Thursday, February 4, 2010

Work in Progress: Joanna Smith Rakoff on "The Book Tour"

Fantasies of “the book tour” fill many an afternoon when the writing isn’t going well, usually involving images of stacks of books and crowds hanging adoringly on every word. The reality? Let Joanna Smith Rakoff tell you a little bit about her book tour.

But first, let me tell you a little bit about Joanna: her first novel, A Fortunate Age, is about six Oberlin twenty-somethings, and takes off from Mary McCarthy’s The Group. You can read some very lovely reviews of it here in the New York Times Book Review and here in the Los Angeles Times. She also has a great piece on Slate about answering J.D. Salinger’s fan mail when she worked at the Harold Ober Associates (Salinger’s literary agency).

And, best of all for DC area folks, she and my friend Dylan Landis will be reading here next week on Wednesday, February 10, at THE ARTS CLUB OF WASHINGTON, at 2017 I Street NW, near Foggy Bottom/GWU and Farragut West metro. Details for that reading are here (scroll down). The reading is free and features a light reception following the event. This should be an excellent reading and conversation (see below!), so let’s hope the incoming weekend snow will have melted into a memory by then.


On a cool evening last summer, I packed my family—husband, four-year-old, six-month-old—into our rented car and drove from a hotel in San Jose, near my parents’ house, to an affluent town about 90 minutes north, in the gorgeous countryside above San Francisco. We were early, as is my tendency, and so we went into the bookstore and introduced ourselves, and ordered sandwiches at the shop’s café. The idea had been for my husband, Evan, and the kids to come to the reading, but it became clear that this simply wouldn’t work. Coleman wouldn’t be able to sit still or keep quiet. So Evan took the children on a walk and I walked off with the shop’s manager who came to find me. There were two readings that night, he explained. The other writer lived in the area and had written a book about vegetables. He would be reading in the main part of the store. I’d be reading in the annex, across the breezeway. He led me to a lovely, light-filled room, and seated me at a table, across from several rows of chairs. “We never have any idea if anyone is going to come,” the manager told me. “Sometimes we have thirty people. Sometimes we have none.”

“None?” I asked.

“Yep,” he said, shrugging good-naturedly. “We never know what’s going to happen. We can have someone really famous and ten people come. And then we can have someone who wrote a book about wicker baskets and a hundred people come. You never know.”

A moment later, four people walked in the door: a pretty woman of about my age; a couple in their sixties; and a vivacious woman in her seventies, whom I suspected of being a regular attendee of this bookstore’s events. I knew none of them, an unusual phenomenon for a writer of the non-famous variety, like myself. This is great, I thought. Four people already.

Except that no one else came. The six of us sat there for five minutes, then ten, until the manager—a former actor who seriously knows how to work a crowd (or lack thereof)—diplomatically said, “Okay, this is going to be a lovely, intimate evening. Why doesn’t everyone come sit closer and we can just talk.” And the fact is that he was right. It was a lovely evening. None of those four people had read my novel. They’d come for different reasons, attracted by different things, though they shared a common interest in New York, the setting for A Fortunate Age, but also, in a way, its subject (or, as some have said, a character unto itself). And they began asking me about New York, about how I’d approached writing about September 11, about neighborhoods in Brooklyn. We had a lively, great conversation, one that I was glad to have, and when I signed their copies of the novel, I was more than able to write more personal notes than is the norm. But still, I couldn’t help thinking that I’d dragged my family all the way from the bottom to the top of the Bay Area for no reason. I felt a bit silly.

None of this is a new story. Every writer has their tales of traveling to far-flung places and reading to a sea of folding chairs. And yet—and yet—when it happens to you, particularly for the first time, you still feel sort of strange and terrible, you still feel rather like a failure, even if the events coordinator reminds you that it’s Good Friday (as it was the night of my first reading, in Brooklyn, at a store I love) or the last night of the Super Bowl and a transit strike has sent the city into chaos (as was the case on one of the evenings I read in Philadelphia), because for every reading that seems to fail for outward reasons, there’s one that succeeds despite being the day before Christmas or the day after July Fourth (mine, in Los Angeles, which was mobbed).

I was able, in a way, to shrug off that Marin County reading, as I don’t know anyone in the immediate area—and a friend, who gathers huge crowds in New York, had told me only two people showed up for her last reading at this particular store—but I was less able to suffer the low attendance at my other Bay Area readings, at stores closer to my extended family or near the neighborhoods in which friends live.

A couple of weeks later, the four of us sat in the overgrown backyard of my friend Emily Chenoweth’s Portland house, eating hot dogs and fat local berries. Emily’s husband, Jon Raymond, is from Portland and is rather famous in the Pacific Northwest. His story collection, Livability, seemed to be right at the front of every bookstore we visited in the area. So I was shocked and comforted to hear him say, laughing, that he’d just had his first reading at which no one showed up. “What did you do?” I asked. He explained that he’d brought a friend along, so he and the friend simply left and had dinner. It was kind of a relief, he said.

I nodded, for it had been a kind of relief, that reading at which I’d just sat and talked, in part because my worst fears had been realized, and the world hadn’t ended. In part, because it was pleasant to sit and talk with smart strangers, even if it didn’t lead to the thing my publisher kept (and keeps) on talking about: sales and more sales. Over the months that have followed, I’ve had readings big and small, but I’ve tried, as much as I can, to steer them toward conversations. So that, regardless of anything else, at the very least I’d spent an hour getting to know some interesting people.

A couple of weeks after we returned to New York, I found a letter in our mailbox with a California return address. The older woman had read my novel and, she said, loved it so much she felt she had to write. She’d sent a copy to her daughter, she explained, who was closer in age to my characters and might enjoy it even more. The next time I was in the Bay Area, she said, she hoped she could take my whole family out for ice cream. She had seen them, reading books in the store’s kids’ section, and she knew that it hadn’t been easy for me to spend that evening talking with her and the others. A month or so later, an email arrived from the daughter, saying how much she’d loved it. . If I would be reading in Philadelphia, she told me, I had to let her know so she could come. She’d related to the characters so strongly and had hated to say goodbye to them at the end of the novel. Which was, I thought, roughly how I’d felt about the various people I’d met on tour. ~~Joanna Smith Rakoff

About: Joanna Smith Rakoff's novel, A Fortunate Age, was one of Booklist's Top Ten Debut Novels of 2009 and a winner of the Elle Readers' Prize.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.