My Writer’s Costume

by John Gilstrap

This blog entry is scheduled to post on September 17, 2010 at 12:01 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, so as you read it, chances are that I am either asleep or on my way to (or I have already arrived in) Salt Lake City, where I have been invited to speak at the annual meeting of the League of Utah Writers. Actually, I’ll be speaking a lot. I’m the luncheon keynoter, and I’ll also be teaching two instructional sessions.

Here’s my question to Killzoners: What would you coinsider appropriate speaker’s attire for such an event?

If this were a keynote address for my Big Boy Job, the wardrobe selection would be easy: Any color dark suit combined with any color white or blue shirt and conservative tie. But as a writer–as a “creative” person, the question is more complicated. I’ll never forget the laughter I evoked from a Warner Brothers studio head when I wore a business suit to a story meeting at his office. It was so not-Hollywood chic. You can make light, but these things matter. Like anywhere else, first impressions are important.

If I were 25, I could get away with fashionably torn jeans, shirttail out and a sports coat. That’s the new creative chic wardrobe, from what I can tell. But I’ve been 25 twice now (with change to spare), and I can’t pull that off anymore. Even if I could, I’d feel stupid.

I’d also feel stupid in a business suit and republican tie. It’s a weekend, after all, and I’m a writer, not a lawyer. In this venue, I’m not even the association executive that I play during the work week. So what’s an engineer/thriller writer to do?

A former publicist told me years ago that there should never be any doubt who the celebrity writer is. She stressed that speaking gigs are work, and as such, one should never forget that work is about sales, and that sales are about image. That means, she advised, finding the right balance between mystery, professionalism and approachability. Think about it. That’s a hell of a balance.

When I think back on the various conferences I’ve been to, some writers truly do wear writer’s uniforms that are unique to them. Parnell Hall is always (except this last summer at ThrillerFest) in blue jeans, a T-shirt and a blue sports coat. Harlan Coben is famous for his wild ties, and Robert Crais is Mr. Hawaiian shirt. I have never seen Mary Higgins Clark or Sandra Brown when they are not dressed to the nines. Sharyn McCrumb is always . . . flowy. (That’s not a slam at all, I don’t know what else to call the look.)

Thomas Harris told me one time that the reason why he does so few interviews is because he feels that the less he is known, the more people are intrigued by his books.

The photo you see of me among my Killzone colleagues to the right is what we call my “badass” photo. It’s supposed to look like a guy who writes scary books–and I guess it does–but it’s not at all my personality. I actually like people, and lord knows I love a party; but there’s a legitimate argument to be profferred that the writer-John should more closely resemble the book-John than the real-John. Okay, fine.

I don’t buy it, and maybe that’s because I know I couldn’t pull it off. For others, though–Lord knows Thomas Harris has sold a lot more books than I have–maybe therein lies the recipe for success. Who knows? As for the League of Utah Writers, I think I’ll wear the same uniform I wore at ThrillerFest: a nice gray pinstrip suit with a black shirt. No tie, though. I’m a writer, after all.

So, what do you all think? What is your writer’s uniform? What do you expect of favorite authors when you see them in person?

13 thoughts on “My Writer’s Costume

  1. Well gee, I guess I’m not too picky. I’d be fine with fashionably not-torn jeans, sleeved shirt tucked in, sans the sport coat. To be perfectly honest, at conferences I’ve attended, I don’t even remember what speakers were wearing. I just remember the class they taught.

    Unless a speaker wears something sleazy or so outlandish its distracting, I just can’t see that it would matter.

  2. Lawrence Block appeared at a book signing here some years ago dressed in a gray suit and a black T-Shirt. He looked very Matt Scudderish.

    I can’t imagine John Grisham in anything but a suit and tie, or Robert Parker in anything but how he looked in his cover photos.

    I guess there’s something to image.

  3. Lawrence Block appeared at a book signing here some years ago dressed in a gray suit and a black T-Shirt. He looked very Matt Scudderish.

    I can’t imagine John Grisham in anything but a suit and tie, or Robert Parker in anything but how he looked in his cover photos.

    I guess there’s something to image.

  4. Honest to God, for several years when I gave writing talks–often to Rotary Clubs–I started off by thanking them for inviting me to put on my writer costume and talk to them (I’ve since added, if I use that spiel, put on my writing costume, shine my head, and come talk to them).

    Anyway, the spiel starts with me describing how as a writer when I first went to a book conference (Magna cum Murder) I was worried about how to present myself, so I picked jeans, a T-shirt and a sport coat. When I got to Magna I ran into Joe Konrath–jeans, T-shirt and sport coat; Jerry Peterson–jeans, collared shirt, no tie, sport coat; Barry Eisler–jeans, turtleneck (must be the spy thing), sport coat. But the guest of honor, who had sold 7 million copies of his book worldwide, was Alexander McCall Smith–kilt. Then I rather dramatically look down at my legs and shake my head.

    Have you considered a kilt?

  5. i think you should be more concerned about whom you might be photographed next to. i saw a picture of james scott bell next to robert crais….what a dynamic duo!! however, i’m not so sure their shirts should be within 50 ft. of each other. talk about stimulus overload….i had nystagmus for 10 minutes after viewing!!!! but to have met those 2….i would have sucked it up!! kathy d.

  6. For me, writer’s events mostly means big hair, expensive earrings, and extra eyeliner. And I usually dress up a bit more than usual. For men…I’m not so sure. Black leather or denim jacket might be too much. Is a turtleneck with sports jacket considered passe? I see a lot of that around California, where no one ever wears a tie.

  7. Go comfy, but somewhere barely noticeable except to the discerning eye have something beneath your jacket, at the ankle of slacks/jeans, or in your belt that looks surprisingly like a holstered weapon. Because you are the real Jonathan Grave you know.

    …of course it could just be a squirt gun or electric toothbrush but who will dare you to show them?

  8. Calling it a uniform is dead on- I certainly tend to have a specific outfit for each book tour. Which probably explains why in the photos from each stop, I am wearing the exact same shirt and pants. A friendly Facebook commenter was kind enough to ask if I actually owned any other clothing- I do, they’re just sweatpants.

    You could always go the other way, John. I took a non-fiction writing seminar once, and the moderator showed up in a completely insane suit that looked like it was purchased at a clown college tag sale. He explained during the course of his presentation that he wore the suit specifically to be memorable. But I’m not sure that you want attendees saying afterward, “You know- the guy in the hot pink thong.”

  9. I can’t speak to your wardrobe, John, but I happened to be in Salt Lake City last week and saw the very nice interview you did in the Sunday paper.

  10. This post made me smile. For years I’d rant about a certain organization of writers that pushed “professional dress” as business professional. Why on earth would I want to dress like a bank manager? I’m not a bank manager – even when I’m not writing.

    Ok, yeah, there must still be a little rantishness in me yet. Sorry.

    I feel that writers should dress in a way that makes them feel good about themselves when they are in front of a group. Whether that’s jeans and a jacket or haute couture doesn’t matter. Does it feel good? Does it make you feel on top of your game? That matters.

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