Brief Encounters

There's a line from A Little Night Music's "Late" that I quote all the time. Misquote. I just had to check it again: Doesn't anything begin? 

But in the case of a book tour, it often feels like: Does it ever end? It's been only six weeks and I think I did my last U.S. event last night in Portsmouth, NH. But now UK publication is rushing toward me, with its attendant duties -- not so much touring, but some writing to do, interviews, etc. (And I'm grateful for every opportunity to put my words in front of people, however I have to do it.) 

Portsmouth is a cool town and the event, part of a series, is a very cool gig. The weather was gorgeous and I found an outstanding restaurant for dinner. Shishito peppers! A salad with a hardboiled egg and tempura-battered fiddleheads! But I had gotten up at 6 yesterday morning and I was dragging by night's end. Couldn't muster the energy to share a glass of wine with the lovely woman who interviewed me. 

But there were two people who stood on the signing line for whom I took extra time. The second one, first -- he had attended my high school, Wilde Lake, graduating a year before I did. Like me, he lived in Columbia for only three years. Like me, he cherished a particular English teacher, Lillian Martin. We figured out that we were in the same AP European History class. 

He has written a novel. He gave me an overview to show how serious he is, how close he has gotten to publication several times. He doesn't want to self-publish, an decision I endorse. I think self-publishing is not the best choice for fiction because it requires so much attention to marketing -- which means less time for writing and thinking about the writing. But I could not do what he most wanted, which was to read his work and provide a blurb that he could use upon submission. I think that's a terrible trend in publishing and while it might work for a short time, out of novelty, editors and agents will quickly become jaded by these pre-submission endorsements. I felt terrible saying "No," but I also felt I had to stick to my principles. 

The second encounter was also some from my past, but more recently. In February 2009, I had the great pleasure of meeting Becky Schultze at Joyce Maynard's writing retreat at her home in Guatemala. Becky is a superhero in my eyes -- she knows the kind of stuff I'll never know, can seemingly do anything and is fiercely loyal to her friends. We last saw each other at Joyce's wedding, almost three years ago. 

Those who follow Joyce on Facebook know that her husband, Jim, is now close to death. (If her page is open, go read what she wrote about attending a Dylan concert last week.) It's the kind of story that would make me say God is a terrible novelist, if I still believed in God. If God were in my writing workshop, I would turn this story back to him with stern notes. Stop trying to be Jojo Moyes! Give Joyce and Jim the happy ending that the reader wants! 

I wrote the wrong ending to my evening. I should have gone off to have a drink with Becky, toasted Joyce and Jim, whose wedding on a New Hampshire hilltop was one of the loveliest I ever attended. I think I was afraid that if I did so, I would start crying and never stop. 

"Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it--every,every minute?" Had to look that up, too. 

It Depends on What You Mean by "Daily"

OK, so there's one promise broken. 

Last Thursday, I became aware that my hip hurt something fierce. I attributed that to my workout. And then I began shaking all over. I attributed that to not having eaten all day. Wait, I hadn't eaten all that day? How unusual. I grabbed a sandwich, tried to eat. I was now shaking all over and quite warm. I had a fever of 102. Divide that number by 2 and you have almost the exact number of women waiting for me at the Ivy Hotel, for a very cool ticketed event involving books and champagne. 

In my head, I am a very healthy person. But looking back over my life on the road as a traveling author, I see laryngitis, flu, strep . . . last Thursday night, I sent my husband and daughter as my seconds. The next night, I decided to try to make my event in Chestertown, MD. My fever was gone, but I was still a wreck, shaky and fragile. After much thought, I have decided that the library administrator listening to the guest speaker dry-heaving in the bathroom is actually the more distressed person. I knew I would make it through. She had to rely on blind faith. 

I couldn't travel, as planned, on Saturday, but the nimble folks at Books in Bloom in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, said I could make my speaking slot if I left early enough Sunday. Getting to Northwest Arkansas takes more time than a trip to Barcelona from New York, but it's a lovely place with lovely people. Bonus: Dinner with Amy Stewart, a remarkable writer with a second installment of her stellar series coming this fall. 

Another day of travel. (It takes ten hours, door to door, to get from Eureka Springs to my house.) Then I had a day "off." On Wednesday, I made my first-ever visit to the public library in Jarrettsville, MD. There were 240 people and 1-in-3 bought books. Now I feel ever worse about waiting so long to visit. Then I had a bunch of media stuff on Thursday, Providence, RI, with the lovely Alison Gaylin Friday and today. 

