thank him, and he flogs a book to almost every one of them, mostly hard covers, which he believes passionately in as the ideal delivery mechanism for literature.
He stays well past his scheduled slot, his daughter Snowy gradually taking him away from the table and on to whatever he has to do next. I am left thinking about what it means to write. An idea that has occurred with increasing frequency in recent years comes back for another visit.
Regardless of what kind of words you produce or who you sell them to, one of the dangers of writing for a living is that you eventually get suckered by the sound of your own voice. You start to believe that that booming noise you're making is the sound of insight, or meaning, when it is just as likely, of course, to simply be literary noise that will fade quickly into the background. All writers understand this, but as the years go by it’s easy to get lured anyway by that personal frisson Baker described so well, and to start to draw meaning and fulfilment from literary publicity.
Conversely, Don Mattera in his late years seems (at the distance one can only enjoy when observing a stranger) to get his joy from people. His people. His writing appears to me on this afternoon to be more an extension of his human interactions than anything else.
Today, after my afternoon in the shadow of Don, I see the value of being a person living amongst other people. I realise, again, that it is human contact that will likely end up being the most valuable element of my life; far more so than writing. The warmth of Don’s presence, the way his poetry and persona and relationships often appear to have become thoroughly and deeply intertwined, shows how our human connective tissue has the capacity to keep us breathing in and out with commitment and, hopefully, flashes of intent, and maybe sometimes even productivity. Despite it all, and regardless of the many thousands of hours I have spent at the keyboard, it is relationships - and not words - that will create the full texture of my life.
And if I can write about it afterwards, well, more and more that just seems to be a stroke of weird luck.