Before Leaving Town
I’ve never gone on book tour before. When my first book, Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab, came out three years ago, touring didn’t seem like an option. That book was published by University of Chicago Press, which opened up a lot of opportunities for me. I got to be a guest on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, wrote a guest column for Chicago magazine for a month, and got some pretty positive reviews. The book is a hardcover, beautifully designed by Isaac Tobin, and I’m very proud of it. I did many events in Chicago but for whatever reason out-of-town readings just didn’t materialize. Perhaps having Chicago in the title of the book put stores and organizations off, perhaps a university press isn’t so concerned with promoting its titles with author appearances. In any case, I’d done very few book-related things outside Chicago prior to the publication of my new book, Where To? A Hack Memoir, this September.
Soon after I signed the contract last year with Curbside Splendor to put out the book, they asked me if I’d be willing to tour. They had no money to finance the travel but were able to set up events on the East and West Coasts, in addition to my more familiar Midwest. As the summer wound to a close and my book’s release neared, my correspondence with Catherine at Curbside to iron out tour details increased in frequency to multiple times a day. There are so many moving parts to setting up these things: nailing down commitments from venues, other authors, making sure books are available, that events are advertised, that they don’t conflict with other events, it just goes on and on and on. The advantage of working with a small press is that an author has access and input in ways that dealing with a larger organization prohibits. Having one’s wishes acknowledged goes a long way to making a working relationship bearable.
By September we had New York, Boston, Minneapolis, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland dates nailed down. But before that there are Chicago events to take care of, including the book-release at the Rainbo Club on September 14th. I’ve been a regular at the Rainbo for many years and have had many art shows on its walls, so it’s a no-brainer to launch my new book there. Three years ago when Hack came out, I had a bunch of my friends get up and read from the book so I could actually enjoy the evening. It worked so well that I decide to do the exact same thing this time around. Shay DeGrandis, Bill Savage, Martha Bayne, and Naomi Huffman all helped me edit the book, while Bill Hillmann and Irvine Welsh were both recent acquaintances whose work I admired. Each of them chose a piece to read and each brought a lot of their own personality to the interpretation of the text. There’s no way not to be flattered when smart and talented people get up in your favorite bar and read from your book. Many new and old friends show up and we sell a bunch of books. It’s a great night.
New Jersey/New York, 9/15/14
The next morning I fly to New York. Well, Newark actually, because I’d made arrangements to record an interview for Gil Roth’s Virtual Memories podcast. Gil has graciously offered to pick me up from the airport and as we drive to his home in Ringwood, we talk about the literary racket and he narrates the scenery flying past the car’s windows. This is our first face-to-face meeting but, as is so common these days, we already have a rapport from online back-and-forths. The interview itself goes off without a hitch, aided by Gil’s inquisitive dogs and superior cups of coffee. Afterwards he shows me around his new basement library, and, seeing a half dozen beloved titles, I wish we could’ve re-recorded the part where he asked me about literary influences. But I have to believe that he’ll use his audio-engineering expertise to make me sound as good as possible, given what he has to work with. Around 3pm he drops me off at the local commuter rail which will take me to Manhattan.
I’m not typically much of a traveler so being on a train in an unfamiliar town with all my belongings in a roller case and a courier bag is a strange feeling. Given a choice I probably wouldn’t ever leave Chicago, but getting my book out into the world and giving it as good a chance to succeed as I can muster is enough to set aside my natural tendencies and give this touring business its due. The great thing about train travel is that there’s an ever-changing view out the window and the visceral sensation of going somewhere.
I lived in New York in the fall of 1989. It was my first semester of art school at Parsons. I hated the school and transferred to the School of the Art Institute before the school year was out. I’ve returned to this city occasionally, most often to see an art show. Henri Matisse, Robert De Niro Sr., and James Ensor have gotten me to come back. I had a painting in a group show at the Bowery Gallery in 1999, but that was the only other time I was in NYC as anything but a tourist.
My friend, John Hodgman, is hosting John Darnielle’s book launch at (Le) Poisson Rouge in the evening and invites me to come. I get to the Bleecker Street club—the former site of the Village Gate— early, but there’s already a line to the end of the block waiting to get in. I get a couple slices of pizza from a place across the street and take my place to wait. Hodgman and I went to high school together and it’s been gratifying to watch his rise up through the showbiz ranks. He’s been incredibly generous to me over the years and it’s always a pleasure to see him. Around 6:30pm we file inside and within a few minutes the whole place is packed to the brim. Another epic queue forms in the lobby to buy Darnielle’s book. I have no idea how many books were sold, only that they’re all gone and not everyone who wanted one was able to buy a copy. Whether this is due to Darnielle’s music fanbase or the buzz about the book, it is a pretty impressive scene.