I'm still not 100 percent. Maybe I never was. Maybe I'm not as healthy as I think I am. Maybe if our delusions about ourselves are strong enough, they become real. "Isn't it pretty to think so?" 


PC: Politically Correct or Just Profoundly Conscious?

Last night, I caught myself. I was at my event in NYC and a wonderful woman -- really, it was like Central Casting had sent out a call for "Laura Lippman reader" -- asked about the somewhat different style of Wilde Lake. The book, for the first two-thirds, switches between Lu Brant's first-person narration of a series of childhood events and the present-tense third-person limited POV of Lu over several months in 2015. The lovely woman in the audience, who said she had read everything I had written, asked if this structure had been difficult to conceive and execute.

It had been hard work and effort is one thing I feel I'm entitled to claim. (Results, achievements not so much.) Delighted by the question and this thoughtful reader, I started to say, "Oh yes, I --"

I doubt if anyone in the audience noticed, but I paused and substituted a verb for the one I had intended to use. I can't remember what I did say, but I know what I did not say: "Slaved."

My mind had just enough time to process this choice. How offensive, how misguided to use this word as a description of writing a novel. As a description of any work that is voluntary. I did not "slave." I wrote 3-4 hours a day and I was paid very nicely.

I offer this story because I know people fret about so-called micro-aggressions  and political correctness. And, yes, I can see that sometimes we get a little silly about language.

But it never hurts to check ourselves, to examine the words we use, the biases and stereotypes that flit across our consciousness like cockroaches in the kitchen, fleeing the light.

Think about it this way: If you walk up to a friend and start fondling her breasts, that's quite rude. But if you do it to yourself once a month, in the privacy of your own home, it's just good preventive health care.

Speaking of language, I'm tagging this post "breasts" just to see what happens. 



Unlikely Stories

A Likely Story is the name of a bookstore in Sykesville, Maryland, about 30 minutes west of Baltimore in Carroll County.

Ten years ago, I was the first writer to appear at this brand-new bookstore. Great time to open a bookstore, right? Well, a decade later, A Likely Story is thriving, which was far from a likely story. I had an SRO crowd there tonight, more than 80 people, and the store had sold 168 copies of Wilde Lake. That ain't hay, to quote a line from a favorite Cole Porter song. 

Really good bookstores are like really good friends. We can always use another one. Authors have to be partners with all retailers -- and I am. Thank you to anyone who sells my books, even if it's for a penny, or used. Thank you for selling my books at garage sales or putting them into Little Free Libraries. Heck, thank you for using them to swat flies, or prop up a strangely short table leg. I'm just so pleased that my books exist. Everything else is gravy. 

Testing, Tessing, 1, 2, 3

To answer the questions I've been asked at every appearance so far:

Yes, I miss Tess, too.

No, I'm not sure when she'll be back, but it won't be 2017.

To answer the questions I haven't been asked.

Sometimes, I think I need to plan out the end of the Tess books, possibly in a 2-3 novel arc. Or maybe make her a kind of Nero Wolfe, with a legman or legwoman.

I often think about writing a children's series about Tess's daughter. Chapter books in which Carla Scout, the daughter of Baltimore's accidental detective, becomes the reluctant detective, helping her peers investigate the kind of mysteries that obsess young people. For example: Are these people really my parents? What if that childhood phase of believing you're adopted turned out to have a germ of truth?

Speaking of Tess -- I have these gorgeous bookplates of a solitary sculler with a long braid, designed by Kayle Simon of Real Fresh Creative. Want one? Come through my signing line on this tour and simply hand me a note or say: What's the best way to celebrate?

It's a form of Jeopardy, only you have to know the answer as well as the question.

(Goldenberg Peanut Chews and a Dogfish Head 90-minute IPA. Duh.)

I suggest you write it down. No partial credit if you say 60-minute IPA or Namaste. You don't have to say "Duh" however.

See you in: Sykesville MD, New York, Stamford CT, Baltimore (oops, the event at the Ivy Hotel is sold out), Chestertown, Eureka Springs, AK. Things slow down a little going into the third week of May and then my whole family disappears from all professional gigs as we gather for a relatively rare exacta: One sibling's 6-year-old birthday party, followed by the other sibling's college graduation. 

What's the best way to celebrate? Goldenberg Peanut Chews and a Dogfish Head 90-minute IPA.  

I'll also accept "Swordfish." 

A Terrible Beauty is Born

The temptation is to slug this -- oops, I guess old reporters never die, they just slip under their desks into little puddles of bourbon -- You Can Go Home Again. But that seems obvious and not quite accurate. Columbia, Maryland is not home for me. It is a place where I lived for three (pretty happy) years. Those years were formative for me. And, I have come to realize in this first week of touring, constructive.

