The spring '97 GroVont trilogy book tour began with a 500
mile drive across Wyoming on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.
There's an ice cream shop at the Farson junction that is the
closest thing the high plains desert has to an oasis. I ordered
a small vanilla and they piled as much ice cream as can humanly
be piled on a cone. At least a pint. I've never seen anyone
order a medium or large. The mind boggles at the thought.
Monday, I did a Cheyenne local live-at-noon TV show. My
three minutes came between the cooking tip and the weather. The
weatherman stood in front of a blank blue wall pretending to
point at a cold front that's been chasing me for six days now.
That night's reading was opposite the NCAA basketball national
championship. Every few minutes, the events coordinator, who was
from Kentucky, slipped away to check the score. While I was
answering "Where do you get your ideas?" she signaled updates
from the back of the crowd. I've been asked that question
hundreds of times and I still can't think of an answer that
isn't smart-ass, new age, or a lie.
Tuesday, I had two scheduled radio shows fall through.
Long stories for both. My hotel room in Boulder had two TVs and
three phones (including one in the bathroom.) Ten years ago, I
didn't have any TVs or phones (or a bathroom for that matter) so
this opulence thing still feels weird. I keep expecting the
police to break down the door and arrest me. The Boulder Book
Store has one of the most beautiful places for readings around.
It used to be a Buddhist chant room. Forty people showed up,
which is a crowd for me, and many of them knew my books better
than I do. The night made up for the busted radio interviews.
Afterwards some of us went to a wine/espresso bar where the
waitress wore nothing but underwear.
Wednesday, I did a radio interview at a college station
in Fort Collins with a kid who looked fifteen and said he
normally doesn't read but says my book is cool. He asked "Where
do you get your ideas?" and I said they come from a secret web
site that only published novelists can access. I couldn't help
it. The kids following my show were broadcasting on-air body
piercing. I didn't stay for it, but they looked interesting.
After the reading at Stone Lion Books that night, a shy guy
presented a copy of Sorrow Floats, and asked me to sign it to
the girl who'd left him. "Tell her to come back to me. If you
tell her, she'll listen. Another guy told me he was getting a
divorce because of something I wrote in the acknowledgments of
Thursday, my girlfriend Carol caught up with the tour,
and we did Tattered Cover in Denver. For a writer on tour, the
Tattered Cover is Broadway. If you've made it there, you've made
it everywhere. I've heard folks say they won't let you in the
Author's Guild if you haven't read at Elliot Bay in Seattle,
and Elliot Bay is a wonderful store, but for me, the Tattered
Cover is Mecca. Colin Powell signed 2,467 books for fans there,
and when the T.C. employees cut off the end of the line, there
was a near riot. I signed 28 books, plus stock, Thursday night,
and it was the thrill of a lifetime of lonely typing.
Friday, I taught a class at Aurora Community College.
Nice folks. One woman asked how I made my characters feel real
and I told her about the Christmas I was alone and my characters
all exchanged presents. There were eight of us around the tree.
The teacher told me I was scaring the students. Then we drove to
Colorado Springs for some drive-by signings and on to Taos,
through a ground blizzard, for a weekend with our friend, John
Nichols, whose writing and life taught me a high percentage of
all I know, and now we're headed for Santa Fe and more fun.
Whenever two or more authors get together, here is what they
talk about: 1) money, 2) sports, and 3) horror stories of the
book tour. I've driven 500 miles to do a reading where only
three people showed up. In Nashville, the contact person had
gone on vacation and no one could locate any of my books. A
radio interviewer in Kansas City asked me what kind of music
I write. It only takes a couple of humiliations to realize the
worst that can possibly happen really isn't that bad. So you sit
behind a table for two hours watching shoppers avert their eyes
as if you're a street beggar. It still beats work.
The Laughing Horse Inn in Taos is one of the truly cool
literary hotels in America. The coffee cups read D.H. Lawrence
may have slept here and at the communal breakfast table this
morning I mentioned Allen Ginsburgh's death and everyone there
knew who I was talking about. Taos is the capital of old guys
with gray pony tails. The first time I went to the Taos Inn, I
thought they were holding a Georgia O'Keefe look-alike contest.
