Not Dead Yet
When two thieves meet they need no introduction: They recognize each other without question.
—“Amban’s Addition,” the 49th koan in The Gateless Gate
The email from my publisher dropped as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. “Congratulations!” wrote Julie Reaume, marketing and sales manager at Michigan State University Press. I devoured what came next. My book was a winner! Or a runner-up actually, for a prize that I had never heard of. The Great Southeast Book Festival would be holding its awards ceremony in New Orleans, my hometown. I should know about this book festival. I’m plugged into these things, especially if they’re local. But this was a new one to me. No matter. I was overjoyed. And Julie was thrilled to be sending good news. We needed it.
MSU Press had published my book a year earlier. There were some favorable reviews. Sales were modest but not embarrassing. The people whose opinions matter the most to me had loved it. Even more important, I was happy with my own book, which is an account of my life and adventures along Bayou Saint John, titled My Bayou: New Orleans through the Eyes of a Lover. I had spent four years writing the book (with my own blood) and shepherding it to a good home at MSU Press. I tried to be realistic about my place in the crowded realm of publishing, while at the same time holding a secret vision of my book reaching a wide readership. I’d like to make a living at what I do, and I want my work to be appreciated. That’s not too much to hope, is it?
The raw truth was that after a year My Bayou wasn’t doing as well as I hoped. Lately I had undergone the painful realization familiar to many writers that a book may come to life with some encouraging fanfare and then disappear without a sound. This happens for a variety of reasons, having to do with the size of the marketing budget, the writer’s own incompetence at self-promotion, and bad luck.
Here are some more things I’ve learned about publishing. There are too many books and too little time. Too few readers and too many distractions. Everyone is clamoring for attention. Getting your first book out is a lot like being born into a large litter of puppies. The ones who make the biggest noise and muscle their way to the teats get the most of Mother’s milk, defined here as reviews, readings, and royalties. I am the second-born in a family of five kids, so sibling rivalry runs all over my personal history, and I was never much good at it. Competition for resources tends to make me fold inward and turn quiet, the better to work my spy craft. Even under the best of circumstances, books from small presses like mine tend to be the runt of the litter, and my own temperamental aversion for attention-getting behaviors wasn’t helping. As a result, my book was turning out to be a starveling even by the usual runty standard. Who knows why? I was tired of thinking about it. I had done my part, I figured, and so by the one-year birthday of my book, it seemed that if My Bayou couldn’t walk on its own legs yet, then I had no choice but to let it go to a solemn crib death. I had begun work on my next book. My publisher was putting its resources into the next litter of puppies.
So when this good news popped into my inbox, it felt like Easter morning. Miraculous life emerged from the tomb of my disappointment. Somewhere, a panel of judges, people who didn’t know me and were not my friends, had read my book and decided it should have a prize. They didn’t have to like it; my book spoke for itself. At last, a little independent endorsement: my work is good.
The best part was that I had no idea my book was under consideration for a prize—my publisher had submitted it months earlier without telling me—which made it even more wonderful. Now the day was feeling like Christmas morning, too.
“Woo hoo!” I yelled. Helium filled my soul, along with angels’ trumpets and the scent of roses. I stood up from my desk and danced around the house. My dog Lance, who is twelve years old now and rarely rises from his bed for any reason other than meals, joined me with his own creaky upward backbend. I called my partner Geoff and told him to meet me for lunch. As I headed down the front steps, I saw the sunlight on the green elephant ears in a new way. Everything was more beautiful now. In addition to the personal satisfaction, maybe this distinction could help my book find its legs to stand out from the crowd a little bit. Wow, things are finally looking up, I said to myself.
“I’m proud of you,” Geoff said at lunch. “Good work. You deserve it.” We were strolling through the buffet at Whole Foods. I ran into my friend Ben whose book had recently won an award from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. I hugged him and told him congratulations. The thought of sharing my own book’s recognition crossed my mind. Instead, I said nothing. I wanted to hold the news inside and savor it in private a little longer. Not sure why, but that seemed like the right choice at the moment. Plus I was proud of myself for not going all braggy about my book, and could offer sincere congratulations to Ben without feeling like a starving runt.
When I returned to my desk, I reread the note from Julie. She had forwarded the acceptance email from the festival sponsor Bruce Haring and told me to follow up with him about the awards ceremony. First I scoured the website for the Great Southeast Book Festival. The banner photo across the top was a stock image of Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, not exactly New Orleans, but close. Then I clicked on the list of winners and scrolled down just to be sure I hadn’t dreamed this. There I was: runner-up in the category of autobiography. I clicked around the site a little more. The contact information directed me to a company in Hollywood, California, called JM Northern Media. Here I paused. Why would a company in Hollywood run a book festival in New Orleans? How come I’ve never heard of this? And what does JM Northern Media have to do with the Great Southeast?