I entered Wilde Lake High School in 1974. The open-space concept embraced by the young Columbia's school system had begun to close a bit. While students still took some classes independently, completing "segments" or LAPs (learning activity packages) toward credits, the math and science classes were increasingly traditional. That was perfect for a young (and, initially, friendless) nerd such as myself. I did a year's worth of English Composition in four months.

Later I asked my Advanced Composition teacher, Bonnie Daniel, if I could take a beloved novel, The Joyous Season, by Patrick Dennis, and attempt to adapt it into a musical, writing the book and lyrics. Lillian Martin encouraged me to write short stories; one took a minor prize, crucial encouragement at a crucial time.

At Slayton House, the community center in the heart of Wilde Lake Village, I realized I could have filled the hour talking about Slayton House. I had taken dance classes there, a puzzling pursuit for a teenager who had shown zero aptitude for dance. I had attended the film series, seeing Psycho, Amarcord and The Ragman's Daughter. In the dance studio there, we rehearsed "June is Bustin' Out All Over." Anne Allen, the choreographer, happened to be the dance teacher who had barked at me as I made futile attempts to spot during pique turns. I had not been chosen to dance in the chorus -- see zero aptitude for dance, above -- but Anne called me at home and asked that I join. Why, I asked. We both know I'm not very good.

"No," she agreed. "But you work hard and you do what I tell you to do." There are worse lessons to acquire at the age of 18. And by the time we took the stage, Anne Allen had managed the impossible: creating a dance in which a classmate and I executed a lift. I was not a dainty young woman and it was a big deal for me to run across the stage and jump into someone's arms. Remember, this was a full decade before a movie called Dirty Dancing.

Interviewed earlier this week, I was challenged about the almost painful earnestness of the characters in Wilde Lake. Aren't they a little pathetic? No, I replied. Many of the original families of Columbia believed it was possible to create a place where differences across race and class would not matter. That can never be pathetic. Futile, perhaps, but not pathetic. 

The titular lake of Wilde Lake is manmade. But as Lu Brant frets, it still holds all the dangers of a natural lake. It can rise over its banks. A child could drown in it. Teenage boys, daring to cross it during a hard freeze, risk falling through. When men and women create things found in nature, they may think they can control them. But that's not pathetic, either. It is, however, extremely dangerous.


At the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

It's been a busy week and I'm behind on a lot of things, but the most important thing on my calendar was the Mother's Day tea at my daughter's school. As documented on social media, the girl sometimes known as the TA styled me -- purple dress, fuchsia shoes, a rose gold necklace. She also directed me to paint my nails blue.

When a writer has a small child, touring is a mixed bag. I was out-of-town for three nights this week, have 2 gigs that keep me out past her bedtime and have to miss a chunk of Saturday afternoon. But over the course of the next three weeks, I'll be away only four more nights, tops. I'm very lucky that the team at Morrow figured out a way to maximize my appearances, setting up a schedule that has put me in front of 1,200-plus people already this week.

The TA became the TA because we prefer not to use her name in social media, or publish photos of her face. (After all, she wasn't able to give informed consent on joining this crazy family.) One morning, when she was 2 or so, I asked her if she wanted to re-enact a scene from The Godfather and help me sneak a very large stuffed giraffe into her father's bed. Despite never having seen The Godfather -- what, you thought otherwise? -- she was very enthusiastic. TA = Tiny Accomplice, although sometimes in my head, I think of her as the Tiny Assassin.

The other day, she was watching one of the old Star Wars movies, the one where not-yet-Darth-Vader is sent away to some school. (Sorry if I'm fuzzy on this. I'm not very good on 1, 2 and 3.) She came running downstairs in tears, asking that I pledge never to send her away to school and reminding me that I have already promised to go to college with her.

"Yes, I'll go to college with you," I said. "But you can change your mind later. I won't hold you to that promise."

"Mama, I'll never change my mind."

I wish that were true. 

The Internet Ate My Homework

My computer and this blogging platform have a little, um, dissonance. I was one line away from finishing a lovely blog post about positive changes, about how easily we forget the good stuff -- and it was swallowed. 

I will recreate it tomorrow. But, technically, I have lived up to my pledge to blog every day. 

Alice (and Karen) Through the Looking Glass

I did the annual Junior League of Richmond's Book & Author Dinner last night. Not to brag, but I was pretty much the least famous author there. (Cokie Roberts! Lesley Stahl! Former Governor Doug Wilder! Floyd Cardoz! Kathleen Grissom!) During the cocktail party before the dinner, two women approached shyly. "Oh, do you want to meet Floyd?" I asked. 

