The book tour is an endangered species, part of the soon-to-be archaic practice of publishers in getting publicity for top- and mid-list authors when their latest books hit the market. I remember book tours from the bookstore perspective, because I was once a book buyer and I coordinated readings up in Syracuse, New York. Stephen King, impeccably nice. Oliver Stone, not so nice. Mollie Katzen had lots of culinary tips, William Bennet was reserved, and Donna Shalala had a great booming laugh. For each of these events we ordered 30, 40, 75 copies of their tomes, and the lines stretched out of the store and into the student life building atrium. We’d put extra people on shift and listen to the cash registers ring with sales. It was something of an assembly line: customers waiting, picking up books, paying for books, getting books signed, out the door. A signing could last one or two hours before the interest petered out. We tried not to frown when people arrived with their own books or with books that had been released years earlier, because the authors were sure glad to see everyone. Some of the authors had requests up front or in their contracts that we had to fulfill, things like having sparkling water, or having a rival’s books tucked out of sight, and of course, of course, we were more than happy to oblige them.
When I do a reading, I count it as lucky if the store remembers I’m showing up that night. One reading had me and a few friends standing nervously on the sidewalk, the store dark and empty of staff, while I called my publicist. We were saved from reading on the street or walking away in sorrow when a random car with three store employees drove by us, wheeled around, and opened up the building. By the time I started reading in the quickly rearranged room, 15 people had shown up.
I’m on the lucky side of contemporary authorship because my book has interest for LGBT people, and well, I’m in that community. Instead of sticking just to bookstores I also have read at libraries, community centers, one men’s sex club, and at colleges. I’ve read for four people and spoken in front of 250, though I admit my average is a lot closer to 20. The geography I’ve hit has crossed the North American continent, in San Francisco, New York, Seattle, DC, and tiny Walla Walla. There are no long lines for me, no teetering tall stacks of my books to frame me and my greatness. And that’s okay, because I’ve grown to cherish my anonymity. I pack my own books when I head to a gig, I make sure that a portion of the event is about other people sharing their thoughts and opinions, as I firmly believe that trans people need to stop telling other trans people how to be. I exit every reading feeling like this book is more important and worthy than I am, and I’m proud it will have its own legacy.
But I have to face it, there is much about hitting the road and doing reading after reading that just plain sucks. I worry about making it to each destination on time, but I still have to select excerpts to read and get in my head space for being the best me I can bring to these places. I have to find the store or space, and sometimes they’re squirreled away in a nook with no sign on the door. I feel compelled to be gracious to the most annoying, selfish travelers as I make my transit, because what if one of them shows up at my reading? Unlikely, I know, but I’ve learned to expect the strange coincidence.
Last Thursday I bounced from a Q&A at the University of Maryland to that university’s “Queer Lunch,” and got lost on the way back to my rental car. Syracuse University, don’t get me wrong, is enormous, but the main campus for UM is its own small city. I finally found my intermediate sedan, complete with $25 parking ticket. Great. I have to sell two books to make that back. Writing is not, as people have wondered for years, a way to get rich. Rather, as someone once said, writing is a way to get poor slowly. I see that now.
Back to the District of Columbia I drove, to pick up Susanne and Emile and get a bit of a breather before my reading that night. Four years of being out of a daily city commute, and I was swearing not so quietly that the traffic had gotten much, much worse in DC since we’d relocated to Washington State. It just couldn’t have been this slow…could it? One hour and twenty minutes later I had reached Foggy Bottom, my frustration dissipating as soon as I saw my child’s goofy grin and coos of “Dada!” Hey, who doesn’t love Dada? Thirteen months old and he’s an art appreciator.
Then we tooled it to Shady Grove, where we were staying for a few days. I looked at the clock, calculated when I needed to leave again to get to my reading on time–and find parking–and figured I could rest for an hour. Which I did, with aplomb. I skeetered down I-270 and over to Petworth with 10 minutes before my start time. Assembled were 20 people, including old coworkers of mine who are mentioned in the memoir, my Aunt Suzy, and a few other friends. DC is friendly territory. The reading went well, and I declined a post-reading dinner because I only had enough energy to drive back to the apartment in Maryland, and crash.
The next day I met up with a friend for lunch, dragging my roller bag behind me. I kissed Susanne and Emile goodbye and headed the 8 blocks over to the Metro to catch the Amtrak to Philadelphia, where I had a reading at 5:30. Everything from the subway to the train to the hotel went exceedingly well, and then I sat down next to a stack of Tom of Finland books, waiting for people to show up.
Nobody came. Maybe it was the early start time, or the fact that two publications listed me as reading the night before by mistake, or that the folks I knew who would come to such a thing all were called out of town that weekend, or maybe Philadelphia just hates transgender memoirs. It’s true that I’ve never held Philly in the same esteem of New York City, and as I grew up in between both of the cities, it could be that Philly is just pissed at me. In any case I was at a party with no partygoers. I sat up straight, trying my best not to look like a complete loser. One store employee dryly told me that when Leslie Feinberg showed up to read from Stone Butch Blues, 3 people attended.
Was I supposed to make a funny joke? “Ze only got three more than me, hooray!” I just smiled and nodded, which I know is a cop-out, but seriously, what is someone supposed to say to that? It seemed to me that the store thus had a long history of crappy attendance, given that SBB came out in the 1990s. Or maybe we were just two data points on the extreme left edge, and everyone else has a great response. It didn’t really matter to me, but the store had gone out and purchased a couple dozen copies of my book. I signed several of them, and bought a couple other titles and thanked the manager for their support. And then I went to Chili’s and had suspicious-looking fajitas. It wasn’t in me at that point to seek out actual good food.
The next morning I headed back to the historic train station and rode to NYC, where I met up with the folks behind Topside Press. My sister and niece joined us, and we spent the day touring the Village and Chelsea, filling our stomachs with Indian food the likes of which I never get in Walla Walla. Twice that day Angela Davis and Alice Walker went by us, like it was no big deal. I pulled my roller bag to the side so they could pass, because hello, I refuse to be the jackass who trips Angela Davis and Alice Walker. (It would be a terrible turnabout for me, as I was one of Ms. Davis’s bodyguards when she came to Syracuse University to give a talk in 1991.)
The reading was a monthly event, with a group of five readers. Sixty people packed a small space at the top of a rickety elevator shaft. I can’t say enough about how excellent it feels in my bones to hear a room of 60 queermos laughing. Can we please do this more often? I’d brought eight books with me, and sold seven of them after the event. I rode back to Connecticut with my sister and niece–who oh my goddess is so grown up and savvy now–and slept for four hours. And then I took the commuter train to Grand Central Station (my favorite station in the world, sorry Union), grabbed a cab to 33rd and 7th Avenue, and pushed through my brain fog to figure out which of the two Bolt Buses I was supposed to board. I slept off and on during the 4-hour trip, catching only major milestones on the way: my hometown exit on the Jersey Turnpike, the Delaware Memorial Bridge, the Baltimore smoke stack, the signs for DC’s Beltway. My “tour” was over.
It’s nothing if not a strange beast, these readings and small gigs. I believe in promotion, and I hope that by continuing to stick my face into the public arena more people will discover my writing and maybe some of them will enjoy it and get something good out of it.
But one week later, I still just want a nap.