by Jas Faulkner
I got the email from Sam and Tab shortly before the first of the month:
Can you come to Memphis? It’s a coven meeting and you’re invited!
Why yes, that is coded speech. Sam usually sends her invitations to coven gatherings via owl or white mice in a pumpkin. But seriously, the girls are secretive about their professional gatherings and for good reason. In the early days of the event, they were sometimes overrun by wannabe writers looking for that magic something that would get them published and readers seeking galleys before their favourite authors’ latest hit the shelves. The attendees are all booksellers except for the occasional guest from the book trade or an author or a book jacket artist or somesuch person who shares their insight and experience and usually brings some very sweet swag. In return they get a smallish honorarium and a long weekend at the B and B.
When I reached the location for the latest booksellerpalooza, some of the guests were regarding Tab with a mix of bemusement and consternation. It turned out that she told an overly curious passerby that the meeting was for Furries*. While this might have scared off most people, the person in question turned out to be someone who loved to get her, um, jollies dressed as a panda. I’m still waiting for the explanation as to how the girls extricated themselves from that little crisis.
That would have to wait, as our conference room was ready and it turned out that the nearly forty attendees were dying for lunch, schmoozing, and then the main event. Lunch was -dear God- Garibaldi’s Pizza. New Yorkers love their salty, oily slices that you can fold into a paper airplane shape. Chicago boasts the ballast of deep dish pizza. If you’ve ever spent any time in Memphis, especially around the campus of Tiger High, you’ve seen the ubiquitous green and white cups from Garibaldi’s used as everything from spit jars to paintbrush holders. Memphians love their Garibaldi’s Pizza. It is sin on a crust. People bring Garibaldi’s BBQ pizza to the crossroads in Mississippi when they’re looking for favours from Legba. It is that good.
As we chatted over a little pizza and a lot of green salad, the Sam waved to a woman at the buffet line.
As soon as she approached our table with her friends, I recognised her as a fellow Opryland/Acuff alumnus. Like all of us who wrangled fans, celebrities, and celebrity-manques in the late 80s’, Shelley** was a little thicker and greyer, but still basically the same compact little terrier of a woman who could herd large, bellicose corporate country artists to the right studio at The Nashville Network and talk addled fans in search of their favourite singing sweetheart away from the side doors of the New Opry. She was accompanied by Devin***, a smiling bear of a guy who wore a Nudie’s style jacket covered with portraits of Elvis during his young and beautiful phase. Bringing up the rear was Shelley’s intern, Ashley****, a sweet-faced young woman in a business suit who turned into a wisecracking cowgirl as soon as she figured out she was in friendly company.
The three of them were professional celebrity/author handlers and the guests of honour for this event. In return for agreeing to not rat out the participants, I was given pizza and permission to write about the handlers’ panel discussion.
Shelly started the presentation by offering a description of what she and her cohorts do.
“We have been called glorified babysitters. The more literate among our bosses sometimes refer to us as geishas of the Beaux Arts. There’s some truth to both of those descriptors. We are the caretakers of artists and dignitaries of all sorts when they come to town.
“Here is what a typical job is like for us:
“We get the call that we will be shadowing Personality X from Date Y to Date Z. If they are flying in, we are given the details about when and where to pick them up, where they will be staying, and where they need to be over the course of their visit. If we are lucky, we’re given information about food preferences, if they prefer to be left alone to explore the city or visit friends and family in the little free time they’ll have, and if we need to be prepared to act as hosts and tour guides for the next day or two or three.
“We meet them, go over the itinerary to make sure there are no surprises like morning radio or appearances on local chat shows that they were not told about. We get them situated if there is time and if they are staying over, and then we head to their appointed appearances.
“If they do not have people to see outside of their professional appearances, we take them to eat, we offer them some choices regarding what they might want to do if they have down time. Most people want to go to their room to rest or do something on their own. In that case,we leave them at their hotel and call it a day. If not, we make plans for dinner and sometimes an attraction that has been arranged by the publisher or studio or label.
“It sounds simple and most of the time it is. It’s not really the glamourous whirl it’s made out to be in movies and TV.”
Shelley scooted the mic over to Devin, who continued the talk.
“For every three or four easy assignments that go off without a hitch and leave you free to get home to the family at a decent hour, there are the few that are, shall we say? Adventures? Roughly half the time this happens, it’s not your client’s fault. Maybe they weren’t told they’d have to be up and ready to go at dark thirty o’clock. Sometimes an incredibly shy person will not get the memo that they’re going to do a local television show or a reading as well as sit at a signing table.
