“Introduce yourself! I gotta eat lunch!” The entertainment director at Ghost Town in the Sky hunkered over his burger and fries. I stood on the stage warming up with my sister-in-law, Tomi Lunsford, a Nashville singer-songwriter who performs music to accompany my trilogy of children’s novels set in Appalachia. It was mid-July, and we had been on the road for several days in Tennessee and North Carolina on a kind of “O Brother Where Art Thou” family book tour of five adults and four kids caravaning through the mountains.
To understand the geography of Ghost Town in the Sky -- an amusement park on top of Buck Mountain in Maggie Valley, North Carolina -- you have to picture yourself riding a chairlift up a mountain. That’s the only way to get to the top except for the access road that winds up the back.
The local independent bookstore, Osondu Booksellers of Waynesville, had hauled five boxes of books up the mountain, which seemed a little optimistic. People don’t go to amusement parks to buy books, much less historical children’s novels, not even ones set, in part, at Ghost Town in the Sky. Still, hope sprang eternal for a few seconds, as the theme song to “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” blared out of the speakers.
Ghost Town had invited me to do a reading because Emmett, the big brother in my books, dreams of becoming a gunslinger at the park instead of working the merry-go-round. The gunslingers of Ghost Town are the real deal. Burt Reynolds, Dan Blocker -- who played Hoss on “Bonanza” -- and Tony Dow from “Leave It to Beaver” all made celebrity appearances when the park first opened in the 1960s. The Apache Kid is still going strong after some 40 years.
I was reading sections from “Jessie’s Mountain” that led into the music Tomi would be performing. Her nieces Emily and Norah (my daughter) were to join her for three songs: “Fairy Rocks,” “Maggie Valley Christmas” and “Enka-Stinka Savings & Loan.”
When the music director decided to eat instead of introduce us, it seemed like an omen. I asked my husband to do the honors -- and, please, to jazz it up. He could play the carnival barker to a crowd that was already looking wary. And it would have been easy but for three things:
1. The stage was right next to the cafeteria, and folks were coming in loud and hungry from watching the gunslingers and riding the Geronimo Drop Tower and the Undertaker rides.
2. The Wolf Man didn’t show. He does the “live wolves show with his pet wolves” at Ghost Town and usually helps draw a crowd.
3. The Care Bears were in town. (Maybe that’s why the Wolf Man didn’t show. He knew better. Don’t bother competing with the Care Bears.)
I didn’t even know the Care Bears were still around, but as I was getting ready to read, a pair of pink and blue spongy characters came bouncing along to flirt with the toddlers.
I went into the bathroom, where a woman was holding her red-haired grandbaby. I asked the baby’s name. Proudly, she said, “Caroline!” and I busted out with: “I have a character named Caroline in my books. She’s the one who loves fairies. I’ll be out there reading in just a minute.”
Was this the lowest I’d sunk in book-hawking? Hitting on grandmas in the ladies’ room to make a sale? (It was my only one that day.) I ignored the Care Bears as I joined my sister-in-law on stage to the clink of silverware, soda machines and “Mama, Mama, the Care Bears are here!”
My agent prefers to call this “book promotion,” but out on the road there are days I feel like an Appalachian Willy Loman hawking books at the You-Name-It-Festival-for-Young-Readers, showing up hat-in-hand. Because I’m not famous -- although trembling girls do approach to ask whether I know Stephenie Meyer -- most strangers keep a wide berth. If people do ask about my books, I feel like I’m doing a 30-second pitch: “My husband grew up one of 13 children, which inspired me to write these books.” If they’re interested, we’ll talk. Or they’ll ask, “My, 13! Do you know where I can buy Mad-Libs?”
I did two readings at Ghost Town, and at the second, I mentioned that the Wolf Man wouldn’t be performing. The few people who were there up and left. Frankly, I didn’t blame them. I wanted to see the Wolf Man and his live wolves, too.
I’m not a diva, but I was tired and humiliated. All that week -- ever since 2005, in fact -- I’d been on the circuit speaking at children’s literary festivals and doing signings, school visits, author talks and writing workshops for every age. I once crashed an independent bookseller dinner, because I thought I was invited. I wasn’t, and they had to scramble to find me a seat. I’ve handed out bookmarks and postcards. And frankly, I’ve started to hate myself in the morning.
That day at Ghost Town, my sister-in-law could hear the jagged tear in my voice as I packed up fast, and she said, “Hey, hey! It’s show biz! Hold it together.” The next act, a rockabilly band, was already on stage.
Madden is the author of the Maggie Valley Trilogy: “Gentles’ Holler,” “Louisiana’s Song” and “Jessie’s Mountain.” Her YA biography of Harper Lee came out earlier this year.