By: Anna Faktorovich
Since, I am working independently this year; I’ve had more time to travel to various conferences and festivals to present and to market Anaphora. The most recent of these trips was to the Virginia Festival of the Book on March 21-22 (Saturday and Sunday). I could afford the trip because I was offered a free room at the Omni Charlottesville Hotel. The image above is the view from my room on Sunday morning. There was a great purple-reddish sunrise an hour earlier, as I was waking up. In this article, I’d like to discuss some of the repeating problems and positive notes I’ve noticed repeating across most of my conference trips.
The Omni is ranked as the top hotel in the city of Charlottesville, which is the home of the University of Virginia, and a major cultural hub, serving as the home of Jefferson’s Monticello mansion, as well as other historical sites. However, I have seen a pattern across these top-ranking hotels over the last decade of various problems that are not fairly represented in rankings or reviews. Some of the problems that were on the other side of that picture were: 1. Leakage stains around the toilet, 2. Foul-smelling and soiled sheets with stains on the sheets, mattress and covers, 3. Lack of internet access despite claims of free WiFi with the room, and blocks on independent cell phone internet, 4. Stained and foul-smelling towels, 5. Old and possibly expired soaps and other restroom products (possibly deliberately repelling to prevent excessive use of them by guests), 6. Poorly cleaned pool with hair and a swamp-like goo in it, 7. Unwiped and sticky exercise equipment in the gym, and 8. Undrinkable water in the restroom sinks and even in the water-filtration coolers in the gym (to encourage the purchase of water bottles from the hotel). Most of the bigger problems cannot be easily photographed, as they are better detected with the senses of smell, touch and taste. But, at the same time, since I receive funding for most of my conference hotel rooms, and they at least look appealing, I infrequently complain.
It is amazing how repetitive these problems are between hotels. WiFi never works, and the towels smell bad if it’s a $45 motel or a $250 hotel. In this case, the room would’ve cost $170 at the regular rate. If customers had better alternatives, I’m sure these practices would have stopped long ago. The reason I decided it was essential to write about this complaint in my own “blog” and the PLJ journal on this occasion was because I was specifically asked to do so by one of the servers at the Paramount Theater. I should explain that I departed from my home in Georgia at 3am, drove for 8 hours, only making one stop for gas, and arrived in Charlottesville at 12pm. Then, I checked into my room, freshened up and changed in a couple of minutes, and then attended a few sessions. I also had a horrid dinner, which I’ll detail later on. So, I was full when I walked across the blocks of the “Mall” or the shopping district, and reached the Paramount Theater. People were smoking outside, and I had difficulty breathing, as I stood in line waiting for the doors to open. A few incredibly rude elderly “authors” arrived and cut me off in the line. Seeing that I was being cut off, I stepped aside to watch the stampede from a safe distance. Over a hundred “authors” arrived for the Author reception and after hollering and glaring each other down outside for around 10 minutes, we were all finally allowed to enter. A few of the coat ladies in the hallways kept asking me if I was all right for some reason, so I inquired why there was such a long wait and was told that they were waiting for the food to be arranged. I am usually so hungry at receptions that I eat whatever they are serving, and reflect about this error later on, but on this occasion between the trip and my horrid dinner, I wasn’t hungry. So, I observed as dozens of “authors” crowded in circles around the food like vultures, shoving people of their way, and remained around the food tables for incredibly long periods of time to make sure nobody else could access them. Then, none of them actually ate the food, but instead migrated to the alcohol bar and got enormous glasses of wine and other liquors. Feeling the buzz, they all then formed circles of 3-6 people and began gossiping, meanwhile staring the few outside of these tight-knit circles down, as if they were in a high school cafeteria. I have seen these receptions at the MLA, SAMLA, etc., and I usually push myself into a group of people who are staring me down and attempt to join their conversation. They usually insult my religion, sexual orientation, dress, and relationship status, as they interrogate me, and then finally push me out of the circle. Alternatively, I occasionally set a