25th Trillium Award

Road Tripping with Writers

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By Julie Wilson

In an age of virtual book tours, authors are able to connect more than ever with readerships, almost as quickly as the request to connect comes in. Peruse a variety of author Facebook fan pages and you'll find many writers are responding to readers with an offer to appear via Skype to answer questions. Call it customer appreciation or strategic relationship building, authors are no longer hindered by distance when it comes to meeting their readers. Skype also extends the opportunity for authors to discuss their works well out of season, after their publishers have had to move on to frontlist publicity. Indeed, as a freelance publicist, I list Skype chats among an author's skill set as a performer.

So what of the in-person author event? What of the connection that comes from meeting a fan in person, the reader who stands in line hoping for a signature, possibly in a journal in which an author published his or her first poem or short story? Although I am a self-professed online geek, this piece is not a pitch about the ease of book promotion as performed from the comfort of your own home. Instead, it's about my fandom of the driving tour, the athleticism of packing up and hitting the road, and the authors who spend far more time on the road promoting their books than I could have appreciated. YA author Matt Beam clocked over 5,000 km in 2008 in support of Earth to Nathan Blue. Trevor Cole has driven 4,000 km since September 2010 for Practical Jean. Just as impressive are the number of bookstore appearances some authors put in — take Cathy Marie Buchanan, who has visited almost 50 bricks-and-mortars in support of her 2009 novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still — as are the pleasures that sometimes accompany unique pairings. James FitzGerald experiences joy anytime he is paired with novelists in support of his 2010 memoir, What Disturbs Our Blood.

This fall, I was fortunate to attend a number of festivals and bookstore events around Ontario, hitching a ride here and there with a handful of authors, if not going it alone. In mid-October, I accompanied Camilla Gibb to a library event in Aurora to promote her 2010 novel, The Beauty of Humanity Movement. (Gibb, it must be said, is an exceptional driver. Parallel parking or questionable directions don't faze her — nor does a passenger with questionable abilities in reading directions.) As we pulled up out front of the library, we scanned the street: very quiet. "Do you think there's parking in back?" I mused aloud. Gibb started to recount a book she had as a child about just this fear, that one day you'll arrive to an empty event.

Almost any time I’m en route to a reading where I am the only person on the bill, I have what I call a ”Kingcup moment.”
Francesca the frog was the title character in my favourite children’s book, Kingcup Cottage. She has just moved to a new lily pad and knows no one in her new neighbourhood. Someone suggests that she throw a party. She thinks it’s a fine idea and has the postman deliver invitations to all the local residents. The day of the party comes. Francesca has prepared a feast of cakes and jellies and nervously awaits her guests. Hours pass. Nobody comes. Francesca sticks her finger in a cake, watches the jellies begin to slide and melt. She tugs the end of Christmas cracker. Sits there in her party hat. Tears tumble down her face.
This story killed me as a child and I live in fear of it being my life. Will anyone come to hear me read? Because, believe me, every writer has had a Kingcup moment come true.  (to be continued . . .)

With this story in mind, I went back to some of the authors I'd travelled with, or met along the way, in search of more insight into other aspects of the life of a road-touring author.

Julie Wilson: I'm curious, as much time as you've spent in your car, have you anthropomorphized it? Does it have any idiosyncrasies?

Trevor Cole: My little blue Toyota Yaris seems to be game for just about anything. Doesn't much like stopping on wet snow though. I call my car's ABS brakes "All Bullshit." 

James FitzGerald: I borrow my partner's used BMW. She has German blood, so naturally we named the car "Wagner," which I am happy to report does not offend my many Jewish friends. Whenever I pull into a literary event, I have a tough time justifying my long-cherished image as a shabby, hand-to-mouth writer a mere paycheque away from living off cans of Alpo under the Gardiner Expressway. "It's not my car!" I protest, but all I get is a laugh.

