The first tipoff that a book tour isn't total glamour is when a bookstore schedules two simultaneous events, and the local psychic over in the New Age section outdraws you 20-1.
The second tipoff is the hecklers.
I didn't know they had hecklers at book signings, so I asked around among my author friends, who reassured me: "No, Tim, never had a heckler. I guess it's just you."
I'll never forget my first heckling encounter. It was the beginning of the worst book event of my life, which began badly and ended up in the arena of low farce, a Fellini-esque meltdown so painfully complete that people actually fled.
It was just after the release of my first book, Florida Roadkill, when I was still green in front of audiences. I was also still in panic mode from just quitting a 12-year newspaper job with The Tampa Tribune and making the great leap of faith into the book world. And it it was too early to know whether my books would sell enough for this new gig to work.
I was to speak at a bookstore in southern Palm Beach County. It was one of those new upscale shopping centers, which meant passers-by might end up at your signing. This was a lesson I would not forget.
She was sitting in the front row, the older woman with the purse in her lap. They always sit in the front row. And it has nothing to do with book signings. She was part of that population that is a compulsive audience member-like the people walking around the strawberry festival who see them setting up for the demonstration of a new solar-powered kitchen frappé machine. Their only thought: There are a bunch of empty Samsonite chairs-I must sit in one.
There we were, telling Florida jokes in the bookstore, me and the rest of the audience laughing away. Suddenly, the woman turned on another member of the audience and snarled, "You're wrong! I disagree with you! You don't appreciate what you've got!" ... I thought, What's going on? Did I just miss something? ... She then spun on me and raised her voice: "You have your facts all wrong! You young people don't work hard enough! You should be grateful! ..."
We had just slipped into the Twilight Non Sequitur Zone, so I used an old speaking technique: "I agree with you completely."
But then she disagreed with me agreeing with her and kept interrupting as I tried to call on others. It was a no-winner-you can't return fire on a little old lady.
Someone in the back row finally intervened with another question. They said they had heard Florida crime fictions sells well in Europe and wondered why.
"Probably because of the year all those tourists went home in body bags."
"Well!" the bookstore's host loudly blurted, then laughed nervously. "We really don't want to talk about that."
I regained composure and began tentatively answering another question.
Then the espresso machine in the café started running, slightly quieter than a lawn mower.
And the old lady started up again.
I was stunned silent. This can't be happening, I thought, I've quit my job! I began feeling faint; I looked down at the microphone in my hand and felt like I was holding an embarrassing honeymoon accessory in front of everyone.
The host tried to come to my rescue. She slapped her hands sharply, smiled and said the talk had just concluded, and that she was sure we all have differing opinions about Florida, but that's not what we're here to debate tonight, and no matter what you might think of the author, I was really a nice guy ...
Then she led me over to the autograph table while everyone fled. Except the old lady, who came up to talk to me next to the stacks of non-selling books as I resisted the urge to start banging my forehead on the table.
This dovetails into a question I'm often asked: Now that you're not working in newspapers anymore, is your source of material going to dry up? Answer: Book tours are weirder than anything I ever experienced in journalism. As a reporter, I sometimes talked to witnesses on the street, although I was often buffered by interviewing cops, firemen, public officials, P.R. types. But when you're shamelessly hawking books, you're face up against the general population, out where the rubber meets the road (and frequently "where the buses don't run").
In Florida, I've found an enormous shadow population of damaged people wandering the streets. I'm not referring to the bearded guys wearing pinwheel hats, rummaging through Dumpsters and yelling about spaceships. I'm talking about the "normal"-looking ones whose condition is like walking pneumonia: They can hold jobs, function regularly and maintain conventional outward appearances-until you get more than two minutes deep in any conversation with them. Florida is full of these people, and they all seem to come to my book signings.
Let me be clear: I'm not talking about readers of my books. If you've come out to my events and shared encouraging words and, more importantly, purchased my books, then God bless you. There are no finer people out there than you. This is what I'm talking about:
* The guy who came in and said he had heard me on the radio that afternoon and complimented me for bringing literary sensibilities to the genre, which made me feel great-until he kept talking, skipping through a variety of eclectic topics until we were in Hitler's bunker exploring his misunderstood relationship with Eva Braun, and then he headed for the door and waved and said he couldn't buy any of my books because he was living in his car.
