I’ve never been on a book tour. Everyone says book tours are rare now anyway and so there’s probably no chance that I’ll ever go on one. And so when I hear that an author is on a book tour and complains about his/her driver and endless nights in drab hotel rooms I can’t help but feel that the author is doing the wrong thing: complaining. Except maybe complaining is part of the glamor of a book tour.
Even though I’ve never been on an actual book tour I do have a fantasy book tour. My fantasy book tour is like a cruise in one of those old movies. I arrive in my quarters and there’s an enormous bucket of flowers waiting and one of those huge fruit baskets wrapped in cellophane. A phone rings and my driver arrives, a nice person who knows where the signing is so I don’t have to get lost on the way or parallel park. We arrive at the signing and people are waiting for my signature and those people are extraordinarily kind…but this account is getting so boring. One of the best parts of my fantasy book tour: I return to my hotel room gratified and don’t spend the night regretting something I did or said. I don’t act like that woman in The Waste Land who mutters, “My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad.” No, I feel more like Walt Whitman wanted us to feel. And there’s a mini-bar in my hotel room. And someone has left something for me: a bowl of fresh raspberries topped with enough whipped cream to suffocate a cow.
I sleep happily and the next morning the driver—who has become a friend for life and also happens to be an importer of marvelous free trade coffee which she/he brings along for me in a thermos—drives me to the next stop on the tour. The next stop is like Paris except it’s only twenty miles away and nobody knows French—and people actually line up to buy one of my books. And that book is meant for each reader in some deeply meaningful way and, once again, people are extraordinarily kind. And I resist drawing a little picture next to my signature, because that can be profoundly irritating and may lower resale value.
I should mention that although I’ve never been on a book tour I have done book signings. In one of my favorite signings I was posted next to an author of erotic literature featuring baseball players. She was warmly welcoming and brought all sorts of swag: sexy magnets, sexy book marks, sexy baseball cards. This was at a Barnes & Noble, and we had been expressly forbidden to bring swag to lure people to our tables. But she wrote about the forbidden, and so the forbidden was her territory. I think I sold one book and gave away two, but it was still one of my favorite signings, because where else would I have met an author of baseball erotica? It was an opportunity to be a writer on whom nothing is lost—like Henry James. Besides, I liked the author, and there were plenty of opportunities to ask questions.
But sometimes signings are miserable. There’s a crowd passing by and you’re like a small zoo animal of no particular interest.
I have given readings that were worse than any of my signings. For one of my readings only two people showed up—a married couple who kept saying, “We thought the place would be packed!” Out of pity they gave me a collection of humorous revisions of that one psalm that begins “Yea, though I walk through the valley of death I will fear no evil.”
At another reading a man in the audience squealed like a pig, but I’ve recounted that story elsewhere and so I won’t go into that. And like probably every writer, I’ve given a reading where an espresso machine expressed regular, sadistically timed indignation.
Then too, I have also been that person in the audience at readings who gives the writer the creeps. I once introduced myself to another writer with great enthusiasm—we had a mutual friend. The writer’s male companion said, “I’m sure you’re a very nice person” and led me away by the elbow.
Worse: something happened when I was an appreciative audience member at a well-known novelist’s reading. After the novelist finished reading, everywhere I looked suddenly turned crisper, brighter. Even the maple trees in the window behind the writer became brilliantly lit—the way things appear illuminated after you’ve concentrated for a very long time on a remarkable painting. I tried to communicate this to the writer. He interrupted and said, “You’ve just told me that while I was reading you couldn’t stop looking at trees.” A few years later I went to another reading by this same novelist. He opened with an anecdote about a woman who insulted him by telling him that during his reading she couldn’t stop looking at trees.
My slim hope: could there have been another woman?
But back to my fantasy book tour. After I finish my book tour I return home, happily refreshed. As it turns out, my book tour has been so inspiring that I immediately write a book. The process is exhilarating and the book practically writes itself. The book is called My Book Tour! and has so much potential to draw readers that my publisher sends me on another book tour. And I whine about the book tour a little bit, to keep things interesting. Whining is just sharing specific information at a high pitch. It’s like, you know, opera. And then, because one good experience leads to another, I write an opera.
Lee Upton’s collection of short stories, The Tao of Humiliation, appeared in May from BOA. She is the author of the essay collection Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy; the novella The Guide to the Flying Island; and the poetry collection Undid in the Land of Undone, among other works.