I have a new novel, Perfect Little World
, that is coming out on January 24. I am going on book tour in 12 cities, including a reading in Portland at Powell’s. I am both very excited and very anxious about this. I am not unlike many other authors, I imagine. It’s hard for me to be in public; I am a shy, anxious person. But I understand the benefits of a book tour. I do my best and hope that a few people like it. Then I eat lots and lots of food to deal with the stress. I once ate an entire extra-large pizza after a disastrous reading in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I awkwardly crab-walked it home from the restaurant so I could eat it on the floor of my hotel room. The pizza box was so big that it was hard to fit it into the elevator.
Book tours are stressful, but the anxiety is assuaged by people buying your book, booksellers being so kind and enthusiastic about your work, getting to visit really cool cities with amazing bookstores. It’s usually fine. Sometimes it isn’t.
This is a book tour story.
My last novel was called The Family Fang
, and it was about a strange family of performance artists who created public disturbances in the name of art. For the book tour, I was mostly traveling around the South, driving from city to city with my dad, who had recently had back surgery after a car accident. Sometimes it was nice to have him because he added another person to the crowd and made it look more substantial. Sometimes it was not so nice to have him because he was the only person in the store to see me read, and I don’t think a parent should have to watch their child stand around a bookstore while no one shows up to hear them read.
Four days into the tour, we drove to another bookstore. The owner is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and had let me read when my story collection came out a few years prior. It’s a beautiful bookstore. There were about 10 people who had come to the reading. The owner welcomed everyone and introduced me, saying, “Kevin Wilson has written a really amazing work of fiction, and we’re—"
“I thought this was nonfiction,” someone said. I looked to my left and saw this man, maybe in his 50s. He was wearing sunglasses and he had two beers on the table next to his seat. He looked unhappy.
“What’s that?” the owner asked.
“I was told that this book was nonfiction. I called this morning and somebody told me that this was real.”
“It’s a work of fiction,” the owner said.
“It is,” I admitted in a very soft voice, ashamed of myself.
“Well, somebody lied to me. Cause I called today. And I want my money back,” the man said, who, come to think of it, sounded very drunk. Everyone else was kind of nervously giggling, trying to figure out what to do next.
“It’s a good book, man. You’ll like it,” the owner said, now visibly annoyed.
“I want my money back,” the man repeated.
“I’ll give you your money back,” I said, but neither the owner nor the man were listening to me. Something complicated was going on, and I was no longer a part of it.
“Let me tell you something,” the man continued. “Ever since I got out of prison, I only care about things that are real.”
At this point, I wanted to die. I wanted my body to explode into confetti and I would be free of the situation. My whole body was numb, and I could feel my face turning red.
The owner walked over to the man and said, his voice softer, “Sir, I think you need to leave.”
“I’m not leaving until I finish my beers,” the man said.
“Are you going to leave?” the owner said, getting angrier.
“No,” the man said. “I only care about things that are real.”
My dad was sitting in the back, and I watched him slowly struggle to get up from his seat. He was going to try and forcibly eject the man from the bookstore. Why in the fucking world had I not exploded into confetti? I wanted to write a book of nonfiction on the spot, a 500-page memoir, just to appease this man.
“I’m sorry,” I said, looking at the man, but his sunglasses kept me from understanding whether or not he noticed me. The entire bookstore was silent.
“I’m calling the police,” the owner said, getting out his cell phone.
“Go ahead,” the man replied, and he took a sip of his beer.
As he started to dial, the owner turned to me, smiling, and said, “This has been a Fang performance.”
“Oh,” I said, not truly understanding.
“It’s not real. It’s been a performance,” the owner reassured me. The man in the sunglasses now looked sheepish. Nobody was laughing, still so tense over the situation.
“Oh, okay,” I said, smiling. “Like the book.” The panic inside of me was so intense that I really wasn’t sure what to do.
“Are you okay?” the owner asked.
“Yeah, of course. Yeah,” I replied.
I realized that I hadn’t even read yet. I still had to read. It seemed like the audience was also ready to leave, that they would be okay if I didn’t read. But I had to read. So I opened my copy of my book and read a small section about a Fang performance in front of an unsuspecting audience, the chaos that they cause. The room was dead. It was the quietest reading I’ve ever given. The man in the sunglasses sipped his beer.
Afterwards, the owner apologized, but I had calmed down a little. The man in the sunglasses, a friend of the owner, also said that he felt bad for me, could see that I was in great distress, but didn’t feel like he could stop it. I understood the impulse. It was so well executed. I could now understand the way someone might feel after my characters had performed a public disturbance, the realization that, even if something is revealed to be fake, it doesn’t negate the anxiety that it created. We laughed and I thanked the owner and my dad and I drove in silence back to our hotel room. Finally, as we neared the parking lot, my dad said, “Well, that was something.”
“It was,” I replied.
“Do you think that’ll happen again on the tour?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
That night, we ate so much barbecue that I got unbelievably sick.
When I go on book tour for Perfect Little World
, I will hope for the best. I spent years writing this book, all alone, and nobody cared what I was doing. It’s a strange sensation to put the book out into the world. It’s a stranger sensation to put that book out into the world and then stand next to that book in a bookstore and hope that people will listen to you read from it. I’ll do my best. I will be grateful if people show up. I will be grateful for the booksellers who invited me to come. I will eat 20 banh mi or more as I travel across the country. It will all work out just fine.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the New York Times
bestseller The Family Fang
, named a best book of the year by Time
, and Esquire
. His story collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth
, received an Alex Award from the American Library Association as well as the Shirley Jackson Award. He has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the KHN Center for the Arts. He teaches fiction at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and two sons. Perfect Little World
is his new novel.