goal for myself, like recruiting new writers for Anaphora, and then make a round to the different groups querying them about the project I’m working on. In this case, most are hostile, but occasionally I strike on a sale. But, on this occasion, I was too tired to either be insulted or ridiculed for my entrepreneurism, so I decided to just leave and go for a swim in the hotel’s pool. Before I left, I decided on doing a public service for those who were remaining. When a server asked me how I was doing with a knowing grin, I gave him what I thought to be a helpful critique of the food: 1. The grapes had brown dirt on them, 2. The bread was stale and dry and smelled like it was rutting, 3. The cheese looked dry and too spoiled even for the decomposing dairy product that it’s supposed to be, 4. Pieces of mandarin looked like they had been drying for a day in the open air, and 5. Even the ill-fitting for a finger-food table, boiled vegetables looked dry and spoiled. Hearing this, the server started yelling at me that they had won an award for their food and had top starred reviews, and that if I had a problem with the food, I should blog about it. I asked him to stop yelling at me, and asked to speak with the manager. As usually happens when I make this request, he brought out another server who had limited ability to speak English, who replied that the higher-ranked server I was just speaking with was too busy asking people how they were doing to speak with me, and that he had migrated me to her. She asked me to show her the problems, and when I pointed them out, she attempted to defend the food, and insisted that I try it to discover if it was truly spoiled. I asked her if she was daring me to try it, and then write about it. She answered that I didn’t have to try it if I didn’t want to, and so I didn’t. I did decide to write this review to help others, who might be facing similar situations.
Now, to return to the horrid dinner. I walked around the entire length of the “Mall,” trying to find some place to eat before settling on eating at The Pointe restaurant at the Omni. Two of the Indian restaurants had open doors, but in both of them, a server was vigorously vacuuming the floor, and indicated that the restaurant was closed. There were no fast food restaurants to choose from. All of the restaurants had prices of $15+, but the food looked poorly executed and more like it was being made in a third-world country vs. a wealthy American city. At one restaurant, all of the paper menus were covered in oily stains. Another was serving tiny plates of seaweed for $20+. I returned to the Pointe and asked for the server to give me a burger with a coke and to get it ready as soon as possible, and to make it “well-done,” but “not burned.” Whenever I eat burgers at an upscale restaurant, they are usually dry and burned, so I made sure to ask about this. Not surprisingly, he came out with a thoroughly burned burger (bread, meat and all were charred). I mentioned this, but was in such a hurry and so hungry that I just ate the burger anyway. Half of the fries had black spots on them, and when they gave me a refill of the coke, it tasted like they spit in it or added a chemical, like soap, to it (perhaps to discourage refills). After I left, I started to feel a bit sick from this dinner, so on the following morning, as I was checking out of the Omni, I asked to speak with the manager, and spoke with the manager of the hotel and of the restaurant about the issues I experienced. The restaurant manager asked me what I wanted him to do about it, and so I said, “I just don’t know why I paid for that…” And he replied, “Well, if you’re ever in town again, I can buy you a burger.” “Why don’t I eat dinner here tonight after my reading,” I suggested. The food was bad, but it was not bad enough for me to refrain from eating it for free. After my reading, I returned to The Pointe, and asked for my free dinner. The server began by saying that they weren’t sure if it was dinner time yet, as it was a bit before 5pm. This upset me, so, I drove the conversation into asking if I could have any dinner from the menu or if I had to get the burger again. The server replied that I could get anything, “Are you sure, I don’t want to be a burden?” I replied. “Yes, anything you want.” So, I ordered the most expensive seafood dish, flounder with vegetables for $25 and lobster bisque for $10, so I think my bill would have been around $50 if I were paying for it. I think this order upset them slightly, but he didn’t object and brought these out. I had mentioned to the manager that if the burger turned out to be burned etc. again, I would take a picture of it, and write an article about it. So, this time, the food looked picture-perfect, as you can see in the images.