Cathy Marie Buchanan: We have an eight-year-old Volvo Station Wagon, and it's the first car I ever loved or even liked. I'm hopeless without the GPS and the seat warmers.

Matt Beam: When I did my drive across the country, I had a tour blog and Fin, my family's Infinity, took Nathan and I on quite a ride. Yep, Nathan, my imaginative (and imaginary?) protagonist, decided to come along as well. If you are interested, find out what Nathan got up to:  http://www.penguinblogs.ca/mattbeam

JW: Do you like to build in extra travel time, or chance that you'll arrive on schedule?
Trevor Cole: I like to build in an extra half-hour of time for an unexpected detour or directions glitch. I've had some organizers give me directions that sent me 20 km beyond the proper turnoff, because they'd never actually travelled to their town from my direction. 

James FitzGerald: You know what they say about the punctuality of clients arriving at their therapist's office? If you're early, you're anxious; if you're late, you're angry; if you're on time, you're obsessive. You can't win. Whatever my destination, I like to get to get there early, check out the venue, intimidate or be intimidated by my co-presenters, see if the host spelled my name right, etc. If that makes me an anxious type, so be it.

Cathy Marie Buchanan: The traffic getting out of Toronto is so unpredictable, I usually arrive way too early. Then again, I'm sure I've been spotted putting on my make-up and high heels in many a parking lot. 

Matt Beam: The closer I shave it, running in with minutes to go, the better the presentation. Or I'm too flustered to notice, one way or the other.

JW: What's the most treacherous weather you've driven in?
Trevor Cole: I've driven to readings in blowing snow and in freezing rain. One of those was to a book club reading an hour away where half the book club members, who lived a few minutes away, didn't show up because the driving was too dangerous. 

James FitzGerald: It's yet to be an issue. Except stormy emotional weather, perhaps.

Cathy Marie Buchanan: I drove home from speaking at the Roselawn Readers Series in Port Colborne in teeming rain on lonely country roads in the middle of the night and was more than a little freaked out. Singing out loud helps. 

JW: Have you had any surprising encounters from the road?

James FitzGerald: I'm not that reckless.

Cathy Marie Buchanan: A US border [guard] once got very excited about meeting an author. He wrote down the name of my book, told me he would never forget that day and got out of his booth to stand in the middle of the road, waving as I drove off.  The bonus — he was cute. 

Matt Beam: I drove by a Buddhist monk walking on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere aka Northwestern Ontario. Apparently this guy is a known commodity. A few people told me they'd heard of "The Highway Walker" before.

JW: Do you talk to yourself on the road? Come up with new ideas? Play out dialogue?
Trevor Cole: Generally when I'm on tour, I'm not in the middle of another piece of writing. I seem to need some distance from the publicity period before I can get down to the next thing. So I'm usually thinking about the reading to come. Or the reading I've just given. 

James FitzGerald: All the time. The internal chatter never ceases. If I'm alone, I crank up the music. "Flight of the Valkyries" sounds just right inside Wagner. If I'm driving and Katy, my partner, is my passenger, I usually shut up, as I like to concentrate on the road. But if I'm a passenger and she's driving, I have no qualms about dumping all my nervous energy on her. There's usually enough material in our dialogues for a play or short story, most of which will never get written.

Cathy Marie Buchanan: Talking to myself isn't really limited to the privacy of my own car. Just ask my kids.

Matt Beam: Lots of singing and steering-wheel tapping.

JW: What is the value to hitting the road and appearing in front of unfamiliar audiences?

Trevor Cole: It definitely underlines that the job isn't done when you hand in your manuscript. You have to support the book with your living presence. Generally speaking I love the festival experience — it's a great opportunity to meet other authors, trade war stories and build your connections within the writing community. I always come away feeling invigorated and connected to something larger than myself. The long, lonely drive to a one-off reading, in a book store or library, is a slightly different experience, and the result is more unpredictable. It can be memorable, as in Grimsby or Uxbridge, or it can be the lowest moment of the tour. 