Still buoyed on waves of joy, I pushed aside these sensible questions and wrote an email to Bruce Haring that burbled, “Thank you so much for this wonderful honor.” I’m embarrassed to relate it now, but I was giddy. I closed by writing that I would attend the awards ceremony scheduled to take place in two weeks, and what was the next step. Haring wrote back: “A wonderful book indeed. Ticket form attached. I look forward to meeting you.” The form invited me to pay $95 to attend a party where I could accept my award certificate. There would be cocktails and hors d'oeuvres.
Wait a minute. I was expected to pay a fee? To accept an award that my book had earned by being wonderful? All of a sudden something did not seem kosher.
I went back to the Great Southeast Book Festival website to look again, this time with my shit-detector activated. I found nothing under the link for past winners. Hmm. Also there was no information on the judges or judging process, yet the criteria for submission were wide open to all books in any genre, any format, self-published or unpublished, without limits on region, subject or publication date. More hmm. The deadline for submission was March 1, 2013; my publisher received notification of my prize on March 6, 2013. That’s an awfully short turnaround. How could the judges review all the books in that time? Then I read the last item on the FAQ page: “Q: I've never heard of this event. How do I know this is not a scam? A: We have been in business since 1999 and stand by our track record of first-class productions around the world. Please feel free to review past contest winners and events from our large inventory of past success stories.”
There it was, hiding in plain sight. My soul sprang a leak, releasing the helium, angels, and roses.
I didn’t want to learn more, but I couldn’t stop. With a grim sense of fate, I turned to Google. All I had to type in the search field was the name of the company, JM Northern Media—I didn’t even have to include the word “scam”—and there at the top of the hit list was a blog post by the infamous “Miss Snark, the literary agent,” titled “Crock of Shit alert.” Following that came story after story, detailed warnings about Bruce Haring’s notorious scam on writers, giving out phony awards, and collecting fees on the front end and the back end.
One blogger on Writer Beware gave a checklist of red flags to evaluate an award’s legitimacy. Although charging a nominal fee for submissions to cover administrative costs is standard, if the award sponsor requires the winners to pay additional fees to collect their award, that’s a big no-no. Particularly if the list of winners includes close to a hundred authors, then it looks like a moneymaking operation to benefit the sponsor, rather than true recognition for excellence. If the prize categories are too numerous, the criteria too broad and varied, if it looks like a kitchen sink where everyone who submits a book gets an award, well then, it’s probably a meaningless distinction to win one of these. If the contests occur too frequently, like every few weeks, then it’s a prize mill, not giving genuine review to the works in consideration because that process takes time. If the award sponsor offers writers yet more opportunities to spend money after they win by offering to sell them gold-embossed “winner” decals to affix on the covers of their books, or “editing services” by “professionals”—all these are screaming red flags. Finally, a legitimate book contest should be proud to share information about the judges and the judging process because that information establishes the award’s good reputation. The Goliath on this landscape, the MacArthur “genius grant” does not reveal its judges. But lesser award agencies should because transparency inspires confidence, right?
JM Northern Media failed on all the above counts. Just to put the last nail in this coffin, I sent an email to Bruce Haring, asking him to explain the judging process and to give me the names and bios of the judges for the Great Southeast Book Festival. He answered: “We don't reveal our judges, but they are drawn from our circle of authors, publishers, journalists, agents, film directors, and others in the book business.”
Dumb. That’s how it hit me. I was really dumb. There were no judges reading my book, no authentic endorsement of its quality. This book festival was a cynical maneuver to squeeze money out of desperate writers—no shortage of those—by conveying the false impression that their books were being independently evaluated and honored for their skill and then handing out phony certificates at some cheesy ceremony for chumps who want to believe their precious books are loved.
The tsunami of self-loathing that every writer falls prey to (you know who you are) came washing over my head. I felt humiliated that I had taken this fraud to heart, even for a short time. What a fool I was to think that my little book might make a break from the masses published each year and earn a modicum of formal recognition. Thank God, I hadn’t posted anything on Facebook yet.
I sent an email to Julie Reaume at MSU Press with the heading, “Before we celebrate,” and gave her the bad news. She was shocked; she had never encountered anything like this before. I spent the night composing an angry email that I did not send. My name and my book were on this nutty website! By the time Julie and I talked the next day my anger had subsided. My first reaction, while the jackal of shame gnawed on my intestines, had been to blame someone else. My publisher was the next obvious candidate. If it took me five minutes on Google to figure this out, how come no one on their end had done the same? Once I calmed down, I understood my publisher was as much a victim here as I was.
Bruce Haring had directly solicited MSU Press for submissions. He probably went trolling for books related to New Orleans since the ceremony would be located here. At first glance, the Great Southeast Book Festival did look perfect for My Bayou. So I couldn’t blame my publisher for taking the bait.
