Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Book Tour in Retrospect

After seven weeks of readings and one intensive Flick Creek workshop, I’m home. I’ve been home, actually, for a week. Long enough to wash clothes, pay bills, weed the garden, attend one party, run occasionally, and nap often. The thing about traveling around reading from your book is the thing about traveling around doing anything: when you’re in it, you’re in it. Now finally, I can start to take stock.

Highlights were many. I got to read in front of family and friends, including many who knew my father, at UC Riverside and at the gorgeous new Rubidoux library. Who would’ve thought, when I was growing up, that someday the fanciest place I’d read would be Rubidoux? (Well, who would’ve thought I’d be out doing readings? That's the real question.) In Los Angeles, I spent a fine evening at the landmark African American bookstore Eso Won (translation: “water over rocks”) with a small but enthusiastic group of readers. Afterwards owner James Fugate, who spent some time in Tallahassee himself in the early ‘80s and had heard much about my father’s test ride, explained that the crowd surely would’ve been bigger if we weren’t competing with the Lakers. (Never thought about that: me vs. Kobe. Scary.) In San Francisco—between readings in Berkeley, at CSU East Bay, and in the Mission District—I visited the site of my dad’s old bookstore in North Beach by bike with Laurie. In Seattle, in the new basement reading room at Elliott Bay Books, I competed with frequent flushings through the exposed plumbing overhead. The reading went on, the discussion was fun, the books all sold out.

Home for two days to plant the garden in the rain: peas, cukes, greens, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, squash. Breathe. Breathe. Back on the road.

At Annie’s Pizza in Concrete, folks showed up from Darrington, Rockport, Marblemount, Sedro Woolley, and Diablo, undaunted by a cold hard rain. Over pizza and beer, trail workers and tree planters, NPS employees and pizza chefs, old timers and newcomers, shared stories of discrimination and redemption. Laurie and I stepped out into the dark around ten to a flat tire. Having no pride, I decided to call the Auto Club. We’d just gotten a new membership from my mom for Christmas, and I knew our spare was a bugger to get off, so why not? Why not? Lots of reasons. No offense to AAA or to the surly gentlemen who arrived, stripped the bolt, and left … but that was a bunch of bullshit. The spare tire was stuck, and so were we. Luckily our old friend Ned took us home at midnight to meet his new girlfriend for the first time. In the morning, we had the added pleasure of meeting Sweet Pea, the bottle-fed lamb with the purple collar. Next time Ned and Jeanne go on vacation, I hear, they’re taking Sweet Pea. And next time I’m in Concrete in a late night rainstorm with an unfixable flat, I hope Ned’s there.

In Bellingham, another crowd of trail types crowded on metal chairs then whooped it up at a local bar from sunset to last call. But the most honored guests were the youngest: nephews Ryan and Evan at their first literary event. Who knows? Maybe they’ll grow up to be writers. Or trail workers.

On to the San Juan Islands. Somehow in twenty five years in the Pacific Northwest I’d never been. Well, that was a mistake. The scenery is spectacular, the islands bucolic, the ferry rides worth every penny. In three days, we made it to all four islands that have regular ferry service. On Lopez I did a radio interview with writer Iris Graville then read at the lovely local library, the one librarian Lou Pray has “brought into the 21st century.” Until recently, Lopezians checked out books by writing their names on 3 x 5 cards. In Friday Harbor, I sat in the back room of Griffin Bay Books with three locals and a couple who had traveled from way-distant Kenmore, Washington just to attend. Together we talked over tea about civil rights and memories, writing, politics, and life. Laurie and I camped that night on Shaw with old friends.

The very last night we landed on Orcas Island. We’d planned to camp again, but it turns out we’ve gone soft. We found a hotel room and settled in and headed over to Darvill’s, yet another fabulous independent store, and afterwards sat together on driftwood, the beach to ourselves, and watched the swallows circle and dive as night fell. It was over.

There’s plenty of skepticism in the publishing world about the usefulness of a book tour. Take a peek around online and you’ll get the gist: better to have a Facebook page, better to Twitter. I suppose virtual book promotion is better if your life is already overburdened with the good wishes of critics and fans, better, too—granted—if your only concern is the bottom line. But for me, after spending five years in a room alone, more or less, rehashing some stuff that wasn’t that fun to rehash—and shaping some stuff, to be fair, that was fun to shape—going out to meet real live readers was a must, a relief, a delight.

Is it stressful? You bet. Is it tiring? Exhausting. Is it expensive? It is. But with some months of planning you can get your travel, at least, paid for by universities and libraries. In the end, you can help out a few independent bookstores and make a few connections—I came home with a stack of fine books by writers I met along the way—and, of course, you can see new places. Maybe best of all, you can see your book anew in the comments readers make, the questions they ask; often enough they find something I never knew was there. Which is how it should be. It’s not my book anymore, not really, it’s theirs. It’s yours.

Then there’s the big question. Sales? Not bad. I’ve about sold out of the first printing of Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus. That’s true. It’s also true that it was a pretty small print run. So onward I go. I oughta try to spit out a couple short essays this month, at least, to help with the bills around here. That and read a few thousand student essays. If all else fails, there’s always day labor.