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The Tour, Chapter One

Ever imagine reading to a cheering stadium of millions? How about a single, disinterested Barnes & Noble customer? It’s one thing to write a book; it’s another to publicize it.

If you’re an author on tour and you find yourself facing an empty room for your reading, it’s an easy thing to blame it on weather or traffic or poor publicity. Surely you have scores of fans who would have loved to hear you read from your book had the Pennysaver not lost the ad or that tanker of hot glue not hit an icy patch and burst all over the interstate.

When one person comes to your reading, however, you have to confront the grim facts: If this fellow found out about the event (and also successfully detoured around that lake of boiling glue), whither those scores of additional, adoring readers?

This actually happened to me four years ago after the publication of My First Presidentiary, a humor book I wrote with John Warner. The bookstore had unfolded several dozen chairs for the anticipated throng of political humor aficionados. There was a podium and a microphone and large speakers on five-foot pikes. They had piles and piles of books. Hundreds of books, it seemed. And a single reader. Who brought her own book.

As I headed out on tour last month to promote my first novel, this was the situation I most feared: giant stacks of shiny red books, a pen in my hand, and an audience of one.

Monday, March 7

Cast of Shadows is about a Chicago doctor who clones his daughter’s unknown assailant in order to gain clues to the killer’s identity. It has been out for less than a week but got a welcome boost yesterday with an enthusiastic and thoughtful treatment in the New York Times Book Review by Mark Schone, who called it “an always surprising medical thriller, complete with elegant prose and well-developed characters.” Tonight the tour kicks off with a reading at the marvelous Book Stall in Winnetka, Ill.

First up, however, is lunch with Chicago booksellers at Osteria Via Stato, a new restaurant in the space once occupied by the Greek restaurant that catered my wedding. I knew the booksellers would be lured more by the free meal than by the prospect of meeting a rookie author, but everyone is kind and funny and interesting and more than half of them have actually read my book. I meet Siobhan, manager of a Borders just three blocks from my home, and make appointments to stop by two other bookstores later in the week to sign stock. I autograph books for all, and we leave the restaurant, bloated and happy.

Around 4 p.m., I drive to the Billy Goat Tavern, a joint on Lower Michigan Avenue made famous by John Belushi in the old “Cheezeborger! Cheezeborger!” SNL sketch. A few scenes in Cast of Shadows take place here, which make it an especially appropriate spot to meet Tribune reporter Rick Kogan for a beer.

Despite the rave review in yesterday’s New York Times, not a single person who is not my friend has shown up for the reading.

Rick is a terrific, old school newspaper guy—a Chicago favorite—and he and I have spent a lot of time with each other over the last few weeks. A big fan of the book, he’s writing a cover story about Cast of Shadows for the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine. The article is out in six days, and Rick has promised me a peek at the cover photo. He walks into the bar with a wicked grin on his face, and when he flashes the picture I spit a mouthful of Heineken across the old bartop. The photograph, taken some weeks ago in a North Side studio after a team of experts toiled over my hair and makeup, resembles the real me only in the bittersweet way that Ashley Judd resembles Wynonna. Rick tells everyone in the Goat—from the customers to the bus boys—how good my book is, but this is just the start of his evangelism, as I soon discover.

An hour later I return to my car and head for the North Shore via the Edens Expressway. Traffic is light and I arrive in Winnetka early so I introduce myself to the Book Stall employees and then pop into the coffee shop next door for a sandwich. Before too long I’m joined by Steve Delahoyde, a funny writer and filmmaker who recently joined Coudal Partners, the ad agency where I worked for 11 years, and John, my old friend and frequent co-author. At 6:55 p.m. the three of us return to the Book Stall to find it, well, deserted. Despite the rave review in yesterday’s New York Times, not a single person who is not my friend has shown up for the reading.

Not a single person. Thank God.

I sign stock for the unnecessarily apologetic booksellers and John, Steve, and I walk down the street to a local tavern. Except for us, the bar is empty as well.

Tuesday, March 8

Up at 4:30 a.m. I have to be at WITI-TV studios in Milwaukee for a live interview on Wake-Up News. To find my way to this critically important first television appearance, I’ve decided to give the nascent Google Maps a try for the first time. Traffic is light and I have plenty of time, but when I get to the exit at State Highway 100, I can’t find Brown Deer Road anywhere. I pull over and call the station. Apparently Google Maps has omitted a critical turn about six miles back, a mistake aggravated by the maddening Wisconsin habit of assigning the same name to multiple and entirely unrelated roads within the same county.

