Pulpwood Queens, Beauty, and the Book

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When I was visiting New Orleans in March, having been invited to the Tennessee Williams Festival and the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, I was seated in the lobby of the Hotel Monteleone, awaiting my first event. I was scheduled  to discuss the presentation of the self in memoir on a panel with a very fine moderator and some strong fellow writers. Since I had arrived at the hotel a bit early, I was attempting to contemplate what it meant to present the self, one of those terms that could be deadening if discussed in purely academic terms in front of an audience of general readers. Nevertheless I found the idea to be intriguing, since our life in this modern world of constant media is a performance in so many ways.

As I was seated in a nice stiff-backed armchair beside the entrance to the hotel restaurant, a group of women walked past me, decked out in a motif of beige fabrics and leopard prints – scarves, blouses, jackets. My impression of them was that they were very much connected to one another, maybe even family, similarly tall, blonde, with carefully done hair. They carried themselves with an air of the regal, so much so that one could see at a glance that they understood the idea of the presentation of the self, the performance of even so simple a matter as a walk across the hotel lobby. One of them glanced at me and appeared to recognize me, though I decided quickly that I must be imagining this. The women processed into the restaurant and then out again, maintaining their stately grace, moving as if they were aware that people would probably watch them, as I was doing.

A few minutes later, as the panel discussion began, on the front row of the audience sat these singular women who made leopard look like exactly the thing to wear at a morning literary event, and who managed to sit with the same sense of purpose with which they had glided through the hotel. At that point I understood there was something special about these people, though soon enough the business of the conversation on the panel took over and I did what I was supposed to do. I talked about my book and stepped into the conversation with the other writers. From time to time during the hour that followed, I glanced at the row of women and wondered who they were.

Later when I was signing books in one of the side rooms on the Monteleone mezzanine, the leopard group swept into the room and asked me to sign one of my books, and at that point they introduced themselves as representatives of the Pulpwood Queens Book Club, with Kathy Murphy as the queen herself. As I would earn later, hers was the vision to found the book club group, which at present comprises 700 chapters, adventure trips, international reach, good hair maintenance, and a movie deal. Kathy knew of my work from her days as a book sales representative for Algonquin Books, my publisher. We chatted. She told me a bit of her story, which is extraordinary, including her career in the book world, subsequent turbulence both professional and private, the founding of a salon called Beauty and the Book, and her book club empire. At the end of the conversation I was left with the feeling that she was the one who had been on stage that morning, and I was part of her audience. I suspect this is a reaction that people often have when meeting her. She is one of those people who cannot help but change the world wherever she touches it.

So a few weeks later I heard from Kathy that she had chosen my memoir as an official bonus book for June, putting me on the list of authors selected for the worldwide Pulpwood Queens to read, and therefore eligible to attend the Girlfriends Weekend in January. The notion that I am affiliated with the Beauty and the Book movement is a real highlight, and I am grateful to have been taught a lesson in the presentation of the self by one of the masters of the art, Kathy Murphy, book goddess.

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