Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Book Tour Confidential

By Carol Dawson

MAY 24, 1999:  In these latter days of the 20th century, as we see the economy bursting upon itself with prosperity, and the enjoyment of all luxurious and enlightening things becomes a moral duty, nay, a pursuit even unto the likes of an African safari -- yea, at such affluent times our thoughts often turn to leisure activities. The most gracious of these being the acquiring of merit through reading. The reading of many books, both fiction and nonfiction. And lo, I say unto thee, not only the reading, but even the validation of the book itself as object, and the making of the book thereon, its writing and manufacture, and in particular, the authentication of the book with an AUTHOR'S SIGNATURE, and perforce a peppy personal message to the book's new owner, coupled with mayhaps the experience of hearing the author read a snippet of the text therein. And I say, let it be so.

Thus at every book's advent come also much ritual and ceremonial, launch parties, merry-making, and reviews, and the greatest of these is THE QUEST, also known as THE BOOK TOUR. Whereupon the hosts of writers descend from their eyries upon the land, as locusts unto the verdant fields, and swarm thereupon to meet with the PUBLIC and have a little chin-wag. And the publishers arrange schedules for presentation to the pilgrims seeking the SIGNATURE in bookstores and literary festivals throughout the nation, spending their vast wealth and publicity budgets on plane fares for the writers' conveyance, for lo, the writers bring entertainment to the hungry, and toss their wares upon the waters in hopes that these many meetings of minds will result in souls' upliftings everywhere, i.e., sales.

Herein lies the publisher's first dictum: "Go ye forth and hit the road."

When my latest novel, The Mother-in-Law Diaries, came out in January, my publisher presented me with a detailed itinerary comprising six faxed pages of cities, dates, and hotel reservations. "We prepareth the fields," they said. "The way is made ready for thee. Now get out there and pack light." "Yes, ma'ams," I said, since the staff is mainly female. "You'll start on the West Coast and work your way east. First stop, L.A."

So I boarded a flight to Hollywood, having the night before come down with a 'flu so virulent that even nuns and drunk lechers avoided me the minute they saw the pistachio of my damp complexion. Landing at LAX, I rented a car after phone calls from my publisher (a three-hour process) persuaded the rental attendant that the charge plate they'd faxed was valid, although not in my name. Released at last into the freeway system, I forged through rush hour traffic to the Brentwood/Bel-air Holiday Inn, a circular tower planted like a toilet paper roll on the suburban cusp of one of the "nicest" parts of Los Angeles, where, I had been told, I could order room service, but no movies. The desk clerk took one look at my sweating brow, listened to the dead frog giving mediumistic utterance from my throat, and gingerly handed me the plastic key, averting his mouth and nasal areas. "Seventh floor," he said.

illustration by Nathan Jensen

My first reading was scheduled for 7pm at a pleasant independent bookstore in Brentwood. I straggled in early, concerned that I might not maintain consciousness for the length of time it would take to rev up the crowd with my pithy prose. Imagine my relief when it turned out that, other than the calendar sent out by the bookstore naming the 30-odd readings they were hosting that month alone, there had been no advertising whatsoever -- not even the display my publisher had sent -- and that therefore the crowd consisted of my West Coast film agent, a movie star's producer's assistant, an avid collector, three unidentified listeners, and the bookstore staff. Whew! It proved easy enough to remain conscious for them. I read a lively little passage about the narrator's first labor and childbirth, which they were hip enough to laugh at. Then my agent, the lovely bookstore manager, herself an accomplished short story writer, and I went out to dinner, where I fell asleep.

The next morning I lay semi-comatose in bed contemplating the term "wake-up call" and the larger meaning it has accrued ("time to realize you are screwing up and change your ways"). Truly, we have turned into a hotel culture. National mobility aside, I was having trouble mobilizing myself from the sheets to the bathroom. I took two Motrin, five echinacea tablets, and a handful of Vitamin C. Next stop, Pasadena!

Pasadena was okay. I only got lost three times on the way from Vroman's Bookstore to LAX. All three times involved circling the airport looking for the rental car return. Onward to San Francisco.

I used to live in The City myself, and also the Bay Area. This was a great antidote to getting lost. I arrived on time at the well-lighted, clean bookstore where I was to read (a place where I used to shop myself) to find a total of nine people waiting in the crowd. The manager apologized. "This is Wednesday night," she said, "and we've already had four readings so far this week. I guess people kind of want to stay home for a while." Well, I could certainly endorse that sentiment. I coughed up my thanks, and then went on to read a rather trenchant section about the narrator's labor and childbirth, which everyone seemed to enjoy. Afterward I went out to dinner with friends, who by the way had not made it to the reading due to prior commitments. You get that in The City.

The next day it was on to Berkeley for a radio interview. By then my temperature was about 101, simmering along respectably -- I wondered if it correlated with the station's call number. The young man who interviewed me was very thoughtful, penetrating, and best of all, he'd read my book. No doubt the audience was wondering why he'd resurrected the corpse of an old man to impersonate a woman author, but he kindly waived my concerns. "This is taped. They won't hear it for a month," he said, as if by then my 'flu would be over and so the voice on tape would have magically healed. I drove across the Bay Bridge to the airport in a hurricane rainstorm that delayed flights for five hours. Hello, Denver!

(Note to authors: On book tours, always pack only carry-on luggage. You can wear the same thing over and over. Believe me, no one will notice except when you're on TV.)