No, they said. We want to meet you. Are you an author? 

Yes, I said. But why do you want to meet me if you've never heard of me? How did you know I was an author? 

Well, said the older of the two women, you just look like an author. (We'll come back to this.)

The women, Alice and Karen, were mother and daughter, both hospice nurses and avid readers. They had never attended anything like the Book & Author. They had never attended a single author event. But they read about it in the newspaper and decided it was something they wanted to try. Alice told me that books had been her means of escape during a sometimes difficult childhood. Karen, the oldest of Alice's eight children, said that money had been scarce, "but if you have a book, you can go anywhere." 

I loved them. After the event, I was so happy to see them in the signing line, so honored that they bought my book. 

Earlier that day, one of the women from the Junior League asked which I preferred, a bookstore setting with, say, forty people, or an event such as the Book & Author dinner, where I spoke in front of 900. I said I love both, but they're different. In bookstores, I tend to meet with people who have already read my work. At events such as this, I have a chance, if I'm lucky, to win some new ones. 

Inevitably, someone will say: "I have a confession to make. I have never read you." I always assure them that this is not, in fact, a misdemeanor or even a venial sin. It is the reason I go on tour. I admit, social as I am, if everyone knew who I was, I'd just stay home. I miss my family when I'm on the road.

I promised some women in Richmond that I would recommend some writers I like. I'll try to do that later this week. Meanwhile about that "looking like an author" thing: Lauren Rothman, a stylist, redid my closet recently and gave me some good advice: "You've been dressing like someone who goes to a book event, which is nice enough. You need to start dressing as if you were the focal point of the event." According to Alice, I nailed it! 



Pub Date: A Tradition

This is what I wrote at The Memory Project, my original blob, back in 2007: 

Today is my pub date and I believe that every writer should consider this passage (from BIRD BY BIRD) on pub dates. 

"I remember one year my friend Carpenter and I had books out on the same day. We talked about it all summer. We each had modest expectations. I had modest expectations for his book; he had modest expectations for mine . . . Finally the big day arrived and I woke up happy, embarrassed in advance by all the praise and attention that would be forthcoming. I made coffee and practiced digging my toe in the dirt . . . Then I waited for the phone to ring. The phone did not know its part. It sat there silent as death with a head cold. By noon the noise of it not ringing began to wear badly on my nerves. Luckily, though, by noon it was time for the first beer of the day. I sat by the phone like a loyal dog, waiting for it to ring. Finally, finally it rang at four. I picked up the phone and heard Carpenter laughing hysterically, like some serial killer, and then I became hysterical, and eventually we both had to be sedated." 
(c) Anne Lamott

Social media has changed this, however. Friends are on Facebook and Twitter, wishing me well and reminding readers that I have a new book out. I've already had two stellar reviews -- Oline Cogdill for the Associated Press, Patrick Anderson for the Washington Post -- and done an interview for Baltimore's WYPR. 

No one will ever argue with you if you want to speak with great concern about our over-connected, plugged-in lives, with too much FaceTime and not enough face time. But one of my happiest memories is a day in August 2013 when several friends and I "talked" across five time zones, delighting in one woman's drunken celebration of her bacon sandwich. I keep a transcript of that chat on my desktop and it's my go-to when I need cheering up. 

OK, time to seize the day. I'm going to take Richmond like . . . the Southern-born woman that I am. In fact, I plan to talk about some hard personal history at the event tonight. 



A(G) Anonymous

I almost fell off the wagon Sunday. I came thisclose to looking at the Amazon rating for WILDE LAKE. 

I don't remember when I stopped looking at my Amazon ratings and Googling myself. Most people don't believe me when I tell them I went cold turkey on this habit. They assume all authors do this compulsively. And until five, ten years ago, I did. 

Then one day, I typed my name into the Google search engine and I became aware of what I was feeling, this strange mix of giddiness and dread, with dread ascendant. I remembered a story my husband told me about a friend with maybe a tiny bit of a gambling issue. The friend told him that the best part of gambling wasn't winning, it was the sensation he had in the moment the roulette wheel was spinning. 

So I stopped. The good news gets to you, eventually. So does the bad news. Pay attention to the people in your life, who likes to bring you which. 

I'll be on WYPR, Baltimore's NPR station, live at noon today; the interview will then go up on the Internet. Then I'm off to Richmond. Tomorrow:

Holy Pincushions, Batman!