On the first few bites, the lobster bisque was really star-worthy, but then I nearly choked on the dozen half-nail sized pieces of lobster shell that were sprinkled across the plate. I still cleaned the bowl and ate it all, but it was a dramatic experience. Then, the fish came out. The outer edges of the fish were completely dry and hard, but the interior stuffing was mushy. The vegetables were hard, as if somebody boiled them for a couple of minutes before grilling them with a bit of a burn. Instead of spinach (which usually goes with that fish), there were strange bitter leaves that came with this plate that made me feel as if I was in a reality show where somebody was making me eat grass. But, all of this would’ve been minor and forgivable, if it wasn’t for the patches of spoiled-tasting fish on the further end. I have a fragile digestive system, and anything that tastes spoiled or like a mix of salmonella and jock-socks really repels me.
The glitches with the food and the hotel probably wouldn’t have bothered me, if there weren’t problems with the programming to worry about. It’s amazing that in a few meetings, I was able to take photographs of some of America’s best-selling writers, illustrators, agents and others in the publishing world. They were all compressed into a few panels. I was hoping to find some new information about children’s book design, romance novel writing, and other areas, but it turned out that of all the sessions I visited, I did not hear anything new from this curious crowd. Here are my own summaries of the meetings I witnessed:
Literary agents Deborah Grosvenor and Howard Yoon repeated over-and-over again that writers should not submit their work to more than one agent at the same time, and instead should wait for months for a single template response, before moving on. They made a few other comments that frequently appear in agent-hunting manuals.
Children’s book authors, Kate Samworth (Aviary Wonders, Inc.), Robert Anderson (Costa Rica), Cece Bell (El Deafo) and Madelyn Rosenberg (How to Behave at a Tea Party) advertised their children’s books at the McGuffey Art Center. Rosenberg was the only one that touched on the topic the panel was supposed to be about, “Preparing the Dummy” for a picture book. She showed doodles she did on lined paper, and her hand-written and typed versions of the story. If that’s how all children’s books are made, is it really fair to be pushing these on our children?
Robert Anderson and Madelyn Rosenberg
Aline Ohanesian advertised her book, Orhan’s Inheritance, in a session of her own, and was assisted with this pitch by her literary agent, Eleanor Jackson, and her publisher, Algonquin Books, which sent Kathy Pories (editor) and Kelly Bowen (publicity director). The session conveyed that Aline spent six years on editing this book after she received a contract and an advance for it, in contrast with agents’ and publishers’ insistence that a finished book has to be sent before a contract can be drawn on the other panels.
The event that left me stunned, was when a dozen best-selling romance novelists were crammed into a tiny space at the Charlottesville Barnes and Noble for a workshop and Q&A. I’ve gone to many readings, so I believe I have seen a couple of these authors at events before, and I’ve interviewed some best-selling writers for PLJ. But, usually their grandeur is enlarged when they do stand-alone events and a crowd shows up. Instead, it was a Sunday, and the Fest was winding down, and there were only twenty people in the audience for the dozen best-selling authors, so that the best-sellers almost out-numbered the rest of us. They read from a few stories and gave mild, positive criticisms to the writers who wanted their criticism. I have to admit that some of their comments were interesting and funny, and it was amazing to be at the front row and observing what these romance girls are like up-close.
Mollie Cox Bryan
I did my presentation at 3pm at the library. It was attended by a couple dozen people, and over half of them asked me questions about George Sand. We all had a good laugh. While I’m afraid I was also focused on selling my books, I hope I did an entertaining comedy for the audience.
Finally, I should add that I had time to look at things closely at this Fest because I was advised that everything was nearby and parking was limited, so I parked at the Omni and walked between different events all over town. So, I took pictures of some colorful homeless people, who all look very grumpy in these because they all were suggestively scanning their collection buckets as I was photographing them. I must admit that I did not donate money to any of them, which led to a kid that belonged to one of them to actually thrown a small stone at me as I was walking out of the “Mall” and back to the Omni. The stone missed me, and a second one didn’t come after I informed the young man that I would call the cops if another stone were to be “accidentally” tossed closer to my person.
And so, this is approximately how most of my readings at conferences go. Why do I keep going? Because I keep getting free food and hotel rooms, sell a few of my books, and in total only spend a couple hundred dollars on an “unforgettable” experience.