* * *
I have a theory about advertising, informed by 11 years working in that business: If you want to launch a new product, you take your media budget—let’s say $500,000—and buy a series of print ads or radio and television spots in carefully targeted media. The results will be both unpredictable and difficult to measure, but backed by generations of tradition.
But you have another option that will surely get the same amount of attention, if not more: Hold a press conference. Walk out to the podium with a briefcase. Open the briefcase and stack your media budget on a card table in bundles of $100 bills. Announce to the gathered reporters, “I have so much confidence that our new product will be a success, I am going to set half a million dollars on fire.”
The people at Knopf have been terrifically supportive of this book. They got it right away and believed in it from the start. They have put money and effort and their reputation behind it, as well. And they did it with the knowledge that none of that guarantees a thing.
Saturday, March 19
I arrive at the Charlottesville airport for my appearance at the Virginia Festival of the Book after midnight. There are a few other writers on the plane, and one, sitting directly in front of me, has a terrible cold. The festival has arranged for a volunteer from the festival to pick them up, an option that was available to me, I suppose, but given the late hour, it just seemed like an imposition. I feel sorry for this woman who drew a straw so short she is at the airport picking up strangers in the middle of the night, but she does it with enthusiasm and cheer. I walk out to the curb and slip into a cab.
My table fills in with nine ladies, each with carefully applied make-up, white hair, lovely printed dresses, and charming Southern drawls. I am glad I decided to wear a jacket.
Most of the participants are at the Omni downtown, but I made arrangements late so I’m at the Doubletree, not far from the airport. I am tired, but the room has a wireless connection so I download three days of email and fire off some quick replies before going to sleep.
I sleep late the next morning and make it to the Omni about 15 minutes before my first event—the “Crime Spree Luncheon.” There are several hundred people here, with nine readers and one author at every table. As I take my seat I count only about a dozen other men in the ballroom (almost all of them authors, I suspect), and estimate the average age of all diners to be somewhere north of 75 years old.
My table fills in with nine ladies, each with carefully applied make-up, white hair, lovely printed dresses, and charming Southern drawls. I am glad I decided to wear a jacket. Introductions are made all around and then one of the women—I believe she was either Dottie or Sally—asks me what my book is about. I tell them it’s about a fertility expert who clones his daughter’s unknown assailant from DNA left at the crime scene in order to gain clues to the identity of the killer. There is a long pause. “No, really,” Dottie says.
After lunch I walk to the room next door, where I am scheduled to appear on a panel with four other mystery and suspense novelists. The panel is titled “Is That in My Job Description?” and I’ve never been exactly clear what the panel is about. Any confusion about the topic does not stop the room from filling up with mystery and suspense fans. Also on the panel are Con Lehane, Michelle Blake, Chris Freeburn, and Stephen White. As we introduce ourselves, I learn that Con used to be a bartender, Michelle has a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School, Chris used to work in the Judge Advocate General’s office, and Stephen was a psychologist (at least until his books started hitting the bestseller list). I start to wonder if this panel is about authors who’ve had interesting jobs, and I suddenly wonder if I’m supposed to be there.
Disoriented, I pretty much flub the initial question, violating the first rule of panel discussion given to me by my agent on the phone a day earlier—Don’t forget to talk about your book. Before question no. 2 comes around I see Simon, my agent, walk through the door, and I get back on topic. The crowd is enthusiastic and they ask intelligent questions and when it’s all over each of us is supposed to walk out to the lobby to sign books. I’m intercepted at the door, however, by a gentleman named Bill with an entire case of Cast of Shadows. He introduces himself as the owner of Leather Stalking Books in upstate New York and would I mind signing a dozen for him to take back? As I get out my pen I ask where exactly he’s from and he says Cooperstown. “That makes sense,” I say. The man seems puzzled. “I grew up in Cooperstown,” I say. The man appears shocked. He had no idea.
