When it comes to books, Wendy Werris has done just about everything you'd ever want to do with books: she worked in a bookstore; she was a sales rep, she was an author escort, and she writes for Publisher's Weekly, and she writes! An Alphabetical Life: Living it Up in the World of Books is flat out wonderful, and so is Wendy. We talked on the phone as if we had grown up together (and maybe we have! You never know, right?) I'm thrilled to host her here, and I cannot wait for her new memoir. Thank you, Wendy! (Let's talk soon.)
I absolutely loved your account of working in a bookstore at 19. (Are we sisters? I got my first job at 19 being the actual book buyer for a tiny bookstore in Ann Arbor. I looked sixteen.) I loved that you got hugged by Bukowski.
I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, working in the early 1970s at Pickwick Bookshop in Hollywood. Everyone who was anyone shopped there, and as a teenager I was still susceptible to the glamour of show business. One story I left out of AN ALPHABETICAL LIFE, because it didn’t happen to me but to the assistant bookbuyer Joni Miller, is about the day Elvis Presley came into Pickwick. The front counter was in an L-shape, and Joni got up from her desk and frantically ran to the other side of the counter to find a book for a customer. She had her head down, and ran right into Elvis, and they both fell to the floor. His bodyguards swarmed around both of them, thinking Joni was out to hurt Elvis in some way. After Joni collected herself, she looked up and saw Elvis. She was shocked. He apologized to her, and she to him, and Joni (who moved to New York later and worked for years at Workman Publishing) was a wreck for the rest of the day. Right or wrong, I don’t think Elvis would have shopped at the tiny Ann Arbor bookstore where you worked. This was Pickwick, though. I never knew what to expect from day to day.
I loved your tales of escorting authors on tours. Without mentioning names, can you tell me the most scandalous story?
I was too professional to act on any sexual feelings I might have had towards an author, so nothing scandalous there. But I can tell you about the most humiliating experience. I went to LAX to pick up Simon Winchester, the author-historian, who was an Oxford author when I was their rep. I parked my car and walked to baggage claim to meet him and his MUCH-younger girlfriend, who was having a princess hissy fit about something. It was most unattractive. We walked to my car, and I put their luggage in the trunk, and when I looked up, Simon and girlfriend were sitting in the back seat together. They thought I was their chauffeur. And the fact that I was driving a VW Jetta at the time, not a limo or some luxury car, made it all the more absurd. I was pissed, but got them to their hotel without incident. The next morning when I picked them up, the girlfriend wasn’t with Simon. I said to him, “please sit in the front seat today,” and he did, and every time after that. I suppose I put him in his place, but in a kind way. We then got along swimmingly. I enjoyed his company.
The book business has changed so much. What do you miss most—and do you think we can ever get it back?
I miss all of the indie bookstores that were forced to close during the last 20 years. Amazon e-books are responsible for that, and I make no bones about it. I miss the people who worked in those stores, many of whom became dear friends. So we can never get back that important part of the book community in Los Angeles and other cities. Yet the indies that survived and are still going strong provide the same warmth, personal touch, and knowledge of books they always have. That is something to be cherished and supported. A few months after the death of a family member in 2015, I took a part-time job at the local Barnes & Noble to get out of the house and stop isolating. Huge mistake. I lasted two weeks before quitting. It was not so much a bookstore as a merchandising business that focused on books. Of course there’s more to this story, but will save it for another time.
I loved hearing about your job as a sales rep—I remember at 19 having a sales rep actually ask me, “So, you like looking at the pictures?” he was so rude, I didn’t order anything from him. You are still deeply in the world of books and publishing. What do you want people to know about it that they most likely don’t know?
People aren’t really aware of the essential role publisher’s reps play in their reading experience. When you walk into a bookstore and find the book you want, it was a sales rep that made it happen. A rep came in, sat down with the buyer, and presented the new list of books for hundreds of publishers. Thus the buyer becomes aware of what books they need to stock, will place an order, and then a bookseller unpacks the cartons when the order arrives and places the books on the shelves in the right sections of the store. Most people never think about this, but if not for the rep, the books readers want to buy wouldn’t be there! I quit repping several years ago, but will always admire and support the reps who do a sometimes difficult job, simply because they love books!
I also loved your talking about John Irving. He has this great quote about writing: If you don’t feel you are on the edge of humiliating yourself, then you’re not writing hard enough.” I loved it so much I tracked him down. He wrote me a lovely handwritten letter, but he said he never wrote it. “Though it sounds like me.”
What a privilege it was to sell John Irving’s break-out novel, The World According to Garp. To participate in the success of a book you personally love . . . nothing comes close to that degree of literary satisfaction.
What I loved about this book so much, besides all the bookish material, was how deeply personal you made it. You talk about having a refrain of sadness, which I have come to believe that all deeply funny people have. Would you agree?
Certainly, Caroline. My own father, a comedy writer, suffered from depression on and off for much of his life. I have the sadness gene in my soul as well. Most of my dad’s comedy writer friends were the same way – with deep, heavy souls, and insecurities. To turn tragedy into comedy is not disrespectful in any way. In fact, it is the buoy that makes it possible to go on living . . . and writing. Joni Mitchell said, “Depression is the sand that makes the pearl.” I believe this has made me a better, and funnier writer. Why bother writing if you don’t dig deep and tell the whole truth about yourself?
What’s obsessing you now and why?
What’s obsessing you now and why?
My obsessions are all political these days. I want to see Trump impeached, assault weapons banned, and our environment protected and respected above all else.
And what is your next book, because of course, there has to be one.
I’m writing my second book now. The title is SOME NERVE: A MEMOIR. It’s hard to believe my first memoir came out eleven years ago! Now I have so much more to share with readers, experiences they can relate to and hopefully learn from, and stories that will make them laugh and feel good about who they are.