Since early October I've been more or less on the road. Once again the Stephen Vincent Benet old poem keeps coming back like a tune. I have fallen in love with American names,/The sharp names that never get fat,/The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims,/The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,/Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat. For me it's been Steamboat Springs, and Spring Lake, and Naugatuck, and Cincinnati, and Sonoma and Sag Harbor, and the lovely word Winnetka, and the hometown of Chief Seattle and the Santa Clara Valley. As yet I have resisted the temptation to count the number of appearances, and I slightly regret that I didn't at the outset head to any or all of the many places and inns called Tipperary in the USA.
It's been intensive, it's supposed to be; my head has been down so far I might as well have been in Australia; a book tour is an exercise in concentration. Somewhere on the road I learned that one politico who had travelled with his tome some years ago likened a book tour to a political campaign: A new venue every night but always the same message. I get the analogy - but at least I don't have to eat rubber chicken or tell lies.
Once more I found such delight among the bookshops; the sheer, civilized pleasure of Fran Kielty's Hickory Stick in Washington; the joyful "get-out-and-sell-the-book"-ness of the Clinton NJ bookshop; the fun of Sonoma and the welcome of Corte Madera, where the sun always seems to be shining even if the event is at night; the satisfying bookish-ness of Elliott Bay in Seattle; the warmth and interest of a large Saturday evening audience at the splendid Northshire Bookshop in Manchester, Vermont. And I flat-out recommend the outstanding smoked turkey paninis –all the café, in fact – at R.J. Julia in Madison, Connecticut. If I try to recall all the venues I'll forget somebody - but there's a wonderful place in Sag Harbor, Long Island named Canio's. It speaks to my private criterion – a bookshop should feel like a combination of the owner's home and a sweet library.
I find that the book tour has manifold uses for the author. Most unexpected of these is the discovery as to whether the book of which you speak before an audience is actually the book you had in mind to write (or, indeed, the book you wrote – which is the best idea). That isn’t as stupid a remark as it sounds; it's not that unusual to begin the telling of a long tale and then find, not unalarmingly, that it is mutating in the writing. I recall an interview with the English novelist, Alan Sillitoe (The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) in which he told me how one of his novels, The Death of William Posters - inspired by the warning on hoardings, Bill Posters will be Prosecuted – was altered entirely by two unplanned characters whom his main protagonist bumps into in a pub.
In the case of Tipperary, I have actually (whew - the relief!) been speaking about the book I intended to write – a nineteenth-century-style novel, for the fun of seeing if I could do it, and because I've read so many; plus a love story about a good man (writing villains is eazy-peazy); plus keeping a history of Ireland rolling onward; it’s part of a loose grouping that began with "Ireland – a Novel" two years ago and will continue with "Shannon," the book I'm working on now, which will be published in February/March 2009.
For this just-published novel, the place in which I was born, Tipperary, lent itself beautifully to novelistic treatment, since it's probably the deepest well that I have. This time around, I wanted to draw up a few buckets of clear water; all I can do now is hope that it refreshes those who drink it. If the readers find the reading of it a fraction as appealing as I have found the writing of it - I will ask nothing more (other than vast sales).
This is my third book tour in the U.S. and the temptation of inherent laziness tries to turn it all into a blur, but I've enjoyed it too much to allow that. We launched it at Barnes & Noble in New York on Thursday, 15 November and although the intensive part ended in San Francisco on Saturday, 14 December, it murmurs on – I still have some Connecticut gigs to come: Stamford, Litchfield, Washington, Manchester, Falls Village and my home town of Kent, plus two Florida events, Stuart Island and Jacksonville. At the end of it all I shall end up with one of the aspects I am most relishing – a collection of new impressions of the United States.
I saw some brilliant things, in particular the stylish and thoughtful inauguration of the new college President at Foothill, Los Gatos. Some of the weather in the Midwest threatened to peel my skin off my face. The questions from the audience were excellent – again. And I'm learning stuff: Never say 'Frisco. That's for goobers (a term, I'm told, from Georgia). The prohibition on 'Frisco puzzles me – what about the songs that tell of 'Frisco Bay? And what about the nicknames – there was a crewman on SS Flying Enterprise (see Simple Courage on this website) named Frisco Johnson.
In Seattle I ate sturgeon for the first time; Caviar comes from the virgin sturgeon, The virgin sturgeon's a very fine fish, The virgin sturgeon needs no urgin', That's why caviar's a very rare dish. And I learned the hard way that what Tom Brokaw said on television about the US airline industry is altogether too true – that "it's broken," he said, "from the bottom up and the top down." Out of more than twenty flights on which I was scheduled, only two took off and landed on time.
Once again, I had to pay some attention to what I packed (beyond red socks and pocket handkerchiefs). Meaning: What books to bring on tour? The road makes specific and very different demands from the armchair; you read in the airport lounge (where I had aeons of time), the aircraft and/or train, and the dinner table, followed by the insomniac night. Think of it as food: Healthy eating, and comfort food, plus a little harmless junk now and then, and at least one rattling good dinner.
I packed Jeffrey Toobin's new book, The Nine – his inspection of the Supreme Court, the aspect of American life that has most compelled, indeed enthralled, me since I came to live here in April 2002. The book is a first-rate example of how to write topical non-fiction, mixing fact, anecdote and interpretation in an entertaining way. Favourite tale? David Souter, one of the nine justices, being mistaken for a colleague, Stephen Breyer and out of good manners going along with it; and, upon being asked, "Justice Breyer, what's the best thing about being on the Supreme Court," he replied, "Well, I’d have to say it's the privilege of working with David Souter."
Claire Tomalin's new biography of Thomas Hardy is enthralling, as much for its simple style as for the multiple revelations about a life I thought I knew well. In an early moment she tells how, in the 1790's, Hardy's grandmother "had been ironing her best muslin dress when the news came of the beheading of the Queen of France [Marie Antoinette]. She had put down the iron and stood still on hearing of such a momentous event, she said, and she could still call up the exact pattern of the muslin in her mind's eye." A good biography – such as this - keeps you always within a few paces of its subject. To that end, I also purchased the new biography of FDR by Jean Edward Smith; it will take me through to the summer.
On book tours past I made some lasting fiction discoveries – Alan Furst, for instance, who writes the best novels about wartime Europe; the long-gone Hans Helmut Kirst (wry, raw novels of the Second World War from inside the German Army – he wrote The Night of the Generals); James Lee Burke and his flavour, unique as jambalaya. This time, I bought Martha McPhee's L'America, a lush and gifted novel – she's this tour's fiction delight. And I also bought en route The Tenderness of Wolves, thereby fracturing a rule never to read fiction while I'm writing fiction – and arguing with myself that I'm always writing fiction, so if I observed the rule too closely I'd never read fiction again.
Here's the over-arching point about reading on a book tour: The song is ended but the melody lingers on. Meaning - exhausting though a tour may be, if I can make about it more than just my own book, i.e., if I can encounter and dwell inside other books en route, then a sweet and benign circle completes itself: The writer becomes the reader - which is as it should be. Happy 2008!