Ten days ago, I left New Orleans on a month-long tour for my sixth book, All Grown Up. At the airport I ran into a friend who was flying to his father’s funeral. He sadly motioned to the garment bag on his shoulder. “Yeah, I’ve got the all black suit. Things are heavy,” he said, and I gave him my condolences, and then he was gone. Five minutes later I ran into novelist Meg Wolitzer, who had just arrived for a speaking engagement at Tulane University. She complimented me on a recent radio interview of mine. I told her I hadn’t listened to it yet, because I just wanted to imagine it was perfect, and I knew the minute I heard the slightest mistake it would be ruined. She said, “That’s the way to do it. Pretend you’re a superhero, saving lives, flying overhead, and don’t stop to read what they say about you in the papers.” Then she rushed off, too. Two brief, humane interactions. And away we go.
I’ve been off and on book tour for the last decade, starting in 2006 when my first book was published. Last year was an “off” year, which means I only did 16 events in three countries. The year before that my fifth book was published, and I did more than 60 events. It was not a good tour. I spent my birthday by myself eating a room service cheeseburger in a hotel room in Dallas, for example, and yes, I cried. A week after that I accidentally knocked myself out with Xanax at the Atlanta airport and missed my flight. A dramatic scene at the gate followed. It was not my finest moment. How could this be my job? I thought. Couldn’t this be someone else’s job?
I mostly like touring but I think you have to know why you’re doing it, and what you hope to get out of it. My attitude (mostly) is that it’s a business trip. The good parts of touring are that you get to see new places and meet people who love literature and also, hopefully, sell some books. The bad parts of touring are that your entire life is put on hold for large swaths of time and it’s physically exhausting and you can’t stay on a regular schedule in terms of diet or exercise and often you (I) (but probably you, too) drink too much, and also sometimes people don’t go to your readings and there you are in a big empty room all by yourself.
Next stop: death.
I felt like I had to take last year off to save my soul. When you spend too much time defining yourself to strangers, the words begin to lose their value, and at the end there is not much of you left. So I slept, I read, I finished writing a new book, I ate, I drank, I walked my dog, I voted Democrat. Mostly, I felt better.
This year, as my sixth book was published, I worried my soul would get all tore up again. But we are so fragile as a nation at this moment, how could I not go out there? It all feels deeper right now. Because this time I’m touring in an America where Donald Trump is the president and we’ve all been in turmoil for months and months. I wanted to reach out to everyone I met and take the temperature of this fine country and press a cold compress to its head and offer it chicken soup and chewable vitamin c tablets and a space to talk and connect and feel less alone. I wanted to see people, the readers of America, and I wanted to talk to them. And where better to do it than bookstores?
But as it turns out, so far, mostly on this tour, we’ve been actively not talking about politics. I think people have been relieved to think about something else besides the thing that they think about all day long. So we talk about the creative process and we talk about feminism and we talk about writing about New York City and we talk about what it means to be an adult and we talk about dysfunctional families and we talk about sex. And we are all happy to be talking about human, thoughtful, literary things.
Though at the storied Harvard Bookstore in Boston, I mentioned Melania Trump briefly, prompted by my annoyance at a headline reporting her increasing popularity because she had read to children at a hospital exactly once. I cracked a joke, “Congratulations Melania, you figured out how to volunteer, something thousands of other people do every single day.” No one laughed. I had popped the peaceful bubble of our moment together. I apologized for bringing her up. “How’s everyone doing with everything?” I said, referring to the state of the union. There was a wave of depressed, wan smiles. A few people shook their heads. Boston, I’m sorry. I failed you.
But not every writer is interested in being there for the audience, because in fact, it is actually not our job. I remember seeing David Foster Wallace at Elliot Bay Books in the mid-‘90s, on tour supporting Infinite Jest. He was brash and young and dressed like an ultimate Frisbee player. He gave a short talk and reading from the book, and then opened the floor to questions. We were all terrified of him. Finally, a woman in the front row timidly raised her hand and asked him, “What inspires your work?” His response was, “If this is the level of questions I’m going to be asked, we can just end this right now.” To be fair to him, this is a terrible question, one that should never be asked of a writer, and particularly not an author who has written a thousand-page novel. Still, I thought: Whoa buddy, time to get off the road.
But he was all alone up there on the stage, with no one to catch him if he fell. It’s hard when you’re the focus of attention, especially as so many writers are inherently introverts. The smartest thing I did when planning this tour was invite lots of other authors to be in conversation with me at every tour stop. In New York City, my old, dear friend Alexander Chee knew exactly when to bust my balls during our conversation. In Philadelphia, the always vivacious Jennifer Weiner brought me a care package that included the warmest mittens, which I needed as I had arrived unprepared for the impending snowstorm that would strike the next day as I headed to Washington DC.
There was a chocolate bar in that care package too, which I savored while snowbound in my hotel room. That was the moment I realized I should have been flirting with men on my book tour the entire time. Picture me, in a hotel room, snow falling all around me, eating a chocolate bar, and thinking, I forgot something, what was it again? Oh yes, men.
At one event at the stunning new home of Powerhouse Books in Brooklyn, I swapped places, being the interviewer this time, of brilliant, dynamic poet Morgan Parker, author of There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. What a pleasure it was to turn the focus off me and onto her, and half the audience had already read her book, which heightened the energy.
It was cold and icy outside, but inside we were all there together. We talked some more about feminism and craft, and also about ghosts. “Y’all know time doesn’t move in a linear fashion, right?” said Morgan, at one point. A friend brought her adorable infant son, and we all cooed over him. Later, over drinks, I got to tell Hannah Tinti, the author of The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, about how much I loved her new book. For me, this was a perfect book tour event: an engaged audience, a beautiful bookstore, and seeing friends.
But with apologies to everyone who interviewed me at my events, the writer I was most looking forward to talking to was Judy Blume, who had invited me via Twitter to her bookstore in Key West. Judy and several others launched the store a year ago, and after our event (in which she asked me the best and smartest questions because she is Judy Blume, and she is a perfect human being), I had dinner with her and her husband and her two managers, Emily and Mia, at a beachside restaurant. We were all kind of high from the fun of the well-attended event, and I think, for them, the sense that they were building something exciting at the bookstore. They told me how well they all were working together at the store, and I could there was a collective mindset, a shared flow between them.
The next morning Judy dropped me off at the airport for my next flight. We talked briefly about the mean-spirited budget the White House had just announced. Then we spoke again about the bookstore. “We know a lot more than we did a year ago about running it,” said Judy. “And we’ll keep learning.”
Later at the airport the TV blasted a press conference of Donald Trump and Angela Merkel standing side-by-side. I know that look, I thought. She’s suffering him. And not gladly. I moved out of range of the television, so I wouldn’t have to look at his stupid orange face. He will not always be on that screen, I thought. And we will be waiting for that moment to arrive. And we will be working the entire time. For whatever comes next.