One Country, Two Book Tours, Twelve Cities
Two Debut Novelists Find Themselves Across America
Carly Hallman and Bette Adriaanse embarked on two cross-country book tours simultaneously for the release of their debut novels, Year of the Goose and Rus Like Everyone Else, respectively. They wrote to each other about their various experiences, one an ex-pat returning home after years in China, the other, a Dutch artist who has never before set foot in the United States.
Carly Hallman: The evening of my very first event as a real-life author, there was some sort of a celebration/holiday in New Orleans. I remain a bit fuzzy on the details, but from what I gather, it’s a night when you’re supposed to attend a parade, put on a peculiar outfit, and gobble up King Cake, a colorful confectionary containing a solitary plastic baby Jesus. It’s good luck or whatever if you get the plastic baby Jesus in your slice, like maybe you’ll win the lottery and/or score a date with Johnny Depp, but there’s also a chance you’ll choke on our Lord and Savior and die and therefore miss out on the coming Rapture. You’ll just be stuck lounging about on clouds in Heaven, reading and rereading the entire Left Behind series, wishing you could get in on the action. Not so lucky after all.
This event was a conversation between me and Cate Dicharry, the author of The Fine Art of Fucking Up. Cate turned up to the cafe where we’d agreed to meet wearing a white blazer, which I think says it all. Only the calmest, most collected of folks wear white blazers (the guys from Miami Vice, Miley Cyrus, Rod Stewart). Cate and her blazer kindly invested a good half hour at that cafe trying to talk me off a figurative ledge. You see, public speaking isn’t exactly my forte. I’m a writer, after all, and as writers tend to do, I spend most of my time alone in my apartment, staring at a computer screen, wiping my nose on my shirt sleeves, and eating billy goats.
Once I’d pulled myself together, Cate and I headed over to Octavia Books, a charming and perfect little bookstore in the Garden District, and our venue for the evening. Because everyone in the greater New Orleans area was too busy putting plastic babies in their mouths, our audience was small—a few friends and relatives and booksellers. We already know that booksellers and bookstore owners are amazing people, they didn’t seem at all irritated by my crassness, and in a fun role reversal, during the Q&A, they graciously answered my innumerable inquiries regarding Duck Girl, a former fixture of the French Quarter who roller-skated from bar to bar with a trail of ducks waddling along behind her.
Bette Adriaanse: ‘You’re from the Netherlands?’ the taxi driver who took me and my boyfriend from JFK airport to New York City guessed our accent straight away. He had a brother in The Hague, he told us. ‘Europe is better for the human than America,’ he said. ‘Healthcare and education costs. If you have two kids here, you have a problem. If you get sick, you have a problem. The pharmaceutical industry in America is like the mafia. My wife’s medication costs $1,300 a month. In Istanbul it costs only 50 Euro.’
‘What is the best thing about New York?’ I asked.
It took our taxi driver a moment to snap out of his listing of problems, but when New York City came into sight he started smiling proudly: ‘New York has everything. People of every country, every culture. They bring their food, their customs, their culture. Everyone feels welcome. That is the best thing. Your community is already here.’
It seemed only appropriate he dropped us off at the Netherland Club, our very own community in New York. They were hosting the first event of my nine-city US book tour, in collaboration with Dutch Culture USA. They made us feel welcome by providing a hotel room with views of St Patrick’s Cathedral, and for my book presentation I was introduced by the cultural attaché of the Netherlands in a packed room, with cheese and wine and even people to pour the wine.
‘So I wrote a book,’ I started the presentation eloquently, holding up the book as if it wasn’t obvious enough. It almost seemed like too much of an honour. Did I deserve this? The room started tilting, the expectant faces in the audiences suddenly looked strange to me, as if I was dreaming. I wondered how much time had passed since I said ‘I wrote a book.’ In the audience my boyfriend raised his eyebrows. I opened my mouth. ‘It’s called Rus Like Everyone Else,’ I heard myself say. Then, the room tilted back to its normal position and the rest of the presentation came out relatively smoothly. The lovely audience asked me 20 minutes worth of questions, including if I would be willing to have it turned into a movie. ‘No,’ a lady in the audience answered for me. ‘Never ever.’
