By Catherine Gildiner
The Toronto Star, January 16, 2005
Reprinted with permission
Photo credit: Toronto Star
The writer’s solitary existence conspires against meeting the people who read what they’ve produced. The joy of the book tour, says Catherine Gildiner, is in bonding with complete strangers.
When I wrote Too Close to the Falls, a childhood memoir about my life from 4 to 14, I was thrilled that it made it to the best seller’s list. One of the best parts of the experience was the book tour itself.
Writing is a solitary activity. I was hunkered down on my third floor month after month pressing little keys and then one day I pressed print. Suddenly I was sent around the world to actually see the effect of my words. It is a magical moment to see a group of people you have never met respond to your writing with laughter or tears. It is a moment of shared intimacy like no other.
On a more practical level it serves as a mini market research group. You see what works and what falls flat. Audiences are not like friends. They don’t spare your feelings. You want the truth? Read aloud to strangers. On my first tour through the States I was given a ‘greeter,’ usually a cheerful middle aged woman who drives you to book stores and introduces you to people that she doesn’t know either. You not only have to talk all day to the people that are buying your books – fair enough, they’re forking over money – but the greeter is usually more demanding and she is getting paid.
Often they get lost in their own cities – having never been downtown. They say, “Uh oh. I’ve never been to this part of Chicago. Lock your door and read me the map.”
You stay in luxury accommodation, the kind that leaves chocolate on your pillow and then knocks on your door, terrifying you that they may be a rapist and saying they want to turn down your covers. Sometimes they call to see if you are happy and ask what they can do to assure that you are not disturbed. Then when you think you should go to more than five cities across the U.S. especially since the book is about small town life, the publisher says, “Sorry Cathy, we already spent our budget.”
Yeah – on a greeter and hotels.
I put an end to that silliness. I can introduce myself and find my way around. I told them to let me stay in cheap motels (in one I had to leave my passport at the front desk to borrow the group hair dryer) and drive my own rental car. For the same price of their tour of five cities I visited thirty- three.
I loved it. I had a GPS in the rental car, so it showed me a map on the dashboard as my car nosed along a green line. After I made the correct turn according to its instructions, it would say in a voice like R2D2 or like the staccato blast that greets you when you pay for your parking tickets by phone, “Good work, Cathy.”
Sometimes if the road was curvy as in the Florida Everglades it would say “Good manoeuvering, Cathy.” It was never critical, and if I missed a turn all it said was “Oops”. By the end of the trip I was sorry to say goodbye.
Who needs to be an anthropologist or read Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa. Just travel the back roads of America. You see all the characters described by Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. The real way to see the real world is to travel to places you would never pick. Many of us go to Rome, Venice and Paris and think we have seen the world. Really what we see in terms of people are folks just like us, who crowd the streets looking at the same art.
I drove through the Everglades killing mosquitoes the size of Chevrolets, only to arrive at a tiny town weeping in willows. When the hostess opened the door she said, “Oh, thank God. We were afraid you might be Jewish. You had us going there for a minute with that last name. They’re all on the Ocean side. We’re the Gulf side.” This was sociologically interesting to me since I had never met anyone who would greet someone at the door with such a remark. This was a book group and had been going for years. Their husbands ran the town. What had they been reading? Imagine those in the town who didn’t read.
Another thing I learned was what a huge part the unconscious plays in reading a book. Too Close to the Falls is about how I worked full time from the age of 4. I drove in a delivery car with Roy the black delivery car driver. The book is about my relationship to him and our adventures. While in Georgia one person asked why some people were distrustful of Roy. When I said he was black, one woman yelled out, “He certainly was not.” The shocked president of the club spoke for them all when she said, “Well if that doesn’t beat the band.”
In Tennessee the group arranged some marvelous mountain music to play in the background while I read. There was a group of older women (I’m 57 so you can imagine what I mean by older) who were confused by the book because on the one hand my parents seemed so loving and kind and on the other they ruined my chances for marriage in my town because I’d traveled with a black man. When I assured them that this wasn’t true they were shocked. One said, “Well, didn’t you have to go to Canada to find a husband?”
In Too Close to the Falls, I was an only child raised in small town America. I never ate at home since my mother never cooked a meal. (She said she had no food.) I wore a cowgirl outfit (shown on the book cover) and on weekends I wore a Davy Crocket ensemble complete with his rifle Betsy.
