I’m (finally!) back from Phase 1 of my Insane Book Tour, after 34 appearances in 34 days, with a 10-day break in the middle to run an MFA residency in Ireland—which turned out to be not much of a break at all.
Let’s run the numbers:
- 34 appearances in 34 days
- 31 different cities
- 15 states
- 8,014 miles of driving (roughly the distance of NYC to Rome and back)
- Only 6 fast-food or gas-station meals (I’m pretty proud of that number)
- 6 CDs (mostly I drove in silence, full of thoughts about how I want to live my life)
- 2 different countries (because I gave a reading in Ireland, that’s why)
- 17 independent bookstores
- 1 high school
- 4 writing workshops
- 4 libraries
- 1 wine bar
- 1 hip East Village bar
- 1 diner
- 2 book clubs
- 4 reading series
- 31 co-readers
Here now, the highlights and lowlights:
Stop 1: Boulder, Colorado
I spent six of the best years of my life living in Boulder County, I ran my first-ever Colorado writing workshop at the Boulder Bookstore, and my friend Arsen Kashkashian is the book buyer there. So it was fitting, and joyful, to begin my book tour at that wonderful bookstore. Jenny Shank and I conversed before a crowd of friendly faces—a great kick-off to the tour.
Stops 2-4: Denver
Next up, I read at West Side Books and at Regis University (with the poet Alyse Knorr) in Denver, and this “local” phase culminated in the book launch for White Plains at my new local bookstore, the BookBar.
Nobody counted the number of people who stuffed themselves into this wonderful venue—more than 50, let’s say—but there was cake, champagne, well wishes, good fellowship, and book sales aplenty. I couldn’t have chosen a better venue for the launch of my first book! My thanks go out to Nicole, Catherine, Allie, Erin, Tommy, and Anamaria (and Abbey, who was there in spirit!) for putting on a great event.
Then, on May 6, 2017, it was time to hit the road.
Stop 5: Salida, Colorado
I didn’t expect much for my visit to this quaint mountain town, which may be why it turned out to be one of the best stops on my tour. I first led an all-day Saturday workshop to about twenty of the nicest people I’ve ever met, followed by dinner at the gorgeous home of Louise Olsen-Marquez and her husband Ernie, followed by a fun reading (with the talented and charming Peter Anderson) at the Book Haven. (A special thanks to Louise for ALL her help organizing both the workshop and the reading.) One of the emotional highlights for me was spending time with (and dare I say, befriending) not only Peter but also the author Laura Hendrie, whose beautiful book, Stygo, was on my mind when I first considering turning White Plains into a novel-in-stories. It’s always fun to meet one’s literary idols, but to form an instant friendship with one was beyond thrilling. I hope to prove worthy of her friendship in the years to come.
Stop 6-7: Trouble in New Mexico
It was in Albuquerque that I first saw my name on a marquee, where I read with two impressive young writers (the essayist Laura Matter and the poet Erin Adair-Hodges), where I met up with two of my favorite former students (Michaela Marquez and Meg Lieberthal) and where another former student (Katie Royer) and her mother very kindly hosted me at Katie’s unoccupied aunt’s house. It’s also where I inexplicably lost my shit.
Everything was going very, very well until I lost the key to my rental car. Do you know what happens when you lose a rental-car key? Neither did I. But yep, I lost it. And all I knew was that I had a nine-hour drive to my next reading, in Dallas. After staying up for much of the night searching every possible spot where I could have misplaced the key, losing my mind in a city where it’s easy to do so, I finally had to admit defeat, call Hertz, pay for an early-morning tow to the nearest Hertz location (at the Albuquerque airport) and be charged a $200 fee for a replacement car, only to have the fee rescinded after befriending a guy named Ray (a made-up name to protect the identity of He Who Let Me Off the Hook) who is in charge of such things at ABQ and to whom I bestowed a free signed copy of my book—a seriously unequal exchange, as my book retails for only $15.99.
