A few other entrants in this Powell's blogging tradition seem to have obsessed a bit about the book tour process. I now understand why. When you're in it, it becomes all consuming. There is no night, there is no day, there is simply another interview. It's a world of "hit times," call sheets, air dates, signing stock. Ambitious plans to explore host cities, catch up with old friends — all get tossed aside in favor of a terry robe and room service. I've not watched one moment of the Olympics, only the bits I've seen on the news segments showing on the monitors in those morning studios as I wait to go on. I've not even managed to really read the newspaper — is there anything else going on in the world beyond Traffic and its selling? But, as Allan Gurganus put it, in a good article by Ann Patchett in the Atlantic, the only thing worse for a writer than going on book tour is not going on book tour.
Today, in Seattle, I had the strange experience of having an envelope delivered to my room, to find a business card inside in a note. "TV," it read, "we're in the same hotel. TCF." Those initials, to my mind, could only belong to Thomas C. Frank, author of The Wrecking Crew, What's the Matter with Kansas?, et al. It turns out we've been criss-crossing the U.S., like jet contrails lingering in the sky, on respective book engagements. I find him on the 14th floor, amidst a smattering of beer bottles and empty cough drop packages — the sure accoutrements of a book tour. As he's on deadline for the Wall Street Journal, and I'm off to speak to a really clever audience at Microsoft, we have only a few moments.
For the record, Mr. Frank really got me started in the writing biz, publishing many years a short essay on nostalgia in the journal the Baffler, so there's a strange poetry in running into him in this fashion many years on. We briefly swap notes, having being guided around some of the same cities by the same "media escorts," as they are called, genuinely nice people who tend to know a lot about the ins and outs of the publishing business, not to mention gossip-column items about certain writers (one rumor that goes around is that self-help and spirituality writers seem particularly obnoxious), and are really good at getting you to the next place on time and otherwise smoothing the process. They become your best friends for a day, and I relished eating BBQ in Atlanta with Esther, or the way Bill in Chicago pinged a friend to have her get me through the grueling security line at O'Hare, like I was some kind of celebrity.
Speaking of celebrities, one writer who seems to keep popping up in the same cities is Stephenie Meyer, author of Breaking Dawn, a book that I have to say was completely new to me until a recent New York Times article. Apparently she comes with her own team of handlers, and draws crowds of several thousand screaming teenage girls to her appearances. I haven't done sales analysis on the buyers of Traffic, but fair to say I don't think it's burning up the teenage-girl charts, and I can't imagine getting 2,000 of them to come hear about the "Leibowitz Hypothesis" or "Risk Homeostasis." In any case, I'm definitely putting some vampires in my next book.
It's odd to be on tour at the same time as the presidential candidates, as you come to gain a new, if only approximate, appreciation for what they go through on the stump. The cumulative lack of sleep begins to mount, and you find yourself stumbling over things, quoting the wrong sources, getting facts wrong — sometimes forgetting briefly which city you're in. I wouldn't really want to be held accountable for some of the answers I've given, in the clutches of some circadian shutdown of the synapses, later tormented by a raging l'esprit du escalier about the better answer that could have been given. This, you think, is why you write: You can erase those first drafts, get to that truer essence.
But to make it go as smoothly as possible, a regimen sets in. This means, no late nights drinking — no drinking at all, really. A healthy supply of throat drops — in my case, "Honees," those European honey drops that are really heaven for the strained larynx (I heard through the grapevine that Rick Bragg was told to always have "honey and peanut butter sandwiches," for that quick hit of energy on the run). A list of talking points, as, believe me, they can vanish in the bright lights of an otherwise cozy morning TV chat, when you find yourself longing for the days of Mssrs. Buckley and Cavett and the languorous, unscripted reply. The last thing: Carbs, lots of carbs.
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Tom Vanderbilt writes about design, technology, science, and culture for Wired, Slate, the New York Times, and other publications. He lives in Brooklyn and drives a 2001 Volvo V40.
Books mentioned in this post
Tom Vanderbilt is the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says about Us)