In the Denver hotel, getting out of bed seemed impossible. I was waiting for an elevator when I heard the unmistakable approaching sounds of a violently abusive episode rising up through the shaft to my floor. The elevator door opened just as the shouts and screaming stopped, and inside, instead of a bloodied person lying on the floor with his throat cut, stood a pair of placid-faced women who smiled and nodded as I got on. Once we descended, however, the taller of the women let courtesy drop. "Fuck! Fuck shit! Fuck you!" she yelled, turning her head politely and masking her mouth with a hand as if shielding a sneeze. "Sorry," she said, turning back to me, "I've got Tourette's." I felt an ingenuous surge of pride at having already figured this out. She cussed us down to the ground floor, and I went to find breakfast. I must say, her eloquence certainly outshone mine at the Barnes & Noble that afternoon, where I read an amusing morsel of text recounting my narrator's labor and childbirth.

(Note: The new Denver airport is very, very far from most parts of town. Count on 50 bucks for a cab ride, and save that receipt. The publicity department will sure want to see it.)

One magazine interview, two stores: This time the turnout was different. It was Sunday afternoon, there was football in town. Need I say more?

I got to go home for a week and recuperate. Then it was back on the highway to Louisville, Kentucky, and a blessedly full audience at Hawley-Cooke Bookstore, which I have discovered has the best desserts of any coffee shop café in any city in the South. May I recommend the meltingly moist Red Velvet Cake in situ? Or, follow my example and take two lemon squares, some cherry pie, a rhubarb pastry, and a chocolate hazelnut torte back with you to your hotel room. They won't be there by morning.

On this leg of my tour I had an author escort, or rather a rotation of three women with the same firm. One drove me to Lexington, where we passed beautiful green horse farms and I felt quite Derbyish. The second relay picked me up to do the first TV interview of the day; then she drove me to my next three -- count them -- three radio interviews. Then the head boss lady caught me for one more TV interview, and afterward straight into the bookstore for the night signing. If the Lexington and Louisville metro areas were not by that time saturated with mother-in-law media, they never will be. To my immense delight I discovered that I had just hit the John Grisham trail, preceding him and his 10 million fans by less than one week in a pattern that would continue throughout the majority of the South. So much for the virtues of literary fiction. I got back to my hotel at 12:30pm, just in time to catch a few z's before my 4am wake-up call to catch the 6:00 flight to Jacksonville, Florida. Come to me, Sunshine State!

Jacksonville's literary festival, Much Ado About Books, was just about perfect. I chose to read an excerpt regarding my narrator Lulu's initial contractions and her ensuing childbirth. Packed auditoriums, swell audiences, lots of books signed, good company. Therefore nothing funny happened except at the Elizabethan dinner, where one romance-mystery author thought fancy dress was de rigueur and wore a headdress copied from the portrait of Anne Boleyn. Fortunately she kept her head.

(Note to authors: If at all possible, make your publicist book you at literary festivals. They're a blast, you get to hobnob with masses of your readers, and chat contracts and agents with other authors, meanwhile partying at splendid homes and eating yummy food.)

From Jacksonville I moved onto one of my favorite legs of the tour: Memphis and Arkansas. Here I did more radio and TV spots and, in Memphis, hooked up with the flower of the Memphis intelligentsia, Shirleen Cobb. Shirleen and I first met several years ago when I was speaking at the Peabody Hotel for a library benefit. Her remarkable family joined us when she took me to meet her book club and we all sat around drinking Lynchburg lemonade and listening to Shirleen's sister Yvonne's hilarious anecdotes about Memphis adultery. Next stop, Graceland? Rats, no.

At the signing at Burke's (a decent turnout, thank God), I got to hear all about the line that went around the building and down five blocks four days earlier for John Grisham. Poor thing, he must get all worn out. I performed a scintillating tidbit about my main character's labor and childbirth, complete with sound effects.

The day after, more TV spots. Anchorwomen have the most superbly groomed hair! It's a good thing my own hair responds so predictably to humidity. Then, on to the Arkansas Queen of All Independent Booksellers, the marketing genius of the publishing world, Mary Gay Shipley, who owns an extraordinary store called That Bookstore in Blytheville. Mary Gay had arranged a potluck supper for the reading -- bring your mother-in-law's best recipe. For John Grisham's visit three days before, she'd given out carefully timed tickets so there was no long wait in line. That must be why he always signs at Mary Gay's; he only has to deal with writer's cramp there. I read a little number about labor pains and giving birth, at which the audience chuckled appreciatively, especially the men.

Returning to tour Texas for a while after that -- San Antonio, Dallas -- I then flew to Indianapolis, where I and four other authors were feted in the wonderfully restored arts and crafts Governor's Mansion, met the gov and his first lady (they sure as heck can't outdo our Laura's bookly hospitality), and got to stay in the hotel where Mike Tyson committed rape. We spoke to 800 people at a luncheon the next day. Great sales, total exhaustion. I'll bet you're exhausted too, by now, aren't you?

There were other venues here and there, the most memorable being the Tennessee Williams Festival in New Orleans. But they're all beginning to fade into the golden sunset of memory. My day is over for a while. I've been home just long enough to finish my next novel. Suffice it to say that when someone suggested yesterday that I go out to look at the new airport, I ran screaming from the room.

Carol Dawson is the author of four novels and a collection of poetry, Job.

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