James FitzGerald: Networking is the greatest value to an author. Invariably, I make a connection that leads somewhere productive; not to mention the value of escaping the black hole of the RSI-inducing computer. Any excuse not to write, I fervently embrace. I hate writing; but, I'm afraid it's the only thing I can, um, like, sorta do half-decent.

Cathy Marie Buchanan: Meeting readers and hearing how you've touched their lives is the most rewarding aspect of writing. Well, maybe second to crafting the perfect sentence.  

JW: What bookstore and/or festival has shown you the greatest kindness as a touring author?
Trevor Cole: My best experiences, in no particular order, have been at the Kingston Festival, the Ottawa Festival, Thin Air in Winnipeg, the Leacock Festival in Orillia, the Headwaters Festival in Orangeville and at the reading series in Westport, Grimsby, Uxbridge and Port Colborne. It's hard to single out one or two from these because the organizing effort behind all of them has, in my experience, been terrific. 

James FitzGerald: Headwaters Arts Festival in Caledon last fall. I was on the same stage with the novelists Camilla Gibb, Trevor Cole and Linwood Barclay. I had met each of them once before and this was a chance to re-connect and trade witticisms. I love talking to other writers, if only to kvetch and carp about the privileges that commonly afflict us. And as the only non-fiction writer, it was a chance to show that we are just as "creative" as novelists. We "truth-is-stranger-than-fiction" types are still the Rodney Dangerfields of literary genres, although I do see signs of growing respect. That night, my book sold out. Picture an image of my Writer's Ego passing through a car wash of 200 fans, emerging cleaned, buffed and reinvigorated, ready to drive on.

No one understands that a happy author makes for a happy event better than the organizer. One of the best organizers in Ontario is Shelley MacBeth of Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge, who routinely packs an event and is often able to pre-sell entire series, building the cost of the book into the ticket price, providing an author with the unique comfort of knowing the book has already been sold before they've yet to take the stage.

Now an annual stop on IFOA's Ontario tour, MacBeth discusses the advantages that await a road-touring author. "For a mere hour's drive from Toronto," she says, "an author will usually find a full house of attentive, well-read folks who ask intelligent questions. In venues outside big cities, the bookstore reputation is paramount. For instance, it would be inconceivable to me to invite an author to appear at an event without full confidence in my ability to attract a sizeable audience that wants to buy books, which is a vastly different experience from an event in which the author is made to feel as if they have to dance as fast as they can just to get the sale."

She also believes that face-time has long-term benefits after the event has ended, namely that an author's book remains front of mind to both the audience and the bookseller. I asked MacBeth how that influences her book-buying habits. "The best answer is to keep that author's books on the shelves," she says, "because an event can resonate, and I'm often surprised by customer requests for a book month's after the fact."

Meanwhile, back in Aurora, Part Two of Gibb's "Kingcup moment" story yields a surprising conclusion that perfectly illustrates why authors are served well by efforts to go beyond the comfort of their own backyards, and, indeed, their living rooms.

Years later, my mother ordered me a copy of Kingcup Cottage as I was about to have my own child, and I remembered the story actually had a happy ending, that there was good reason for her poor party turn out: half the residents were illiterate (and the moles were blind), half had received soggy invitations with the details blurred and those who could attend couldn’t swim! In the book, someone suggests Francesca relocate her party to a more suitable location. And so she throws her party in a meadow and a grand time is had by all. There are morals here when considering the needs of your guests (readers and audience): that it is not necessarily about you.

Julie Wilson is The Book Madam, a self-professed "professional publishing fan" living and working in Toronto. She's the past Online Marketing Manager for House of Anansi Press, past Host of the CBC Book Club and current Host at CanadianBookshelf.com. She thinks reading looks good on you. Follow Julie on Twitter: @BookMadam and @SeenReading. Post your own reader sightings using the hashtag #seenreading.

Photo of Julie Wilson by Jeff Kelly.

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