“You first thought might have been like mine before I started doing this. Why can’t these people just deal with it? After all, they’ve signed on to be public figures, right? What you need to remember is this is not just Nashville and Memphis and Jackson. This is Nashville and Memphis and Jackson and Birmingham and Shreveport and Dallas and Little Rock and Oklahoma City and Columbus and Wichita and, and, and…
“The majority of the writers we work with are readers and fans. They know what it’s like to meet someone who has created something that touches you and they want the people who show up to feel appreciated. They want that moment when they say hello and shake hands to be as memorable for their readers as it was for them when they were on the other side of the table.
“The big, big but here is that they are now seeing it from a different vantage point. They are personally stretched very thin and they don’t want their fans to see that. This is where we come in. We create the backup and support so they can be shiny and fresh at the table and then we get them someplace where they can have what they need to recharge.”
“Within reason,” added Shelley.
“Of course,” Devin smiled.
Then Shelley leaned toward the tabletop mic.
“We’d like to open the floor to questions.”
Q: How do you get into something like that?
Shelley: I majored in English and minored in journalism. I wanted to go into public relations, but I was so far into my degree that it would have taken me at least an extra year to get the classes I’d need. So I decided to get involved with the student activities council at school my junior and senior years. I worked with the people who took care of the talent for on-campus events. Nearly everything I needed to know to do this job, I learned from working with SAC.
After school, I got a job with Opryland assisting visiting artists around the park and The Nashville Network and the Acuff, which was where the Grand Ole Opry was held at the time. All of it was located on one huge complex in Donelson, Tennessee. The nice part was, I got to cut my teeth working with music business people, actors, and visiting dignitaries all in one place.
When the park was demolished so they could build a mall, I started shopping around my resume and networking like crazy to find out where the work was. My job now is probably fifty percent music business people and fifty percent book trade. Most of my work is still in Nashville, but I’ve occasionally assisted people as they visit multiple cities.
Devin: SAC was my starting place, too. I was involved with a couple of big CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) labels, a religious publishing house and some of the small presses early on. My story is similar to Shelley’s. When the economy changed and the places to work shifted, I called on friends to connect me with people who could use what I do.
Q: Do y’all talk about clients? Are there people you fight to get and people you fight to get away from?
Devin: Divas are really few and far between. I’ve volunteered to take on someone who is known to be difficult. Sometimes I do it because as bad as that person might be, they are also very entertaining and I might be well rested enough to handle them. Other times I’ll step up because the person who might otherwise have to take care of them is either too inexperienced or too tired to deal with them.
Shelley: We do talk.
Devin: Oh yes.
Shelley: Very very good and very bad experiences grow legs. The writer who has been a joy to deal with in Nashville will sometimes find the red carpet is rolled out when they land at Memphis International. It’s the nature of the business. You’re good to my friends, I’ll bend over backwards for you.
Devin: If we hear horror stories from, say, Louisville or Memphis, We’ll still be nice. It can mean the difference between a quick cup at Starbucks and a restful break at an out of the way place with friendly people, great food, and comfortable places to sit and chill until the next stop.
Shelley: Sometimes it’s not going to register either way anyway.
Devin: Yeah. Sometimes there’s zero feedback. You decide the quality of your job and how much satisfaction you get from it.
Q: You’ve talked about networking. Do you make lasting connections with the people you work with?
Shelley: Yes and no.
Devin: It really depends.
Shelley: It happens. Ashley has a couple of agents who ask for her for their clients.
Shelley: The Notting Hill thing? It isn’t likely to happen. Old pros will be nice and professional but a little distant. This is actually the most comfortable way for us to work. They’ve been approached a thousand times by people who think they have some kind of secret entry to being published. If your person is new to this, they’re trying to juggle relationships, existing careers, and the expectation that they are going to somehow deliver like rock stars when they don’t know what they’re doing.
Some of them will never make eye contact. A few have their own people along. Sometimes it’s a very protective significant other and they will never directly address you. Most of them will never bother to learn your name unless you’ve done something horrible.
Q: Who are the best and worst people you have handled?
Devin: Not touching that one.
Shelley: Same here. Once you get a reputation for talking, you find your calls start coming a lot further apart.
Devin: Or they stop altogether.
Shelley: The thing to remember is that this is a job. It’s a fun job and most of the time it’s an easy job. If you have a hard time not being the center of attention, this is not the job for you. If you have a hard time being the center of attention, maybe you should take up an interesting reclusive persona and pen name.
Q: Would you like to be famous?
Ashley: Lord, no.
Shelley: Only if I could get a stand-in to do my book tours for me.
* Furries are people who dress up in plush, fuzzy anthropomorphic animal costumes. Some of it is Sci-Fi type cosplay and some of it is an avenue for people to get freaky while pretending they are cartoon animals. I don’t get it, either.
**Not her real name. In fact all of the names have been changed to protect the innocent and the not-so-innocent.
*** Nope. Not his real name, either.
**** Do I have to say it?