'Author-haulers' spill the ink on their famous charges


From The Globe and Mail (June 9, 2001)

by Stevie Cameron

I play a little game with authors," one publicist remembers dreamily, "because they're all self-obsessed. We'll be driving along to the next interview, I raise a general-interest topic and then I guess how many moves it will take before we're back to themselves and their book."

This is the best part of a book tour: hearing Bad Author stories from the author-haulers, as Calvin Trillin calls the gentle heroes of book tours. In the United States, the publicists used to give the Golden Dartboard Award at the annual booksellers convention to the most badly behaved author on tour that year. "A single tantrum -- even a single momentous act of selfishness or arrogance or cruelty -- could not take the Golden Dartboard," Trillin wrote in 1999. "It was reserved for sustained unpleasantness."

It's not true that Martha Stewart and Jeffrey Archer won many times; each won only once.

With Canada's annual booksellers convention coming to Toronto this month, you can count on a delicious batch of Bad Author stories to divert people from the endless Chapters-Indigo gossip. There's even talk of a Golden Ass award for the worst in Canada.

In the pantheon of Bad Authors, few can touch Gen-X guru Douglas Coupland, who became so infuriated on a drive with one publicist that he reared back and kicked in the glove compartment of her car in a burst of anger against traffic congestion and concern about being late.

That was just before arriving at a university bookstore event to find adoring students waiting with video cameras. Frantic, Coupland refused to go into the auditorium and raced upstairs; the bookstore manager found him lying face down on the floor, wailing in rage. The audience waited in vain, but all he did was cancel the tour in the next four cities and go home.

Perhaps the most legendary of Canada's Bad Authors is former National Hockey league player Eddie Shack, who insisted on his own limousine and driver to take him around when he was promoting Clear the Track: The Eddie Shack Story in 1997.

"Eddie was a tiring author," one publicist says guardedly. "There was just so much maintenance. He wanted to do a lot of things his way -- and they weren't always very good things."

Loud, insisting on being the centre of attention, Shack would see his keeper off to bed at night and then hit the bars with Ross Brewitt, his ghost writer, to sell books out of the trunk of the car.

"The worst I ever had," another author-hauler says, "was Gore Vidal back in 1982 or '83." After reading an unflattering piece by Barbara Amiel, he ordered the publicist to find him a lawyer to sue her; another bad review so enraged him he read it on Canada AM instead of letting hapless host Norm Perry interview him.

American feminist Betty Friedan was also famous for terrorizing publicists. One night, she told her long-suffering minder that she wanted her breakfast at 8 a.m. When the quaking publicist arrived five minutes early, Friedan was so angry that she threw the woman out of her room.

"My worst was Carl Bernstein," another says. The Washington co-author of the Watergate classic All the President's Men,with Bob Woodward, was one of her heroes, but after meeting him, she realized that his former wife, Nora Ephron, was accurate in her picture of him in her novel, Heartburn.

"We put him up at a wonderful hotel, but he was insulted that he wasn't at the Ritz. He went in the revolving door and back out, saying he was going over to the Ritz; I shoved him back in and said, 'No, you don't.' He stormed over anyway and they didn't have room.

"Then he flirted with every young woman he saw and one time made us so late for a live TV interview that I pulled out of the parking lot in a hurry, scratched the side of a new Jaguar, told the attendant I'd be right back and when I returned, the police were waiting for me. I had to go to court on a hit-and-run charge."

Financial journalist Garth Turner upset another publicist by being, as she put it, "full of himself. He let his poor wife, who helped with every stat in the book, fix his hair, pick the fluff off his suit and ask if he wanted water -- and didn't give her any credit."

Another man who had just published a book on phonics was outraged that this publicist could book him only three interviews -- an achievement she thought miraculous.

Conrad Black upset his publicist by refusing to return her calls about his flight schedule and speaking engagements; she was frantic because she knew she would have to tell him that her company could not afford to fly him first class and he would have to travel in business class. The day before the tour began, she discovered he planned to go everywhere in his own plane. Fortunately, he did turn up at everything. "He got to like what he was doing."

But it wasn't that simple with Wendy Dennis, a Toronto writer with a new book, Hot and Bothered, about sex. "The author and I had a disagreement about the word 'fuck,' " the publicist remembers. "She wanted it in the press release and the invitation to the book launch." Dennis, much loved by other publicists, lost that round.

The worst people to deal with, one publicist believes, are those with unrealistic expectations. "They have a book on muffins or something and can't understand why you can't get them on Canada AM."

The best? P. D. James and Anne Rice. And, urban legend to the contrary, Margaret Atwood, Peter Newman, Mordecai Richler, John Ralston Saul and Lauren Bacall.

"Will this person ever ask me a single personal question?" wonders the publicist who is so fascinated with authors' self-obsession. The good ones do. The Bad Authors? Don't even ask.

During her four book tours, Stevie Cameron has never misbehaved, or so she says. Her latest book, with Harvey Cashore, is The Last Amigo.