If you're into harmonics, convergences, fine art, and beautiful
country, Taos, New Mexico, is the place to be. Interesting
quotes from the last week of book signing: "Sign it to Lorrie.
Make it sound as if the two of you have a torrid sexual history.
"Can you get me an agent?" "I'm buying this for my father; he'll
hate it. "I've had the most bizarre life. All my friends say I
should be a writer." That last one always amazes me. Why do
people think that because they've had interesting lives they
would be good writers, if they only had the time to type up the
story? I mean, victim memoirs are big now, but that's
nonfiction; these people seem to think they'd be John Grisham if
only they had his free time. I still get calls from people
offering to tell me their story and I can write it and together
we'll split the money.
Let's talk about the purpose of the book tour. The
Writers on the Road web site lists 255 writers crossing the
country this spring, reading, signing, fighting for media time
and space, and guzzling enough coffee to kill a lab rat. And
from what I can see, 255 is but a small percentage of those of
us actually out here. So why are we doing this? I'll wager not
more than five sell enough books to pay the traveling expenses.
Most writers at least claim to be quite uncomfortable with
promotion. The personality type that enjoys sitting in a room
alone for two years writing a novel does not enjoy tap dancing
in front of a crowd and screaming "Look at me!" As I see it, the
whole deal is a matter of name recognition. People do not plop
down $22.50 for a book by someone they never heard of. Which is
why first novels rarely sell worth squat. Every season brings on
one media darling and roughly 300 disappointed first novelists.
So we fight for that necessary evil -- fame. The publishers send
us out for that poster in the bookstore window, or the flyer
they send to the store mailing lists, or the one sentence
announcement in the Community Calendar section of the
alternative newspaper. Fifty people and a feature in the Sunday
arts supplement are to be killed for, but even a reading
attended by four people who don't buy books isn't the God awful failure the writer thinks it is. Not that you don't feel like
gum under a desk at least once each tour.
There are many types of tours, ranging from the best seller
ensconced in a hotel room, granting a half hour apiece to hordes
of journalists and photographers lined up in the hall, to the
self-published poet with six cases of books in the trunk of his
car, driving from store to store, begging managers to stock a
couple of copies on their Signed by the Author shelf. Tony Hillerman
did a small libraries of the West tour about ten years ago , where
at the end of each talk he asked the crowd if anyone would give him a
ride to the next town. My friend Win Blevins does tours where he
shows up at the wholesaler warehouse loading docks at four a.m.
with coffee and donuts for the truck drivers. Truck driver
schmoozing isn't so much about numbers as placement on the racks.
After all, the shelf life of a paperback book in a grocery store
is exactly the same as yogurt, and books at chest level outsell
ankle-biters by a tremendous margin. It's worth passing out
donuts at dawn.
The GroVont spring of '97 tour is my fourth book
trip, the second by car. When Sorrow Floats came out in 1992, or
so, I drove around the South and Midwest for eight weeks,
flogging myself and books. That was a dues payer. A humility
machine by any standards, although I met some terrific people
and saw some beautiful stores. I've never had a bad meal in a
bookstore. By comparison, the Social Blunders hardback tour was
a luxury item involving airplanes and media escorts. The media
escort is not the vanity extra I always thought. They call all
these bookstores, other than the one where you make your primary
appearance, and set up what are called drive-by signings --
meet the staff, sign stock, hobnob with whoever is around. With
an escort, the traveling writer can visit ten or more bookstores
in a city instead of one. There's a woman in Portland who claims
she can hit sixty stores in a day. I've met her and I believe.