The result? No matter how blisteringly fast I drove across I-40 (speed limit: 75), I knew I probably wouldn’t make it in time for my Dallas reading. Oh well. So okay, I was having a bad day. That was bound to happen. But then came . . .
THE MOTHER OF ALL HAILSTORMS.
No, not in Texas, where I was driving, but in northwest Denver, where my wife, Cynthia, was in a meeting at our university—a meeting that ended abruptly when baseball-sized hail came crashing through the windows. (Yes, I said baseball-sized.) She called after the storm had passed: our car, like many other cars in the university parking lot, had been destroyed. And when Cynthia made it home she found our house damaged as well, with water streaming through the kitchen light fixture. As I listened, I exited the highway and turned around to head back west instead of east. It sounded bad. It was bad. And realistically, how many Texans were going to show up for a reading by an unknown Yank with a small-press novel-in-stories, anyway? If I skipped my three Texas readings and headed back to Colorado, I’d make it home by five a.m. and could spend two or three days helping out Cynthia. But when I was told it would be “pretty stupid” of me to head back, considering the hailstorm was heading in my direction, and that there really wasn’t much I could do anyway—all anyone could do at that point was wait for the insurance companies to send out inspectors, and that could take forever—and when I reminded myself that I had had very little sleep the night before (since I was up so late looking for my key), I realized it wouldn’t be wise to drive all night to get home; so I exited again, turned back around, and headed back toward Dallas.
But I missed my reading anyway. I walked into the Wild Detectives Bookstore (cool bookstore, btw) an hour late. There were my books displayed on the table, along with those of David Hopkins, my co-reader (who was very kind about being stood up), and here I was, the bedraggled author, stumbling in well after the party had ended. Thankfully the manager, Andres, greeted me with a smile and offered me a beer–no hard feelings. But I had to decline, because I wanted to find my Airbnb before the owners went to sleep. Once in my room, I spoke some more with my beleaguered wife, then went to bed filled with regret.
Stops 8-9: Who Knew Texas Had Such a Thriving Literary Scene?
I may have missed my chance to read at the coolest little bookstore in Dallas, but in Austin and Houston I enjoyed the hell out of my readings at two other cool bookstores (Malvern and Brazos, respectively) with my co-readers Charlotte Gullick, Natalia Sylvester, and Melissa Studdard. Austin lived up to its hip and artsy reputation, but I had no idea Houston had such a vibrant arts community. (I was fortunate to meet up with one of the newest leaders of that community, Elizabeth White-Olsen, director of WriteSpace, who was kind enough to show me around.) That was one of the great discoveries of the book tour for me, but I couldn’t fully enjoy any of it, and certainly not the following day’s drive to St. Louis (the longest of the tour, at 12 hours), because I was feeling so awful about leaving Cynthia alone to deal with the aftermath of the hailstorm. (In fact, during one of our long phone conversations on my way to St. Louis I was so preoccupied that I got lost in Arkansas.)
Stops 10 and 11: “Ten Books is Ten Books”
My next two stops featured one of the smallest and one of the largest audiences of my book tour: only five people at Subterranean Books in St. Louis, and over forty at the Mercantile Library in Cincinnati (one of the most beautiful libraries in America, loaded with history–Emerson, Melville, and Twain, among others, read there–and one that I am eager to visit again). But oddly enough, I sold the same number of books at each location: ten. Nothing about me was different: I read the same passage from the same book, was my usual friendly self, maybe even wore the same clothes. But the result for each? Ten books.
And that’s when I learned the Whole Point of a Book Tour: It ain’t about selling books.
