The Magazine

Have Book, Will Travel

The author is sold, along with the text.

Feb 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 23 • By THOMAS SWICK
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Travel writers, regularly dismissed as trivialists, rarely indulge in the popular book tour whine. It's not just that we have bigger trips to fry, we have fewer bones to pick. We don't see what novelists find so objectionable about a diet of fine hotels, especially when the rooms all come reserved and generously paid for. We are puzzled by the memoirists' complaint about living out of a suitcase because to us it's infinitely preferable to living in the past. And, needless to say, we don't quite grasp the horror of going out and meeting readers. Those sensitive souls who flaunt their lack of social skills are as pathetic as people who boast that they are bad at math. A signing in Dubuque is not a journey into the heart of darkness.

The only possible trauma of a book tour is the potential encounter with apathy: The empty chairs of a ghostly chain at the short end of a mall in a town without pity. But for this, too, travel writers are much better prepared. We tend not to enter MFA programs, teach at universities, or live in New York City, so we are in constant touch with the great unread. From our hours spent in airports we know that most Americans, when presented with large chunks of free time and removed from demanding home entertainment systems, will still find almost any excuse--a cell phone, a laptop, another bag of chips--not to pick up a book. To travel is to be continually reminded of the growing homelessness of the written word.

So, unburdened by illusions and still out of the house, travel writers are the happiest authors on tour. (Not to mention the most symmetrical.) Some may give the impression, often by their wardrobes, that they'd be much more content sharing gourds of gazelle blood with Masai tribesmen, but don't believe them. A book tour provides us with a focus, not always a given in our all-over-the-map trade. ("No one," Paul Theroux once wrote, "has ever accused me of traveling with a theme.") And the focus, in another pleasing twist, is us.

Travel writers are, by nature, in search of the other--which, by definition, is not oneself. Some memoirists manqúes have wandered into the field, and appropriated place as nothing more than a scenic backdrop to the more important story of themselves. But the majority, the best (it goes without saying), project their interest outwards. It is only on a book tour that we stand front and center.

True, that position is difficult to define--not to mention enjoy--in an empty store. But all day long the evening reading gives us a sense of purpose, a handy response to Bruce Chatwin's ever-present "what am I doing here?" And if it turns out to be a wash, there's always the sympathetic staff to chat with, and pump for local color. A stood-up author still beats a doubting travel writer, especially when they're one and the same.

I know because I've played the part. When my collection of travel stories came out in paperback, I traveled to the Midwest to revisit some of the places that appear in the book. It was a self-guided tour--my publisher is small; I am even smaller--which, to the bestseller pashas, probably sounds as uplifting as a solo honeymoon. But they're not travel writers flying coach with their first paperback.

The shuttle from Midway buzzed with raves for warring weekend attractions. The young woman behind me announced that she had come to see the Red Sox play, in a rare Wrigley Field appearance, while two other women talked excitedly about the Blues Festival. It was good preparation, which I wouldn't have gotten in a chauffeured limo, for the Printers Row Book Fair.

The thing about great cities is that they have enough people to go around. On Saturday afternoon, crowds of non-frequent flyers grazed the book tents on Dearborn Street. "Everybody's carrying about 15 extra pounds right now," Carlos Cumpian, a local Chicano writer, explained to me as we sipped iced tea at a sidewalk café. "During the winter they're able to hide it under coats. Chicagoans look their best in October--after the summer, and before they've had their Halloween candy."

The evening VIP party was held in a parking lot. The unassuming locale carried a certain appeal which apparently only I appreciated, as almost no other authors attended. This was a disappointment. At the Miami Book Fair there had been a cocktail party in a downtown office tower which most of the featured authors attended. In Austin, the Texas Book Festival featured breakfast at the governor's mansion and a dinner and dance band Saturday evening. The Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock hosted a black-tie gala that included a postprandial game of "Name That Tome" (my team lost to Roy Blount Jr.'s). Each had seemed a kind of glittery reward for the cloistered life which every author could treat as a personal celebration.

In Chicago, for whatever reason, authors felt no need to congregate. At least not in parking lots. I searched in vain for the black-and-white Hawaiian shirt of Paul Theroux, whom I had listened to in an airless tent a few hours earlier. He had flattered his audience, comprising of about 200 people (in a city of three million), congratulating them for being readers. They were, he said, "like the early Christians, gathering in tents." He told of talking to a young woman recently, a college graduate, and mentioning a book by Robert Louis Stevenson. She had never heard of him.

"Didn't your parents read to you when you were a child?" Theroux had asked her incredulously.