We talk for 10 minutes or so about the town and acquaintances in common and by the time I make it out to my spot in the lobby there’s a short line waiting for me. I sit down in a chair next to Rupert Holmes, author of the recent mystery novel Swing, and also the composer and singer of the last no. 1 hit of the ‘70s (and first no. 1 hit of the ‘80s) “Escape (The Piña Colada Song).” Rupert hurriedly signs books for a few moments and then is whisked away to another appointment. I tell Simon that from now on, whenever I hear “The Piña Colada Song,” day or night, I am going to call him.
John Warner, my friend and co-author on My First Presidentiary, has driven down from Blacksburg. He is teaching at Virginia Tech while his wife Kathy attends veterinary school. We catch up for a few minutes, and then Simon and I return to the ballroom for the next panel, “Making the Breakout Novel.” Joining us is National Book Award nominee Kate Walbert and her agent, Maria. I tell Kate I enjoyed her novel and I am privately very pleased to be probably the only person in the world who has read both of our books. The moderator, Bella Stander, introduces herself, and I tell her that when I was a kid, I was a huge fan of the TV show Hart to Hart. Simon and Kate look at me like I’m nuts. I explain that before coming here I googled Bella’s name and discovered her father was the actor who played Max, the chauffeur on Hart to Hart. (“I take care of the Harts, which ain’t easy. Because when they met, it was murder!”) Everyone is impressed. Between Rupert Holmes and Lionel Stander’s daughter, this day is turning into a bonanza of ‘80s trivia.
There was a large crowd for the previous panel but this time it’s standing room only. Bella asks smart questions and Kate, a respected literary novelist and Yale professor, is thoughtful and intelligent in her responses. Figuring I can’t outclass her, I go the clown route, at one point suggesting that she could have sold Our Kind faster if she had put more teenage clones in it. The result is sort of like Inside the Actors Studio with Harvey Korman and Meryl Streep, which is to say it’s a fun hour.
Afterward in the lobby, I sign books for a steady stream of readers. One gentleman lingers to ask very specific questions about the publishing business—how do you get an agent, how do you submit to a publisher, etc. I ask him if he’s a writer, and he shakes his head. “No, nothing like that.” Then after a thoughtful pause he adds, “But I’ve always been a pretty good speller.”
A couple walks up to the table and they hold out their empty hands. “They’re sold out of your book,” the man tells me with a shrug. Signing over.
John, Simon, and I then meet up with author M.J. Rose and Carol Fitzgerald of Bookreporter.com and the five of us head over to the author’s reception at the home of the president of the University of Virginia.
I had asked John to be listed as my guest for the party, and at least two different people in the registration process asked me if I was bringing “the John Warner?” I was so amused by the mental picture of being escorted across the UVA campus by the dashing, 78-year-old Republican senator from Virginia that I hated to disabuse them of the notion.
The party is crowded and hot. I meet Tony Horwitz, author of the terrific Confederates in the Attic, as well as Kevin Smokler, creator of the virtual book tour. From here it will be dinner, a cab, sleep, and, for a precious day and a half, home.
In the Charlottesville airport I run into Stephen White, and we have a brief conversation about the conference and writing and about internet promotion and author websites. Stephen’s latest book, Missing Persons, is just out and next week it will debut at no. 15 on the Times bestseller list. The readings and signings and panel discussions are fun, but this short conversation at an airport gate feels, well, writerly.
Monday, March 21
More reviews yesterday. In New York, the Daily News and the Post both weighed in with thumbs up. The review in the San Francisco Chronicle, however, was another animal. Anthony Giardina spends most of the article enumerating—in excruciating detail—what he says are the rookie mistakes that make me, as he puts it, an apprentice to the form. (“Only certain kinds of thriller writers,” he says, “deem it essential to tell us, when two people are out to dinner, that one of them is eating pumpkin ravioli.”) Also, in a 900-word review, Giardina misspells my name 11 times.