Back in junior high, my English teacher made us do a book report on a nonfiction book -- any nonfiction book. I was no more interested in nonfiction then than I am now, so I chose the shortest nonfiction book in the Duncan Junior High library. Romance and Drama of the Rubber Industry by B.F. Goodrich, Jr. Actually that book may be why I'm such a poor nonfiction reader today. Anyhow, here's a report on "The Romance and Drama of the Author Tour," for April 7, 1997.7:30 a.m. -- Wake up and start choking down coffee as quickly as possible in hopes of being awake for my 8 a.m. phone interview with Crazy Dave on "The Crazy Dave Show" on KNYN-FM, Santa Fe. It's a country-western station and Dave was a lot more awake than I was.
8:30 -- Talk to my publicist at Riverhead. We're going to Phoenix Wednesday instead of Las Cruces, for a radio show, then a phone radio show with the guy in Tucson who canceled on me last Monday, then I drive to Tucson and turn around and drive back to Phoenix. The trip itinerary started as a 25-page fax and has averaged nine pages of changes per day.
9 -- Check out of the Laughing Horse. Go find a place called Word Crafter for a computer that can print my AOL Journal and fax it to the woman in New York or someplace.
10 -- Back to the Laughing Horse for things we forgot the first time out.
11 -- Drive to Santa Fe. Carol l drives so I can write my AOL Journal entry for tomorrow. I finish about two-thirds of a rough draft, but, let's face it, these people are writers, I can't send in a rough draft.
1 -- Arrive at the Hampton Inn. The nice woman at the desk says we can't check in till three.
1:15 -- Double back into town to locate the radio station and bookstore for tonight's gigs. This is fairly crucial because you can't be late for live radio.
2 -- Dynamite lunch at Tomasita's, which is a converted railroad station. Every railroad station in the country must have been turned into a restaurant by now. Are there any real stations left?
3 -- They let us check in. Carol goes to work out while I finish the AOL Journal. I decide to hell with it; this is a journal they can have a rough draft.
3:30 -- My publicist calls again. Friday is supposed to be a day off, but, as luck would have it, the Putnam/Berkley sales conference is in Scottsdale while I'm in Phoenix. Looks like I'm in for a schmoozing frenzy. This is important. If the sales force isn't enthusiastic the books won't be in the stores and if the books aren't in the stores I'll be back rolling egg rolls by summer.
3:45 -- Talk to my agent in L.A. He's set up five meetings while I'm doing book promotion in L.A. next week. He wants me to come up with a "high concept pitch" before my meetings. This means an all new plot and set of characters by Monday. As if I don't have anything else to do.
4 -- Phone call from the head of development for Alliance Pictures in Toronto. She's faxing first draft notes on my Sex and Sunsets screenplay from the guy who owns the company. It doesn't seem to matter that I started the second draft over a month ago and it's pretty much done. The new set of notes will have to be "incorporated."
4:15 -- Start typing tomorrow's AOL Journal onto my laptop with the R that sticks. I may have to learn to write without using R's.
4:30 -- Get ready for tonight's activities.
5 -- Interview on "Sunset Salute" on KVSF-AM with C.R. Power and a woman named Snow. They're old pros at talk radio -- didn't know a thing about me until the commercial before we went on, yet they were fun and entertaining. I showed them my Fargo snow globe with the overturned car, dead body, and pregnant sheriff. It's cool, but you almost have to see it.6:30 -- Arrived at Old Santa Fe Trail Books and met the Lefflers, friends from my grade school days, then a reporter who wrote a good review of my books, then some old friends from Wyoming. One problem with readings on the road is quite often several sets of people you haven't seen in years and want to spend time with show up all at the same time.
7 -- Real nice reading. Lots of people. Lots of questions. Lady in front who laughed at everything I said whether it was supposed to be funny or not.
8:45 -- Interview with two kids from "The Independent," a student newspaper for the College of Santa Fe. Great kids. They couldn't believe how old I am.
9:45 -- Back to the hotel. Finish typing tomorrow's AOL Journal.
10:15 -- Locate a Kinko's in the phone book where I can print and fax in the morning.
10:30 -- Find the address and location of a Border's where I'm supposed to sign stock in the morning.