From my stage-side seat, I managed sketches of Darnielle and Hodgman.
Afterwards I hang around waiting for Hodgman to dispatch a line of fans which has formed to talk to him and get books (including Flaubert’s Madame Bovary) signed and have their pictures taken by the side of the stage. Out in the lobby Darnielle is slowly signing that mountain of sold books. We wait for him to get through then head to a restaurant in SoHo. It’s a lively crowd of writers, literary agents, and editors. As the evening winds down Darnielle and I bond a bit over a mutual love of low-budget horror movies. Outside as he waits for a cab, he asks where he can get a copy of my book. I set down my roller case, open it, and fish one out for him. I ask the dispersing group of friends for directions to Queens—where I’m staying with my girlfriend’s cousin—and draw a collective blank stare. Seems most of them live in Brooklyn and barely have their bearings in Manhattan.
Walking to the 7 train in Queens, I’m struck by the variety of terrible typography to be seen decorating the doorways of businesses under the train tracks. Each represents someone’s aspiration or dream, but to a passerby like me the message is garbled, barely coherent. Cities are littered with signs that don’t communicate as they were intended to. The bad signs somehow linger in my memory better than the good ones.
I have a lunch meeting with a literary agent near Union Square around noon. With a little time to kill, I buy a coffee and wander around a bit, ending up at the Strand Bookstore. I remember this place from trips to New York as a kid. It was a place my father would usually want to stop in. It’s an overwhelming, sensory-overload type environment. There are so many books that it’s hard to know where to begin. I walk around aimlessly for a bit, note with some satisfaction that two copies of my old book are still on their shelves, then head towards the exit. John Darnielle is standing by the cashiers’ area. I go up to say hello but he doesn’t seem to recognize me. Whether it’s from having to sign a thousand books the night before or perhaps being face-blind, I’m puzzled but don’t push the issue. I wish him a happy book tour and walk out.
After lunch I have about four hours to dispose of before my reading at Housing Works in SoHo. Not having any better idea, I stroll south. Walking in New York is one of life’s great pleasures, though out-of-towners may need some time to get in synch with the rhythm of the local pedestrians. Manhattanites walk like there’s no one else on the sidewalk, they’re each like salmon swimming against the current. Traffic lights are only a loose, suggested guideline, to be ignored at will. Cars are at distinct disadvantage in this environment. I don’t envy the delivery drivers, cabbies, and other service vehicles in this town one bit. But watching all this chaos somehow be contained within sidewalks and roadways is a true joy.
I get to Housing Works in late afternoon and take a seat at one of the tables that ring the catwalk on the second level. It’s a lively place with people coming and going and voices mingling and clashing all over the place. Workers clear out the tables downstairs and set up chairs for the reading. Jason Diamond, the host of the evening, wanders in. I watch him talking to D. Foy for awhile, then go over and introduce myself. Two more people I only know from the computer screen. Jason decides that I’ll be the last reader, so I’m free to sketch the others.
Afterwards there’s a dinner with Jason, his wife Emily, Lisa Lucas, and Toby Carroll. To be invited to be with a group of these old friends is an honor. Even though they’re all a decade younger than me, they’ve been involved in the literary world a lot longer. The thing to do is to listen and learn.
I leave Queens with my luggage because I’ll be crashing on a couch in Brooklyn tonight. There are no book events scheduled so I decide to go see some art. I fortify myself with an overstuffed sandwich at a joint called the Pastrami Queen and haul my bags toward the Frick. The Frick, however, refuses to let me check my roller case, so no visit to my favorite New York museum for me and no $20 for them. I keep walking down 5th Avenue.
At Pace Gallery there’s a lovely Saul Steinberg show. There’s a giant drawing of America as seen from NYC that’s amazingly accurate if you find yourself in this city. From here every other place seems insubstantial, or that’s the attitude anyhow. From mid-town I make my way to Chelsea for a Wayne White show. His word paintings are a pure joy. They prove that art can have both humor and skill without giving up anything in the bargain.
I make it to Ed Champion and Sarah Weinman’s place in Brooklyn a little before dinnertime. I’ve known Ed casually for a couple years. I’ve enjoyed many of his podcast interviews with writers and he gave my first book a very generous review. It’s been part of my crash course on the literary world to watch him alternate between feuding and praising writers. I know people who can’t stand him and who he can’t stand. My policy has always been to keep my own council and not take sides. As long as a person doesn’t cross me, we don’t usually have a problem.
