ALUMNI VOICES

Almost Famous
The Oprah veteran who wasn’t.

 

May|June 2010 contents
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Expert Opinion Gambling on your health

 

 

 

By Marian Sandmaier | Some time ago, when the book I’d labored long and hard over finally hit the stores, everyone asked me the same harrowing question: “How’s it doing?” I developed a jaunty, all-purpose reply: “Not too badly. Of course, Oprah hasn’t called yet.”

I was lying about the first part. My book, about adult sibling relationships, was stuck in literary limbo. Never mind that the reviews had been generous, or that I’d logged media interviews in several cities and done the requisite readings and signings. Every couple of weeks, I’d call my editor at Dutton to ask how sales were going.

“Slowly,” she’d say. “But you never know.”

Then, Oprah called.

Well, not Oprah herself, of course. It was Lisa, her young producer. “Oprah is doing a sibling show and we want you on it,” she announced crisply. “The taping is in five days. Can you be here?”

“I believe I can make myself available,” I told Lisa. Then I hung up, tore out of my home office and careened up and down my hallway, wailing with joy and terror.

Five days later, decked out in an authorial hot-pink suit, I arrived at Chicago’s Harpo Studios for the taping. As soon as the red light blinked on, all six guests on the show began to compete ferociously for airtime. I’m the sibling expert! No, actually, it’s me! I held my own, but just barely. Then, just 30 seconds before the taping ended, the Queen of Talk held up her hand for silence. Then she cocked her head and looked directly at me. “Marian, give us five ways to repair a sibling relationship!”

To this day, I have no idea what I said. But it must have been passably cogent, because in response, Oprah held up my book to the audience, announcing the title in a loud, listen-up voice.

I don’t know how else to say it: I felt blessed.

One month later, on a bright June afternoon, I sprawled on the faded rose rug of our family room, my face positioned inches from the TV screen. Family members arranged themselves around me, posse-style. It was The Moment. The taped show was about to air.

When the TV screen filled with Oprah, sassy and resplendent in violet silk, I went very still. I watched her fire questions at one guest and then another, often interrupting the frenzied debate with a sly joke or hands-on-hips rebuttal. I watched a woman in a pink suit—that would be me—trying valiantly to join the orchestrated mayhem. Jaw clenched, I stared at the TV screen and thought: thank God for those last 30 seconds. I’ll get my chance yet.

As I was thinking this, The Oprah Winfrey Show blinked off the air.

Instead of Oprah, I was now watching a gleaming white Ford Bronco inch down the Los Angeles Freeway, a bevy of cop cars in respectful pursuit. As nearly everyone in America remembers, that scene pretty much usurped TV for the rest of the day: the spectacle of O. J. Simpson, freshly charged with murder, leading the LAPD on a slo-mo chase to nowhere. On that day, Oprah never returned to the air. Those final, magical 30 seconds of the show, with my book held aloft and its title repeated by the most powerful TV host in the world, would be seen and heard by no one.

My editor had told me that after “doing Oprah,” an author could sell 50,000 books in the following 24 hours. I sold approximately none. After that, whenever anyone asked, “How’s the book doing?” I snapped, “Don’t ask.” I meant it. A howling sense of loss took hold of me, and it hung on hard.

Even at the time, I understood that what had transpired was in the category of large disappointment, not tragedy. But rationality had no power to comfort me. From the time I’d picked up the phone to hear those dazzling, impossible words, “Oprah wants you,” my head had buzzed with visions. These figments featured readers—untold thousands of them!—hunched on subway seats and park benches and living room couches with my book open in front of them, jotting urgent notes in the margins, quoting passages out loud, perhaps even sending off a copy to a brother or sister with a scrawled note: “Let’s talk.” I desperately wanted my book to matter, which I didn’t yet realize was another way of saying that I wanted to matter.

But time passes. We work these things through. At least, we work on them. I threw myself into other writing projects and, more to the point, began to understand that I was more than my latest byline. Life ambled forward. So, 16 years after my brush with almost-fame, I was taken aback by my reaction to reading Oprah’s announcement that she’d soon close her show. A dark sorrow settled over me.

“Oh, please,” I chided myself, ashamed and a little alarmed that any of this could still matter to me. “Get a grip!” Still, I sat motionless with the newspaper in hand, sunk in regret. For a moment, I became a passenger again on that brief, extravagant ride to recognition, my hopes rocketing to the moon and then, just as suddenly, falling out of the sky.

And something shifted into place, some puzzle piece of awareness I’d managed to keep at bay until then. Just this: the world is a chancy place. There is random generosity and random heartbreak out there, untold quantities of each, hovering just out of sight and waiting for a place to land. Until I was visited by both species of luck in a single, surreal moment, I’d supposed that I was largely in charge of things. Then stars crossed: Oprah and O. J. intersected at a particular moment in time, and all I could do was watch the explosion.

The facts are these: I’d bought a good pink suit for the show. I’d prepared some decent sound bites. I’d managed to look Oprah right in the eye while naming five ways to repair a sibling relationship. And I’d written the book in the first place.

I’d done what I could. I’m beginning to understand, finally, that it’s enough.


Marian Sandmaier CW’71 is the author of four books and runs her own book editing business. Contact her at www.mariansandmaier.com.

 
     
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