When I held the first copy of Mostly True, my hands trembled, my eyes filled with tears, and I felt the wonder and protectiveness that only a newborn can inspire. "And then," said my friend Susan Cheever, "you pass your baby through the bars of the gorilla cage." That is how her brother, Ben, describes what happens after you finish writing, after the book is printed and shipped. It's not your little private world any more, you have to give it away. You don't know what will happen. The gorillas may adopt your baby, may nurture it and raise it. The gorillas may ignore your baby. The gorillas may play soccer with your baby. The gorillas may stomp your baby to death. You don't know and you can't affect it. Writers tend to be nuttier than usual in the period of time between the publication of their books and their first reviews. It may be oxygen deprivation. You sit around holding your breath.
And then, as the critics are ruminating, the writer sails off in search of an audience. Book tours seem to be getting smaller and shorter — for my first book, The New York Cookbook, I did something like 25 cities in 31 days, and this current book I'll do about ten over a leisurely six weeks or so — but the drill is the same. You fly to a city. You and your book go to a hotel. An escort — my friend, the writer, Calvin Trillin, calls these people "Author Haulers" — comes in the morning and begins hauling you around to radio interviews and meetings with reporters and then, in the early evening, you stand in a bookstore and read from your book. Sometimes people come and listen. Sometimes they don't. For most writers, the fear of reading to empty chairs looms large. I sometimes bring snacks, fragrant ones, to share. Other times, I call everyone I know in that area-code and wheedle. If that fails, I whine. A few weeks ago in Berkeley, one friend sent the dishwashers from her restaurant and so I was able to gauge the effect of my words on a non-English speaking audience. Another sent her mother, yet another conned her husband and another couple dinner at Chez Panisse and, "Oh, let's stop and hear my friend read at this bookstore along the way." Sales were brisk.
When I got to Boston last week, it had been raining for days and I had to literally FORD A STREAM to get into a bookstore for a noon reading. Imagine my excitement to find, already assembled by the time I sloshed to the lectern, an audience of a few dozen older gentlemen. OH, I thought, I've found my male audience! Finally! And I frantically thumbed through the book to find a passage that might interest them, something about baseball or my brothers, definitely not cooking or passages from This Girl's Life. And then I began reading to these lovely men — who are they? How wonderful of them to come out on such a day! One sentence and I hear it. That unmistakable purring snort. Looking up, I see that my audience is sleeping. And somehow, in that instant, I understand that they are not, as I suspected, baseball fans or hard-core foodies, but retired veterans from the home a few blocks away who'd taken advantage of a brief break in the rain to toddle out for a walk.
AHHHHHH-ch, they snorted. AHHHH- AHHH- AHHCHT.
Bravely I continued, paragraph after paragraph — snore, snort — they slumped and slipped. One, the loudest among, them, seemed to have a bit of apnea and his snorts would erupt and then??? sentences later??? erupt again. It lent a certain dramatic tension.
"And now, folks!" said the bookstore's event coordinator, when I read my last passage. "If you'd like a signed book, just line up right here!"
AHHHHH-AHHH-AHHCHT cheered my audience.
"I want one!" shouted the author hauler in the back of the room. Jumping up, she waved her copy of my book above the rows of nodding bald and white heads.