‘I would have to–,’ I started.
‘No, no,’ she interrupted. ‘I have read the whole book. It’s wonderful just as it is. She will not do it.’
And that was that.
The next event was at WORD Brooklyn, a lovely bookstore in a part of Brooklyn that reminded me of Amsterdam, with a near perfect selection of books. The word WORD hung in illuminated letters above the stage, and two seats were set up for me and Danielle Ellen, a phenomenal New York writer who would introduce me. So, we sat down, had wine, and talked about living in a caravan, living in America, living on the edge and living on the streets. Danielle had prepared the best question I’ve had so far about Rus Like Everyone Else: ‘Everyone in your book waves. There is so much waving. Why is that? Does it mean anything?’
Our driver that night told us spectacular stories of the time he used to smuggle cigarettes into Manhattan from out of state. It reminded me of what one of the Dutch Manhattanites had warned me about, before my reading at the Netherlands Club started: ‘In America it’s as much about your story as it is about the content. Everyone has to have a story, everyone has to have an elevator pitch. I’ve taught my three year-old daughter to pitch the day she had in kindergarten every time we ride up the elevator. Everyone has their story ready in America.’
CH: The next stop on our tour was Brazos Bookstore. Brazos is a beautiful, cleanly designed store in a really cool part of Houston. I must confess that prior to this trip, I did not know there was a cool part of Houston. The extent of my past Houston experience had been attending the international quilt festival with my grandma when I was a moody teen. I’d spent the years since believing that Houston was nothing more than a humid city full of elderly people who enjoyed patching together ornate blankets and refining oil. I stand corrected.
My editor from Unnamed, Olivia, had flown in from L.A. to support me, and she met me at Brazos. This was the first time we’d met in person, though we’d gone back and forth quite a bit through email when we were doing edits for the book. And I also follow her on Twitter. And we’re Facebook friends. So I kind of felt like I already knew her. But not in a creepy-online-stalker way or anything. Just in the normal-online-stalker way.
Olivia and I spent about an hour hanging out with the Brazos booksellers before the reading, shootin’ the cud (that’s a phrase, right? [Ed. not really]) and so forth. I was especially excited to finally meet Annalia Linnan, my cat-loving Twitter buddy who has championed the hell out of Year of the Goose, and Benjamin Rybeck, an amazing writer and my Unnamed “pressmate.”
The event itself had a pretty solid turnout (there were people I didn’t know sitting in the crowd!). I drank a cup of wine and told a rambling story about my stint working as a tutor for a multimillionaire Chinese family. One audience member prefaced her question by telling me I was “weird,” had a “weird personality,” and that she “doesn’t meet many weird people.” I thanked her.
BA: ‘This country needs anger,’ Donald Trump said on the television at the airport when we arrived in Chicago. Outside it was snowing.
‘We still haven’t met anyone who might vote for Trump,’ I said to my boyfriend. ‘So far people have just been very nice and liberal.’
‘Book people,’ my boyfriend said.
‘Book people are the best people,’ I said. ‘If we ran the world there would be world peace.’
‘I think you’d be overthrown very quickly,’ he mumbled.
That may be true in my case, but definitely not for the people that came to my next reading at Lies! Fiction Series at Café Mustache, where I was reading alongside the authors Megan Milks, James Tadd Adcox, Brooks Sterrit and Naomi Huffman. Back home in Amsterdam no one would even have considered leaving their houses to go see a bunch of writers in a café at these freezing temperatures, but in Chicago everyone seemed to agree that the weather was ‘great.’ The room was packed. City Lit Books was there to sell books. It was the kind of evening that gives you hope for the future of literature: the audience was excited, they cheered and clapped, the writers were smart and funny, they read surprising pieces. I read a bit from Rus Like Everyone Else about a character named ‘the secretary’ who tries to make small talk and tries to fall in love with a personal injury lawyer. I even got paid for reading, which someone had told me beforehand but startled me all the same.