I mean, yes, it is about selling books. Sure. But . . . you never know. You never know if a packed house means you’re going to sell a ton of books or if a small audience means it’s been a complete waste of your time. (Also, you never know if all the people who promise they’re going to come to your reading will actually show up. At least half of them will not.) So why worry? The point of this book tour, I decided, is not so much to sell books but to put myself out there and be the author I’ve always dreamed of being—to tell people my story, to read to people, to make new connections and strengthen some old ones. And so I did: After my St. Louis reading I chatted with the bookstore manager, who invited me back anytime, then had a wonderful dinner with some former Regis students. And after my Cincinnati reading I went out with my dear friends Jim and Beth Schiff (at whose lovely house I stayed for two nights), my other dear friend Jim Seitz (who drove up from Virginia), my wonderful co-reader Kristen Iversen and her husband George, and Jim Schiff’s University of Cincinnati colleagues Nicola Mason, Michael Griffith, Chris Bachelder, and Jenn Hebel–all stars in the literary world. In short, I made and strengthened many connections that will, no doubt, pay off in some form or another in the future.
Stops 12-15: PA
This was the part of the trip I had been looking forward to the most, because Cynthia was going to fly out to her home state and meet me there for a few days; we were to stay together at her parents’ house near Wilkes-Barre. But she had to cancel her flight in order to stay in Colorado and deal with insurance agents. So I soldiered through PA without her.
In Pittsburgh, where Cynthia went to college (at Carnegie Mellon), I read (with the wonderful Geeta Khotari and Chauna Craig) at the White Whale Bookstore and stayed with our good friends Johnny and Amy Twyning; I then had a great visit to the Moravian Academy in Bethlehem (where my friend MacNair Randall teaches), then gave a reading in Cynthia’s hometown library in Kingston, PA (with her kind and supportive family in the audience), organized by my friend Nicole Reisinger, then signed books at a shopping mall in Scranton (which, oddly enough, turned out to be one of the most delightful stops on the tour, thanks to my brother-in-law Mark and his friends, my pals Ron and Markella, a gaggle of former students from Marywood University), and my buddy Craig Johnson, who very kindly took me home and treated me to a great meal cooked by his wife Vivian. But while I enjoyed all my readings and visits, and was delighted to spend some quality time with my generous and loving in-laws (who very kindly gave me their Toyota Camry to drive for the rest of the tour, and to keep for the rest of my life), this part of the trip was mostly about being in Cynthia’s home state, and sleeping in Cynthia’s childhood bed, without Cynthia–which felt a bit strange.
Stop 16: Boston
My reading at Newtonville Books, just outside Boston, boosted my spirits. I was “in conversation” with with two of my favorite writers, ZZ Packer and Ken Calhoun, in front of a packed room. The experience convinced me that audiences prefer that kind of event (a vibrant conversation about writing, facilitated deftly by Ken) to the more typical reading-followed-by-Q&A format. And afterwards we met up with the one and only Heidi Pitlor (series editor of Best American Short Stories) for a few beers and a few laughs.
At this point, in the middle of the longest part of my book tour, I was fortunate to stay with my wife’s aunt and uncle, Roe Kolanowski and John Marschall, at their home in Harvard, Massachusetts. They are lovely, peaceful people who live on a lovely, peaceful property, and staying there provided me with exactly the kind of respite I needed after driving so many miles and being “on” all the time. My love and thanks to them for all their kindness (and amazing meals), and for giving me the freedom to be comfortably “off” at their home.
Stop 17: Inis Oirr, Ireland
This was not really a book-tour appearance, in that I didn’t go to Ireland to sell or sign books. But while there to run the first-ever “remote residency” for our Mile-High MFA Program (which I co-founded and co-direct), I did give a reading, at a pub on the tiny island of Inis Oirr. So it counts. Plus, it was a lot of fun to do my first-ever pub reading, and the MFA students made for a caring, attentive, intelligent audience. (This great photo of that reading, below, was taken by Kateri Kramer.)
Still, I was feeling farther than ever from Cynthia, Stephen, and Caitlin.
