Sunday, September 2nd, 2012
As I prepare to head off on book tour tomorrow, I can’t help but remember where I was a year ago at this time. My book—the one I had spent a third of my life working on—was a week from coming out. I was a worried, hand-wringing mess. Would anyone read it? Would bookstores carry it? Would I be able to resist thanking each person who bought it as if she had given me her kidney?
The answer to the first two turned out, thankfully, to be yes. The third remains a struggle.
I was also more than a little nervous about the book tour itself. I had read a lot of author horror stories about missed flights, impossible-to-find venues, non-existent or hostile audiences. I worried that I would fight my way through the Atlanta airport, only to arrive at an event so rattled I would be incoherent. But I was fortunate that accompanying me was my valiant fiance: map-reader extraordinaire, finder of late night snacks, checker of teeth for spinach, spirit lifter. So when those inevitable moments of travel panic arose (thanks again for canceling that critical flight, Delta!), they were much less horrible because I wasn’t facing them alone. If I have one piece of advice to new writers about book tour, it’s this: bring Nathaniel.
Like many writers, I have a streak of perfectionism that extends far beyond the page, and I spent the weeks before the tour trying to figure out the “right” way to do everything. Looming largest was my fear that I didn’t know the correct way to sign books. I obsessed over possibilities: should I use the inside board? The title page? Should I write the date or just a note? A friend commented, “I think you can just do it however you want.” But that, of course, wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I wanted the official memo from the Writer’s Association of the Universe on the correct procedure, so that there would be no chance of me messing it up. I was hurled into a panic at a terrific Jim Shepard reading when he wrote a charming note on the title page, then CROSSED OUT his printed name, and signed beneath it. Was that what real writers did? Would I be unmasked as an imposter if I didn’t do it? Nat reminded me that Ann Patchett hadn’t crossed out her name. My friend repeated herself: “I really think it’s up to the writer.” Which I suppose was the root of the problem. I’d written my book, but still didn’t feel like a writer.
Insecurities and airplanes aside, once I was on the road, I discovered that I really enjoyed book touring. I was getting to visit some of the best bookstores in the world, talk about stories I loved and meet fellow book-lovers–and I do mean lovers. After the first two events, I began carrying a notebook with me at all times to jot down all the passionate recommendations I was receiving. I was anxious before each event, but my years of teaching turned out to be terrific preparation. Once I began talking about the myths, I forgot my nerves and just enjoyed myself. And, as it had been in the classroom, the best part was always the audience’s questions. One of my favorite tour moments was an orthopedic surgeon who wondered if the Achilles’ heel legend had come from the fact that foot wounds are quite dangerous, because they are particularly susceptible to infection and gangrene. Who knew?
Inevitably, there were a few disasters. I remember a particular bookstore where I was booked only for a signing, not a reading. They led me to a table by the entrance where they had a beautiful display of my book all set up. My job, they said, was to convince everyone who came into the door to buy my book. “One author sold almost three hundred!” the bookseller added cheerily. The next hour was one of the worst in recent memory. I hate bothering people generally–bothering them to buy my book was actually a living nightmare. Worst of all was seeing the suspicion on people’s faces when I tried to say hello: she just wants something from us! Three hundred? Who was this god-like author? Lesson learned: don’t ever take a job as a newsie. The silver lining was a memorable a book-spree in that otherwise terrific store.
Which brings me to a word about brick-and-mortar bookstores. I have always been a lover of them, but this tour made me a fanatical convert. I have never seen such passion for books, such enthusiasm to connect readers and authors, and such thoughtfulness. One of these days I plan to write an essay singing the praises of all the best stores I have visited, from the incredible Main Street Trading Company in the Scottish Borders, to the fabulous Porter Square Books in my own backyard.
Overwhelmingly, my experience of book tour was one of gratitude–for the readers who came to my events, for the bookstores that promoted them, for the publisher that sent me on the road. Every time I stood in front of an audience, I was intensely aware of what a privilege it was to be there. All of which is to say: thank you. I am very much looking forward to the upcoming events!