And here was the nub of what infuriated me. People who are trustworthy tend to be trusting. People who operate with integrity—like the folks at MSU Press—aren’t looking for a scam because that sort of corruption doesn’t enter into their own thinking. It’s not hard to take advantage of that trust. The habit of decent people to take others at face value is an open door, and scammers know that. That’s how they get away with it, and they’re counting on the inevitable embarrassment to weaken their victims, preventing them from fighting back. So, I could forgive my publisher for getting caught in this trap because they were only trying to help my book, and they were guilty of nothing worse than trust.
This experience brought into high relief for me a typical and ugly trend in human nature to blame the victim. Let’s be honest: everyone hates a victim. Why?
Regarding the mere status of a victim as such forces us into an intolerable awareness of our own vulnerability. We make the victim culpable for her own victimization, thus aligning ourselves with the bully who appears powerful, so we can enjoy an illusion that we are invincible. Well, I’d never be that stupid . . . and so on. Even though it was distasteful, I could see the fear operating within me, prompting me to attack the ones I might easily perceive as weak, the “foolish victims” taken in by the fraud (first myself, then my publisher), because I couldn’t tolerate how vulnerable I felt.
The exposure was excruciating. The shocking collapse of my joy filled me with pain because I didn’t realize how fragile my hopes were until I came within sight of the honor I craved, only to see it dissolve in a mockery of itself. I felt jerked around, far worse than if I’d never had any notion of an award at all. Better to have no hope than to see false hope disdained. And it’s way too easy to yank on a writer’s hope. What kind of monster would devise a scheme like this? Of course, we’re an easy mark when it comes to our books. C’mon, pick a tougher crowd. This was like cutting off puppy dogs’ tails.
I contacted the bloggers who had written about Bruce Haring and JM Northern Media to ask if they had any more information. They advised me to keep my mouth shut and forget it ever happened. This advice did not sit right with me. The suggestion that I should minimize my predicament by hiding it seemed to border on victim-blame, despite their well-intended compassion. Then serendipitously, an old friend turned me onto Brené Brown, a researcher storyteller, whose TED Talk got close to nine million viewers last count. In her clinical work, Brown has examined shame and vulnerability, which live together like peanut butter and jelly. Within her own self-discovery process, Brown also offered this trenchant observation: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity.”
Bleccch! I hated to hear it, but she was right. When it came to this humiliation that had exposed my vulnerability, the only way out was the way in. I had to make fertilizer out of this pile of crap.
So rather than hide in shame or attack the victims, I directed my energy to the person who most deserved it—the perpetrator. I could get angry. Or I could get creative. I told Julie I would write a story about this alleged book award. “I’m glad you are taking this on,” she wrote to me later.
Oh, this was going to be fun. Bruce Haring obviously did not read my book; otherwise, he would know I’m a tattletale.
My first task was to throw out a lure to get Haring to give me an interview when he came to New Orleans at the end of March. Earlier, in my fuming phase, I had sent a tart email to notify him that I would not attend the awards ceremony. I was not going to give this guy money, even to do a story. It was bad enough that my publisher got taken for the $50 submission fee. I asked Haring to send my award by mail. To date it has not arrived.
Since I had blown my chance to infiltrate this event as myself, I figured I’d invent a new persona and get in by posing as a journalist doing a story on the book festival. I should be able to pass for a freelance writer. I had the wardrobe, the notebooks, the bitter conviction in the world’s relentless injustice. No sweat.
First, a new name. I kneeled before my bookcase and scanned my library, looking for inspiration. Ah! The Portable Dorothy Parker caught my eye. Perfect. Let’s see, now I needed a last name. I looked up to the next shelf and landed on Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. There we go, two wonderful role models. Thus, the freelance writer “Dorothy Anderson” was born.
Then I Googled the name just to see who might be out there. I found a woman in Arizona whose website introduced her as “a one-woman performing artist” who “specializes in telling tales.” This Dorothy Anderson described herself: “As an author, actress, storyteller, I dress in period clothes and set the stage for telling exciting true stories.” Bingo. Although I was not going to impersonate this real Dorothy Anderson, the synchronicity was too shivery to ignore.
Ten minutes later, the new, invented “Dorothy Anderson” had her own email account. My plan was to write to Bruce Haring from this address to pitch an interview request. Then it occurred to me the pitch would gain verisimilitude with an actual news outlet as a reference—someone “Dorothy Anderson” could say she was writing for. So I called Alex Rawls whose blog My Spilt Milk covers New Orleans music and assorted cultural offerings. Even though years ago Alex and I had been writing for the same alternative weekly newspaper, we didn’t know each other that well, so it would be a stretch to ask this favor. I caught him on a day that he happened to be in Austin, Texas, to write about the SXSW Music Festival; he was heading down a jammed street from one concert to the next with a flukey cell phone connection.