Tonight’s reading is at the Barnes & Noble at Clybourn and Webster, in downtown Chicago. The book has received such good press that I allow myself some cautious optimism with regard to the turnout. My wife, Mo, and I meet my old boss, Jim Coudal and his wife Heidi, along with Michele, another of the partners at Coudal, for an early dinner. Michele tells me her sister’s book club has selected Cast of Shadows for their next book and asks if I will come to their meeting when they discuss it. Through email I’d been hearing stories that quite a few Chicago book clubs are picking up Cast of Shadows, and in the last week Knopf has come out with a reading-group guide. The more of that I can encourage, the better.
We get to the bookstore and there’s already a decent crowd. Barnes & Noble had been promoting the event heavily in the store, with a huge banner over the escalators. Many friends are here, including Amy Krouse Rosenthal, author of the Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. By the time I’m finished reading, one B&N employee puts the head count at well more than 60. I sign a ton of books, as well as several copies of the Tribune Magazine from last week, and even a few My First Presidentiarys.
To the wine bar across the street where the Coudal contingent has gathered. Mo and I stay for only a glass of pinot noir (a pleasure that has been ruined by Sideways, incidentally, as much as I like that film). Tomorrow to Boston, where my brother Tom is planning an event that will be, far and away, the biggest on the tour.
Tuesday, March 22
From Logan I take a taxi to Tom’s office in downtown Boston. He’s at a meeting, so his assistant Angela points me in the right direction and I end up in an Irish pub around the corner. I have forgotten to bring something to read, but now that I’m seated I don’t want to go looking for a newspaper, so I set my notebook on the table and try for quiet contemplation. A radio station is playing secretary rock—Phil Collins, Donna Summer, Men at Work. Spring training news is on the television over the bar. Barry Bonds is out for an undetermined number of games. I jot down a few thoughts on my next novel, which I haven’t worked on in three weeks. The next tune on the radio is the “Piña Colada Song.” I call Simon. “What’s up?” he says. “Piña Colada Song,” I say. I try to hold up the phone so he can hear it. I ask him to find more Barry Bonds news on the internet and hang up.
After lunch, I meet my brother and his friend Roman, who has flown in from Pittsburgh for tonight’s party. We go over to the nightclub my brother has rented. It’s incredibly cool, the kind of place I couldn’t get away with patronizing on a regular night. Knopf has sent Tom an enlargement of the Cast of Shadows cover, which he puts in the street window, this club being too cool to have a sign outside. He’s also enlarged the cover of the Tribune Magazine and props that up on the table with the books.
My sister-in-law arrives with my three nephews and two nieces. They are dressed in grown-up clothes, as if this were a wedding. Incredibly cute. Five-year-old Meghan immediately takes charge, escorting guests to the coat check and to the bar.
Before long the room is crowded and hot—nearly 200 people in all. Mike Sullivan, head coach of the Boston Bruins, is here, and so is Jeff Norton, once of the Islanders and Sharks as well as the Bruins. Probably a dozen people from my high school have come, including Scott St. John, a close friend who now lives in Boston with his wife. My cousin Maura, whom I haven’t seen in years, has brought her husband. I frantically introduce myself around the room, signing book after book after book. Four different women tell me their book clubs are taking Cast of Shadows on next.
Tom makes a short speech and then hands the microphone to me and I do some of my bookstore rap (although I don’t read tonight). Then more signatures and conversation and laughter and photos. After three hours, most of the books are gone and we pack up the kids and head back to my brother’s house. There, more books to sign for friends and relatives. My sister-in-law keeps apologizing and I try to tell her that this is the fun part. And it is fun, signing your name on the title page of a book that you once dreamed would be bound just this way. It is fun to discover that people want your autograph—that they not only want to read what you’ve written, but they somehow think this book will be more special if you leave evidence that it physically passed through your hands. I mean, that’s a kick, and as I deface each copy, Tom reminds me how we used to practice our signatures when we were kids, in case we ever became Major League ballplayers. As batboy for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1978, Tom came a lot closer to that dream than I ever did. And he signed his share of autographs that year, too.
