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.
When she was really small, my stepdaughter had a stuffed dog who she called Fluffy. No one remembers How Fluffy Got Her Name and night after night, Ariana would ask her father to tell her the story of How Fluffy Got Her Name.
There was a little white dog who did not have a name and so she set out to find it. And she walked and she walked and she walked??? finally, she got to a farm house and she knocked on the door.
"Hello, nice lady. Do you know my name?" asked the little dog.
"No, I do not," said the nice lady. And the little white dog said, "Thank you, nice lady," and then she walked and she walked and she walked.
Night after night, the little white dog would walk from city to city, to boats and planes, to cabins, castles, and treehouses ? her itinerary mirrored our lives ? in search of her name. She walked and she walked and she walked. Looking for someone who recognized her, the little dog walked and she walked and she walked.
A book tour is like that. You walk and you walk and you walk.
"Do you now my name?" you ask, over and over.
"Look!" says the Author Hauler, pushing a Xerox toward you. "This just in, this critic has no idea who you are."
"Woo Hoo!" cries another Author Hauler in another city, pushing another Xerox toward you. "This critic actually read the book and gets you." You'd be a dead dog if you relied on those bits of flotsam from the fax machine to remind you of who you are and what you tried to do and how much of it you accomplished and how much is left still to do. But like the little dog, you hope, you want, you pant, you wag your tail and try to look cute.
Every night in the story of How Fluffy Got Her Name, someone finally opened a door and recognized the little dog: "Why, yes, I know your name! Your name is Fluffy!" It happens sort of the same way on book tour. You walk and you walk and you walk. And from time to time, someone recognizes you. It can be someone in a bookstore, someone on a radio call-in show, someone on the sidewalk. There are people who recognize a part of themselves in you. There are people who think they should recognize you ? "Hey, are you the Fat Actress?, um, or, ah, no, ah, I know, ah Maureen Dowd? No, wait. Ina Garten?"). There are people you haven't seen in years.
You relive your life when you write a memoir, so I did my best to find the people I'd written about in the cities that I visited. In San Francisco, I hung out with some women with whom I'd once owned a women's restaurant that served non-violent cuisine. In Boston I saw the people I'd lived with in the early 1980s across the street from Julia Child. I chatted with several of the chefs I'd worked with and, later, a few of the journalists who'd taught me my craft. I forget who I am when I am on the road for a while. Visiting the characters from my own memoir turned the campaign into a sort of moveable old-home-week.
In Portland I was trying to find this woman named Patty who used to organize events at Powell's. She had been the first bookstore person who had recognized me as a writer. "Cookbooks are just the beginning for you," she'd told me when I came to Powell's for the first time in 1992. I don't know why that mattered so much to me, but it did and I wanted to find her, but she'd since left the store and started one of her own and I didn't know her name or the name of her store. I got a little compulsive and reporterly about it, and finally reconciled myself to missing that particular reunion. Instead, I spent the day biking around Portland with the daughter of my best friend, an artist who works in the Farmers Market on Saturday. It was a wonderful day. Blue and cheerful. We went to see some public art and to a food co-op and to see a high school fashion show. We pedaled and we pedaled and we pedaled. At one point, we wandered through a store called Cargo and someone screamed:
"Oh my God, Molly O'Neill, cookbook author, memoirist, woman of valor, woman of taste!"
Her name is Patty, her store is Cargo. And that, my friends, is how I found my name in Portland.