The Tour, Chapter Two

If you make an ass of yourself on the Dennis Miller show, will anyone notice? If you don’t acknowledge that Beyoncé is Beyoncé, will she care?

In my short experience, I’ve observed the way folks in publishing obsessively deconstruct every successful book after the fact to find clues that will help them manufacture and market the next bestseller. The truth is, however, that every successful book has found its own path to popularity. I’m not sure the experience of Dan Brown is any more helpful to a person trying to write the next Da Vinci Code than the life of Camilla Parker Bowles would be to a person looking to marry a prince.

As I start the second week of my book tour, I have a feeling that responsibility for Cast of Shadows, which I worked on alone for two years and with a single editor for another six months, now lies with forces I cannot control, or even identify. It’s terrifying, but in an odd way—succeed or fail—it is also something of a relief. After months and months of worrying about the book, I am now, oddly, relaxed.

Monday, March 14

A car picks me up at 6:30 a.m. to take me to the airport. My son is still sleeping when I leave. As much as I’ve been looking forward to the tour, this stretch—six days mostly on the West Coast—will be the longest I’ve been away from Max since he was born 15 months ago.

The Tribune Magazine came out yesterday. Wow. Writer Rick Kogan had incredibly generous things to say about Cast of Shadows (“Spellbinding…mature, intelligent, stylishly written…Guilfoile hits the jackpot.”) and equally kind words for me and for my family. Yesterday afternoon I was out for a walk with Max and a stranger recognized me on the street. (“Are you the writer on the cover of the Trib this morning?”) Given the relative anonymity enjoyed by most novelists, it’s an excellent bet that will never happen to me again.

If the magazine weren’t enough, the Trib also gave Cast of Shadows a rave on the front of its books section. Added to the positive reviews in the Sun-Times, New City, and Time Out Chicago, and with my Amazon ranking (meaningless but irresistible) pushing up into double digits, I feel like the mysterious forces are on my side, for the time being.

My media escort in San Francisco, Frank Lauria, meets me in baggage claim holding a copy of CoS. Frank and I hit it off right away. He’s the author of more than a dozen books, including a sci-fi series about a psychic detective named Dr. Orient that has sold more than a million copies worldwide. Frank also has written several novelized versions of popular movies, and I grill him on the ins and outs of the adaptation craft.

We stop at a couple of bookstores and then Frank takes me to the Prescott Hotel, where I get settled. In the late afternoon I walk down to the financial district and meet my friend JT for a beer. JT is the brother of one of my best friends and is largely responsible for introducing me to my wife. This beer is one in a series of thank yous that will continue, once a year or so, for the rest of our lives.

Tonight’s reading is at Booksmith, a wonderful boosktore in the middle of the Haight. I introduce myself to the manager, Thomas, and he leads me to the back room. It’s a Booksmith tradition to make trading cards of all the authors who read here and Thomas hands me a stack of my own to sign. I am #739.

The folks at Knopf will tell me that the important thing is not how many people show, but raising awareness of the novel among booksellers and the media. That’s a bit of a rationalization, but it’s true that even if all three events had been wildly successful, it still wouldn’t make economic sense to fly me all the way to San Francisco to sell 100 books.

The crowd is thin but packed with friendly faces. My sister-in-law Colleen is here with her fiancé, Mitch. Maggie Mason, a terrific TMN writer (perhaps better known as Mighty Girl), has come with her husband, Bryan. There are three people I don’t recognize, plus Thomas and Frank. I talk. I read. I answer a handful of questions. Then we move to the front of the store to sign books.

One of the people I didn’t recognize introduces himself and I realize, in fact, that I recognize him. Peter Kellner and I went to junior high school together and it’s probably been 20 years since I’ve seen him.

I tell Frank I’ll see him tomorrow and Maggie, Bryan, Colleen, Mitch, Peter, and I go to a bar for drinks and dinner. Given the venue, I say it is quite Eggersian of me to take the whole audience out for drinks after a signing, although I’ll admit the logistics of doing so are considerably easier when the entire audience is five people. Also, Dave probably picks up the tab, which no one here will let me do.

It’s only been one day and I already miss my son so much. I’m always hesitant to talk about him because whenever I do the feelings come out in sentimental clichés. There is nothing more amazing than the feeling of being a parent, but there’s nothing unique about it either. Of course that’s the wonder of parenthood: It’s the most egalitarian of pleasures.

Tuesday, March 15

A phone interview with a local radio station in the morning and then breakfast at a neighborhood diner. Frank picks me up at the hotel and takes me to Stacey’s Bookstore on Market Street. There are about 15 people waiting for the reading, mostly folks on their lunch hour. Stacey’s events coordinator, Ingrid, introduces me by holding up the current issue of Publishers Weekly, which has a three-page story on the behind-the-scenes wrangling over the cover of Cast of Shadows. I do my thing and sign books. Ingrid generously offers me any book in the store as a gift. I choose Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land.

