Checking Out at Walmart

I was on my way out of Walmart the other day when the cashier asked me what I did for a living. (I was buying notebooks, so she thought I might be a teacher.) The conversation followed the pretty predictable pattern it follows whenever someone asks me what I do: I say I’m a writer. She asks what I write. I say books. She asks what kind. I say novels.

And here is the part where I start to really suck. The next question is usually, “What kind of novels?” or ” What are your books about?” And I am apparently constitutionally incapable of summarizing my books well. I feel like if I give too much detail, it sounds like I’m giving a sales pitch, so I usually try to be as brief as possible. I also usually assume the average questioner is more interested in John Grisham or Sue Grafton than in literary fiction. So my answer to the cashier went something like this: “My first book was set in north Alabama in a coal mining town in the 1930s. It’s about what happens to a family after the daughter sees a baby thrown down a well.”

True. Not totally compelling, but true. On a side note, one reason I started being more efficient in my description was that years ago, before the book came out, I went out on a first date with a guy who asked what I wrote. I gave a thorough description of The Well and the Mine, including socioeconomic issues and racial themes and felt like I’d really conveyed what drew me to the story. When I finished he said, “That’s interesting. So how do you make someone read a book like that?”

That was our only date. But it’s still my favorite question anyone’s asked about my writing.

Anyway, back to Walmart. So I give my usual description, expecting the cashier to smile blankly and hand me my receipt. (I also suspect that only 1 out of 100 people who ask me what my book is about actually have any interest in what my book is about. Yet another reason to be brief.) But she says, “Oh, the death of a baby. That’s the same thing Maxine Hong Kingston did in Woman Warrior.”

And that, for the record, is the best moment I’ve ever had in Walmart. She stunned me. I read Woman Warrior in a Contemporary Fiction class in college. Maybe she did, too. But from now on, I’ll be prepared for more serious literary discussions from megastore cashiers.

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