It occurred to me that writers' concerns about the decline of reading stem from more than just a self-preservation instinct; they are tied, as well, to the nearly-as-powerful need to connect. You don't have to read me, but read so you can talk to me. All writers were readers first, and most continue their lives as more prolific readers than writers; with fellow readers--unlike with fellow writers--we feel a noncompetitive bond. (There are no prestigious workshops, or covetous magazine assignments, or Pulitzers for readers.) Tell a writer you write and depression sets in; tell a writer you read and gratitude blossoms. Especially now, in the Blog Age, when it seems that more people want to write than to read (not realizing that you need to read in order to write anything that is worth reading, or hasn't already been written). But this is the inevitable result when a culture prizes self-expression over learning. It is the written equivalent of a room in which everyone is talking and nobody is listening, particularly to the dead. Literature, like French, has ceased to be the lingua franca for the so-called educated crowd.

But this wasn't what I wished to discuss with Theroux. I wanted to ask him why he ignored my book, which my blurb-seeking publisher had sent him, after choosing one of the chapters for The Best American Travel Writing 2001.

I carried my plate of hummus and bruschetta and sat down at a table of secondhand booksellers. Used books were more a part of the Printers Row Book Fair than of the other fairs I'd been to. One of the sellers said there used to be even more secondhand stalls, before the chain bookstores became involved and inevitably changed the character of the fair. A woman with short brown hair and dirty fingernails told me, too, that many older, even middle-aged, secondhand booksellers (middle-aged and secondhand--a dire combination in the country of the next new thing) gave up on book fairs because of the physical labor involved. Ultimately, there is a lot of heavy lifting in literature.

On Sunday, I woke up well before my 2:30 presentation. I was scheduled to appear with a professor of Buddhism who had written a book about the religion and his experiences teaching it in Cambodia. I was ambivalent about panels, not just because the audience is doubled for your potentially one-bettered performance, but because they had produced, at previous fairs, my greatest public debacle as a writer, and my finest hour.

In Miami, I had followed the author of a book about her multicultural neighborhood in Queens. She had brought slides, recordings, and her sizable talents as an actress and mimic, recreating accents that ranged from street black to Ukrainian immigrant. It was an impressive performance, and a long one, as the coauthor, her husband, hadn't been able to make the trip and she took the time allotted to (at least) two speakers. When she finally finished, and the lights came back on, a crew appeared to dismantle her audio and visual aids. During the lull a large portion of the audience, either having seen what they'd come for or believing the session now over, got up and walked out, heartlessly passing in front of me as they went. The moderator, inexplicably at a loss, made no announcement. I watched the agonizing faces of friends who stayed to lend their support and thereby magnified my humiliation by being witnesses to it. Eventually I took the podium, and read a short section in a voice of controlled hurt.

In Austin, things worked out differently. As viewers of Book-TV know, readings at the Texas Book Festival take place in the state capitol. My panel, probably because it contained two Texans, was put in the House Chamber. The three of us looked out from our hillock over a plush plain of leather swivel chairs, all of them occupied by make-believe legislators. Lesser would-be officials speckled the balcony.

Once again I went last, after another dramatic reading, this one by a young Hispanic woman who used not just her voice but her body to evoke a night of rumba in Havana. After she sat down, and the other Texan read--about the founder of a sailing ship company--I pulled out a newspaper column I'd written, inspired by recent campaign speeches. (The book fair took place one week before the presidential election.)

"My fellow Americans, as your next president I will ensure that every working man and woman receives one month of vacation a year."

Applause rang through the chamber.

"I will approve discounts on Prozac for flight attendants.

"I will make any hotel with attitude host a weekly Rotary Club luncheon.

"I will convince the manufacturers of suitcases to come up with a new black.

"I will pass through Congress a bill mandating that any passengers who fail to fit their carry-on bags into the overhead compartment on the first try must turn said bags over to a flight attendant and, before landing, write letters of apology to all the people seated in rows higher than their own."

The vote in the House was clear: I had carried Texas.

In Chicago, I met the professor of Buddhism in the authors' lounge. I had envisioned a man who brought a bemused detachment to the huzza of the marketplace, so I was relieved when he seemed as concerned about sales and publicity as I was. We were taken to a small classroom where about 20 people sat. This time I read first, from my chapter on Comiskey Park, and then the professor read about Cambodia--two subjects that quite possibly had never been paired.

And probably never should be again. Afterwards, I signed three books and then looked on as the line, made up almost entirely of comely young women, grew in front of the professor's table. The majority of readers are female, of course, just as the majority of sports fans are male. (The percentage of women at a ball game is no doubt comparable to the percentage of men at a book fair.) The fact that I was in Chicago was no excuse for my choice of reading; people don't want to be transported to the homegrown. And as a meaningful way of life, Buddhism will always surpass support for the White Sox.

For ten long minutes I not only encountered apathy, I also watched its opposite turn its perfumed back to me. Panels. Then I remembered that I was a travel writer and I did what travel writers do: I left. I walked out of the book fair, picked up my rental car, and pointed it towards Iowa.

