After twenty years spending summers in a modest corner of the fabled Hamptons, I finally got to feel like one of the literati when I was invited to participate in a charity benefit for the East Hampton Library. It was quite an adventure. The venue was a giant tent behind the library. Attendees paid $100 a head to stroll past tables at which 155 authors displayed and signed their books, drink wine, nibble exquisite hors d’oeuvres, and rub shoulders with the beautiful people who frequent such events.
The books on offer ran the gamut from bestsellers to self-published and from self-help to poetry. They were donated by the publishers or, in some cases, the authors, and all proceeds from sales will go to the library. I knew and was happy to greet several mystery authors: Stephanie Pintoff, David Carkeet, Chris Knopf, Andrew Gross, and Lorenzo Carcaterra, as well as E.J. Wagner, winner of a nonfiction Edgar for her book about forensics in the cases of Sherlock Holmes.
As someone whose last name begins with a Z, I usually draw a disappointing slot in author lineups. This time, however, the tail of the S-shaped line of tables was located in prime territory, front row center if “front” is designated as the side of the tent directly opposite the bar. As usual, I came last. Directly to my right was a very different kind of author: Jill Zarin, star of the reality TV show The Real Housewives of New York City and author of a book called Secrets of A Jewish Mother. She’s twenty years younger than me, she’s beautiful, she was dressed to the nines, and she was mobbed. Everybody wanted to take her picture, preferably with them standing next to her. Her book sold out well before the close of the event, while my leftovers will be gracing library book sales for some time to come. Jill told me that her bookstore signings regularly draw 500 people. Sigh.
I’ve been a Jewish mother longer than Jill. Her daughter is a teen, while my son just turned forty. I’m a shrink as well as a mystery writer, and I’ve got plenty of secrets. So what has she got that I ain’t got (besides the figure)? If you’re a writer yourself, you’ve guessed it: a platform. People love to buy the books of someone they’ve already heard of. Sometimes it’s even because of the author’s previous books. But just as often, nowadays, it’s someone who is known for something else, and TV sure is something else that makes one known to an awful lot of people.
Having met Jill and her husband, both of them lovely people, I’m happy for her success. Nor would I consent to put my life on reality TV if that were the price of a bestseller. Honest. I really wouldn’t. That would be the end of my secrets, wouldn’t it? (Coincidentally, I just finished reading the late, great Donald Westlake’s hilarious Get Real, in which Dortmunder and his band of professional thieves are persuaded to pretend to be themselves—although they already are themselves—pulling a job on reality TV.) But isn’t it a sign of the times that so often the best path to big success for a book is being authored by anything but a writer?