Dates: February 2 & 3, 2004
There had been a few readings in Minneapolis and New York, but my Seattle stop was the most event-strewn yet. Being a person who dreads standing and droning on while a sea of eyes stare back, I wasn't exactly what you'd call comfortable. I checked into the Alexis Hotel, where my publisher had booked the lavish and precious "Author's Suite," with its fireplace, king-sized bed, jet tub, and Do Not Disturb sign that reads, "Artist at Rest."
I felt weak amid all the books of authors who'd previously stayed in the room, slept in the bed, waxed brilliant before the fire. Michael Chabon. Joyce Carol Oates. David Foster Wallace. I pulled one of my hardbacks from my suitcase, signed it, and placed it on the shelf with "Oprah's favorites." Seeing it there made me feel better. Then I ordered roasted chicken and champagne from room service.
When it came time for the first reading, a driver met me in the lobby--a woman with the patience and attentiveness of a shepherd. I'd spent a half-hour on the running track and another half-hour in the steam room beforehand, to get my blood up. I felt good. That is, until I got to the bookstore. I read twice in Seattle, once at Elliott Bay and once at University Book Store. The nights blend together in my mind, so they will also blend together here.
There's a particular something that happens at readings when you've written a very intimate and revealing memoir, as I have about my dad, who was a charming and rather prolific criminal. People feel both sorry for and intrigued by you. They rush at the chance to laugh amid the onslaught of horrifying details. Aside from the occasional attempt to drag things into Jerry Springer territory, people are quite kind, even during the question-and-answer periods, which become sort of rap sessions with a therapeutic edge. Or maybe, more aptly, a suicidal edge.
My audiences deliver the most personal of inquiries. And I--trying to make the free events seem worthwhile--feel compelled to answer every one.
"Did you ever go into therapy?" one woman with horn-rimmed glasses and a loose bun asked. "Only for a little while," I replied. "I probably should have gone in for longer." People laughed. The matter was disposed of.
"How's your relationship with your mother?" This time it was a heavyset woman in the front row who, it turned out, had an outlaw dad too. There is always at least one person in the audience who has a "bad dad." I call them, fondly, the "bad dad people." "Oh, it's pretty good," I said. "She's a tough woman." For the longest time, Mom refused to crack my book, claiming, "I lived it, I don't need to read about it." But when I sent her the hardback, inscribed, "This should burn nicely," she finished it in just a few days. She liked it. And our relationship is, in fact, pretty good. Next.
"Are your brother and sister well adjusted?" The question came from a man in back, who I couldn't make out because reading in public leaves me half blind. His was a variation on the frequent question, or rather statement, "You seem so well adjusted." Some might take offense at such a presumptuous comment, but to me it's a clear sign that I'm not making an ass out of myself, that I do, in fact, seem well adjusted. Normally, I smile when I hear it and say, "Thanks." To the man's question, I answered, "They're both doing well, living substantial lives." Substantial lives, I thought, Jesus.
There was a woman sitting up front with three pre-teen kids, obviously unrelated. She asked, "When did you learn about your dad's criminal behavior and become disappointed in him?" I explained that I knew about his penchant for crime long before I became disappointed. This obviously was not the answer she was looking for. "Well, what advice would you give to kids who are disappointed in their parents?" I looked at the woman and realized that I was supposed to be setting an example for these kids or, worse, I was a cautionary tale. I tried. I really did. I rattled off some blather about understanding that parents are just people with faults like everybody else. And that, even so, they're not necessarily obsolete or ineffectual. She nodded and gave me the "Well, I guess that'll have to do" smile.
A young man off to the right raised his hand. "You seem so well adjusted," he said.