Books

Vowell's Review

Author of The Partly Cloudy Patriot Reviews Her Audience at a Recent Seattle Reading

While I had kicked off my current book tour--the title's The Partly Cloudy Patriot, on sale now at a bookstore near you--with a couple of events back home in New York, my appearance at Seattle's Meany Hall on September 20 was my first out-of-town gig, the first one I couldn't walk to from my apartment.

To other people, going on a book tour seems like a rarefied, literary thing to do. And maybe it is if you are Philip Roth. I am, however, me. I find that trudging around the country plugging my little books reduces my concerns to those of primitive man--food, water, sleep, and a television cable package that includes both C-SPAN and WB. So on the six-hour flight from LaGuardia to Sea-Tac, you would think I would be looking forward to my public radio interview, or dropping by the independent gem Elliott Bay Books to sign stock, or the aforementioned event on the University of Washington campus, where I would meet my readers. What I was actually wondering about was how much time I would have for lunch (12 whole minutes) and whether or not they still have those really good taco chips in the minibar of the Alexis Hotel I enjoyed on my previous book tour (yes, happily, they do).

When I read in a theater such as Meany Hall, I always request that the lighting tech turn the house lights off as much as fire codes allow. I do not like to see the faces of the audience. Perhaps I do this because I've written a lot for radio. If I'm in front of a microphone in a dark room, it feels similar to sitting in a studio by myself instead of standing in front of hundreds of people, some of whom (hi Chris and Lucy) have known me since I was a teenager in Montana. I find it more difficult to ham it up in front of people I know, partly because I fear they might expect more entertainment from me in real life.

I start things off with a sure-fire crowd-pleaser, a rambling story about my father, me, and Theodore Roosevelt. The audience goes ape for the best part of the story, which I can't particularly take credit for: a long quotation from my dad about a hunting mishap.

What the rock stars and comedians say is true--each audience has a personality which can be more or less boiled down to friend or foe. Meany Hall? Friend, for sure. Normally, before a reading, I organize a list of what stories I'll be reading in what order. Because I can feel Meany Hall is meany-free, I end up on Plan B--reading a couple of stories I've never tried in front of an audience before. The first one, an essay about being a history buff in general and traveling to witch trial sites in Salem in particular, is a hit.

I had forgotten that the history buff story's conclusion takes place at a Starbucks. Mentioning Starbucks in Seattle feels slightly cheesy, a "Hello, Cleveland!" sort of gesture. (I had, after all, been here for Bumbershoot in '96 during the Sex Pistols reunion and cringed when Johnny Rotten changed the lyrics in "Anarchy in the UK" to "There's no future in Seattle's dreaming.") I couldn't believe it, though, when I mentioned Starbucks and one person in the audience actually clapped. Management, I'm thinking. Other people hissed.

Hissing is a West Coast habit. When I used to live in San Francisco, I used to dread the trailers at the movies. Every time Arnold Schwarzenegger popped up in the coming attractions, it felt like sitting inside the reptile room at the Bronx Zoo. I find it unnerving. On one level, I know that a coffee distributor is getting hissed at instead of me. The democratic theorist in me likes the fact that the hissers of the world are active participants rather than idle spectators, but a hiss is still a hiss.

Then I pushed my luck. My joke about the Napoleonic Wars in the history buff story had gone over so well I decided to try out my antiquarian map memoir. That one didn't turn out to be quite the barnburner I was hoping for. So I learned something that night in Seattle. Innocent people executed for witchcraft 300 years ago is funny. Cartography: not so funny.

 

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