Wednesday, March 23
Roman and I go into the office with Tom. I’m not meeting my escort, Robin, until noon, so Roman and I get some breakfast and walk around Boston Common until he has to leave for the airport. I wander off by myself, looking for the Bromfield Pen Shop.
The Bromfield Pen Shop is where Mo has been ordering pens for me as gifts for more than a year. Just before the tour started, she presented me with a beautiful, engraved, and perfectly weighted Waterman, which I’ve been using to sign books. Bromfield Pen Shop is to a pen snob like me what the Wonka Chocolate Factory was to Augustus Gloop. I browse for a while before finding the perfect gift for Mo—a limited edition Acme Studio Simpsons pen with a Mondrian design. Beautiful. I load up on refills for both of us (I’ve been through four already this tour), and head back to meet Robin.
Our first stop is an interview with Identity Theory’s estimable Robert Birnbaum. Robert no longer lives in Boston, but he borrows office space from a modeling company where he meets with authors. Robin and I ride up to the third floor and step out into a lobby where attractive young men and women are busy drumming up work for even more attractive young men and women. The receptionist immediately says to me, “Are you here to meet Robert?”
I say I am. “But was it really so obvious I’m not here on modeling business?” She stammers something polite and tells me Robert will be back in a moment.
Robert arrives with his yellow lab Rosie, who lies at my feet, indicating with her nose where I should scratch her. Robert and I chat casually as he sets up his tape recorder and tests the equipment. As if she knows it’s now time for business, Rosie circles around Robert and takes a spot on the floor behind him.
Robert’s questions are exactly as expected—intelligent and insightful and representative of a lifetime of reading. He is an outstanding listener and each question emerges effortlessly from the last answer. He flips the tape once, and then when the second side runs out, the interview is over, as if the machine itself was telling us enough. We chat for a few minutes and the four of us, Robert, Rosie, Robin, and I, leave the modeling world behind.
Robin drives a Prius. It’s the first time I’ve been in a hybrid, and I like the quiet. Much of the time we are sailing silently through traffic, as if we’re in a canoe.
Bookstore to bookstore to bookstore. Finally we circle back downtown and Robin drops me off at my hotel, a new place by Fenway called the Commonwealth. My room is spacious and lovely (I can see the Citgo sign out my window), and I have about two hours before Robin takes me to the reading. I’m hungry but also very tired. An accumulation of weariness. On the phone, Mo urges me to get something to eat. I agree that I should. Within seconds of hanging up the phone, I am asleep.
Nap over, we’re off to Cambridge, with a few drop-ins along the way. Porter Square Books is a new store in a strip mall, and when I enter there are few customers. The manager, Ellen, winces and says she isn’t sure what the turnout we’ll be. She takes me to a room in back where I leave my coat and have a drink of water.
The crowd turns out to be not too bad, thanks in part to a few bodies from my past. Arden, who was my friend and neighbor in Cooperstown as well as my after-school co-worker; Adam, who was a few years behind Arden at Cooperstown Central and who is now shopping a novel of his own; Chris, an old friend who moved here from Chicago via the Wharton School of Business; Jerry and Lisa, great friends from both my Notre Dame and Houston days and possibly the smartest married couple since the Curies; Jake, who has entered a business partnership with Jim Coudal and who is soon moving to Chicago; Cathy and Joe, my brother’s in-laws; and also Claire Miccio, TMN contributing writer and, tonight, beloved bringer of beer.
Afterwards, a handful of us eat at a Cuban place in Cambridge where we drink rum and spear alcohol-infused fruit from big glasses.
Thursday, March 24
New York. The final stop. I can hardly believe La Guardia will be the last airport I see on this trip, not counting O’Hare, which is practically like home.