On our way to Ann Arbor we passed a sign for Flint, just as we heard on the radio about the water problem they have there. We also heard how parts of Detroit were without streetlights because people stole the copper from their own amenities, needing the money to survive. I thought of the big Trump tower with the golden letters in Chicago and what the man at the Netherland Club had said about America wanting a good story. At these moments the story of America seemed like a bleak fairy tale, with kings sitting high in golden towers, and people in the streets drinking poisoned water.
The mood lifted when we arrived in Ann Arbor. I’d heard a lot about Ann Arbor’s Literati bookstore while in Chicago: apparently they have the best Instagram of all the bookstores. It is a beautiful bookstore; it made me wonder briefly if I should open a bookstore myself. John, the event manager, surprised me with a long and thoughtful introduction to my reading, which was almost like a short essay on the themes of my novel. I met Mike, whose father used to deliver the mail and knew everyone in his area, like the narrator in Rus Like Everyone Else. To feel a connection to the strangers I meet here is by far the best part of the readings. This is what books can reveal: that you have something in common with people who seem so different from you. It can make you feel less alone, as a reader and a writer.
On the long drive to Iowa we marveled at the number of billboards for personal injury lawyers, the medicine advertisements on the radio, the debt forgiveness programs and the loan offers, the size of the meals at Denny’s. People in New York had warned us about the people in the Midwest: they were ‘too nice.’ These nuances in niceness might be perceptible to an American, but what they do not understand is that we Dutch people have a national trait we like to call ‘directness’ but what can also be called ‘rudeness.’ To a Dutch person, all Americans seem extremely nice. Everywhere we went, people went out of their way to make us comfortable, taking us to bars and restaurants, giving phone numbers to their cousins in Iowa, emailing lists of places to visit. A waitress said ‘I’m sorry, that’s my bad’ when I dropped my tray standing two meters away from her. It’s such a relaxing experience, this niceness. It is the most remarkable thing so far, even more remarkable than all the billboards, including the one for the ‘The World’s Largest Frying Pan.’
CH: Despite my near-obsession with personal goal-setting, I didn’t really have any expectations or goals regarding this book tour. Mostly I was just hoping to survive it. One thing I’ve noticed, though, in the past few weeks is that people have very disparate views on book tours.
Common, non-writerly folks tend to think of going on a book tour as akin to being a rock star. Groupies fanning themselves, lines of readers snaking out the door, fancy hotels. Editors and agents and Hollywood producers will wine and dine you at restaurants with white tablecloths, and at one of these restaurants, you’ll inevitably run into your ex-lover and a very dramatic altercation will occur, and you will open the New York Post the next day to find your name (and that of your ex-lover) printed on Page 6. Your book sales will skyrocket. Now you’re a millionaire.
Those in the literary community are more doom-and-gloom about the whole endeavor. They warn you that “life on the road” (as though we’re characters in Almost Famous or something, living on a tour bus, singing along to Elton John) is “lonely and difficult.” That no one goes to book events. That teenage bullies will point and laugh at you as you read your book aloud to no one in the back corner of a Barnes and Noble. That more likely than not, at some juncture, you’ll find yourself sitting in your car in a Burger King parking lot in an unfamiliar town, cramming a 99 cent Whopper down your gullet and crying. Sobbing.
The truth, as it is prone to do, falls somewhere in the middle.
Although the rock star fantasy has its appeal, I would argue that “the middle” isn’t such a bad place to be. This really hit home for me at my third event, in Austin. I went to college in Austin, so it’s like my second hometown. When I was a student, I frequently browsed Book People, a two-story palace of an indie bookstore in the heart of downtown. I used to daydream about someday seeing my own book on the shelves. Five years later and another dream level: unlocked!
My brother and a couple of friends in Austin had already sent me photos of the Book People marquee with my name (!!!) on it, but seeing it in person actually sent chills down my spine. I posed for a bunch of pictures below it, and then a bunch more inside the store, where my book was displayed front and center. Did I mention the chills?