When I arrived in New Orleans for a reading I was met by 40 women all of whom were wearing Davy Crockett fringed leather outfits and had coonskin hats set at rakish angles. They made me an honorary outfit. (I guess they forgot I’d grown up, since it was for an 8-year-old.) We had so much fun. We all went out to dinner in our outfits. No one even looked up as a gaggle of females in coonskin caps toting toy rifles strolled through New Orleans’ most exclusive restaurant.
One saw her husband, who was dining with his law firm, and shot at him.
As one said, “Honey, down here when we lay on southern hospitality we go all the way. I’m sixth generation and do what I want. This is a town of eccentrics and we wanted to welcome a kinsman.”
On a book tour, you learn that the characters you have created are seen through a thick lens and are sometimes no more than Rorschach blots. The response to my mother’s lack of cooking brought different responses depending on ethnicity. In Victoria, B.C. (which has the largest book reading public in Canada), the room was packed with WASP women over 70 all of whom had been in the same book club for almost 40 years. I was going to read a section on my Catholic school youth and they spoke up, “No, read about your mother.” After I finished they stood, some with the aid of walkers, to give her a standing ovation. One golden-ager stepped forward and toasted my mother saying, “I made more meals than I cared to remember. Guess what? No one cared.” We all raised our tea cups at the Empress hotel and toasted a bygone era.
While in Wisconsin reading to descendants of Eastern Europeans, they asked, “What was wrong with your mother? Why didn’t she cook? How can you show love for a child if you don’t nurture her?” They saw her as neglectful and cold. They were surprised that I spoke of her so lovingly and that I had grown up to be at least a facsimile of normal.
At a strip mall in Niagara Falls New York I was going a talk at a Media Centre. These are huge box stores that pretend to sell books but really the media is music and video games with a token book shelf. The store was full of overweight teenagers in toga-like long shorts drinking super-sized drinks from the fast food restaurant that was connected. When I finally found my book it smelled like freedom fries.
Unable to find the book section, I approached the information desk where the employee was wearing headphones. When he unplugged I asked him where I was to give my reading. I couldn’t find any chairs set up.
He said, “You reading to the blind?”
“No, to the sighted.”
“I don’t get it.” He said this while plugging in again.
“I read and they listen.”
“Haven’t they already read the book, or is it for people who can’t read?”
“It’s like a rock concert. You have already heard the DVD but you come to hear the concert live.”
“Cool,” he said and set up the chairs.
At the Edinburgh Authors Festival a woman spoke to me in a heavy Scottish Burr while I was signing her book, “We don’t take to people who talk about themselves in this land.” I explained that was a wee problem since it was a memoir and I am the author. She said, “I’m buying the book, but it should have said in the brochure that you were the lass talking about yourself.”
The best moment of my tour was when I was in the bowels of New Jersey on a highway at some godforsaken Media Centre that makes The Soprano’s Bada Bing strip club look like a church. As I sat at the counter having a coffee, the gentlemen next to me read the “Store happening” page to see what DVD was on sale or to see if a rock star was stopping in to sign DVD’s. There was a group of guys in latex pants who were covered in tattoos – one read “Don’t ask me.” Another had on a T-shirt that said “What does five fingers mean?” on the front and “Slap” on the back.
Unlike Canada, the U.S. advertises book tours even within the place of the reading. They leave excerpts of the books in the café so you can get a feel for the book. Needless to say the men were not thrilled to have a book instead of a musician, let alone a book about a 1950’s childhood. (yawn.)
One of them read the excerpt aloud to his cronies, about when I was 7 and stabbed a boy with a compass after he pulled my hair. They really liked it and just howled. They even came to the book talk, as did about 90 other people.
I had never seen so much faux leopard in my life.
That group had all arranged to take me to a huge restaurant that one of the husbands owned and we didn’t finish our pre-arranged 11-course meal until well after midnight. These women related to my Catholic school education, and we rattled on into the night with harrowing nun stories.
You know, you can sit in your room and write books if you want and never see anyone who reads them other than your small circle of friends. It’s easy to write for them. The joy of the book tour is in getting out and there and meeting people who are unlike you. The magic happens in realizing we all have enough common experience to share an emotional moment brought alive by a simple printed word. That, for an author, is a moving experience. Whenever I sit in my study thinking I have nothing to say, I think of all the people out there who thought I did.
Finally, it seems to me that when you write a book and someone buys it for what seems to me to be a hefty sum and then invests many hours of their precious time reading it, they deserve to meet you if they want to. They are the ones who are providing your living and, for a few weeks a year, they deserve some thanks.
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