The Drake Hotel has had some sort of computer failure and can’t program my key card, so they check me in on paper and have a security officer escort me to my room. I wonder if I should tip him, or if handing money to a hotel security officer would be categorized as a bribe. I head over to Knopf’s offices on Broadway. Erinn, my publicist, meets me and takes me to a conference room where I tape an interview with Dorian Devins of WFMU. Dorian leaves, I stay put, and Janet Taylor of Oregon Public Radio arrives. Tape rolls. We talk. I accidentally refer to something called “in vitro contraception.” Still both interviews go well, I think.
Erinn brings me a sandwich, and a number of Knopf employees drop by with books to be signed. I meet people who worked with Cast of Shadows at various stages—designers and publicists and salespeople. I mention to Erinn I want to read the new Kazuo Ishiguro, publishing in just a few weeks, and she takes me by the office of Ishiguro’s publicist, who hands me a copy of Never Let Me Go. I’ve been asked about the book at more than one reading, although explaining why would require a spoiler. Reviewers have had no problem blowing the twist in Never Let Me Go, but I won’t.
Jordan, my editor, stops by and informs me that the New York Times, which has already given CoS a glowing notice in the Book Review, will review it again, this time by Michiko Kakutani on April 19. In the office, predictions are split whether the word will be good or bad, and I quietly align my forecast with the bads. The universe clearly wants to negate this month’s good Times review.
Erinn and I drop in on a couple of bookstores, including Otto Penzler’s magical Mysterious Bookshop. We get a peek at Penzler’s book-lined study, which is the coolest office I’ve ever seen, even in movies. We head over to the massive Barnes & Noble in Chelsea. Our contact there, Don, leads us to a room in the back where we sit for about 15 minutes. Then he leads us out into the store.
Another excellent crowd, maybe 40 people. I try out a new introduction, which doesn’t really work but at least it’s short. I read. We have an excellent Q&A with a broad array of questions. In response to a query I try to find the passage from which the title comes, but cannot. Several people at this reading have read the book and try to dance around the plot twists with their questions.
When I take a seat to begin signing, the first two men in line are a pair of film producers who say what fans they are of the book and that they are sending an offer to my agent to option the movie rights. A half-dozen friends from college are here, including Beatrice.com’s Ron Hogan, with whom I shared a film class and several friends in common. TMN luminaries Andrew and Rosecrans. Matt from 37 Signals. Daniel Radosh. My mother’s sister Jean. Cally and Ken, who was once misidentified as Wes Anderson in a TMN party photo.
Jan, a close friend from high school, appears and tells me she’s now a producer on Guiding Light. Arden’s brother, Jason, arrives with Eugena Pilek. Eugena and I went to high school together and she has a novel called Cooperstown coming out in July. We joke that we might be the first two novelists out of Cooperstown Central School since James Fenimore Cooper.
Friday, March 25
Flying home to Chicago, looking forward to a long weekend with my wife and son, and suddenly I worry that Michiko Kakutani will do to me what Twain did to Cooper: It seems to me that it was far from right for Mark Schone of the New York Times Book Review, and Sue Corbett of People Magazine, and Sarah Stewart of the New York Post, and Sherryl Connelly of the Daily News, and Henry Kisor of the Chicago Sun-Times, and Rick Kogan of the Chicago Tribune to deliver opinions on Guilfoile’s book without having read some of it. It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no life-likeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny, its conversations are—oh! indescribable; its love scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.
And that makes me think about what Vonnegut once said—Don’t use semicolons. All they do is show you’ve been to college. Except Twain put a semi-colon in every other sentence and he dropped out of school when he was 12.
And then I remember this is what Cast of Shadows is really about. Or what I intended when I was writing, anyway. No one knows the whole truth. Not Vonnegut. Not Twain. Not Knopf. Not me. We are all forced to act on imperfect information. We seek truth but understand we will never find it. Not really. We have faith and hypotheses and inklings and opinions and when we share these we take risks, but we also learn a tiny bit about the way things really are.
Cast of Shadows also has teenage clones in it.