This event was a discussion between me, Michael Barrett, and Jill Alexander Essbaum. Michael is the editor of the literary journal The Austin Review (he kindly gave me a copy of the most recent issue—definitely worth checking out!), and a very thoughtful, intelligent asker of questions. Jill is a poet and the author of the bestselling Hausfrau, a novel that upon completion led me to spend approximately one hour staring at a wall because I was so moved/depressed/blown away.
I was a bit starstruck, and as the discussion began, I was also struck by a terrible case of impostor syndrome. Why did Book People put my name on their marquee, why was Michael Barrett asking me questions, and what the hell was I doing up here with the Jill Alexander Essbaum? Rambling like an idiot, that’s what. There was this moment in the early minutes of the discussion, when Jill had the microphone, that I really, truly almost stood up and moved into the audience. There were a few empty seats (but not many!); I could’ve done it.
I didn’t. It took all my will, but I remained in place. Jill handed me the mic.
My whole point about “the middle” is that this is where you find these little moments of wonder, these tiny miracles: A bestselling author extraordinaire agrees to do an event with you and says nice things about your book both in person and on social media! Friendly booksellers go out of their way to help you feel at ease! People who don’t even know you come to hear you talk and pay money for your book and ask you to scrawl your name inside! Friends you haven’t seen in years show up to congratulate you, to take you out for drinks!
And that’s what it all comes down to. These are the parts that count. For most of us, there are no high-thread-count hotel sheets or Page 6 gossip or lines out the door, but these miracles, man. We have these. And these are enough.
BA: We were hit by a snowstorm in Michigan. Within minutes, the world around us was white, and a truck slipped off the road behind us, and there was a 60-car collision ahead of us. The police closed off the highway, forcing us off the road and into the country. For hours, we inched through small Midwestern towns until we came to a halt in front of a half-collapsed barn. A light was on in the window. Snow had covered everything. It was cold. Having some time to stare at the barn next to us, I wondered if it is was possible to be happy somewhere so cold and remote. As if he’d heard me, a man came racing out of back of the barn on a quad bike, his dog jumping around him as he circled and raced through his snowy fields.
We did not get far that day. A lady at a hotel in Paw Paw wrote ‘Northernland’ as our country of origin on the check-in form, and the owner of the hotel came to talk to us, telling us about his life in Paw Paw, comparing his part of Michigan to heaven.
The roads were cleared the next day and we drove straight to Iowa City, where I would discuss my novel with Cate Dicharry at Prairie Lights bookstore. I had been made aware by booksellers in the other cities I visited that Prairie Lights was something of an institution. ‘They don’t even sell your book if they don’t like it, no matter who you are,’ they told me. ‘Each book they sell is read by at least one of the staff. It’s an honor to read there.’
I feel honored and grateful to read in any bookstore, but now I was a little intimidated, too. Thankfully I would not be alone. Cate Dicharry, fellow Unnamed Press author and writer of one of my favorite novels of the past year, The Fine Art of Fucking Up, would join me for the evening and lead the conversation. When I arrived at Prairie Lights, my nerves disappeared. Bookstores relax me and Prairie Lights was no different, Cate led the way with questions that allowed me to just read from Rus, share anecdotes and explain a bit. The evening became one of the nicest ones of the tour, with many questions from the audience and a good turnout, thanks to Lindsay from the store who set up the event perfectly.
Outside the window we saw snowy cornfields, barns and ethanol plants. The distance between food stops started getting bigger. The view outside the window was strangely reminiscent of the Dutch countryside. I imagined the people living here to be like a cowboy version of Dutch farmers; quiet, hard working types, who might not embrace strangers but would silently tow your car out of the ditch if you got into trouble. So far, we had been a bit wary of the American countryside, because we imagined the people there to have guns and to not be fond of foreigners. My boyfriend has a Middle Eastern background, which makes him extra cautious, and he goes out of his way not to offend anyone in America: he is extra polite on the road, in shops and on the street. I thought this was probably a hysterical tourist move on our part, based on stories we were told, but the Americans we met in the cities agreed it might be sensible.