I had barely gotten into an explanation of the problem and my plan before Alex was roaring with laughter. “Go for it! What the hell!” he yelled. “Writers are always getting [loud traffic sounds] at so many levels, if you can make one of these people uncomfortable or even expose him . . . then I say go for it.” With the noise, I couldn’t be sure if Alex had said screwed, scammed, or shat on, but I took his remarks as supportive and said I’d be in touch soon. As I hung up I thought, Now this is a mensch.
I got to work, logged on as “Dorothy Anderson,” and sent a bright and friendly note to Bruce Haring to ask if he would be willing to meet for an interview so I could do a story for My Spilt Milk. No answer. A couple of days later Alex Rawls forwarded an email that Haring had sent to him:
Received a query from a freelancer, Dorothy Anderson, who claims that you've assigned her to cover an event we're staging this weekend, the awards for the Great Southeast Book Festival. I'm happy to accommodate her if that's the case. I did a quick search and can't seem to find a byline on her in your or any other publication, or even anything posted by the email address she gave, which gives me pause. Let me know if she's legit and I'll hook her up with our authors. Don't want to waste anyone's time if this is just someone looking for free drinks. Thanks for your help.
Well, okay, no surprise here. I should have figured that a rat would recognize the smell of another rat. Still, just to see how far I could string this out, I emailed Alex to say that I would reply directly to Haring (still using my alternate persona), let him know I had gotten the forwarded email, and try to allay his fears.
To make sure that Alex was still on board, I ended my note by asking, “Would you feel comfortable with that? Connie a.k.a. Dorothy. P.S. I just remembered that Dustin Hoffman's character in Tootsie also took the nom de guerre ‘Dorothy.’ All the signs are good.”
Alex replied, “Go for it.”
So I made one more attempt. I was proud of my next gambit. I thought it struck just the right tone—professional, knowing, a little alluring, and then at the last second aloof, as if to say: I don’t care if you take the bait. It’s up to you. That usually worked with men.
Alex Rawls from My Spilt Milk has forwarded your email and asked me to address your concerns.
I am sorry that you are worried I might be attempting to wangle free drinks. Actually I don't drink when I am working. I am really just interested in the book festival. I am an avid reader and so thought this story would interest other readers. Also that you might want more coverage for this new festival.
If you are not comfortable having me come to the awards event, I would be happy to meet you in the afternoon for a coffee. I'm buying. Just to hear more from you directly about the book festival. I promise not to take up too much of your time. I realize you'll be busy while you're in New Orleans.
If that option does not appeal to you, and you would rather not have any coverage of this award, of course, I understand.
In either case, I wish you great success with the book festival.
At that point I had no choice but to wait. To do any more would tip my hand. So I busied myself by collating the material Haring had published on the Internet about his own company and the myriad book festivals he has sponsored since 1999. Under the link “Properties,” JM Northern Media lists fifteen book festivals, each named for a region or city. There was the London Book Festival, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco. In addition to the Great Southeast Book Festival, there was also the Great Northwest, Great Southwest, Southern California, plus the New England Book Festival. It went on and on, enough festivals to give awards every three weeks. The websites, named to indicate a regional identity, were decorated with corroborating stock photos, such as the Seattle Space Needle or an Arizona desert butte. Yet all the websites directed contacts to the same Hollywood mailing address for JM Northern Media. In addition, the wording for all the submission information and judging criteria was identical on each site. There was nothing to establish any one festival as having a specific connection to the region or city it was named for. Nothing on the sites guaranteed that writers who submitted their books could expect a wider market exposure for their work in those geographical areas. It seemed that Haring had purchased the domain names, thrown up a bunch of quickie template websites, added clip art, and then copied and pasted the information to each site. So in a matter of a few hours’ work, JM Northern Media could appear on the internet as if it were a publishing empire with numerous “properties” all over the globe.
For the awards ceremonies, Haring invited writers to buy tickets to the event for themselves, friends and family, and then travel (at their own expense) to an arbitrarily chosen location, where he gave out certificates. This explained why no one in New Orleans had ever heard of the Great Southeast Book Festival. There was no advance local publicity and no New Orleans link to the judging or the criteria for submission—undoubtedly no judges at all, save for Haring who probably threw books against a wall to see which ones stuck.
In fact, as I clicked through all of these, it was hard to tell the difference between one book festival and the next. I kept getting confused about which site I was reading because they all ran together. Part of the problem was that I kept seeing the same authors’ names over and over on the lists of winners. Not only that, but the same book titles won numerous awards. On the submission form, Haring invited writers to make multiple entries. In fact they could save money on entry fees by doing it that way. Writers who went along with this flummery were rewarded for their loyalty to JM Northern Media by winning lots and lots of awards.