Ed, Sarah, and I go out for Middle Eastern food and have a lovely time. Back at their place they retreat to their offices at opposite ends of the the apartment. From the living room couch I can hear them bantering back and forth on the phone. Every available bit of wallspace is occupied by books. These two live and breathe letters. The next morning Ed makes us breakfast while apologizing repeatedly for not finishing my new book. We’d been hoping to record an interview for his show.
I meet Alina Simone for coffee late morning in Union Square. She tells me about the book she’s just finished. It was supposed to be about Madonna but ended up about all sorts of other odd, nearly forgotten musicians and their hometowns. One of these is Question Mark (of ? And the Mysterians). I offer her the sketch I did of him playing the Empty Bottle in Chicago ten years back to use for her book.
She thanks me but says the book probably wouldn’t be out until 2016.
I duck into a SoHo movie theater to see The Drop because it’s one of James Gandolfini’s last movies. He’s great as always but the script seems to have been written by some Catholic school dropout. I can see the moral lessons come trudging my way from miles away. Looking at the poster outside afterwards, I’m shocked to learn that it was Dennis Lehane who wrote the thing. What does and doesn’t get made in Hollywood will forever be a mystery.
Foy invites me to his Cobble Hill, Brooklyn neighborhood for coffee. I haven’t taken the F train in 25 years, not since I lived in Borough Park during that ill-fated semester at Parsons. The ride doesn’t knock any memories loose. A lot of Brooklyn is unrecognizable from those days anyway. Cobble Hill may as well be a corner of posh London. D tells me him and his wife are fleeing to Newburgh for more affordable accommodations. He gives me subway directions to Bushwick, which is still in Brooklyn but might as well be Timbuktu.
Mellow Pages Library is in an artist’s loft building right across from the subway stop. The room is filled to the rafters with donated small-press books. I sit on what seems to be a repurposed carseat and talk to Sean Doyle, one of the hosts of tonight’s reading. The place has a welcoming feel to it. It’s run on enthusiasm and good will and that shows. I’m not usually comfortable reading aloud but this night is one of the easier times I’ve had at it. It’s also good to see that Brooklyn still has some corners that are a little rough around the edges.
I take the Chinatown Bus to Boston in the morning. The next couple days are spent hanging out with my parents and brother. I lived here from age 7 to 18 and then again from 23 to 26. It’s never been my favorite place for more reasons than there is space to explain here. This is the first time I’ve ever been to Boston for anything related to my books though.
Monday, the 22nd, I give a slide talk about my artwork at Lasell College in Newton. It’s always been awkward for me to talk about my artwork. The reason to draw or paint is to say things that can’t be said in words, so talking about it inevitably kills some of the magic. I stumble through the talk the best I can. The students and teachers seem to enjoy it. Having my father and a few family friends there doesn’t hurt either.
The next night I give a reading at the New England Mobile Book Fair. The store is a sprawling discount warehouse which I associate, much like the Strand, with my father. He used to drag me here for books before I had any interest in them, much less any inkling that I might one day write a couple of them myself. I meet a couple people I only knew online tonight again. One came all the way from New Hampshire especially for my reading. The rest of the crowd is made up of a healthy contingent of the local Soviet Jewish diaspora. The bookstore folks are taken aback at my popularity. We sell all the books (which has never happened at a reading event of mine before). Shared ancestry isn’t always a bad thing. They make me feel appreciated, that’s for sure.
Back to Chicago
A couple days after I get back home I look on in horror at my Twitter feed as Ed Champion rains unholy vitriol on a writer named Porochista Khakpour. I know of her work primarily from her two appearances on his show. That and the fact that I’d been a guest at his home only a week before make this almost impossible to square. The next morning there are vague reports about Ed holding up traffic, trying to jump off the Manhattan Bridge. I write to Sarah to make sure she is safe, then reach out to Porochista to see if I can be of any help and also to try to make sense of this truly baffling story for myself. It’s not my normal practice to bother people I don’t know while they’re recovering from traumatic experiences but I feel compelled to talk about it. Fortunately Porochista and others I exchange messages with are willing to talk. My hope is that my words are of some use to them as theirs certainly are to to me.
I do a couple radio interviews to promote the book, then read at a packed event with Megan Stielstra and Wendy Ortiz. Megan’s probably pretty sick of me by now as we’ve read at half a dozen literary shindigs over the years; Wendy is another of those first-time-meeting-in-person people. We lead so much of our lives in a virtual pretend-land these days that it’s always amazing to be reminded that nothing replaces a face-to-face interaction. If that’s the sort of thing you’re into, of course.
Part 2 of the tour diary can be read here.