Witness Protection, Barbecue, and Crushing Loneliness: Highlights from the 'South Village' Book Tour
Last time I went on tour—for my second novel, City of Rose—I wrote dispatches from the road. You can find them here. For my third book, I decided to sum everything up at once, because it would be a great way to kill time on the flight home. I am tired of sitting on airplanes. This time around I made four stops. A jaunt up to Boston before a swing through the American Southwest. It seemed to go well, in that I did not get beaten up by a frat guy or stung by a scorpion.
This is the tour trip that killed my data plan.
Given me and Rough Trade author Todd Robinson were going to be stuck in a car for eight cumulative hours, I thought it might be fun to record some video. Todd likes to call us the Oscar and Felix of the crime fiction community. I prefer Laverne and Shirley, but hey, the point is, we have fun together.
(And since it was our first joint event, we got dressed up for the occasion.)
So: Stuck in a car together. I figured on propping my phone on the dash, shooting a bunch of video, and editing it down to the three or four minutes that were actually entertaining. Instead we tried Facebook Live, and ended up with more than two hours of video. I thought we would get boring—and maybe we did—but it didn’t feel that way. Given people could comment on the video, it gave us a lot of conversation fodder.
Brookline Booksmith had asked me and Todd to do a joint event, which is nice. I like joint events; there’s a better chance you’ll get more asses in seats. It was doubly nice for Todd. He’s originally from Boston, and this was his first signing at a bookstore in Boston proper.
At the end of the event, where we mostly riffed off each other but also read from our books a bit, Thomas Wickersham, who organized the gig, offered us a shot of whiskey and a free book. I had spied the first collection of Ta-Nehisi Coates' run on Black Panther and I was happy to oblige. I can't speak for Todd, but I felt pretty fancy.
After the event we went around the corner and got loaded and I learned a fun lesson about Todd: The big tough guy former bouncer gets giggly when he drinks too much cider and whiskey.
We also spent a good three or four minutes trying to get into the unlocked lobby of our hotel, which the first TripAdvisor review described as like the hotel from American Horror Story. Like I said, we have fun together.
Oh, and if you want to see our videos, you can find them here and here. Or watch the one that's embedded below. Think of it like a podcast—we talk lots of writing and book stuff—except you have to look at us.
The first thing I did when I got to Austin was drive my rental car right to Ruby’s BBQ. I ordered a brisket sandwich and a side of beans and mac and cheese and lamented the fact that you can’t get barbecue in New York like you can in Texas.
Speaking of food, here’s what I ate while I was in Austin:
After the brisket, I went to Amy’s Ice Cream, because their Mexican vanilla is my Platonic ideal of what ice cream should be. Then queso and a chili cheeseburger at Texas Chili Parlor, after my signing at BookPeople. Breakfast tacos from Jo’s Coffee, both mornings I was there. More tacos at Arandas, with Gabino Iglesias. I ate a pork leg taco so good it nearly made me weep.
By Saturday night, I was pretty sure I was close to death by way of gummed-up arteries, so I got edamame and a salad and some sushi from Lucky Robot across the street from my motel. Sushi in Texas strikes me as a dicey proposition, but it was nice to eat something fresh.
It didn’t stop me from getting Amy’s again that night. And the next day in the airport. Which was after the brisket sandwich from Salt Lick (best brisket sandwich I’ve ever had, and it was in an airport; go figure).
Austin is a good eating town, is what I'm saying.
It’s also a good book town. I’ve been a fan of BookPeople for a very long time, ever since a friend first took me there, something around ten years ago. So to be invited down by Scott Montgomery was a real treat. The event was me and Reavis Wortham and Tim Bryant, in a joint interview led by Scott.
I was very happy with how things went with Reavis and Tim. It’s always a little nerve-wracking, sitting on a panel with authors you don’t know. And given the topic was rural noir, and these two guys were writing period Texas mysteries and I was the city-slicker writing about a Georgia hippie commune, I was worried I might be out of my element.
No such thing happened. Both of them were consummate professionals. It was a fun conversation. And a good reminder that sometimes it can be fun to have a bunch of authors come in for an event, rather than go solo. And I got to see these nerds: Gabino, Russell Lester, and Mike McCrary, the three of them immensely talented writers.
The state animal of Arizona is a burnt-out school bus.
At least that’s the sense I got, driving through the desert, from Scottsdale to Jerome, an old silver mining town on the side of a mountain.
That kind of landscape is so foreign to me. I’d only seen the desert once before, driving through the Mojave with my wife, on our way from Nevada to California. I had asked my friend Chantelle Aimée Osman what fun desert stuff we could do and Jerome is what she suggested.
It was warm and overcast and after wending up the twisty roads leading into town, we got lunch at a barbecue restaurant built in the 1890s. The waitress was a punky girl with short blonde hair and Doc Martens. She had a heart tattooed on her chest, with a purple Band-Aid running across it, like the way you’d see an arrow through a heart, except the Band-Aid was real. I wanted to ask why it was there, but thought it might be inappropriate, given the location.