Each festival offered one grand prize of $1,500 plus airfare to the ceremony. According to the blogger on Writer Beware, Haring did come across with a cash award, apparently financing it with the hundred or so lesser winners in a given festival who had to pay for their awards. That creepy hunch came over me again when I noticed that the same writer had won the grand prize more than once. Rick Robinson, author of Alligator Alley must be one fortunate fellow. Or perhaps he’s a brilliant writer. Who am I to judge? We can’t be sure of anything except that this one writer—out of the thousands of writers who submit their books every year to JM Northern Media contests and expect fair judgment of their work—somehow Robinson popped out repeatedly in the list of winners, at least twice as the recipient of the grand prize. You have to admit, that’s pretty remarkable.
As I was skimming through Haring’s site for the New England Book Festival for 2010, I stopped when I saw the poetry prize had gone to Mary Oliver for Swan. This was not possible. Not Mary Oliver, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Lannan Literary Award, and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, to name just a few. Mary Oliver is the poet of my heart and my dreams, a class act. What was she doing on this schlocky website? It took one phone call and two emails to Oliver’s publisher Beacon Press to ascertain that no one had submitted Swan for this award. “Mary leaves these things to her publisher and relies on us to separate the wheat from the chaff,” wrote Tom Hallock, Associate Publisher at Beacon Press. “We did not submit Swan or any other Beacon title for this award and, until you wrote us had never heard of the award, festival or organizer.”
Bruce Haring had slapped Mary Oliver’s name onto his website, sponging off her reputation to give the thing some aura of legitimacy. Also this was bait for other writers, the serious and ambitious strivers, to submit their books. Who wouldn’t want their book in the same festival with Mary Oliver’s? Haring had gambled that no one would doubt it or alert Beacon Press. Was I the only one who asked questions around here?
Since “Dorothy Anderson” had not gotten a peep out of Bruce Haring from her last email, it was time to open up the discussion to include my fellow winners in the Great Southeast Book Festival. Just to be clear: When I talked to the other writers, I identified myself with my real name. “Dorothy Anderson” had outlived her usefulness; the spy came in from the cold. Plus I saw no point in fooling with the other writers’ trust. They’d been jerked around enough. When I contacted them, I stated that I was researching Bruce Haring and JM Northern Media for the purpose of writing a story. For the most part they were happy to talk to me.
The first writer I talked to had initiated contact with me. I won’t share identifying information about her because she told me she felt embarrassed to be associated with this phony award and wanted privacy. So I’ll call her Joan. She sent me an innocuous yet exploratory email, wishing congratulations to the both of us. She closed with her phone number and an invitation to “chat.” Joan must have found the online scam warnings and was nervous about stating her discovery in an email. Yet, she was obviously looking for a reality check. Out of all the writers on the list of prizewinners, she picked me. Smart girl.
Within seconds of getting on the phone, Joan wailed, “Oh, can you believe this ridiculous book contest? I feel so foolish!” We fell on each other like long-lost sisters. It was gratifying to talk to another writer who had made the same mistake I had, which was to take the award seriously at first. As soon as we heard each other’s voices, it was clear we were on the same page.
Like me, Joan had worked hard to make her book beautiful, loved it and expected good things for it. She had submitted it for other legitimate awards, as well. She had no idea until it was too late that she had placed her baby in such a flimsy basket with JM Northern Media. She was worried that if the other award agencies learned about her book being named for this phony award that would damage her reputation in the publishing community. She was afraid the real book award judges might dismiss her and her book as ridiculous.
I tried to reassure Joan. “Nobody would go to that much trouble to dig for information,” I said. Then I shut my mouth. Who was I to talk? Sitting here like a dirt-covered mole.
We agreed the phoniness of the whole thing was an insult, and we were angry about it. It felt good to hear Joan describe the same emotional terrain I had covered. We were bonding. So I felt brave enough to say I planned to ask my publisher to pressure Haring to remove my name and book from his website. Here I felt my sister pull away from me. “I’m not going to do anything like that,” she said. “I don’t want to make enemies in this business.”
By the end of the conversation Joan had made a complete about-face. “Maybe I will buy those decals he’s selling. Can’t hurt to stick those on my book,” she murmured just before we hung up. I never heard from her again, even though I emailed a couple more questions to her. Joan was afraid of me. I was being too assertive.
In the space of this brief conversation I had witnessed a compressed cycle of wounding, justified anger, a tentative claim on dignity, followed by collapse into self-imposed defeat. It broke my heart that Joan felt so vulnerable around her book that she feared making an enemy of this low-rent, three-dollar-bill “literary” poser. And that she was willing to succumb to desperation, despite her own common sense and high standards—and capitulate by giving Haring more of her money for these decals to announce what she knew to be a fraud on the cover of her book.