I backtrack to Route 45 and head north, looking for the Brown Deer Road exit. I’ve been on this highway dozens of times en route to my parents’ house in Fond du Lac, and after not too many miles I know I am far beyond the Milwaukee city limits. I pull over and call again. Is there any chance that Brown Deer Road has another name where it meets Route 45? “Oh yeah,” comes the reply. “It could be Main Street. Or it could be (of course) State Highway 100.” The only thing more annoying than multiple roads with the same name is the same road with multiple names. Someone in the Wisconsin Department of Transportation needs to take a class in semiotics.

I go back to the Main Street exit and arrive at the studio with seconds to spare. A man meets me in the parking lot (“Are you the guy from Chicago?”) and ushers me past security. Someone attaches a microphone to my shirt and sits me down on a couch in the middle of a large studio. An Israeli dance troupe, apparently the subject of the next segment, is performing distracting and unintentionally erotic warm-up exercises in my peripheral vision. A television personality settles into a chair next to me, a voice counts down from five, and the interview begins. I have no recollection of the next 180 seconds.

In most towns, Knopf has arranged a media escort for me. This person usually works for a PR firm that specializes in ferrying writers on tour around a particular city. Writers left to their own devices, as we have already seen, will drive around aimlessly until they are spontaneously afflicted with drunkenness. In Milwaukee, my escort’s name is Kathy and she successfully escorts me from the building. I was at the television studio for exactly three and a half minutes, and I was on the air for three of them.

I do another, more lucid, interview for public radio and then we spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon driving to Milwaukee bookstores and signing their stock of Cast of Shadows. Kathy has phoned ahead but most of the booksellers have no idea who I am. Still they seem happy to let me scribble inside copies of my book, to which they promptly affix “autographed by the author” stickers. If you have a personality disorder and want to know what it’s like to be a novelist on tour, just walk into a random bookstore, claim you are the author of such-and-such semi-obscure book and when they bring you the stack, start signing your name. People who work in bookstores meet so many writers they won’t be the slightest bit impressed by you, but if you are an extremely bored crazy person and want to pretend that you are an author it’s possible you could get some satisfaction from the exercise.

As I read several chapters from my book, it occurs to me that this is almost certainly the first time I have said the word “semen” in front of my mother.

At 3 p.m., Kathy drops me off at the Pfister Hotel to meet my mom and dad, who have driven down from Fond du Lac. Kathy leaves to run some errands and the three of us have a late lunch surrounded by members of the Atlanta Hawks, who are staying at the hotel because it is old and has high ceilings. Then Kathy picks us all up (me and my parents, that is, not the Atlanta Hawks) and we drive to the first event of the night, a signing at the Mystery One Bookstore.

Mystery One is about the size of an Escalade’s interior, but it’s packed with thousands and thousands of mystery and crime books. I sign several dozen copies of CoS, many of which have been preordered by the store’s regular customers, and for the first time hear the robotic mantra that will be chanted hundreds of times in the next three weeks by booksellers who cater to collectors: Sign and date…Sign and date. I spend an hour talking with Richard, Mystery One’s owner, about political conspiracies, alien conspiracies, criminal justice conspiracies, baseball conspiracies—all my best subjects. Honestly I don’t want to leave, and as Kathy drags me away I suspect I might not have as much fun in the next three weeks. Nevertheless, I’ve been to two bookstores so far and spoken with exactly zero readers.

Things begin to look up at the next stop, however. Harry W. Schwartz is a local, independent chain, and the folks at the Downer Street location are excited about Cast of Shadows and seem excited to have me, as well. Probably 15 people have come for the actual reading, including my cousin Tim and a guy named Rat who lived in my college dorm. As I read several chapters from my book, it occurs to me that this is almost certainly the first time I have said the word “semen” in front of my mother.

