grist

 

Sunday, January 18, 2004
So I'm out on tour (in and out)--I've been in New York, Atlanta, DC, Keene, Peterborough and back to NYC in the last weekend and it has certainly been whirlwindy. I've been doing a combination of school visits during the days and readings during the evenings. On both fronts the most striking aspect of the experience has been the thrilling generousity of my friends--out in the freezing cold on a weeknight, and dragging their friends out, and everyone responding with great interest and warmth to the book. I've had an odd time balancing the teaching (all at high schools) with the readings to adults. For students, I have a very clear sense of what they know and don't know, and what they might be interested in and thinking about. For adults, I have no idea. I finished my reading in Peterborough and one woman said "that is appalling" and for a terrified moment I had no idea whether she meant the writing (naturally my first thought), or the content, and whether she was saying that as an accusation or as a compliment (the section is gruesome and awful and meant to appall, and she took it how I hoped, but I did sweat it for a moment).

Some other tour notes: two unrelated people at different readings commented on the same passage, one that I liked a great deal, but didn't think of as so distinctive that I should read it aloud. Another person came up and showed me passages she had highlighted--that was a great thing--great to see what moved her.

I had a moment prior to my reading in the Georgetown Barnes and Noble--I was sitting in the cafe, trying to be nonchalant, waiting (and hoping) for the massive crowds to gather and in an attempt to calm down, I looked at what people were reading--at the man carrying the digital photography magazine down the escalator, or the young man reading about how to get his baby to sleep through the night (who was soon joined by his wife, carrying a HUGE cup of coffee). Next to me was a man with a stack of WWII history books that he clutched with an unsettling ferocity. And I was struck in that moment as I was urgently hoping for people to come to the reading, and to be thrilled by it, and have their lives transformed by reading the book (just some little hopes)--I was struck by the vectors of these lives, by the range of what people are reading for--entertainment, self-betterment, rescue, curiousity, escape, release, distraction. And suddenly the gap between what I had hoped and intended--to write a book that would draw people in and, hopefully, move them--and reality seemed impossibly huge. Of the few people that even make it into the bookstores, few are looking to dig into dense fiction and be moved by it, and of those, few likely to try out an unknown writer, and of those, fewer still likely to have that writer be me and the book be mine out of so many that are written and have been written. And this even in a store where I was reading, where I had gotten an amazing review, where there was a poster of me on the wall of the store and a big stack of books on the table. This was brought home to me this Sunday, when I went into two large chains and scrabbled through the dusty corners to find copies of my book. Though I was still glad to find them at both stores, the vast unlikelihood of selling a significant number of books settled in with a dizzying obviousness.

The DC reading went well--complete with the obligatory question from a homeless man in the back--he observed first that my character would not suffer so much if he had found OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, and then asked me why he hadn't. Which was actually not an inappropriate question in some ways. All of the other warnings about readings have not materialized so far--I have had attentive groups at all of them and in a few cases huge crowds (thank you Dan and Elizabeth--thank you thank you thank you).

It is not hard to remain thrilled with how the book has been received--the reviews, the response of friends, and the response of strangers. At the same time, it is not hard to feel the difficult distance between this reception and the possibility of a life built more around writing. I think a writing life is a mythic beast--not nonexistent, but, like a happy marriage, often so well-disguised as to be difficult to recognize in the middle of it. And around this is envy--for more established writers, or for people to whom the actual writing seems to come easier--and a little despair at not being able to work amid the travel and focus on this book.

But mostly it is joyful. It is joyful to feel a thousand nervous assumptions validated, to have moved some people--if not the man with the colicky baby, or the digital camera enthusiast, than the woman who had not imagined icebergs filled with colors, or Lou in Seattle, who sent me a copy to be signed, or the people who could not make the readings, but have asked the bookstore staff to get a signed copy. This is immensely flattering on the shallow end, and immensely fulfilling on the deeper end and it makes me want to stay out on the road reading, and rush home to work at the same time.



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