11 -- The fax from Toronto comes in. They want the first draft changed in a completely different direction than I spent the last month changing it.
11:30 -- Figure out on the map where I go for tomorrow's noon radio interview in Albuquerque.
Midnight -- Read Anne Lamott's new book until I fall asleep.
Jottings along the eight-hour drive from Albuquerque to Phoenix through the wind storm from hell: We met Tony Hillerman in person this morning---high point of the tour, so far. Tony is proof that nice guys can lead the pack. And Tony is nice to an amazing degree. We swapped stories for a couple of hours. He told us about the University of Oklahoma writing program after World War II (he wasn't good enough to get into the fiction classes) and his own horror stories of authors on the road.
Being a best seller, his stories aren't the "I drove 500 miles through a blizzard and no one showed up" variety. His are more along the lines of being dragged from city to city from six in the morning till two the next morning --three plane flights in a single day, no food for 48 hours because there wasn't time, having six cases of books brought to his hotel room at midnight that must be signed before he can go to bed. The sort of challenge most of us never worry about.
I met Tony because he is the scheduled guest star at our Jackson Hole Writers Conference this summer, which is my segue into a blatant plug. July 3-6, Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Tony Hillerman, Clyde Edgerton, Sarah Bird, Tab Murphy, plus an array of editors, agents, producers, and the regular sterling faculty. Three -- count 'em, three -- one-on-one critiques of your manuscript. Call the University of Wyoming at 800-448-7801, ext. 2, for details.
I used to review books fairly often for the New York Times Book Review, and one of the last books I did was David Bowman's Let the Dog Drive. I gave it a rave. (In technical terms, all reviews fall into rave, mixed, or trash jobs. A year or so after my review ran, a letter arrived from a guy who bought the Bowman book because of my recommendation, and he hated it. He wanted his money back---from me. The guy actually billed me $22.90. Needless to say, the letter went in to my nut file and I didn't pay the guy's bill. So now, another year later, this guy shows up at my reading last night at Page One Books in Albuquerque. He still wants his money. I offered to sent him Bowman's address but he wasn't interested. He bought the book because of me, so I owe him the refund. We wound up having coffee while he told me the details of his ongoing third divorce.
A bunch of us writer types went to dinner after the Cleveland State University writers conference last summer, and Karen Joy Fowler (Sarah Canary, Sweetheart Season) had us each tell our most horrific book tour story. Most of them didn't seem so horrible to me---one woman had a member of the audience die during a reading, but that can happen anywhere. Famous unnamed author arrived at a chain bookstore and saw there were no posters about the signing, no piles of books. He asked to speak to his contact person. They lead him to an office in back. He said, "Hi, I'm Famous Author's Name." The contact looked at him and said, "Did you bring a resume?" I did a reading at the Hungry Mind in Minneapolis where most of the audience didn't speak English. They'd been bused in to learn about typical American culture (which, if you've read my books, is a frightening thought). They sat there stone-faced, not understanding a word, until halfway through the reading when their bus pulled up and they all left. One last story and I'll quit. Writers are treated like rock stars in Iowa City, Iowa, so much so that Prairie Lights Bookstore broadcasts its events on a live one-hour radio show four or five nights a week. William Least Heat Moon was scheduled the night after my reading, so I stayed an extra day to hear him. Time came for the appearance, three hundred people sat in an auditorium, and no William. He arrived, from Wisconsin, with less than a minute to spare and no idea he was going on live radio in front of 300 people. And he had to pee. Fat chance. The radio woman grabbed his hand, dragged him on stage, and the show went on the air. I learned a lot in the next hour. 1) Never let anyone at the gig know you've arrived until you use the facilities, and 2) the show must go on. William was fascinating. Professional. A great speaker except he kept tapping one foot. After the talk, over 100 people lined up to have him sign books and tell him anecdotes about how he affected their lives, and he didn't even take a break. I like to think I'm a professional, but I would have taken a break. PS. Overheard just now at a pay phone at the Holbrook Truck Stop. A woman is talking: "I parked by the water and he jumped out the window and an alligator ate him."
