“Christ if it carries on like this I’ll need decoy limos and VIP tables for the entourage”: when the book tour is going well, beware hubris
London. 2003. My first novel, The Calligrapher, has just come out in Britain. And it is about to be published in America. I’m at the launch party of a senior British novelist. I’m pretending to smoke so that I can hang out with him. He asks how it’s all going. I say that it’s going pretty well. And then add—with an effort to conceal my pride—that I’m doing a book tour.
He sucks his teeth. “How many dates?”
“About ten,” I say, doubling the true number.
He winces sympathetically. His reaction is disconcerting. To me the reality of an American book tour seems like a profound spiritual breakthrough of an order unmatched in at least 2000 years of human history. The guy is pretty famous though. So I assume ennui. I figure he must be down on the whole book tour thing—the endless airports, the needy crowds, the anonymous hotels.
I try to act cool: “Just the coasts,” I say.
“Just the coasts.” He shakes his head. “Good luck with that.”
New York. A month later. And still I don’t get it. Instead, I’m thinking: this is what it must have been like for the Beatles. OK, so the number of people here to see me is closer to 70 than 70,000. But still, for my first ever night on tour, it feels impressive. I gaze out with a much-rehearsed expression calculated to suggest that sunlit vantage where intellectual distance meets soulful intensity. Christ, if it carries on like this, by the time I get to LA, I’ll need decoy limos and VIP tables for the entourage.
It doesn’t carry on like that.
In Oakland, California, there are… four. Four people. This is not as big a number as it at first sounds. Two of the “audience” are staff, another is a man whom they warn me is “crazy as a cut snake” and the fourth, so I’m told with escalating animation, “comes to everything, comes to everything, everything, everything, everything.”
I’m wearing a Savile Row suit. I am feeling ridiculous even by my own stringently maintained standards. And all that I’m thinking is that maybe I can convince these people that this is how England likes to dress after six. That this is what we do. We have a monarchy. We eat marmalade. We wear morning dress in the morning. We wear evening dress in the evening. Yes: this now seems to be the main business ahead of us. The book, my career, the written word—all of it a side-show. Our focus—as a five—is to wipe the suit (and therefore the evening) from our collective mind.
San Francisco. The following night. I’m in jeans and an old t-shirt. You don’t catch a guy like me out twice. No, sir. This time, I’m ready to hunker down with the two or three bums that might have wandered in.
But—wait—what is this? The place is packed. No. How can this be? There is not a spare seat. What is happening? And why am I dressed like an irksome trustafarian? Oh, God. The organiser shoulders his way through the crowds toward me. “You’ve got a terrific review in the Chronicle,” he says. “They love you.”
Back in car, I plead with the meet-and-greet driver: “Surely there must be some way of knowing?” I ask. “I don’t mind a few people. I don’t mind lots of people. But what I cannot handle is all this uncertainty. It’s killing me. I can’t put myself through it every night. It’s like ritual torture. When there are crowds, I act weird because I’m absurdly grateful. When there’s aren’t, I act weird because I’m absurdly embarrassed.”
A second San Francisco date goes staggeringly well. But then: Los Angeles. Nobody. Not anybody. Sure, there are some chairs—too many chairs—and a vaguely amicable glass of water. But no actual people. This is when I get to thinking that I’d like to join them—the rest of humanity—I’d like to join them in not being here. But I can’t. I am the only person who has to be here. I am the only person who has to be here and witness nobody being here. If I were not here, if I were with everybody else (not here), then things would be better. But I’m not. I’m here. And there’s nobody here. That’s what a book tour is, I now realise: a kind of existential joke.
At a launch party some years later—a few tours down the line—I find myself able to answer another writer with the kind of practical advice I wish I had been given: “Go for the scruffiest jeans and trainers you own,” I say, “with your most elegant jacket and shirt. Stay behind the lectern when there is a big audience. Sit down with your feet up when there is not. Portland or Seattle should be good; but keep in mind that LA has never been much of a book town.”