Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Brendan Jones | Notes From a Book Tour

The incongruous thing about a book tour is you’ve spent so much time alone working on this loving, faithful animal, and suddenly: it’s in the wild on a table in Barnes & Noble. And you’re in front of 50 people for a reading.
My debut novel The Alaskan Laundry released April 26th. On the 25th, a writer at a prestigious paper in New York City that borrows from the city’s name read the galley of the book, enjoyed, and generously showed me around the paper. Walking through the book review section, stacks of galleys balanced on the cubicle partitions, I made any number of silent prayers. Please. Please review mine. In the lobby I got a photo in front of the birches, spare leafy trees planted in the outside green space. Apparently, my friend said, these birches are famous because all writers talk about them when they have nothing else to say.

That same evening I went to the book release of Molly Prentiss’ Tuesday Nights in 1980, another book that takes place in – you guessed it – New York City. I’ll leave you to guess the year. This at the venerable House Works in SoHo. Feeling distinctly homeless and uncool with my suitcase and backpack. I spent the eve at my stepsister’s at 14th Street, late for dinner, to her great dismay. 

And then – morning. April 26th! The book in the world. Woke at 8:45, checked the Google document sent by the publicist to find there was a 9:30 am appearance on a radio show. Oops. Cabbed it 20 blocks north, tried to act cool and collected, but don’t think I fooled anyone, least of all the interviewer who wore a hooded sweatshirt that said “I don’t need to kick” because he was a boxer and not a kickboxer. I liked him immediately.

Afterward, on the sage advice of a more season writer and close friend, I went around Indie Bookstores, and also Barnes and Noble, to sign copies of the book. This to increase visibility, and also because apparently the stores can’t return them. I’ve since heard this was untrue. But what a shock to see the book, with my name on it. Really? Got emails from the publicist that a great review was coming out in Portland Book Review, and Powell’s had selected it as book for the month. Was flying in the clouds until I visited my favorite bookstore in Soho and they didn’t even have a copy. “We f—ed up,” the owner said. The woman at the Strand proudly told me they had sold one copy. And also that she would move the books closer to the front, now that they were signed. I bought one to help get the skunk off the deck, using my author’s discount. The cashier appeared disgusted.  

That evening, before the book launch at Greenlight in Brooklyn, one of my best and oldest friends, Alex, made me an Old Pal at his Ditmus Park apartment, which got me good and loopy, especially considering I hadn’t eaten lunch. I got a text from a buddy about a blogpost I wrote for someone that just dropped, about how Appalachia is not the Ozarks, which technically is true, but then Appalachian folks spread to the Ozarks. Whatever. We grabbed some bbq down the street from the store in Fort Greene, and he made sure I had no sauce on my lips on the front step. Cute.

And then – the reading. This where the true wonder of the whole journey emerged: like the end of Big Fish where all these wonderful folks from different walks of life step forward. From high school, or timber framing in New Hampshire, or a writing residency, or Sitka Fine Arts Camp. My daughter Haley Marie sat on my knee as I signed copies, occasionally correcting my signature. Afterward headed over with a crew to Frank’s a Polish Bar and we got mistaken for being a band, probably because two of our members had long hair. That mistake corrected when one of our ilk danced to Kate Bush.

The following morning one more interview, a quick lesson in how to make rice wine from Alex using glutinous rice and yeast packets, and off to Boston. That eve the reading in Newtonville to a full house, and drinks afterward at Union Tavern, strafed with questions about Alaska. What is it about the 49th state that has folks so obsessed these days? I mean, I think I understand the reality TV thing: what makes a better story than taking folks with tough pasts and putting them in precarious situations? See whether that guy who left his wife will actually fall through the ice. Maybe we all hope he does. But there’s something more, as if the state has become its own Truman Show, with everyone tuning in and making their own respective wagers. Some even visiting in the flesh.

Anyways at that Boston reading I wanted to use tongs with each individual person, to speak individually and catch up on stories, but instead only had paddles. Frustrating. The following morning after an interview with KBRW in Barrow I spoke at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt headquarters – learning minutes before that it was supposed to be just that, a speech instead of a reading. Gulp. Lunch afterward with my brilliant and savvy editor Jenna Johnson who was in Boston launching her list of books, then a plane south to DC, which got stuck on the runway when the weather turned sulky. After seeing the book at the airport bookstore I hoped as I sat there someone would take a copy out of the bag and start reading, perhaps even weep with emotion. And I could be like, hey, I wrote that. Instead a woman took out a copy of People Magazine, and someone else a book I recognized on Jefferson as a slave owner. 

Folks in the plane started to grumble. The flight attendants grew gruff. Why is Alaska Airlines so wonderful and chill, and all other airlines so rigid and awful? They should give colloquiums. Something.

In DC arrived minutes before the event on the back porch of the house of one of my oldest friends. About 25 folks, including a couple AK connections, which was nice, especially because it was damn cold on the porch and the AKers didn’t seem bothered. Sold books, then a train north to Philly to rejoin the family. On the train I edited a piece about living in Alaska, but maintaining Philly roots that would run on the cover of the Philadelphia Inquirer “Currents” section. Anything to battle against the conceptions of Southeast as a land of igloos and sasquatch.

A couple things I’ve learned so far about tour: the best thing is getting to see other people. Also I should not be so tense, should taking more photos, and not take myself so seriously. And also that it’s a kindness of the publisher – I can’t imagine how any of this makes Houghton money.

I can’t wait to get back to AK.


Brendan Jones is the author of the novel The Alaskan Laundry, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. A recipient of a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Fundacion Valparaiso, and Ragdale, he is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He has had work in the New York Times, Ploughshares, Narrative Magazine, Popular Woodworking, The Huffington Post, and has recorded commentaries for NPR.
Raised in Philadelphia, he took the Greyhound west at the age of 19, ending up in Sitka, Alaska. He graduated from Oxford University, where he boxed for the Blues team, then returned to Alaska to commercial fish. He was a general contractor for seven years in Philadelphia, before heading back to Sitka, where he now lives, commercial fishing and renovating a WWII tugboat. | www.alaskanlaundry.com


Anonymous said...

Brendan, Congratulations on your new book! Thanks for the review of your book tour. I still can't fathom how writers survive or even thrive in this tricky bit of the business and I appreciate all reports from the front. Wishing you the best.

Deb Vanasse said...

Love this report from the road, and happy to see that the book is getting the attention it deserves. Of course Haley Marie is stealing the show, but what could be better than that?