The whole thing made me want to cry. Yes, writers needed to be protected from scammers. But they also needed to be protected from themselves, it seemed. Almost in despair, I turned to my friend Susan Larson, who told me that when she ran the book review section in The Times–Picayune, she would not list a book prize unless she knew from personal experience that it was legitimate because there were so many shady operators out there. Now Susan hosts The Reading Life on WWNO, the NPR affiliate station, and was a judge for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction; this was her line of country. “Writing a book is an act of hope,” Susan said. “Even the smartest of us can be tricked by our own hopefulness.”
Patty Kogutek, author of A Change of Habit, was on the list of winners for the Great Southeast Book Festival. Before I got Patty on the phone, I found that her book had also won awards in five other JM Northern Media contests within a few months. Her own website listed most but not all of these yet.
“Yes, I’ve won seven awards,” Patty said. “Let’s see, three first-place, three runner-up and one honorable mention.”
I told her I had been able to find just six awards for her book. “Maybe it was six then. I’m not sure,” Patty said. Well, it would be hard to keep track of the awards from JM Northern Media when they came thick as fleas. I asked Patty to explain her understanding of the judging process. She told me that she believed her book was being independently evaluated for each contest by a separate panel of judges, and that the purpose of submitting it to several at once was to introduce her book to more areas of the country. She had paid all these entry fees because she believed these regional festivals brought a wider readership. “My impression was that there would be a committee in each city because it’s their contest,” she said. “But I don’t know for sure if that’s true.”
Patty said also that she believed these awards were an endorsement of her book’s quality. At this point, I had to ask, didn’t she think it was uncanny that her book had been independently judged by seven entirely separate panels and won seven awards, all in the space of a few months?
“Even if your book is extraordinary—and I’m sure it is—that’s like hitting seven home runs in one game.”
“That’s right, or winning the lottery ten times in one day,” Patty agreed.
A Change of Habit won in the category of spiritual books because the story came from Patty’s seven years living as a nun in the order the Servants of Mary. She described her own journey to happiness after squandering valuable time working “to please my Heavenly Father” when she should have been looking after herself. The cover art is a silhouette of a Roman Catholic nun dressed in a traditional habit, save for bright red high-heeled pumps. Plus a gold decal with the words, “Award Winning.” She explained, “I wrote this so people will reflect on their own happiness and take control. That means dig into your own heart and be honest.
“I see so many people who live in denial,” Patty concluded.
Victoria Wilcox’s book Inheritance (Southern Son: The Saga of Doc Holliday) was a runner-up in the fiction category. Victoria had no illusions about JM Northern Media or the Great Southeast Book Festival. She submitted her book in the final week before the deadline and got her award a week later.
“My book is four hundred pages long,” Victoria said in a skeptical tone. “I doubt it was read at all.” She thought her book won because the cover resembles the photo of Oak Alley on the contest website. Later when she was looking over the decals Haring offered to sell, she had a big laugh. “Those promotional stickers were one hundred dollars for sixty of them. My daughter asked, ‘Are they made of real gold?’”
Despite her doubts about the contest’s authenticity, Victoria submitted her book at the urging of her publicist who argued it was a harmless promotional venture that they could spin to her book’s favor. Now she could send out a press release with the technically accurate statement that Southern Son was honored among “the best new books of the season” because that was the wording Haring used in the prize notification. If that phrase helped to get more attention from book reviewers, then it was worth it to play along. The fact that Victoria paid a $50 submission fee for a dubious award to get the opportunity to place that statement on her press release didn’t bother her. “It’s the same as a book fair, where you pay a fee for a table to display your book. Would I spend fifty dollars for advertising? Absolutely.
“Look, I like to sell books,” she said. “I’m confident that I am a good writer. I’m not depending on somebody else to tell me I write pretty books.”
All of a sudden, I saw myself as a shrinking hothouse flower. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t take such a pragmatic view? While I admired Victoria’s emotional toughness, the logic in her rationale bothered me. When you buy advertising, there is no pretense about what you are paying for. No one walks up to you at a book fair, shakes your hand and says, “Congratulations! You paid for a display table!”
It was precisely that word “congratulations” that was sticking in my craw. It kept cropping up—from the other writers, from Haring. “Congratulations” is supposed to recognize an honor, granted with purity of purpose. Without that, the word becomes worse than meaningless; it corrupts the innocent goodwill it was meant to convey. I felt galled to be on the receiving end of this word because I knew my book had not earned it in a legitimate process. Like the words “I love you,” “congratulations” must never be exchanged on a false foundation. For people who cherish words for the power to reveal truth—when writers accept meaningless congratulations for their own words—that is a shameful transaction.
These issues evaporated in the ether of loving kindness for Paul Pacific, author of The Spirit Within and winner in the category for spiritual books. Paul spoke with a strong Massachusetts accent, and among his many past occupations he was a professional hockey player and a motivational speaker. To get a sense of what this fellow sounded like, imagine if the Car Talk guys, Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers, had embarked on a New Age spirit quest. Paul’s narrative was circular, as faith-based assertions tend, but his character came blazing through as warm, sincere, abundant. I believed that Paul believed every word of his story.
