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Attention Must Be Paid

Hello. Like most previous guests in this space, I'm on book tour. But I promise not to blog about that, unless something awful and amusing happens, which it won't. Book tours are the literary version of political campaigns; they're so carefully scripted that a revealing or spontaneous word is rarely heard. Authors and their handlers are on message 24/7.

Also, book touring has the same effect on me as visiting the South. My manners improve, at least temporarily. At home, I may lick my plate, curse my dogs, hide behind a newspaper to avoid my mother-in-law, or threaten to lock my sons in the basement if they don't shut up. But you'd never guess that from meeting me now. On tour, I'm a traveling salesman: the customer is always right, even if he bellows an inane question at my reading, or asks me to inscribe a book to his goldfishthe customer is always right, even if he bellows an inane question at my reading, or asks me to inscribe a book to his goldfish. Also, I'm terrified that author "escorts," whom I always pump for gossip about other writers' bad behavior, will gossip about me to the next writer they schlep from airport to hotel to reading. So I'm relentlessly pleasant and polite. In other words, a total bore.

Unlike most writers, however, I actually enjoy book tours. Not because I get to drain hotel mini-bars and watch in-house movies at my publisher's expense, or hear myself bloviate about Writing on Good Morning, South Dakota! What I like about tours is moving product. Signing and selling stacks of books, new and stiff and not yet marked down for clearance, gives me the pleasing illusion that I'm a necessary cog in the great American economy.

This is a sensation I rarely experience at home, except when paying bills. I write in my attic, with a view of Main Street, along which troll truck drivers, shopkeepers, policewomen, men wearing tool belts. If any of them were to drop dead tomorrow, many people apart from their family and friends would be instantly affected. If I had a stroke at my desk from too much caffeine, or choked on a piece of Nicorette gum, who outside my household would notice that I was no longer showing up for work?If I had a stroke at my desk from too much caffeine, or choked on a piece of Nicorette gum, who outside my household would notice that I was no longer showing up for work? My publisher doesn't expect a manuscript for another year, and might be relieved if it was never delivered. No disease will go untreated, or road unpaved, if I'm not at my desk come Monday. In the grand scheme of things, I'm expendable, like one of those phaser-wielding crewmen in the Star Trek of my youth, who beamed down to hostile planets with Captain Kirk and got vaporized before the first ad.

It doesn't help that, like many writers, I keep irregular hours and work habits. My daily commute generally involves padding up the attic steps in sweat pants, T-shirt, and mismatched socks. Within minutes I'm usually padding back down to pour more coffee or graze the refrigerator. My computer is always on, and not infrequently in use at 4:00 a.m. Some days, I see the boys off to school and then go straight back to bed. I used to write about people with habits like this when I had a day job as a newspaper reporter. They were the chronically unemployed.

Don't get me wrong. I love what I do and can't imagine another line of work. Which is just as well, since newspaper reporting, my only rather rusty job skill, is about as much in demand these days as Hummer dealerships. But sometimes, gazing past my blank computer screen at the morning bustle along Main Street, I long to be a part of it.

So it's satisfying, on this Monday morning, to wake in a business hotel with a printed schedule that tells me I have a "drop-in Stock Signing" at 10:00 a.m., an Author Luncheon and book signing this afternoon, and a book lecture with Powerpoint to present this evening. Excuse me while I iron my shirt and get on with my day. I'm a busy busy man with books to move. Attention must be paid.

÷ ÷ ÷

Tony Horwitz is the bestselling author of Blue Latitudes, Confederates in the Attic, and Baghdad without a Map. He is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Geraldine Brooks, and their sons, Nathaniel and Bizu.

Books mentioned in this post

Tony Horwitz is the author of A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America

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