Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Book Whore on the Book Tour: Part II

I’ve just returned from a six week book tour in the United States for my new tome, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. I was in ten different cities – three of them twice – which meant I got to get a really good, satisfying dose of my homeland. I also got to drink tequila and eat a lot of turkey burgers –neither of which really exist in Switzerland.

And since I was on the road a lot, I got to see a lot of billboards, road signs, and bumper-stickers, too. This doesn’t sound remarkable, but trust me, it is. Europe doesn’t have this stuff, either. People here don’t feel compelled to use their back fender to tell you that their “boss is a Jewish carpenter” or to “Visualize Whirled Peas.”

Only in America are roads, stores, and cars so declarative. My favorites? Outside of Philadelphia: A giant billboard for a Jewish paperback thriller, “Murder at the Mikvah” with an erotic photo of a nude woman emerging from a ritual bath. Can you make this stuff up? In Michigan, a billboard reading: “East Lansing: One of the most diverse and dynamic cities in America” – hung over a used car lot going out of business. A drive-up ice cream parlor near King of Prussia announces: “Ice Custard – and Happiness.” Happiness! They’re selling ice cream and happiness. God, I love America.

And then, of course, in Virginia, a giant gun store right next to “Fat Boys’ Barbecue.” Aah, yes. Home. Bullets and BBQ!

The phrase “book tour” sounds incredibly glamorous. And part of it is. This is the part where you get your photo in bookstore windows, hotel room upgrades, and drivers holding pieces of cardboard with your name misspelled on them at the baggage claims in the airports.

But book tours are also exercises in manic-depression.

Mind you, I’m not blogging to be a prima donna and moan about my pampered little authorial life: OMG. You have no idea how hard it is being on the road. I have to go to bookstore after bookstore. And every night I’m in a different hotel. Please. Cry me a river. I know only too well that the world should have my problems.

However, a lot of people think that writing is not only glamorous, but easy – that if you can talk, you can write. Any idiot, in their opinion, can publish a book. And given some of the dreck that gets published, they’re unfortunately right.

But the great irony of writing, like that of any art or sport, is that if you do it well enough, you make it look effortless. Then everyone around you thinks that it is effortless, and so they say stuff like:

“Yeah? You’re a writer? No kidding. You know, I was thinking of taking a few months off and writing a book myself.”

(To which I always want to respond. Yeah? Funny, I was thinking of just taking a few months off and practicing brain surgery…Oh, we writers are such a prickly, humorless bunch).

The reality of being a “glamorous” author is this: for years on end, we are not on book tours. We are not being published. We are sitting alone in a room somewhere, staring at a blank notebook or a blinking cursor. We write and delete, write and rewrite, and the bulk of our efforts never see print. We have no colleagues except for the relentless, needling little voices in our head that tell us one day we’re an unsung literary genius, the next day that we are total shit.

Let me be clear: There are far worse jobs to have. Writing is neither high-stakes nor mind-numbing nor physically dangerous, though we do seem to have a predisposition for alcoholism and suicide (though hey: who doesn’t?).

And I’m happy just to be employed, period.

But the book tour itself is a bipolar experience. One night, 150 people will show up to a reading at a Barnes & Noble; they’ll applaud. They’ll buy my books. They’ll tell me they love my work. And I’ll feel exultant, like champagne is raining down on my head.

The next night, in the next city, there will be a whopping crowd of eleven. And two of these will be homeless people sitting in the back eating a Styrofoam cup.

And of course, I’ll look out at the sea of empty chairs and stacks of unsold books and feel like a failure, publicly humiliated.

And this is par for the course on any book tour, even in far better economic times. Each reading is like a wedding where you don’t know if the guests – let alone the groom – are going to show up. One night, you’re a star, the next night, you’re jilted. Over and over.

And amazingly, it’s an experience you only get if you are very, very lucky.

So overall, I feel blessed to have had the chance to prostitute myself for weeks on end in my beloved homeland. Who knows if I’ll ever get to again. Keep your eyes open. Next time you see a book title of mine, it might just be gracing a billboard off the Interstate. Or the back of a fender. And I just might call it Ice Cream and Happiness.

Note: My next dispatches should be from Australia, where I'm heading not only to promote 'Undress Me,' but to reunite with Sandy Fenton, a Canadian nurse who figures prominently in the story. We'll be reunited after 22 years. We haven't seen each other since Asia.

10 comments:

ANovelMenagerie said...

I'm so glad that you're going to see Sandy! That's wonderful!

Congrats on the book tour. I'm totally jealous!

Tim said...

I wasn't eating the Styrofoam cup.... I was just chewing on it a little.

I often work with musicians and they receive much the same treatment. People will say.."What God given talent!"...when in reality what they do is a lot of hard work. At least that is what I am going to say in the book I am planning to write.

I hope you have a wonderful reunion with Sandy and that you blog about how it goes.

Debi said...

I just this minute finished Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. Loved it, loved it. Brought back memories of my own backpacking travels in Europe with friends in the early 70's, all though mine were not quite so dramatic, well wait there were moments!!! Thanks for the great journey.

Caitlin said...

I'm so excited you'll be reunited with Sandy. How wonderful.

I'm a forever fan, so keep on cranking those books out :) I can't wait for what comes next.

Robin Claire said...

My aunt and uncle (who own a bookstore in Vermont) bought me Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven the second it came out. They knew how excited I was that you had another book coming out! I loved it but have already lent it out so I can't re-read it.
I enjoy traveling myself (I've just arrived in Senegal yesterday) and love sharing stories of the wacky things that happen while abroad - but none can compare to yours! I hope your reunion with Sandy goes well, it's awesome that you're still in touch with her.
Robin McGrath

Yam said...

Hi, I just finished listening to your audio recording of "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven". It is a truly fascinating story and I'm glad you shared it. Also your voice is great and I loved your accents when speaking for the other characters. Hope your Australia trip goes well.

Tricia said...

My next stop is to order Undress Me. It sounds like an exceptional tale and I'm looking forward to reading it. I just found you through your essay in Skirt! and look forward to reading more of your material.

Iheartfashion said...

That's wonderful that you're going to see Sandy again. Just finished "Undress Me" and loved it!

DavidShag said...

I know that writing well enough to publish is really hard - sticking to it, and re-reading the parts yet again that still aren't quite right, and so on. Making yourself do ANYTHING every day (or almost) is really tough. And god knows, not everyone can do it - in fact, hardly anyone can (including some who get published, as you say). I also know that one hotel after another gets awfully old awfully quick (the upgrades sound great, though). Not being in any one city long enogh to really get comfortable - yuck. But I congratulate you on your successful hard work and - come on - SOME good luck!

Rosalinda said...

I love "Undress Me" so much that've read it more than once. I am so happy you are going to see SAndy. Good luck with everything. Please let us know about the visit.