His book was an autobiography, based on learning to act on intuition or what he refers to as “that little voice within.” Raised as a Roman Catholic, Paul regarded the stories of Christ’s ability to perform miracles as metaphor expressing this connection to a unique intuition.
Paul said that he would not take any action that was not inspired by his own intuition. When he was scrolling through the information about the JM Northern Media book contests he experienced a strong message from “that little voice” that he should submit his book. In fact, he was so sure it was the right path for him that he began to write his acceptance speech before he received the notification that he had won.
“The elation I feel when I am guided to do something and the manifestation appears, it’s a feeling of being connected to the spirit within, which is God,” he said. “Besides, it cost fifty dollars. I thought, ‘That’s not bad. I’ll do it.’ In spiritual things, the money is insignificant.”
Paul acknowledged that he had also found the blog posts that called the contest a scam, which gave him pause. Then he went back to his original plan to submit his book because he had identified that it was his ego—not his intuition—causing him to doubt the integrity of the contest. No good could come of listening to the ego, he said, adding that when you have a negative attitude, it only grows larger.
“In all candor, I didn’t bother to read the scam warnings,” he said. “Because my connection to the spirit within was so strong, I knew these [reports] were not all that important. That little voice is never wrong.
“My eyes are watering up because I am so connected to the spirit within now, talking to you. Once again, there are no coincidences.”
When I finished my conversation with Paul, it occurred to me that Christ himself had hung between two thieves. And he turned out okay in the end. It was difficult to grasp, but I toyed with the idea I had gleaned from Paul: Faith protects you from corruption. With a pure spirit, nothing sticks to you. Not shame. Not glory either. You are the same writer with or without an award, bogus or legitimate; it’s a mirage shimmering in the distance. The only real thing is the page in front of you and that perfect solitary task done for its own sake. Chop wood. Carry water. Find the right words.
If I concentrated, I could glimpse the possibility of surrendering the whole mess to the great karmic balance sheet in the Universe. Then, I got angry all over again. I was not ready for sainthood. I went hunting for the big rat.
The awards ceremony for the Great Southeast Book Festival happened to take place on the same weekend as the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival. (A real literary festival, by the way, granting legitimate awards.) Haring had rented a meeting room on the second floor of Manning’s, a restaurant and sports bar near Harrah’s Casino on Canal Street just beyond the French Quarter. I went downtown early so I could stop by the Tennessee Williams Festival in the Quarter to get a ticket for a panel that interested me. The schedule was a thick booklet decorated with a Roy Lichtenstein-style cartoon of Tennessee Williams, a thought bubble and the quote, “Talent? What is talent but the ability to get away with something?”
Let’s hope so, I thought, as I headed out to do advance recon on Manning’s. At this point, I wasn’t sure what I expected to accomplish, except that I would confront Haring. I had no way of getting into the awards ceremony because I had not bought a ticket, so the vague plan was to show up early and ask a few pertinent questions. I wanted to get his statement on the record. Some accountability. That’s all I was after.
I anticipated that I would not get more than a few minutes with him because as soon as I asked one tough question, he would stop talking to me. Taking notes never worked for an adversarial interview. The sudden appearance of my notebook would scare him off completely, and then I’d get no comment. I had to be a little creative. So, I stashed a digital voice recorder in my purse. My conscience slowed me down a tiny bit here. Was it ethically sketchy to sandbag the guy? Maybe, but I had my reasons. I safety-pinned a small microphone to my purse strap, and I was good to go.
Manning’s, named for Archie Manning, former Saints quarterback and progenitor of two more quarterbacks, Peyton and Eli, made the typical sports bar look like a small-town library. Every vertical inch of space was taken up by the biggest TVs I had ever seen, all blaring at once. This time of year they aired NCAA basketball, not football. A fleet of reclining lounge chairs filled the front area where the most gigantic screen dominated the room. I was baffled by this choice of venue for a literary festival. The hostess and I had to shout to hear each other. I asked her to show me where JM Northern Media would hold its event. She pointed upstairs.
Satisfied that I had scouted the room, I had time to kill. So I met my friends Jackson and Linda Hill at Kerry Irish Pub for a screening in the Big Easy International Film Festival. Jackson had made a short film adaptation from my book, and I had collaborated on the production, providing the voice-over narration. As I sat in the dark with Jackson and Linda, watching his interpretation of my words, and hearing my own voice telling the story over the film’s lovely imagery, I felt a lot better about everything. Neither Jackson nor I were ever going to make money or become famous with either his film or my book. Still, I was proud of My Bayou and honored that it had inspired another artist to create something he was proud of. This translation of ideas into passion was good enough.