Stop 18-21: The Northeast
My stops in Portland, Maine, Burlington, Vermont (with my friends Angela Palm and Alexis Paige, along with the terrific poet Sandra Beasley), and Rochester, New York (with my new friend, the essayist Robin Flanigan), were marked by my interactions with warm and kindhearted family members (I saw my cousin Mike, and stayed at the beautiful home of my aunt Joan and uncle Bill in Portland, and I spent two nights with my brother Steve at his cottage on one of the Finger Lakes), friends old and new, and pals from college I haven’t seen in forever. In fact, one of the best things about gallivanting around the east coast was getting to see old friends at almost every stop—and not always those I expected to see. For example, on my way from Rochester to New York, I stopped at a diner in Binghamton for breakfast with my college buddies Vinnie Subik, Frank McHugh, and David Cohen, along with several of their Binghamton friends I had hung out with, and after we finished eating, I had to go out to the trunk of my car and bring in a stack of books, because they all wanted to buy one. Filled with their generosity and good will, I then continued on to my childhood home of Harrison, New York, where I would spend four nights with my carissima mamma.
Stops 22-26: Home
My favorite stops on the tour happened next, in rapid sequence:
- A Sunday night reading at KGB Bar in lower Manhattan (with Bethany Ball, Taylor Larsen, and Sophie McManus), where, as soon as I walked in, I was faced with the impossible and delightful problem of spending quality time with people from nine separate areas of my life, some of whom I hadn’t seen in over thirty years, and all whom were eager to spend some one-on-one time with me: my friend Rick from college, my cousin James, my associate dean’s sister from Queens, a Facebook friend, my two high-school mates Rick and Greg, my agent (Victoria Skurnick), four former students who didn’t know one another, a high-school friend of Cynthia’s . . . and Cynthia herself! Insurance matters resolved for the time being, she had booked a flight to New York and we had reserved a hotel room in Union Square. I had never in my life felt so happy to see her.
- A Monday night reading (with Michael Balkind) at the Harrison Public Library, my childhood sanctuary, where I sold about as many books as I had at my book launch, and reveled in seeing my dear family and some old high-school friends in the audience—followed by a nice dinner with my mom, brother, sister, brother-in-law, and wife at a local trattoria.
- A book signing at Scattered Books in Chappaqua (the Clintons’ bookstore), preceded by a visit to Austin Road Elementary School in Mahopac, where my sister Marisa works, to teach some adorable children how to write a story, followed by a wonderful afternoon with my dear friend Cathleen Hannigan. Cathleen and I were joined at the bookstore by several other friends (alas, neither Bill nor Hillary showed up), and afterwards I enjoyed a beer and a lot of laughs with three of those friends (and former Harrison Huskies cheerleaders), Wendy, Judy, and Ro.
- A reading at the Oak Vino Wine Bar in Beacon with my long-time friend Lauree Ostrofsky and my brand-new friend Joselin Linder, filled with good cheer, good wine, and lots of love. Special thanks to dear Lauree for putting this great event together. 🙂
- A visit to the home of another high-school friend, Rita Cifichiello, for a meeting of her book club. These lovely women, pictured below, spent two hours eating, drinking, and arguing about the flaws of my main character–and I enjoyed every minute of it. It was the first of what would be several book-club visits, and I didn’t realize beforehand how much fun it would be. (In fact, I was pretty terrified.) Think about it: at a bookstore reading, an author is lucky to sell a dozen books, and who knows how many of those book-buyers will ever read it. But at a book club, your audience has (1) already bought the book; (2) has read it cover-to-cover (they’re under pressure to do so–because the author is visiting!), and (3) is eager to ask questions about it–questions that force the author to defend his or her characters’ decisions and to discuss the craft that went into its composition. Buoyed by my visit to Rita’s home, I decided to say yes to any book club that invited me to visit in the future.