* The guy standing in the back of the audience in a Southwest Florida bookstore during one of my readings, who whispered to one of my friends: "Do you know what the book is about?"
"Well, yeah, I've read it."
"I mean, do you know what it's really about? The secret messages?"
He leaned closer. "The world ends in five years. It's all in there."
* The filthy, bearded guy dressed in rags who did rummage through Dumpsters and came in a Barnes & Noble before a signing and said he absolutely loved Florida Roadkill. Sure, sure, I thought. "No, really," he said. "I'm homeless, but I'm not illiterate. I'd come in and read as many chapters as I could before they threw me out. And I finally finished it. You really know what it's like out on the street!"
He headed for the door as other people began arriving. "I tell you one thing," he yelled from the front door, and everyone turned around to see this Charles Manson-type pointing dramatically at me: "Man, you are crazy!"
* I have a Web site, which means e-mail: "I was only a few chapters into the book when I was ready to shoot myself!"
And: "You are nothing more than a pencil-neck geek that thinks he is a writer. How does it feel to look at a frail little insecure man in the mirror? You'll never be anything more than a ham and egg writer! Say it!"
This brings me to another question I'm often asked: "How do you take bad reviews?"
Listen, I say, after the readers are done with you, even the worst review is like a lap dance.
My fourth novel, Triggerfish Twist, recently hit the stands, so I put on my batting helmet, packed my car and got ready to charge once again into the jaws of public opinion.
For my first three books, Florida Roadkill, Hammerhead Ranch Motel and Orange Crush, I had hopped a few airplanes to a smattering of Eastern cities; but mostly it had been car travel around the shallow-grave landscape of Florida, unfolding roadmaps on the steering wheel, eating Arby's and checking into the economy motel with the TV remote welded to a swivel on the nightstand.
So when my publisher, HarperCollins, called at the last minute and asked if I would do a national tour this year, I calmly wiped the Arby's "horsey sauce" off the corner of my mouth before pulling off the road for a few obligatory cartwheels.
The news was wonderful yet ironic, because they chose my most parochial book for the widest promotional campaign. "Triggerfish"-a murder-mystery farce-takes place almost entirely in Tampa Bay, most of the material gleaned from my years as a Tampa Tribune reporter and editor. There are scenes at USF, the Don Cesar, the Crosstown Inn, a 7-Eleven on Gandy Boulevard, the Port of Tampa, Busch Gardens, and Seminole Bingo. Also discussed between homicides: the politics of Palma Ceia Little League, the biggest house on Bayshore Boulevard, the real source of the Ybor City fire, the mayor's war on strip clubs, and the most famous person in Tampa nobody knows, Dale Mabry. Oh, and there are a couple of Sarasota scenes at a cheesy motel on the Tamiami Trail and Cà d'Zan.
"Wow, we didn't know the Gulf Coast was so dangerous and chic!" they said in New York.
"You have no idea," I replied with seen-it-all aplomb.
They were impressed and said they wanted to visit as soon as possible. It was the old Miami Vice syndrome all over again. Remember how the TV show was supposed to ruin that city's reputation and instead revitalized everything in sight, or at least got it painted?
That's how I decided to play it on this tour. There's no such thing as bad publicity, and bad publicity there would be, doing my own small part to help the local economy.
"Man, you guys are even crazier than we are out here," they said in California. "I didn't know Tampa was so wild!"
"Thank you," I said. "How many books?"
But before this juggernaut could get under way, there had to be acclimation to the big-time book circuit. I had heard terrible stories of some of my favorite authors suffering extreme exhaustion toward the end of their tours, and I thought: wimps. I mean, I've been driving around for three years. How hard can it be?
Well, I just got back. Eight weeks by air and road. Let's put it this way: Remember those famous photos in Life magazine of that guy on the rocket sled with his face pasted back?
Oh, sure, it sounds glamorous. They even give you a corporate American Express card, but they said it had a filter on it to allow only legitimate travel expenses. They were right. You can't buy even the smallest stereo components. Also, I thought the whole process was basically throwing together a travel itinerary and calling some bookstores. What I soon got was an eye-opening glimpse into the gearbox of the publishing industry's national publicity machine. It is a fine-tolerance, high-rpm, tightly synchronized turbine. Every second, every Swiss-watch movement accounted for.