‘It’s going to have to be McDonalds,’ my boyfriend said, as we pulled in to a small town along the road.
‘I like it here in Iowa,’ I said when we were sitting down. Across from us sat a group of elderly Iowans, who were admiring the metal oxygen tank on wheels one of them was carrying. ‘That man with the America cap apologized twice when he had to move around me,’ I said, ‘even though there was three meters between us. They’re very polite. It was silly to be scared. It’s a stereotype.’
‘Hmm,’ my boyfriend said.
We got up and he went outside to make a call as I went into the restroom. When I got back out, something had happened. The elderly group had turned around in their seats. They were looking out the window. The man with oxygen stood next to them, pointing out the window. They all seemed angry at something. They were all looking at my boyfriend.
A lady took out her phone and started dialing, the man with the America cap urged her to put it away.
My boyfriend was standing with his back to them, oblivious, talking on the phone. When he walked a bit further down the pavement, the group moved to the other window to watch him.
I observed them for a moment, trying to understand what they were seeing.
Then I went outside and we walked to the car. ‘Let’s go.’
What happened there? We had done nothing out of the ordinary. What were they disapproving of? Was it fear? Or did he just remind them of a neighbor they did not like or something?
We did not get to know the Midwest, I thought. We looked at it, it looked back at us.
In Minneapolis the nice hotel we were staying in decided to upgrade us to a fancy room on the 14th floor, making us feel happy and welcome. A friend sent me a message saying that if I was in Minneapolis, there was a bookstore near a lake that she loved, and I should go there. This turned out to be the bookstore I was already scheduled to read at, Magers & Quinn. It’s a big store, stocking such a wealth of familiar and unfamiliar books, it made me want to just sit down and read. I did get to do that for moment, reading a section from Me Cheeta, The Life of a Hollywood Chimpanzee as I was waiting for the other authors and hoping someone would come in the door to fill the seats that had been set out in the middle of the store.
At seven, Ann Mayhew introduced us to an audience that turned out to have been in the bookstore all along, browsing the shelves. Local writer Allison Wyss started with a vivid, scary section from her upcoming novel, Nickolas Butler read a beautifully dark and moving story from his collection Beneath the Bonfire. I read a lighthearted chapter about Mr. Lucas’s biggest dream: having someone take his coat. Between our three readings, I think we covered the whole range of human emotions.
Over drinks at a local bar I asked the others to explain to me what might have been going on at that McDonalds in Iowa, but it seemed as mysterious to them as it was to me.
CH: As my mom always said, “Don’t drink and drive; drink and read.” (Full disclosure: My mom has never actually said that, but it sounds like something she might say, given proper circumstances in which to say it.) The Wild Detectives, the venue for my final reading, was built around my mom’s would-be saying. It’s a bar/cafe/bookstore in the Bishop Arts District of Dallas, and it is badass. The book selection. The drinks. The food. The music. All of the things I love in one cozy place.
By the time this event rolled around, I’d settled into a comfortable groove. I’d figured out what to talk about and what to leave out. I’d worked out all the inflections and pauses in my reading selection, even managing to add some non-creepy eye contact. And, not to brag or anything, but my autograph was finally “on fleek.” At last, I was ready for my book tour! And of course, now it was over.
The biggest takeaway from this tour for me is this: fiction (and, art in general, I suppose) connects people. I realize how obvious that sounds, but it’s easy to forget when you’re alone in your apartment in your underwear, eating a burrito in bed, and trying to outline a plot. When you’re in a cafe, editing the same damn passage you’ve edited 20 times before, earbuds shoved into your ear to tune out all the inane chatter and noisy milk steaming happening around you. When you’re sending out query letters and collecting rejections; when you’re refusing to put your computer away at midnight because you’re on a writing roll; when you’re at your stupid job daydreaming about winning awards or whatever (admit it, we all do it) and feeling despair when you realize how unlikely that is, statistically speaking, to ever happen.
It’s easy to forget, yes, but this is why we do what we do. Why I do what I do: to connect.
Year of the Goose is a weird book. It’s not a sweeping saga, it’s not a feel-good story, it doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s dark and twisted and a bit nuts.