"Registered nurses in California received credit for participating in classes on crystal healing." Glance magazine The article goes on to say "When touched, the crystal vibrates a frequency that is in harmony with your own, so there is an increased awareness enabling you to create your own reality." Create your own reality. That's the goal of every novelist, so it shouldn't be so weird to do it by gluing rocks to chakras. That's got to be easier than a fourth draft.
Speaking of creating your own reality, we were driving through a desert hurricane of a windstorm on the New Mexico-Arizona border yesterday -- those orange barrels the highway department closes lanes with were blowing across the interstate like tumbleweeds -- when the car phone rang (so sue me; I have a car phone for the trip) and it's some producer from Hollywood who wants me to write a movie. Only in America can a survival situation be interrupted by a movie deal.
Working with the folks in Hollywood is a lot of fun once you realize they're speaking a different language than everyone else. They take meetings, do lunch, pitch ideas they want turned into concepts. Life is arcs and beats. Without sexual or sports metaphors the town would shrivel up and die. The person who "loves" your work and is "deeply committed" to it, probably hasn't read it. An agent will say "I have a relationship with Such-and-So at Fox."
My theory is that when the relationship becomes the primary business tool you have a tainted situation. The challenge is to avoid cynicism. You must remember that love and courage are real, not just story elements. I've handled this by only working with people I like. A lot. My outhouse is paid for, I don't have to deal with mean people.
More disconnected ramblings on the last day of my AOL Journal: Mountains in Arizona look like you're looking at them through binoculars. Must be the air. It is possible to live on a macrobiotic diet of Pepcid and coffee. A man said to me the other night, "I could be famous if I lowered myself to writing sex scenes, the way you do." A Tucson radio interviewer could not understand why I washed dishes for a living all those years. He said, "You had a degree, didn't you?" I said I wanted to write. "But why didn't you get a real job?" I didn't tell him about turning 35 while living in a tent. I suspected another interviewer of having her own agenda. She asked me if I was a vegetarian and what I thought of people who used lactose. It was a trick bringing those questions back around to my books.
On a completely different subject -- Writing fiction involves a lot of tragedy rehearsal. You say to yourself, "If I had a brother and if he committed suicide, how would I feel?" then you feel that way for a while and write about it. This is one reason it's hard to be married to a writer. Their moods bear no connection to circumstances. I like to think I'm feeling the true depths of emotions, but then the mail arrives. Often -- quite often -- letters come in that start with "I feel like I'm a character in one of your books," then they go on to say their sister is in prison for manslaughter, their boyfriend is a heroine addict, and their child died last year. That's when I realize that to actually live is so much more intense than to create life. I also realize all comedy, from "I Love Lucy" to Liar, Liar would be tragic if it were true. The letters end with thanking me for showing them they aren't alone and with humor and love they can make it through.
Makes me feel like a total fake, drinking latte's and talking on the car phone to women in power suits. What do I know about the lives I write about? Old people write me and send photos of their cats named after my characters -- "This is Maurey, she's a Siamese-Manx." Guys break up with their girlfriends and because they're too embarrassed to talk to other guys, they write me 15-page letters -- drunk, two a.m. -- telling me how much it hurts. Women write to explain, in detail, how their boyfriends are in bed. This is a true quote: "I don't like him at all but he's so good at oral sex I don't want to break up." I send back a postcard saying "Thanks for your support."
What I never get is what I fantasized all those lonely years of typing through the long Wyoming winter -- offers of marriage, or let-me-have-your-baby. Which is for the best now because I have a fine girlfriend who drives me around while I promote myself, but you can't help but wonder, if this author cliche' is a lie, maybe they all are.
Anyhow, this is your fifth and final installment of Tim Sandlin on Tour. I still have three weeks of wandering the countryside, begging people to listen to me, so if you're anywhere on the route, come on out, I'll show you my Fargo snow globe. So long from Tucson. Or Phoenix. I forget.