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Every art form has its peculiarities but the strangest thing about writing—maybe, though maybe it’s just me (spoiler alert: it’s not just me)—is that its fundamental attribute is solitude. Plays, concerts, operas, movies take dozens if not hundreds to make, and are seen by thousands (or millions) in their turn. Even the painter, who might work alone or with assistants, eventually sees his work on a wall in a room in the company of that of his colleagues. In the white galleries and big museums the steady stream of pairs and trios shuffle from piece to piece like pigeons after crumbs. The view down into the gut of the MoMA or the lobby of the Met is of something between a river and a flock.
But writers. At our site of production we are found scribbling or typing in some office or coffee shop or other corner. Or rather, are not found, because we have either hidden ourselves bodily away or else made clear through posture and expression that we are absolutely not to be disturbed. And at the site of consumption there is, hopefully, the enthralled reader, curled up on her couch with the book she likes better than whatever plans she has blown off that evening, or else privately in public, nose nearly flush against the astonishing page (Don’t talk to me!), her subway stop three stations behind her—she’ll only notice when the train gets so far out into Brooklyn that it spits itself above ground and sunlight floods the car.
These two vast solitudes are joined, precariously, as though by a wobbling bridge or the rope-ladder they throw from the door of the helicopter to rescue the guy on the roof of the burning embassy, by an interval of publicity: the truly “public” part of “publishing,” consisting of interviews, readings, “talks” perhaps. Whatever you can cram into that vanishingly brief period of weeks or months in which your book can be considered new.
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I’m going to dial my rhetoric down from 11 to about a 5 here and say that everything about this part of it is kind of weird. Even when it’s going great it’s weird. Even if you’re the kind of person—and I’ll cop to being one—who feels about as comfortable on stage as off, it’s weird. But of course not everything weird is bad, and in the case of the book tour, the weirdness of it—driving around, and crashing with people you barely know, and shaking hands with strangers, and being asked to answer Big Questions about art and life because someone has presumed in you some degree of authority that you yourself can hardly fathom much less claim, and having to insist, with decency but not humility, day after day, that people should take time out of their life to come sit in a room and listen to you talk for an hour—is often the very thing that makes it great.
Apart from reviews (which the wisest among us take care not to read, and the rest of us pretend to not have read) the book tour is one of the few times in a writer’s life—for many writers, it might well be the only time—that we see our work out in the world: two or three or ten or twenty copies of this thing you made, not at the one store where your friend works (or where you used to work) but on the front table of Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, NY; on a little stand by the register at Newtonville Books in Newton, MA; Powell’s City of Books in Portland, OR; Longfellow Books of Portland, ME; Elliott Bay and University Bookstore in Seattle; Kings Books in Tacoma; City Lights in San Francisco and Kepler’s down in Palo Alto; Book People in Austin, TX not to be confused with BookPeople of Moscow, ID; the Tattered Cover in Denver; Parnassus Books in Nashville; Prairie Lights in Iowa City; The Raven in Lawrence, KS; Skylight Books and the Last Bookstore in Los Angeles; BookCourt and powerHouse and Community and WORD and Berl’s in Brooklyn; Housing Works and McNally Jackson and BookCulture—that one’s uptown—in New York, New York.
Going to the bookstores is great. Not just because they ordered a few copies of your book, or because if you’re nice to the booksellers (if you don’t pout that only three people showed up) they’ll remember you after you’re long gone, and hand-sell your book to customers who would have never ever found you any other way, but because the stores themselves exist. They are unique and have personalities. They are staffed by geniuses and weirdos (there’s that word again). They are hanging in there—many even thriving—despite rising rents and rising cultural illiteracy and bright buzzing shit in people’s pockets and evil online empires and all the other wolves forever at all our doors.
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My second story collection, Flings, was published late last August by HarperCollins. The paperback comes out from HarperPerennial late this August, i.e. nowish. In between these two events, a funny thing happened—I moved across the country, from Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn to Portland, OR. My paperback launch will be September 3rd at the Powell’s on Hawthorne, arguably my new local bookstore, though the Powell’s flagship location (as well as the amazing little indie Mother Foucault’s) are both close enough to my new home that I can claim them as well. After that, I’ll go out on the road for three weeks, starting with eight days in New York City where, for the first time in a decade, landing at JFK will mean beginning a visit rather than returning from one.
