My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Margaret Malone, the author of the story collection People Like You from Atelier26 Books. Her stories and non-fiction can be found in The Missouri Review, Oregon Humanities, Propeller Magazine, Timberline Review, latimes.com and elsewhere. A recipient of an Oregon Literary Fellowship and an Oregon Arts Commission Individual Artist Fellowship, Margaret is a co-host of the artist and literary gathering SHARE. She lives in Portland with her husband, filmmaker Brian Padian, and their two children.
My First Book Sale
I was in our station wagon, driving to a reading on a Sunday afternoon and I was running late. It might have been cold and wet, I can’t remember, but it’s Portland, Oregon, and it often rains, and so I remember it that way. As I drove, unorganized fragments of my life rolled around in the trunk of our station wagon every time I turned left or right—it has become a dumping ground for our life and on this day it contained the following items: week-old, slobbered-on pretzels; a toddler’s Radio Flyer push bike; some rocks, sticks and dried fallen leaves; duck food in a Ziploc bag; some rope from a swing I tried unsuccessfully to harness to a backyard apple tree; a golf umbrella that I can never find when I need because it’s in the back of the station wagon instead of on the porch where one might think to look for it before taking a walk in the rain; and a plain brown box of books, my book: thirty copies of People Like You, my author payment from my publisher, Atelier26—thirty books, to do with as I chose: give away, sell, keep, whatever. The box of books was not with me intentionally—it was in the back of the station wagon with everything else because that’s where I put it when the publisher gave me the box two weeks earlier and that’s just how my life’s been lately.
I drove past the reading venue on Alberta Street, turned onto 22nd and smooshed my car into a parking spot in such a way that it was just barely not blocking someone’s driveway.
I walked up 22nd, crossed Alberta Street and pulled open the heavy door to Post 134, a Legion Hall in northeast Portland.
Inside it was cool and dark, the open space filled with a handful of dark brown circular tables, those metal upholstered conference room stacking chairs tucked underneath; a couple of couches lining the perimeter, a pool table off to the side, a cozy C of a bar tucked into the corner, and a small stage immediately on the left upon entering. A string of Christmas lights, those big old-school bulbs, framed the wall in back of the stage. The word that always comes to mind when I enter is safe.
Folks were scattered around the room, chatting to each other, managing to seem lively and quiet both, and there wasn’t anybody on stage yet, so I was a little late but not asshole late.
The legion hall is managed by a vet named Sean Davis, who also happens to be a writer, and because of him and his generous and welcoming nature, the Post 134 has become a hub of literary activity, not only for veterans but also for the whole Portland writing community. It has become my favorite place for literary readings. Any time I’m asked to read there, I say yes.
As I headed for the back of the room, I saw mostly familiar faces—a variation of the same group of folks who often gather here at readings, often sitting at the same tables.
I saw that there were other books for sale on the pool table in back. I laid my five books down on the felt too, and before I could get my coat off, a woman I know, a fellow writer, stopped me.
“Your book’s for sale?” she said. “I thought it wasn’t out yet? Can I buy one?”
Really? I thought. You want to buy my book?
“It’s not out for another three weeks,” I said. “But I had some in my car and I think it’s okay if I sell them, right?”
I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t checked with the publisher.
She was already reaching for her wallet. It dawned on me I had no money in my wallet, no change for accepting cash, no way to take credit cards. What the hell was I thinking? The woman said she thought she had exact change, sixteen dollars.
Then another voice. “You’re selling your book? I want one, too.”
I was still wearing my coat.
This person also had exact change.
I’d just sold two books. Two books! My book! A book filled with stories that I had written. The feeling I had was the opposite of shame but that’s as far as I understood it, it was so unfamiliar.
I propped up my remaining three books and settled in at the back of the house. The reading was about to begin.
Two poets, an essayist, three of us reading short stories. As always at Post 134 the writing is alive, present, and often uncomfortably hilarious.
At the end of the reading someone else came toward me and said she liked my story and would like to buy a book.
My book? I thought. You would?
Cash again, and I’d made enough money from selling the first two books to accept her twenty and give her change.
And then one of the poets who read walked over and wanted to buy a copy, too.
You do? I had to stop myself from saying it out loud.
My one remaining copy was sold in a matter of minutes, and then I had a request for another one, but had to say I’d run out and I was sorry because they were all gone. Gone!
I’d sold five books. For money. Real money. And here is the thing I want to talk about—this feeling I had after selling the books, it was new. I didn’t have a name for it. I tried to understand it and went through the logic of it all again: I wrote a story; I read the story out loud; someone listened to the story; someone liked it; then someone bought my book.
I’m not a person accustomed to achieving my goals, and so I had no word for the slow honey warmth that was moving through my body, rising up from my feet, through my belly, making my cheeks feel flushed. It was only feeling. A new, good feeling.
Weirder still, despite how badly my husband and I needed the money, it seemed like it wasn’t the money that was making me feel so good. No, it wasn’t the money at all.
It was the exchange.
I did this thing. You liked it. You gave me something you valued. I gave you a book. Therefore, the book—the stories, the words—had value for you.
Value and belonging and art were not things I ever thought would be together in one place at one time in my life. And yet here we were, together, unexpected, inside my body, in the safe womb of this place.
The longer I sat with it I realized something more; this feeling, it was mine, but also it wasn’t mine.
That was it—is there an English word for it? The feeling felt like all of us were part of this something that we’d created together, you and me and what we share and how we are when for the briefest of moments we’re not lone blips traveling the space-time continuum, but we collide in the best way and are changed.
Years ago I sat next to an older fellow on an airplane, grey hair and beard, kind smile, he might even have had suspenders. We ended up talking on and off during the flight and before the plane landed he said this thing I have always remembered.
He told me, there are only two things in this life that can’t be taken away from you. One is your education; and the other is your travel. Despite my youth at the time, I knew he was right—that what he said was the truth.
Turns out he was wrong. Turns out there is this third thing, too.