Michael Perry, author of Coop, reports from his road trip:
I began the day by realizing that when I checked out of the Super 8 Motel in Brattleboro, Vt., I somehow managed to leave one of my bags sitting right in the middle of the lobby. I put it down just long enough to collect the receipt from the clerk, an exchange that transpired over the course of roughly 5.7 seconds, and yet was sufficient to de-magnetize that tattered portion of my brain in charge of tracking incidental luggage. Turning on my heel, I strode purposefully onward, and not until early this morning in Massachusetts did the loss register. The bag contained mostly miscellaneous tinned foodstuffs (book tour economy!) and perhaps some dirty gray socks (not gray because they are dirty, but rather gray because all of my socks are gray) (gray socks are a central component of my celebrated Unified Laundry Theory, explained on page 145 of Truck: A Love Story) so I believe I got off light. On the first leg of the tour I left a bag of clothes in a motel outside Milwaukee. I am the Johnny Appleseed of laundry.
I was flatly caught off-guard at Gibson's Bookstore in Concord, N.H., when I walked in the door and found roughly 60 people staring back at me. When one wanders as far from home as I have on this tour, one is deeply grateful to find even a single stranger waiting. Sixty is high clover. And tonight at Porter Square Books in Cambridge--despite storm warnings--there were more seats filled than empty.
You will hear authors kvetch about poor turnouts at readings, but my frequently repeated rule is this: two or 200, they all get the same show. High attendance is a desirable thrill, but in truth the reading is primarily a peg upon which to hang radio interviews, newspaper pieces, face-to-face interaction with booksellers, rotation of the book to more desirable shelf space, and that nice little two-week sales bounce commonly seen in the wake of a reading. Of course, the more people at a reading, the merrier, but my expectations were tempered by reality long ago, and whenever I encounter an author downhearted by low attendance, I share my Memphis story.
It began in Nashville. Population 485 tour. More than 30 people showed up. For little old me, in big ol' Nashville! As I set out for Memphis that evening, I admit I allowed myself high hopes. The Mike Train, I thought to myself, is rolling.
Memphis. The following night. Reading is at 7 p.m. I get to the bookstore at 6:45 p.m. I peek over the stacks to where the reading will be held. Rows of chairs set up by a fireplace. And already--a full 15 minutes before the reading--there are eight people in the chairs. Extrapolating from these early arrivers, I figure we're looking at 20 people by reading time, easy.
Just then the manager's voice comes over the P.A. system. "Ladies and gentlemen, author Michael Perry will be here to read from his new book Population 485 this evening at 7 p.m. If you would like to hear Mr. Perry, please join us in the chairs over by the fireplace."
All eight people exchange confused and startled glances, then bolt from the chairs.
No one else came and sat down. So not only have I had a reading where no one showed up, I have had people flee when they heard I was coming.
Normally a combination of Midwestern politeness and good business sense would preclude me from choosing a favorite moment from this tour, but not this time. Today I had lunch with several booksellers, Steve Fischer of the New England Independent Booksellers Association and HarperCollins sales rep Anne DeCourcey. Just before we took our table, Anne said she had a surprise guest. A smiling, elegant woman appeared at my left elbow. "Do you know who this is?" Anne asked. I did not. I was riffling through my cerebral Rolodex (remember, much de-magnetization), when I realized:
This had to be my editor, Jennifer Barth!
Coop simply would not exist if not for Jennifer Barth. That book nearly whupped me. The details are mundane, but I never have been so derailed on a project as I was with that one. And as this was my first book with Jennifer as my editor, I was especially self-conscious about my muddling. More than once I dialed the phone with hesitant fingers. More than once I hung up before it rang. But always, always, the voice on the other end was calm, collected and encouraging. Similarly, Jennifer's editing was always clear and firm but deeply thoughtful. Exactly what I needed. (I say this despite the fact that she excised the term "snot rocket" from the final draft of My Art. "You're the boss," I said, "but it's literature's loss.") (She gave me a gift, actually: The "snot rocket" anecdote has become a favorite set piece at my readings.)
I am not a guy who spends a lot of time burning up the phone lines to my editors. I figure my job is clearly defined and I should do it, then hand my stuff over and let them do theirs. But by the time we finished Coop, I felt like Jennifer Barth had talked me safely through a dark, endless, soggy culvert of doubt.
And yet we had never met.
I'm sitting here trying not to go all Hallmark. This publishing, this bookselling, this touring... it's a business. Somewhere a buck must be turned or we all go home. Editors, sales reps, booksellers, writers... readers. But we're all on scene because we love words in a row. Just over 20 years ago I decided to leap into writing with only a nursing license to break my fall. I did not have a clue. But I was so hungry to write. The rest of the story takes two decades to tell. But here tonight, blear-eyeing my final dispatch in one last hotel room, I'm grasping for a way to convey my gratitude. When an editor like Jennifer Barth shepherds me, when a sales rep finds an extra 30 seconds for the pitch, when a bookseller handsells, when a reader reads a book and talks about it... they are taking care of business, but they are also taking care of my family.
So thank you to the folks who arranged for Jennifer's visit. I think the closest I can come to conveying what I felt upon seeing her is to ask you to imagine an unshaven, slightly humid gap-toothed lunkhead who suddenly realizes that he--of all people--has a fairy godmother, and she is STANDING RIGHT THERE! Neato.
Tomorrow, the airport, and home. To my beloved daughters, my beloved wife. And the chickens, of course. But also to the keyboard in my little room above the garage, where I will get back to typing in the hopes that some time not so far from now we can do this all again.