I don’t know how to expect to feel about this. I’m excited to see my friends, catch up with former students, go a couple rounds too many at the mescal bar on Smith Street that I used to live next door to—a place where they’d start making my drink when they saw me walk in. The “East Coast launch” (it still feels weird to say that) will be at powerHouse Arena on September 14. Before that, on the 10th, I’ll be helping toast my old professor Padgett Powell at Housing Works, on the occasion of his new collection, Cries for Help, Various, itself the launch title for the wonderful upstart Catapult Press. The 12th and 13th I’ll spend with the good people of Slice magazine, speaking at their annual conference and playing Literary Jeopardy at their fundraiser. On the 15th, I’ll be at the Long Island City reading series with Sam Lipsyte and Akhil Sharma.
I’m not offering all this up as a commercial (though yes, by all means—come to the readings! buy the book!) but rather as a reflection on how bizarre it is to have become one of those people who “comes through” New York and has to “make the most” of his time there. None of this is a complaint about Portland, by the way. You should see the size of my new apartment. You should see the cat my wife and I adopted. You should see the tomatoes we get at the farmers market and what fresh-caught salmon costs.
Still, it’s strange. And if I’m being totally honest, I’ll say that the drawback of going to a place where you have a million people to see and are truly excited to see them, is that you lose out on the anonymity and vast quantities of unscheduled time that tend to accrue when you have to spend two days in a place to accomplish a task that only takes two or three hours. Perhaps more famous authors find themselves drowning in press requests and lunch meetings, but me, I’ve always gotten a lot of work done on book tours. In fact, several stories in the new book were drafted while touring for the previous two.
I remember poring over revisions of my novel, The Gospel of Anarchy, in a hotel in Denver in 2010, where HarperPerennial had sent me to read from my first collection, Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever. I remember how the downtown buildings looked like they were burning when the sun set—a description that in refined form made its way into a story called “Poets,” which is in the new book. Also in 2010, Kevin Sampsell and I took the train up from New York to Cambridge to read at the Harvard Book Store. He was in from Portland, OR (had hosted me when I’d read at Powell’s) and was looking to make the most of his time out East. When the reading was over, a shy skinny kid introduced himself as the editor of the Harvard Lampoon and offered to give me a tour of their office, which he told me was a pretty rare privilege. Kevin and his wife were hungry, so they didn’t come. The Lampoon has its own building, which looks like a stunted castle. I saw the room where Animal House was written; it looked like a place you might keep a POW. I saw the couch where they say Updike lost his virginity. It either had a velvet rope around it or I remember it having one. There was a recruitment session going on—something like 40 freshmen sitting on a floor, knee to knee, smoking cigarettes and getting yelled at over loud music. In the room with the Updike couch.
In 2011 Blake Butler and I did a West Coast swing together—Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, L.A. My aforementioned novel had just come out, and so had Blake’s There Is No Year. In Portland, I remember, Blake’s hotel gave him an upgrade to a room he described as being the size of a football field; I had an old close friend in town and had chosen to stay with her. We took the Amtrak up to Seattle, where Matthew Simmons took us out for a drink, and we talked about the Dungeons & Dragon novel he was co-writing with Matt Bell under the shared pseudonym Matthew Beard. In L.A. Ken Baumann gave us a tour of the set of The Secret Life of the American Teenager, which he was starring in at the time. In San Francisco, Jimmy Chen made us dinner, and I had a couple college friends to catch up with, but somehow there was still a lot of solitude. We were staying at the Omni Hotel, on the edge of Chinatown, and I walked around that neighborhood alone a lot. One morning in particular stands out. I had one of those hangovers so powerful the world feels shattered, everything with a gleaming edge to it, a pile of junk glass in the sun.
In the summer of 2012, I sold a story called “After Ellen” to The New Yorker. If you’ve read it, you’ll perhaps recall that it is set in San Francisco, and that Chinatown and the Omni both appear. Since I hadn’t changed the hotel’s name, the magazine’s fact checkers called it to confirm a few details. Turned out I had exaggerated the price of a minibar chocolate, albeit not by much. “After Ellen” is in this new collection also. It is good when the work can feed the work.
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Cars, buses, trains, and planes; but cars and buses, mostly. Hotels or more likely couches. Lobbies. Terminals. Rest stops. Public bathrooms. Plastic chairs. Other people’s favorite local bars—unless you’re someone who doesn’t go to bars. I don’t know what they do with you then.
In all its goodness, badness, and weirdness—and at whatever scale it happens—the book tour is the part of the writing life least reconcilable with all of the others. Some caution is therefore appropriate, but more than that: abandon. It should be embraced for what it is, forgiven for what it isn’t, and mined for all the joy and experience it has to offer—which is plenty. It’s not for everyone, I bet, but it seems to me that everyone ought to try it once, and see.