Here's how it works: Each morning a media escort arrives at your hotel and drives you around to about 10 stores, where smiling people are waiting with piles of books, which you quickly sign before departing, rushing out to the next store, and the next, the escort taking into account traffic patterns and wind direction for maximum time efficiency, urging you to help yourself to the cooler full of bottled water and power bars in the back seat, then finally pulling up to the curb at your "scheduled" appearance that night, giving you coffee and pushing you out in front of an audience before having to race back to the airport for a red-eye flight to the next city, where another driver holding up a copy of your book greets you at baggage claim at midnight and speeds you to the hotel, where you hold your calls, lay out tomorrow's clothes, squeeze toothpaste on a brush in advance and otherwise get everything else ready so you can hurry up to sleep and run downstairs when the new escort phones your room way too early the next morning. And it repeats, day after day, a human relay race with all these people frantically hustling you around from car to plane to hotel, zigzagging across the country like a witness protection program with autographs.
That's the national book tour.
The best part: no hecklers. Either Florida has the monopoly, or special book tour shock troops sweep the crowd, rounding up dissidents and detaining them in the back room with boxes of books and life-size cardboard cutouts of Barney and John McEnroe.
Most of the tour blurred together, but here are some moments that stood out:
New York. I nearly bonked heads with Tipper Gore when we leaned over from opposite sides of a table to sign the same publicity poster in the greenroom of a giant booksellers' gathering. I thought, if that's Tipper, Al shouldn't be far behind. And there he was to my right. I decided not to mention I was from Florida.
Phoenix. I never got jet lag. I experienced climate and culture lag. This was the first in a diverse series of stops stacking up so fast that by the time your body and mind finally orient, you're several more cities down the road. It was 106 degrees by the time we hit the Phoenix Barnes & Noble. But they kept saying it was a dry heat. Of course it's dry-it's the desert. You don't get all clammy as you die. Didn't notice a big homeless problem here.
Los Angeles. Never been here before. I asked the media guy to point out the Hollywood sign if we went by it. Zipped all over three counties, saw everything as it flew by the window. Burbank, Beverly Hills, Pasadena. Decided I'd finally made the big time as I signed some book on Sunset Strip four doors down from the Viper Room. It began getting dark, and we headed back to LAX.
"There's the Hollywood sign!" I said, snapping a picture.
"No, that's a Hollywood Video."
San Francisco. There was something called an ionizer in my hotel room. It was plugged into the wall and hummed and was supposed to make me live longer. Also, there were big stern signs out in the halls that said the State of California required them to notify me that the hotel was made entirely of materials that can kill me. I ordered up another ionizer.
Seattle. This was the city where I finally adjusted to arriving in Phoenix. It's also the most civilized place I've ever been, with almost a Scandinavian politeness and sense of communal decorum. I headed out on foot to a drugstore next to the hotel, and there were no cars for blocks in either direction as I strolled across the crosswalk. But I was the only one. Dozens of people remained on the curbs and looked at me like an ax murderer. The light was against me. They told me at the bookstore that the fine for jaywalking is something like $50.
I waited for my flight at SeaTac, staring out the terminal window at snow-capped Mount Rainier. I thought about what interesting days these were to be traveling so much by air. And I finally began to notice a pattern to the security. Because of past injustices in our country, we're rightly concerned with profiling. So we've adopted the pretense of banning profiling, when we're actually compensating by over-profiling. You know all the scary, terrorist-looking guys with the bomb-shaped shoes? We're still checking every one of them. But just so their feelings don't get hurt, we check twice as many elderly Japanese women.
Denver. The media escort really pushed the bottled water on me. She said I needed it to fend off altitude sickness, which has a way of creeping up. By the time I noticed any symptoms, it would be too late.
"What do you mean? I'll die?"
"No, but you won't like it."
We hit a Borders and I felt a bit light-headed. The people I was talking to at the info desk began glowing and I grabbed the edge of the desk so I wouldn't whack my chin in case my legs went. I wobbled back to the car and tanked up on the water. When I felt better, we went over to the scheduled book signing. They had the cover of my book meticulously reproduced in the frosting of a cake. They said they had ordered it from the pornographic cake store.
New Orleans. Everyone was drunk.
Houston. This was the first city where they trusted me to be on my own with a rental car. I did the signing, turned in the Hertz and made it to George Bush International Airport with an hour and a half to spare, feeling pretty good about myself as a seasoned traveler. Who needs a media escort?
I went to the info booth, showed them my ticket and asked where my airline counter was.
"It's at the other airport."