At the end of our meal, the waitress offered us a coupon if we filled out a survey. I told her I’d probably never be coming back. Which sounded rude, so I amended that to say I was from New York, and wasn't sure I'd ever return to this random and remote desert town. She said her family was from New York and they moved to Arizona years ago as part of witness protection, to get away from the mob. I asked her if she should be telling us that. She replied that things were probably settled now.
Later that day I signed at Poisoned Pen. The store was great. The crowd was a little light—this is the plight of the out-of-town author, who doesn’t have a network of locals to call on—but I got to sit in a fancy red leather chair and have a chat with the Pen's Patrick Millikin, as well as Keith Rawson, fellow LitReactor, who I was finally able to meet in person after something like five or six years of being “internet friends.”
After the signing a couple of us went out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant where we sat outside and drank neon-colored margaritas. I checked my phone to see what the temperature was back home. Somewhere in the low 50s by that point.
Houston seems like a lovely town. I can’t really be sure because I was there for less than 24 hours.
Since this was the last leg of the tour, rather than get a hotel in town, I opted for the Marriott at the airport. Which was only a little depressing. There wasn’t much to do outside the hotel bar, but it was nice to leave my room on the day I was due to fly home and be through airport security ten minutes later.
I took Ubers to and from my signing at Murder by the Book. Both drivers were older folks who had mostly retired but were driving for the extra cash. Both seemed impressed to find out I was an author. They both expressed interest in the book but I discouraged them both. Which is rare for me, to give up on an opportunity for self-promotion. On my last tour I must have handed out bookmarks to a half dozen Uber drivers.
The first guy was on the god squad, and I didn’t think our worldviews would match up. The second driver, a woman, said she would pick it up for her 14-year-old nephew, who enjoyed writing. I told her it probably wasn’t appropriate because of all the bad language.
She was shocked that you could put curse words in books.
Murder by the Book was fantastic. Again, a storied store I’ve always wanted to visit, and McKenna Jordan and Sally Woods were great hosts. But it came with an added bonus: At Brookline and BookPeople and Poisoned Pen, there were people in the crowd I knew.
This was the first event where I did not know a single soul sitting in the seats. And there were about a dozen folks there; not bad for an out of town author on an indie press. More than that, people had copies of the first two books. They asked questions related to them. So they weren’t just spectators. They were readers.
I thanked them for that. It’s the kind of feeling I had a hard time putting into words (probably an indictment of me, right?). But, book tours are lonely. Besides my taco adventure with Gabino and my desert adventure with Chantelle, I spent most of the weekend by myself. I spent a lot of time sitting in airports and cabs and empty hotel rooms. That'll wear on you, especially when you have a wife and baby at home, and you miss them terribly.
It’s always nice when people come out. And you kind of expect your friends to. But when it’s strangers—people who don’t know you, don’t owe you anything, aren’t hoping for some of kind of return favor—and they take time out of their busy schedules to show up and listen to you jaw about the stories you make up in your head... that's just gumdrops and happiness.
Which stood in pretty stark contrast to how I felt later. Sitting at the hotel bar on my third whiskey, with not much to do but watch Chopped on Food Network until I fell asleep.
I checked Uber and it was only $1,668 from the hotel bar to home, which doesn’t strike me as unreasonable, even now as I’m writing this and I’m sober. But my 9 a.m. flight would probably get me home quicker anyway, and I’d already paid for it.
Book tours are hard. They’re a little lonely, for one. And they’re exhausting. You get to visit new cities but you don’t always get to see much of them; in Houston all I saw was the freeway, the bookstore, the barbecue restaurant I ate at afterwards, and the airport hotel. I assume Houston has more to offer than that.
Plus, they’re real damn expensive. My publisher is helping out, but can’t cover the entire cost of the trip—and I don't expect them to—so I’m laying down some of my own scratch on this. To my mind, it’s an investment. Meeting booksellers, meeting new readers, even if it’s only one or two, giving myself more experience and more world to draw on when I sit down to write.
I got at least one good short story idea, plus a whole novel idea that struck me in the airport as I was waiting to fly home. Being alone for long stretches isn't always great for the soul, but it is good for story incubation.
In the end, I feel privileged that I get to do it. From a writing standpoint, from a financial standpoint. From a life standpoint.
If you’re around Brookline or BookPeople or Poisoned Pen or Murder by the Book—I left behind signed copies. Stop on in and get one. Or just stop on in and buy something. These are great stores, and in a general sense, indie bookstores are an important part of local communities.
To everyone who came out while I was on the road, thank you.
I’m writing this on the plane ride home, where it’s apparently in the 30s, and I have nothing warm to wear because I’ve been in the American Southwest for a week. No one is free to pick me up from LaGuardia, which is on the complete other side of the city from me, so this ought to be a fun trip home.
Because I’m not paying a hundred bucks for a cab. I’ll be waiting for the bus that will, supposedly, take me to the R train.
Again, the unglamorous life of an author.
It is pretty great.
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