I was looking forward to my first trip to the state since 1992. That also was an election year, and as in every election year, commentators were talking about the heartland. I had never been to the heartland. I flew to Des Moines, rented a car, and discovered a miscellany of intimate Americana: the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, where Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper gave their last performance; the National Hobo Convention in nearby Britt; the "Field of Dreams" in Dyersville; the limestone buildings of Grant Wood's old artists' colony in Stone City--everything connected by rolling fields of tall green corn. I thought of all the people who had said "Huh?" when I had told them where I was going next. Iowa taught me a valuable lesson of travel, or at least travel writing: Often, the less glamorous the destination, the more rewarding the journey.

The sun disappeared as Copland's "Red Pony" played on the radio. Just across the Mississippi a Super 8 Motel sign pierced the gloaming. I dropped my bags in my room and headed into Le Claire. A 1923 Rolls-Royce sat in front of Sneaky Pete's.

"That's my car," said one of the two men sitting at the bar. "A Silver Ghost." He and his friend had left New Hampshire and were on their way to Montana for a little fly-fishing. In 2007, he said, they were going to ship the car to China and then drive it in the Beijing-Paris rally.

Hundreds of neckties hung from the ceiling of the dining room. "We cut them off customers," the bartender told me, before mentioning that Buffalo Bill Cody had been born in Le Claire (somehow I had missed the town on that first trip). Minutes later he brought me my buffalo burger, which I washed down with a glass jar of beer.

"Where you staying?" he asked. "Out at the Super 8? That's too bad. I've got a B&B," and he handed me a card for the Hog Heaven Bed & Breakfast. And I sat there struck (once again) by the limitless riches of the road--in 15 minutes I had found four travel stories, that of a biker B&B being almost as marvelous as that of the future Eurasian road racers--and also by the brute similarities between the lodging and the publishing industries. The franchises--Super 8, David Sedaris--get prominent placement along the highway and just inside the door (and with it ever-increasing business), while the little guys--the B&Bs and midlist authors (while often charming, and full of personality)--fight a losing battle tucked away on side streets and back shelves where they are invisible to all except those who specifically seek them out. That night I cut my ties with the chain motels.

In Iowa City, I found a handsome bed and breakfast in the middle of a leafy academic street. Though it was a good walk from the university, you could still imagine professors heading off in the morning to disseminate knowledge. A visiting professor of mathematics, in fact, occupied the room next to mine. In the morning we were joined at table by an innkeeping couple from Minneapolis. And in that easy familiarity of boarding house breakfasts, they asked about me. B&Bs, it was clear, give go-it-alone book tour authors not only a warm feeling of solidarity but also an excellent opportunity for self-promotion. Front and center once again. And many people, moved either by a brush with celebrity or a bout of sympathy, will buy a book if they've met the author. At least they say they will.

A sign in the upstairs café at Prairie Lights (independent booksellers get the same professional courtesy as B&Bs) informs customers that they are on the site of the old literary society, The Times Club, that brought Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, e.e. cummings, Langston Hughes, and Sherwood Anderson to town. Black-and-white photographs of them and others decorate the walls. Downstairs, Paul Ingram talks books like the one-man literary society he is.

My reading was hosted by a local radio personality and carried live on WSUI. (As are all readings at Prairie Lights, giving them an unexpected air of import.) About 50 people filled the chairs, while a blessed handful stood in the back. Thanks be to college towns with famous writers' workshops. Ignoring the lessons of Chicago, I read about Iowa, though I ended with some helpful travel advice for runaway brides (inspired by the memory of a town that embraces drifters) and a soliloquy on the beauty of unsung places. When the hour-long program was over, a number of people came up to chat (it was me or nothing). One was a boy, no older than 14, who gave me my book to be signed and then, just as endearingly, his hand to be shaken.

The next morning I stopped in Anamosa to visit Grant Wood's grave, leaving a postcard of my book with the woman in the Chamber of Commerce office. (After verifying that I had correctly identified in it his final resting place.) That night's reading in Dubuque was turned into a signing as the space before the microphone remained dishearteningly vacant. Friendly staff made like a grounds crew and swiftly moved my table out of the café and into the center aisle.

An author at a signing is like a picture at an exhibition--passively open to public scrutiny, ridicule, approval, dismissal, avoidance. The difference being, of course, that the author perceives and registers (or, frequently, tries not to register) the reactions she inspires. But sometimes he is simply an information source for a customer looking for the latest Palahniuk.

Our culture has no accepted etiquette for dealing with writers sitting alone with their books. People bring to the experience, even in large cities, no helpful guidelines or learned behaviors. Which is why I remember with such awe and affection the young woman in Dubuque.

She walked by, trailing her husband and two children.

"So, you're an author?" she said, slowing her pace but not coming to a stop.

"Yes," I said.

"Congratulations."

Thomas Swick, travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, is the author, most recently, of A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler.