September 21, 2001—Aitkin County, Minnesota
Let's start with a good sign: A friend in New York told me today she'd just heard a noisy knot of fellow citizens on the street arguing about how best to repair their city. Some believed in rebuilding the World Trade Center bigger than ever, others in creating a lower-profile business district; details don't matter, because what picked Judy up was simply the sound of their passion. Voices impolitely planning a future. It sounded, Judy said, like New York again.
Of course you didn't click this link to read yet more about the ghastly attack and its aftermath; for that there's real reporting, good reporting, everywhere you look, and rightly so. This page contains only my scattershot journal, a notebook I'm keeping for the duration of what's become a strange and seat-of-the-pants North American book tour. I start with New York because these events have made seat-of-the-pants an everyday condition for most of us, if not all; a condition we gratefully accept, given the losses suffered. It's a silver lining of tragedy that you hear little grousing about mere disruptions. My wallet's lost? My flight's canceled? Oh well.
A word about the book tour and the reason for this Web page: Last fall, after 16 years reporting for Minnesota Public Radio, a novel that had been growing a long time suddenly came ripe and sold, a happy shock delivering the prospect of Time Off; a long, peaceful Leave of Absence; possibly a Career Change—all dreamy terms rarely offered to reporters. The truth is that, in all those years of newswriting, I rarely met a story that couldn't have been improved by the careful injection of fiction. Every reporter I know has at some time badly wanted to invent a source, goose a quote, or provide a tasty detail that wasn't actually at the scene but would lend the piece a certain tone. You can't do it, plainly; you just want to. When the book sold, the opportunity showed up, in coat and tails, to invent not just sources but entire stories. Who could turn that down?
But, as Dan Olson has said, a reporter once is a reporter forever. So when Grove/Atlantic asked me to tour, I asked MPR whether they'd let me send in a few notes from the road—a chance, again, to describe what's there, how it looks and sounds and smells, and what it might mean. Will it be news? No sir. Just some observations, some details, maybe the rare opinion. All I know is it'll be a different account than it would've been, had the terrorists decided to stay home. I promise no wearisome author gripes about air travel, for starters, in part because this has turned into a driving tour—it's seat-of-the-pants, like everything else. You see different things from a rented Jeep than you do from a jet. You meet different people and use different muscles. And if something happens, as now seems possible, and commercial flights are grounded, you can turn the Jeep around and drive home.
The novel is called Peace Like a River. The tour started last week in Wisconsin and continues, maybe—through the Midwest and out to both coasts and Canada. Check back if you're interested. I'll write again when there's time.
October 2, 2001—New York and Boston
Next trip I'll bring fewer clothes.
Then the suitcase will have more room for books, which have relentlessly joined me along the way: books about animals, acoustic blues, outlaws romantic or embittered—books about reading itself. The suitcase is constructed of an armor-like cloth described by the manufacturer as "ballistic," meaning, I guess, it will turn bullets—which seems overkill for something as modest as a piece of luggage, although judging from the number of similarly outfitted travelers, you'd think we got shot at daily.
In truth there've been no aggressors on this tour, but there have been a great number of admirably determined book-lovers advocating volumes I must not miss. The formerly ordered suitcase lists to port. It weighs like an anchor. It should be named after a woman and struck with champagne. I dread no imagined burst of ballistics, only the quiet strain of the incipient hernia.
This is the unforeseen kick of the book tour: to visit a series of fascinating stores—the fusty, the elegant, the caffeinated—stuffed not only with books but with booksellers so infectious that leaving with empty hands is impossible. Here are the titles I've bought, or been given, since landing at La Guardia on Sept. 29:
• Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman
• Wildwood Boys, by James Carlos Baker
• The Zygote Chronicles, by Suzanne Finnamore
• Wavemaker 2, by Mary-Beth Hughes
• The Siege, by Helen Dunmore
• Country Blues, by Samuel B. Charters
• Pack of Two, by Caroline Knapp
• The Ordinary Seaman, by Francisco Goldman
• Things You Get For Free, by Michael McGirr
• Death at the Priory, by James Ruddick
Some of these are hardcovers, some paperback, and several aren't yet published but exist as advance reader copies—a perk of being escorted around Boston by the electric and shoot-from-the-hip Peg O'Donnell. Peg is a book sales rep who's responsible for getting Peace Like a River into stores all over New England, and also a dog fancier who will roll down the window of her Volvo to speak with passing retrievers, even those she's unlikely to meet again.
Tuesday this meant a chocolate lab in the turning lane at a stop light in gridlocked Boston. "Hello Sweets," Peg said. It was a handsome dog in a Ford Explorer, head out the window, tongue a happy, dripping strap waving in the wind. Peg said: "Oh, beautiful!" The driver of the Explorer, a woman about 35 with brown hair pulled back in a bandana, gave us a Yankee squint. A few minutes later, in a bookstore in Wellesley, Peg added another book to my ballast: a story in verse called Love That Dog.
I'm not supposed to be acquiring books, granted, but selling them. Thankfully that's also happening. It's true I wondered how the New York readings would go; though USA Today and other papers have run stories on the New Patriotism of Shopping ("The economy needs my money more than I do," declared one allegiant consumer), the streets of Manhattan remain less than rambunctious. A calm exists, both worried and respectful.
Within sight of the rubble of the World Trade Center towers, a gentleman stepped from his jewelry store to hand out flyers for a Big Gem Sale to the perpetual crowd watching the cleanup. His heart wasn't in it, though, and no one seemed interested. So I was surprised to see audiences of encouraging size and warmth in New York, both at the Ariel Bookshop in upstate New Paltz, and at Barnes & Noble in the city. In both places, people used the word "re-emerge." At man at B&N bought copies for his friends for Christmas; he was coming out of hibernation, he said; he snarled: boy, was he hungry.
Tuesday's reading at Tim Huggins's magnificent bookstore in the Boston suburb of Newtonville was also cheering. His place hasn't cappucino, nor even very many square feet, but magnificent is the word all right: The shelves are high and entirely crammed, books are stacked shinglewise on the floor and the counter and atop computer monitors. This store could swallow you down like you were Jonah, except you'd have a better time.
Mr. Huggins, who learned the book trade in Mississippi before moving to Boston, looks nothing like his cuddly surname: He's the kind of long-maned, glowering patron of the arts who appears wholly capable of convincing you, by force if necessary, to read what he tells you, or even to attend a reading by some nobody writer he believes in. After these events he invites the whole crowd down the street for refreshments. It's a nice little spot they repair to, but even if it wasn't, you'd be safe with Tim.
October 15-26, 2001—Oregon and Washington
Minnesota to Portland is a four-day drive (three for the desperate), and especially worthwhile if you didn't know certain pieces of country existed. For me there's been a lifelong whitespace between eastern Montana—where certain cousins grew up and which seemed the outer edge of my family's driving limits—and the west coast, a destination thought of in terms of airplanes or Amtrak. Following are lessons learned about driving beyond the North Dakota Badlands.
1. Before jumping off the western rim of North Dakota, it's good to fuel up with a stop at the Book Corral in Medora, a tiny bookshop run by interesting and tireless people; interesting because their knowledge of western lore extends beyond their wide selection of books into the territory of legend and even television (current inventory includes the complete episodes of Rawhide and Gunsmoke on VHS); tireless because they keep the store open year round to late odd hours, even though Medora is a tourist town that closes most of its shutters by late September.
2. Interstates are fine. Though I've read as much Charles Kuralt as most and agree shunpiking is the virtuous way to see the country, there's no substitute for raw speed when looking at an atlas computing the hours between Glendive and Missoula. Deadlines are the common thread between radio reporting and book touring: getting to a reading in Portland in four days (three for the desperate) isn't so different from getting a Mille Lacs script to Euan Kerr by week's end, except Euan will be more understanding (from long experience) if I fail.
3. Expect winter between Bozeman and Butte. This 80-mile stretch of freeway might be Montana's version of I-94 between Moorhead and Fergus Falls, a segment capable of brewing abrupt heinous blizzards while surrounding landscapes sleep in the sun.
Attending college at Moorhead State 20 years ago, it was so common to be stranded near Fergus that we all knew which truckstops served the best omelets, a memory recalled last week when the sun disappeared just past Bozeman and the temperature dropped 30 degrees in 21 miles. And then the snow: We stopped to horse around in it and take some video, but this snow was no autumn novelty. It had ambitions.
In 10 minutes, the traffic on I-90 slowed to 35 mph and, as visibility failed, I became dependent for guidance on the taillights of a Lincoln Continental. An older model Lincoln, a large, trustworthy automobile driven by a man in a slope-crowned cowboy hat such as Teddy Roosevelt wore during his ranching days in North Dakota. He stayed on the road, a true rough rider, and as we crawled toward Butte, the road turned slushy and the snowflakes came backlit by sun. We got into the city just as spring arrived. The Lincoln zipped away on a side street, and Butte was a town awash in snowmelt and people stepping outdoors to blink.
4. Idaho is like C. S. Lewis's wardrobe: a place of forested loveliness where anything might happen to those who stray off the path or, in this case, the interstate. Though the trees are majestic and throw shade like black felt, they're so relentless that my hands got damp before we climbed into the high desert of Washington State. Later, in Portland, an interviewer wondered about this nervousness. It's not complicated— if someone were after me, I wouldn't be able to see them coming. The interviewer shook his head. "You approach it wrongly," he said. "Think how many places you can hide."
Signed in Portland at 23rd Avenue Books, a small independent store, which is successful despite its proximity to Powell's, the lovely and famously large bookstore—a Portland landmark. Bob Maull, who owns 23rd, accomplishes this by knowing his customers and serving them his suggestions with humor, underscored with the passion all great booksellers possess. Portland residents will tell you they read more books per capita than anyone else in the country. Powell's is one reason why; Bob Maull is another.
Next day it was up the Espresso Coast through Seattle, past Safeco Field, which emitted a dangerous glow of Mariner's Fever, to Bellingham, WA. It's unfortunate to be on the road during the playoffs, though most years it wouldn't have mattered—the last time I cared about the ALCS was in 1991. But Seattle had such a brilliant season, winning 116, and the Yankees are so hideously good in the postseason, I wanted to watch the games. It was disappointing to reach Bellingham too late to catch the end of Game One on television, but there was a fine crowd at Village Books for the evening reading, and they were easy to cheer up; all I had to say was, "Tomorrow's comeback day." Many repaid me, in fact, by smiling and nodding as I read from Peace Like a River. They laughed easily; they made kind remarks. This sort of thing is a hubris injection. You think: Why, they like it pretty well—yes, sir.
Anyone who's read Proverbs could've foretold trouble.
The night of Game Two found us back in Seattle at the picturesque Elliot Bay Bookstore. Elliot Bay is three blocks from Safeco Field, meaning much of Seattle was close by and not thinking about books. Most people who parked near the store that night paid dearly for the privilege and walked straight to the ballpark muttering about revenge. Of the very few who chose fiction over the ballgame (see how ridiculous it sounds?) one was a faithful old friend from grade school days, marooned by loyalty, and two others kept getting up and sneaking out and then back in. They were checking the score. In all, the Mariners had a worse night than I did; beaten again, their exiting fans were a chilled river of sorrow and dragging pennants plugging the sidewalks for blocks. In front of a jewelry store, one diehard got fed up with the preponderant gloom: "Come on," he roared, "It's not over! It's only two games! Come on, you [wimps]! Get some spine!" The fellow had a fedora in his hand, held upside-down, at arm's length. Nobody spoke to him or joined his tirade, but quite a few dropped in some change.
November 28, 2001—Home Sweet Home
This journal was meant to be something more conventional—a genial entry every 10 days or so looking candidly at the book tour. It was simple at first, when the plan was to write aboard airplanes; but when the tour changed to an epic drive (23 states in 31 days) things got frantic. Suddenly, in addition to readings and finding my way through strange cities, there were all these miles to drive—10,000 miles, an average of more than 300 a day. Like freight pilots and musicians, I began to lose track of where I was, particularly when waking in the morning. My reserves of determination, meager to start with, shifted away from journal-writing toward practical matters like staying alert at the wheel. Therefore I arrived home with a weary mind, a pile of travel notes, and a burdened conscience. Having now slept off the first and organized the second, let's see what can be done about lightening the third.
THE NAPA VALLEY, which I'd not seen since a visit to my elegant aunt and uncle more than 20 years ago. On that visit, they took me to Point Reyes, where Sir Francis Drake landed with his grumbling crew; to the great redwood forest near San Francisco; and through Napa, with its miles of grapevines and its magnificent haciendas, farms like none I'd ever seen. What I remember is the liquid feel of the sunlight in vineyard country, and the exotic shimmer of ragtops scooting down the highway.
This time around, it seemed less mysterious but just as lovely. I signed in Sonoma just after the annual Crush Festival, when the smell of grapes rolls through like a pleasant fog; at a store in San Francisco where readers were served eight kinds of appetizers unidentifiable to me; in Santa Cruz at the wonderful Capitola Book Café.
The days were clear, the winds slight, the traffic less cumbrous than advertised. Best of all, my elegant aunt came to one of the readings, having not aged since 1979 (my uncle, tired from travel and too much Shakespeare, stayed home in Sacramento).
DENVER The Tattered Cover, Denver's famed bookstore, is so large you want to vanish for days in its stacks, with a staff so well-read you rarely need the provided book-search computers. Years ago, the Tattered Cover commissioned portraits of every author who came for a signing. These hang in a wide hall next to the reading room—it's the only place you'll ever see a picture of Jon Hassler immediately next to one of Elvira, of late-night-movie fame.
Incidentally, one of the finest things about a book tour is the number of relatives who come out to see you; in Denver these included several I didn't know existed. It's like getting a present unexpectedly; like finding a fresh cheesecake in a refrigerator you were certain was empty. We shook hands, talked late, and took each other's pictures.
RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA Besides its Southern allure (the Biscuitville fast-food chain has the best grits I encountered on the tour), Raleigh has Nancy Olson, who runs Quail Ridge Books with irresistible zeal. Among the considerable audience she brought out—for an author virtually no one here had heard of—were at least two locally based writers, an English teacher, and a number of college students who mentioned they were attending their first reading ever. These, under gentle grilling, admitted they'd only come because their humanities professor required it. The professor was nowhere to be seen.
NORTHFIELD, MINNESOTA Nearly the last stop—I have, at this writing, only three more scheduled signings, all of them nearby. But Northfield is always a joyous stop, for its history alone; the reading was held in a dance studio a block from the bank unsuccessfully held up by the James and Younger gang.
A lot of people came, plus the studio boasts a mirrored wall which straightaway doubled the crowd. The bank, by the way, is a museum now, well worth your time, though it no longer displays the skeleton of the bandit Charlie Pitts—apparently there was some question whether the bones were really Charlie's. Then too the matter of good taste arose. This was years ago; where the poor fellow resides now is anyone's guess.
Well, let's wind this up. A long trip calls for summary, I suppose, and at this point a good essayist, a Barton Sutter, a Paul Gruchow, would set down a paragraph condensing the miles, geography traversed, and people encountered into a wise nub of revealed truth. This however is too large a cargo for me and is the reason I don't write essays.
What I can say truthfully is: It is good to be home. Finally arriving at our dead-end road, under sunset skies, the beauty of a small farm in central Minnesota seemed easily the equal of anything offered in 10,000 previous miles. Instead of confused, I wake up grateful, most mornings at first light. I know precisely where I am.