Even so, it has connected me to others. I feel a bit cheesy writing all of this, but it is indescribably moving to receive so many well-wishes from others. To be sent photos of my novel (!!!) in old friends’ local bookstores all over the country. To be present as people drive great distances and give up their evenings to show their support and love. Childhood pals. Roommates from college. Second cousins. Internet friends. Strangers.
And so at the end of my very first book tour, I am left to reflect on a few things:
- How lucky I am.
- How connected I am.
- How ready I am to forget how lucky and connected I am, and to get to be reminded again. To go through the whole cycle of writerly self-loathing and self-doubt, to eat burritos in bed, to believe I’ve run out of good ideas, to convince myself that I will die alone having done nothing worthwhile, and then to pull myself out of this pitiful pile and emerge, once again, with a novel.
BA: People in San Francisco were quick to point out everything that was wrong with the city: too expensive, tech people had ruined everything, the people were fake. (Accusations of fakeness were made by Americans about every place I visited in the US.) But I loved San Francisco, and when I love something, I refuse to see faults.
At Green Apple Books on the Park, a beautiful bookstore with lovely staff very close to the Golden Gate park, I had my first California book event. I was lucky to have Daniel Levin Becker there to ask me questions. He is the author of Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature, a book that gives a fascinating insight into the elusive French OuLiPo, a movement that practices literature with constraints, like ‘Rats who build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape.’ I was suitably impressed by Daniel, and a little worried it would turn out he understood my book better than I did. We ended up talking about Nigerian Kings who worked at the Dutch postal services and spoke only in Hollywood mafia film quotes. We talked about revolving doors in revolving doors, life’s currents, and being God. Students in the audience dutifully took notes.
The drive to Los Angeles took us along a beach near Santa Barbara. We arrived at the coast just as the sun was setting and the sea was orange and blue, the sky pink. It was breathtakingly beautiful. A man named Ken in a golf cart informed us the beach closed at sunset, and that we’d also illegally entered the premises. After telling him we came ‘all the way from the Netherlands’ to ‘swim in the sea here,’ waving my arms hysterically, he gave us 15 minutes. Two seconds later I was in the water. The sky was bright pink, the water was blue and yellow and orange, the palm trees were tall and thin and high. It was freezing. It was the best swim of my life. In every part of America we’d visited, people had warned us about the other parts. In the Midwest they would be ‘too nice’ and in New York they would act as if they were ‘so important’ and they would ‘complain all the time.’ In California, we were told, ‘everyone thinks they are so special.’ I could see now how this last one might be true. If I lived in California and swam in the ocean at sunset every day, I would probably also think I was very special. Or at least, the place I lived in was very special.
The final stop of the tour was Los Angeles, where I’d finally meet my publisher and his team. In the first minute at the publishing office I found myself declaring ‘I will never become like Arnold Schwarzenegger’ and accidentally drinking my publisher’s coffee, which was strangely reminiscent of the first time I met my agent and I accidentally took his belongings with me in my handbag when I left.
Luckily they’ve seen worse at the Unnamed Press offices, and they graciously acted as if nothing happened, taking me to the last bookstore I would read at: Skylight Books. Everywhere I went in America people in bookstores squealed when I mentioned Skylight, which I understood when I saw this perfect bookstore. I did a Q&A with Gallagher Lawson, a writer I admire very much, particularly for his book The Paper Man, about a boy made of paper, a fable on art and creation. There were a couple of striking similarities between our interests (I have made a large artwork consisting of a boy out of paper) so the conversation came easily. And then it was over. I signed books and someone patted me on the back and shouted ‘That was it! The end of the tour!’ in a cheerful manner. I almost cried so I pretended to study the tree that grows in the bookstore, trying to think of something to say about leaves and the lines in the leaves but I couldn’t think of anything. Luckily, Dutch people exist to bring us back to reality. ‘Hello,’ a Dutch stranger said, tapping me on my shoulder, ‘I wanted to ask you, how much did this tour cost exactly and who paid for it?’