Somewhere between San Francisco and Minneapolis I pause for breath (and other things). This book tour is proving to be an exciting ride, from the east coast to the west, from websites to the windows of bookstores, from booksellers to bestseller lists and now into the north, the Twin Cities and then the Harbourfront Readings in Toronto. So far, I have signed copies to every age, grandparents and grandchildren; some purchasers have, unsurprisingly, Irish roots, most don't; many have been buying multiple copies; a surprising number of signees have already read this (not small) novel.
I have been searching in my head for an image with which I could summarize the travelling, but nothing works. A book tour is not an old-style medicine show, it is not a traveling circus or lectureship, nor is it a whistle-stop of any kind. It has sober marketing purpose but beyond that it turns out to have deep benefits – in fact, it embodies a learning curve as high and bright as a rainbow.
The tripartite rhythm of the library and bookshop public appearances contains the reassurance of consistency - reading, Q&A, then signing copies. Since the twenty minutes of questions can help address what had to be left out or got overlooked in the preceding twenty minutes of talking and reading, thus the learning curve swings in. Axiomatically, we can discover little while we're talking at each other; in their questions, people convey their interests and expectations. Are there still travelling storytellers to be found? (Answer: not in the old way.) Has affluence been bad for modern Ireland? (Answer: anything that dissolved the huge bedrock of Irish endemic poverty can't be all bad.) How much of the novel is autobiographical? (Answer, though at greater length and not flippant: all of it and none of it.)
Some of the other questions still echo in my head, such as: If spoken history is the theme of 'Ireland', and if you were to write 'America – a Novel', what would its theme be? (Answer: integration.) Would you, if asked, be prepared to lead a revolution? (Three answers: Excuse me? Then - When and where? And – I feel I need to think about that.) Who is your favourite writer of all time? (Answer – easy-peasy, William Shakespeare, because he had the largest and most comprehensive soul.) Who is the first person to read your work? (Answer: my wife.) Who are your favourite living Irish writers and why? (Answer: Deep breath: Seamus Heaney for sheer wonder; John McGahern for character-as-atmosphere; William Trevor for inner space; Edna O'Brien for endless accomplishment; Anne Enright for humour in pain and pain in humour; Roddy Doyle for pitch-perfect dialogue; Dermot Bolger for his huge spirit; Sebastian Barry for his daring; Colm Toibin for his amazing reach; Eavan Boland for her heart-stopping observation; Joseph O'Connor for 'Star of the Sea'.) There were others, I can't recall them all.
The most interesting moment for me, as ever, comes when signing books, as I frequently ask people what they read. In amongst the comforting mix of classics and modern familiars, I learn the names both of people's giants and quieter heroes; David McCullough, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Ford, Reynolds Price, R.K.Narayan, Joan Didion, Paul Theroux, Colette, Adam Gopnik and, over and over, Alice Munro.
A book tour may be tiring but it's never dull. Focus is all; even when not 'on', the next event always looms large. I recall an episode of 'Seinfeld' where Jerry claimed that people have a greater fear of speaking in public than they have of dying. If I wouldn't quite go so far as to say that (as Samuel Beckett remarked when somebody greeted him, 'Good morning'), I know what Jerry meant. Still, if you stumble - and as they can do all across life - books break your fall.