It was nearing time to return to Manning’s for my date with destiny. I glanced around the dim pub, cluttered with all manner of Guinness-stained, Irish-themed decorative elements. Nailed to the far wall there was a poster with the words, “Fortune favors the bold.”
I seized it as another favorable sign pointing me in the direction I had chosen—Paul Pacific would approve—because I was on the verge of losing my nerve. What was I doing? And why? This could only end badly. I was terrible at confrontation. Something new occurred to me: What if he turned out to be a nice person? Cooperative and happy to answer questions? Oh Christ, no time for second thoughts. Chin up. Keep going.
Twice on the walk back to Canal Street, I stopped to check and recheck the recorder to make sure I could get it to work. My hands trembled. At Manning’s I walked upstairs to the meeting room, which had a glassed-in entrance. I could see my target. I recognized him from the photos that his writer victims had posted on their websites. I looked inside my purse to make sure the red recording light was on. Then I strolled into the room, as if I owned the place.
Bruce Haring was standing with two other people, discussing how to arrange tables. The ceremony was not due to begin for an hour. He was tall, portly, with no neck to speak of, a gleaming moon face and bulgy eyes. An unfortunate fringe of long hair hung over the back of his collar, in a style that had been a bad idea in 1978 and was even more so now. He looked like a goblin, drawn by Maurice Sendak.
I walked up and introduced myself, using my real name. No flicker of recognition from Haring. Why should there be? I was one out of hundreds of writers whose work he had anointed lately as the “best of the season.”
“Anything in particular on your mind?” he asked.
“I wanted to talk about the award and the festival,” I said.
“My head’s on a swivel, right now.” He started bouncing from side to side, craning in search of an exit. Was he sweating? Gosh I hoped so. “If you want to call me when I get back to Los Angeles, we can discuss it to your heart’s content.”
“I do have one quick question.” A preternatural calm descended on me. I opened my mouth, and all the right words came out. I told Haring I was concerned that he had refused to provide the information I requested by email two weeks earlier about the judging process. Also that I had found published warnings that claimed his book awards were not legitimate but an arrangement to shake money out of writers. I pulled out a sheaf of papers; I had downloaded the blog posts.
“Do you have any reaction to these stories?” I re-angled my stance somewhat and thought, Talk to the purse strap, please.
“Well people—those that say don’t know. Those that know don’t say. We’ve been in business for what? Since 1999. We’ve been giving them all over the world. People enjoy them, you know. I don’t know how to react to anonymous blog posts that I haven’t read. One of the things about any community is that it’s very suspicious.”
“I printed them out if you want to read them.”
“No, no, not right now. I have things to worry about besides what people are saying.”
“How many writers did submit books?”
“Yeah, I know how many, but we don’t give out our totals.”
“You gave about a hundred awards. That’s how many are on the list.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t count them up. Was there? Which one did you enter?”
“My publisher entered my book. It was a memoir.”
“What was it again? Tell me.”
“The title was My Bayou. How many submitted to that category?”
“Okay, biography or memoir? It’s a fairly large one. I don’t know the total off the top of my head, but it’s usually—you know, fiction, nonfiction, biography, children’s. Those are usually the big categories.”
“Why do you charge writers money to come and pick up their award? I’d like my award, but I don’t want to pay ninety-five dollars for it.”
“Because it costs money to put on the awards.”
“No other award does that.”
“Oh, yes they do. For instance, the Oscars, the Grammy. Every award charges for those. I don’t know about anything in the book publishing industry because I don’t particularly look at them.”
“But you’re in the book publishing industry. Don’t you pay attention to other book awards?”
“I have to get going. Nice to meet you.”
Bruce Haring practically burned a trough in the carpet in his hurry to get away from me. My work here was done.
As I left this exchange, I was a little disappointed. If this was the most I could get out of him, then had I been chasing a MacGuffin all this time? I wanted more pay dirt. Later, after I transcribed the recording and read through Haring’s comments, I saw that he did give the answer that made sense. In his own words: “Those that know don’t say.” The only one who knows for sure what moves a person to run such an unfair game is the gamer himself. And he refused to say. I’d never be able to trust anything he said, anyway. The situation had devolved into a hall of mirrors. I had caught just a sliver of truth before it bounced off another slippery surface.
My triumph, however understated, was to look Bruce Haring in the eye and make sure he knows that I know what he was doing. He may have staked out the weird claim that “those that know don’t say,” but I do know and I did say what I found to be true. Sometimes that’s all you ever get—a chance to say what you know. Even if nothing changes outwardly, the reward is that you demonstrate common decency to yourself where someone else has failed.
It’s unlikely this guy will lose sleep over my confrontation or that he will reconsider his line of work. The one thing we can know for certain is that Bruce Haring thinks he is putting on the Oscars . . . in the upstairs meeting room of a noisy sports bar. Well, he’s imaginative. Got to give him credit for that.