Wednesday, March 9

After breakfast with Mom and Dad, I drive to Madison and check into the lovely Edgewater Hotel. I have no escort today; I am in the Midwest’s greatest college town, completely untethered. I watch a little basketball and make a few phone calls and then drive over to Booked for Murder, a mystery bookstore near the University of Wisconsin campus. Booked for Murder is much bigger than Mystery One, although I’m not sure they have more books. The owner, Terri, is very kind, and she has an incredibly friendly yellow lab who gazes lovingly at me in exchange for scratching his hard-to-reach hindquarters. Four people arrive for the reading, counting Terri and also Candace, a friend who lives in Madison. I decide not to read from the book, but the five of us (six if you count the puppy which, at this point, I do) have smart conversation for a half-hour or so. The four people and one dog buy three books between them, and I sign the rest of Terri’s stock (sign and date…sign and date). Then I head across town to Borders Books and Music.

“Thanks for having me,” I say to the store manager. “Yeah, the good writers always read at the Borders across town,” he says, not indicating which I represent, the exception or the rule. “I read your book,” he says. “Pretty good.” It sounds a bit like faint praise, but as I get to know the man, I believe he’s sincere. He tells me he doesn’t know what to expect crowd-wise, but as luck would have it, tonight is the monthly meeting of the Madison Mystery and Suspense Readers Club. He’s hopeful he can get them to wander over for my reading.

At 7 p.m., however, there are only four people and no pets in the folding chairs before the podium. I can hear the assembly of mystery readers—twice our number and only a Badger first down away—but apparently their agenda cannot be modified at this late hour. An attractive young woman sits in the second row of seats, her long coat buttoned and her arms crossed. I make a few comments and then read from my book, hopefully loud enough to antagonize the intransigent mystery and suspense readers nearby. When I open it up to questions I get some smart ones (two of the gathered have already read the book and another is a fan of McSweeney’s and TMN). The attractive woman looks bored. Finally she raises her hand and says, quite formally, “This is the first reading I’ve ever been to. I had a very good time and I wish you luck with your novel.” Then she pushes herself to her feet and walks out of the store. I assume her presence had been mandated by a class assignment or sorority prank. I sign a few books for the remaining folks and a handful left by off-duty Borders employees who read Cast of Shadows in galleys. Then I sign the rest of the store’s stock, stop by the Arby’s drive-through, and return to the Edgewater to watch college basketball for an hour before sleep.

Thursday, March 10

Up again at 4:30 to make it home before my wife, Mo, has to leave for work. After I put our son Max down for his morning nap I do a phone interview with a reporter from Massachusetts who has no idea who I am. “When you come to Boston,” she asks, “what will you do that no one in the audience has ever seen before?” I realize now that she’s mistaken me for a long-maned juggler-acrobat in Cirque du Soleil, and for the remainder of the interview I indulge her with a husky French accent and tales of my conquests of diminutive Chinese tumblers.

The afternoon interview goes much better. Chicago Public Radio has beautiful studios out on Navy Pier and Steve Edwards, host of the outstanding public affairs and arts program Eight Forty-Eight on WBEZ, has a long list of intelligent questions about the book’s themes. After the tape stops rolling he says, “You know, your book was one of a dozen we were considering for the show, and then we had Rick Kogan from the Tribune on and he said, ‘You have to interview this Guilfoile kid. His book is incredible…’”

Tonight’s reading is at the Borders just steps away from my home. Mo and I fold Max into his stroller and walk over a few minutes early. To my great relief, the bookstore is packed, and as I make my way to the podium I encounter old friends, former co-workers, neighbors, parents of my wife’s high school classmates, and, most encouraging, dozens of people with whom I have no connection whatsoever. I say a few words, read a few chapters, answer questions from the audience, and then Siobhan announces that it’s time for me to autograph books. In an instant, my first actual signing line materializes and snakes through the store.

At least 10 people say they heard about my book on the show Rick Kogan does each week on WGN Radio. Apparently he’s been talking me up in advance of Sunday’s magazine article. A man named Ed who has driven more than 40 miles to shake my hand and buy my novel tells me, “If Rick Kogan says this is a good book, then I know it’s a good book!”

“Rick Kogan is a good man,” I say.

“You’re darn right he is,” Ed says.

Rick didn’t even know who I was two months ago when he randomly plucked an advance copy of my book off somebody’s desk at the Tribune and brought it home to read. Now he’s a one-man Cast of Shadows advocacy machine.

And the article won’t even be out for another two days.