You know the myth of the book tour—an author gets whisked around the country, chauffeured to events, taken to Chez Panisse. Yeah, right. The truth is, unless you are a marquee name or a perennial bestseller, there is no tour. Or at least not one the publisher pays for. But some of us hold on to the myth, or are gluttons for punishment, or just love the chance to vagabond it around the country with our bound babies. So we buy cheap plane tickets, bunk with friends, and hawk our wares in any bookstore that will have us.
I decided to do a tour for Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch. In October and November, I crisscrossed the country talking about how Hawaiian Creole shaped my approach toward language, how “experts” have battled over who owns English, and how verbs enliven even the most demure sentence.
In Vermont, 36 people crowded into my cousin’s bookstore in Hardwick. I used the occasion to tell the very personal story of my growing up “bilingual in English”—speaking Pidgin English as a kid in Hawaii, but grappling with a family of grammar sticklers like my aunt (who was in attendance).
At Amherst Books, only three people showed up for my talk—and one of them was my mother, visiting from the islands. Granted, it was a Friday night in a college town, so what did I expect? (This was not, BTW, the lowest turnout I endured.) Bookseller Nat Herold made the visit worth it, though, when he told me that Sin and Syntax sells more copies than William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, the classic that taught me how to write. Meeting Nat wasn’t the only benefit of our stop. Mom’s great-grandparents lived in Easthampton, her father went to Amherst College, and she went to Smith, so I counted my blessings for a mother-daughter night in the Western Massachusetts woods.
In Seattle, I led Grammar Speed Dating at Elliott Bay Book Company. (Send me an email if you want to try this at a party.) Some creative writing students from Seattle University won Shakespeare Insult Gum when they matched the subject and predicate from the title of my favorite Hamlet soliloquy, and my friend (and host) Laura won a whale bookmark for recognizing that the subject in “Call me Ishmael” is implied. A serious-looking writer won a set of postcards illustrating different facets of the verb “to love” when she came up with more synonyms for that verb than anyone else in the crowd.
At San Francisco’s Mechanics Institute, I mused on the five questions that sent me to linguistics tomes:
- Was our first word a verb?
- Why do writing experts say “Prefer the Anglo-Saxon word”?
- Who came up with silly grammar rules like “Don’t split infinitives”?
- Why is there such a battle royal between “prescriptivists” (aka grammarians) and “descriptivists” (aka linguists)?
- Where are the interesting edges in verbs today?
In New York City, I treated 10 female friends to prosecco in a West Village basement, and I taught 400 teenagers at TED Youth the difference between static and dynamic verbs. I cracked up when two of them came onstage to act out Hamlet’s “to be” and “not to be” words. (See Bill Heyne’s depiction of “to die” here.)
I cannot lie. The book tour was exhilarating and … exhausting. There are moments of hilarity and moments of humility. It’s rough to adjust to a new bed every couple of nights, and to be “on” at 7 a.m. so that you can reduce your volume of ideas to sound bites that will work for drive-time radio in Colorado.
Then there’s the whole issue of reviews, which can turn you into Sally Field (“You like me, right now, you like me”) or W.C. Fields (“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”) If you’re curious, I’ve posted a list of notices under “News, Reviews, and Interviews.”
There are two things I’d like to say about tours. The first is for those who aren’t authors: Show up when your friends go on the road. Writing a book takes you way way way out on a limb, and it’s great to see people in the audience spotting you, willing to catch you if you fall.
The second is for authors. It helps to think that the book tour is for a writer what the average gig is for a jazz musician—it seasons you, at once elevating you and knocking you down a few pegs. You learn to believe in the magic of your horn even when no one is listening, to keep playing your blues even when the smoke is so thick you can barely see the Exit sign. You learn to revel in the moments when people pay attention, and to keep going when your mother is the only one in the room who thinks you a genius.