My daughter got off a plane at 12:30 today and was expected at a birthday party at 4. She wasn't sure if she wanted to go. She was tired. She was making a mermaid portrait of our family, watching The Jungle Book. But at 3 p.m., she decided to go. 

And at 3:15 p.m., she decided she wanted to attend as her favorite super hero, per the invitation. 

Now we have a dress-up box filled with various princess costumes. (Elsa, Anna, Belle, Cinderella.) But, no, those are not super heroes. Our dress-up box also has a reversible cape -- Superman on one side, Batman on the other. She chose to be Batman. But a cape was not enough. So I scoured her room, turned up a black mask, yellow leggings, a black leotard and black boots. I then pulled out my seldom-used sewing basket and traced a Batman insignia onto a piece of white felt. I basted that to the front of her leotard and, voila, Batgirl! She ran around for two hours, trying to capture boys with Hula Hoops, having a wonderful time. 

This is totally an allegory about book tours. Or maybe editing. Or both. Just don't ask me to explain the allegory. It's late and tomorrow I have to do an interview on WYPR's Midday and then drive to Richmond. I'll put my costume together at the last minute. I'll have a wonderful time. 

When I Grow Up, I Wanna be an Asktronaut

I used to pride myself on not asking for things. I wasn't exactly a Spartan lad with a fox inside my clothes, but I was generally self-sufficient and stoic and probably a little martyred and put-upon. So attractive. But better than being a schnorrer. 

Then one day last year, my basement flooded. Bottom dropped out of the water heater and my plumber, a really good guy, said: "You don't want to pay my hourly rate to wet-vac your basement." 

A contractor who has done lots of projects for my family was working in our office space and I asked if he had a wet-vac. He said he did, then asked: "Do you actually know how to use it?" I didn't. He and his colleague then cleaned up my basement for me. All because I asked. 

I found this amazing. I mentioned it to a woman in my life who offers me much wise counsel, although it's usually about nutrition and how to cultivate good behaviors so that eating well is something you do almost mindlessly. She said: "Most people like to help other people. And you pride yourself on never asking, you deny other people the opportunity to be kind to you." 

The insight lodged in my head. It was a real lightbulb moment for me. So in February, when I saw Brian Koppelman, most recently the creator of Billions, I walked right up to him and said: "I've heard you on The Howard Stern Show and I would give anything to be on The Wrap-Up Show." 

Brian Koppelman made this happen. I had a blast. And it was all because I ASKED.

(If you need background on this, ask me in person. Long story short: I love The Howard Stern Show and have been listening for 20 years. There are a lot of reasons to love it, but it's currently THE best place to hear creative people talk about what they do and how.)

Next week I'll tell a story about a person so kind, so gracious that I literally cried when she offered, out of the blue, to do something nice for me. In this case, I didn't ask. But I still think there's something to asking for things you really want. 

Just don't be a schnorrer. 

Everything Old is New Again

In 2007, I decided to blog every day of my tour for What the Dead Know. Now no one seems to blog anymore. And, if I'm honest, I don't read many blogs. Remember when we all used to hang out at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind? Good times. 

The publication of WTDK was seminal for me. It was my first New York Times bestseller, a decade after my first book appeared. I think it also was my first book to be reviewed in the daily New York Times. Now I sometimes review for the NYT (see Sunday's paper for my thoughts on the flinty brilliance of Lydia Millet's Sweet Lamb of Heaven). I have been a judge for the National Book Award for fiction. I am part of the Establishment, or maybe just part of that sad doomed tribe of the traditionally published. Maybe those two things are the same to you, but I'm not getting on that ice floe, not yet.

In my head, I'm still an outsider, the Anybodys of fiction, always on the edge of the group, trying to persuade the cool guys and gals that I have something to offer. I think most of us feel that way. 

Yesterday, I met Colin Jost of SNL*. I felt obligated to tell him that I no longer watch SNL, not because it's not culturally relevant (it is admirably robust), but because I have achieved, through my own persistence, the odd combination of being an old lady with a young kid. In 2007, I was on tour almost constantly for 30 days and I thought that was a big deal. In 2016, I will have almost 14 solid days of events that have to be balanced with birthday parties, my beloved stepson's college graduation (he shares an alma mater with Jost, as it happens), my husband's newest gig. From here, 2007 looks pretty damn easy. Still, I'm going to try to blog every day. For now the comments are off, but if you find this, it will be via social media, where you can have your say. 

*I met Colin Jost because I did The Wrap-Up Show for the Howard Stern Show, which was only one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me. And I will blog about it later under the heading: Sometimes you have to ask.