Stops 27-34: The East Coast Whirlwind
At this point in the tour, I overextended myself: eight appearances in the next seven days, with at least four hours of driving each day. Following one of the best dinner experiences of my life (with two of my best friends from high school, Matt Fine and Garrett White, with their beautiful families), I taught an all-day workshop the next morning in Bethesda, and that was followed that evening by a “Starts Here!” reading in Baltimore (hosted by one of my literary heroes, Jen Michalski); then a workshop for Richmond Young Writers (with a stop for lunch on the way with my old college buddy Rob Glover); an evening workshop for Charlotte Lit (the most pleasant surprise of the tour, thanks to directors Kathie Collins and Paul Reali, with a surprise visit from my childhood friend Nancy Manto); a book-club visit in Atlanta filled with friendship, love, and a birthday cake (hosted by my former babysitter Janice—and two of her sisters, Diane and Joanne, showed up as well), preceded by a drink with former-students-now-besties Reniece and Ashleigh; an overnight in Raleigh with another old college buddy, Chris Ford; a lunchtime reading at the Pack Memorial Library in Asheville; a reading back in Richmond (with the wonderful Cheryl Pallant) followed by beers with more college buddies; and all of it ended with a great reading in Charlottesville with the aforementioned best buddy Jim Seitz. I wasn’t originally planning on scheduling all those appearances—the original plan was that Cynthia and I would spend some time with Jim and Patty, and then go to Virginia Beach for a day or two—but once I knew Cynthia wouldn’t be accompanying me on that part of the tour, I figured what the hell, I might as well book some more readings. But by the end, I was exhausted, and was looking at a 24-hour drive back to Colorado early the next morning.
But some good came out of all of this:
- The more I read, the better I read. Cynthia hosted two parties for me before my launch, where friends gathered to hear and critique some “practice readings,” and they gave me some great advice. (The one I told myself most often before reading was “Try reading your own words as if they are the words of an author you love.”) My friend, the writer/Communication professor/director/acting coach/performer Janna Goodwin, even granted me a private session to help me with the basics: how I stand, breathe, project my voice, and use my body when I read—all tips that I kept in mind before and during my readings.
- I renewed long-dormant friendships and started a few new ones. I can’t possibly name them all, but I’ll just say that in every city, I saw at least one friend I hadn’t seen in forever, or I made a wonderful new friendship I’ll henceforth do my best to cultivate.
- My Facebook plan worked! In 2010 I decided to join Facebook “in case I publish a book someday” and then friend-requested hundreds of former students, classmates, and contemporary writers, with the idea that they would all be potential buyers of my (then-imaginary) book. Fast-forward to last year, when it came time to (a) fund the Kickstarter campaign I launched to fund my book tour, and (b) get people to buy my book and/or come to my readings: my Facebook friends quickly and generously contributed to the campaign, bought copies of my book, and came to my readings. And there’s been an added benefit: I don’t get the usual silliness on my Facebook feed. I have very intelligent friends, so whenever I go on Facebook, I actually benefit, socially and intellectually, from the information I find there.
- Indy bookstores rock. The folks who own or work at independent bookstores (which are, against all odds and predictions, making a comeback in America) are some of the nicest, most intelligent people in the country. My heartfelt thanks go out to all of them. And it’s worth noting that the three times I tried to book a Barnes & Noble reading (even in the city of White Plains, the setting and title of my book!) I was treated callously and ultimately shut out. The bottom line: Barnes & Noble is a corporation that’s run like a corporation; independent bookstores are small businesses run by people who love books. (And don’t even get me started about Amazon.) So . . . where will you buy your next book?
- I really, really love my wife. Being away from Cynthia for so long (six weeks, with only a three-day visit in the middle), during the time of year when we’re most relaxed and happy together, absolutely sucked. Never again. But there was that whole absence-makes-the-heart-grow-grouchy-but-then-fonder thing following the tour, so . . . being home is good. I missed my kids, Steve and Cait, as well, especially since I talked about them at almost every reading. (They composed two of my favorite chapters of White Plains.) So at the end of this phase of my book tour, when it came time to make that three-day drive from Virginia back to Colorado, I pointed the car west, hit the accelerator, and made it in a day and a half. I just couldn’t wait to see my wife and children again.
Next installment: the West Coast!