In the car I read the Publishers Weekly article. PW has been extremely good to Cast of Shadows, giving the book an excellent review and featuring it prominently in two separate articles. A cynic might point out that Publishers Weekly is read mostly by people who don’t pay for their books, but I am not a cynic, not today. This latest is terrific publicity, although it claims I rejected one proposal for a book cover because it was too much like William Gibson and not enough like Michael Crichton. Never mind that I never said that, I was never even shown the cover in question. They did show me a cover I didn’t like, but my objection to it wasn’t anywhere near as nuanced as its place on some imaginary Gibson-Crichton continuum. Who cares? It’s a good story.

Frank and I spend the afternoon in and out of San Francisco bookstores. In the evening, we head to San Mateo and a bookstore called “M” Is For Mystery. Due to a scheduling bottleneck, I have been slated to read the same night as Robert B. Parker, the prolific author of the “Spenser for Hire” series. Mr. Parker is to read at 6:30 p.m. and I am to read at 8. The hope is that some of Parker’s fans will stay to hear me read.

So as not to interrupt, we wait at a sports bar across the street. When the reading breaks up, we walk over and Ed Kaufman, the store’s owner, introduces me to the author. I had read his new book, Cold Service, on the plane and tell him how much I liked it. We talk baseball as he autographs Ed’s stock (sign and date…sign and date).

Two Spenser fans stay to hear me read. They are a very nice couple, and we have a lovely conversation. They buy the book. Colleen and Mitch are back, along with Mitch’s daughter, Amanda. For their sake I try not to repeat the same shtick from the night before. I sign (and date) Ed’s stock of Cast of Shadows, and Frank takes me back to the hotel.

Although I’ve had a great time and met some wonderful readers and booksellers, I probably sold a total of 20 books in two days. The folks at Knopf will tell me that the important thing is not how many people show, but raising awareness of the novel among booksellers and the media. That’s a bit of a rationalization, but it’s true that even if all three events had been wildly successful, it still wouldn’t make economic sense to fly me all the way to San Francisco to sell 100 books.

What I don’t know (and will find out later) is that back in Chicago, on the strength of the Trib article, Cast of Shadows is the no. 2 best-selling fiction hardcover, trailing only James Patterson’s Honeymoon.

Wednesday, March 16

Helen is my escort in Seattle. Our first stop is a warehouse that buys in bulk on behalf of small bookstores throughout the West. I sit at a small desk and they bring me stacks and stacks of books to sign—some 150 or so, in all. We drive around to a number of bookstores and, because it’s raining, I mostly jump out of the car and run inside while Helen circles the block. The booksellers in Seattle seem much more enthusiastic about CoS. Maybe it’s Publishers Weekly, or maybe, after two weeks, the book’s now gaining momentum, but several store managers have left word with the staff to page them when I arrive and we chat about the book and the tour. These drop-ins are becoming more fun.

After lunch we stop by the studios of KUOW, an NPR affiliate, for a live interview. In the green room, Helen and I briefly cross paths with Anne Lamott (whose book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, is a nonfiction bestseller) and her media escort, a colleague of Helen. When I meet KUOW’s John Moe, I realize he is also the John Moe who writes the hilarious “pop song correspondences” for McSweeney’s. On the air we talk about how humor writing relates to thriller writing. A terrific interview.

A few more bookstores and then Helen drops me off at the Alexis Hotel. Somehow the bellman seems to know who I am. When I go upstairs to my room, there’s a plaque on the door that says “Sultan Suite.” Indeed, it has to be the largest hotel room in which I have ever stayed. I count off steps, north and south, and determine that it is larger than the entire downstairs of my house. I call my wife, Mo, to tell her this.

Next I call Rob. Rob is one of my best friends from high school and although we keep in touch, we haven’t seen each other in 10 years. I take a shower and change my clothes and explore the room some more. Along one wall, on either side of the fireplace, are shelves and shelves of books, most of them contemporary. I note a dozen or so writers I admire but don’t take any books down from the shelf.

Rob knocks on the door. “Gills! You’re in the Sultan Suite!” he shouts from the other side. We catch up for a few minutes, the two of us circling the vast room. Then we head out for an early dinner.

Rob is wrapping up his doctorate in environmental science at the University of Washington. For the book, I borrowed a few names from our youth, including his. Another friend of ours, Sam Barwick, became Sally Barwick in the novel and Rob, who is halfway through Cast of Shadows, tries to get me to tell him if Big Rob and Sally will have sex. He tells me Sam now lives in a remote part of Vancouver accessible only by kayak. This hasn’t stopped Rob from visiting.

When we return to the Sultan Suite, a copy of Cast of Shadows has appeared on the bed with an envelope on top. Inside is a note explaining that this is the Alexis Hotel’s “Author Suite” and dozens of writers have stayed here on their way through Seattle. They ask each one to sign a copy of the book and leave it here in the room. I go back to the shelves and take some of the books down. Sure enough, here is a short note from David Mitchell inside Cloud Atlas. And here is a message from Susan Orlean.

Downstairs, Helen picks us up and takes us to Elliott Bay Book Co. It’s a large and extremely cool bookstore with old wooden shelves and used book rooms full of discoveries. I’ve asked Matthew Baldwin, a TMN writer (and proprietor of the website Defective Yeti) to read with me tonight. I hope it will lighten things up a bit; Cast of Shadows is a bit dark.

Before the reading, a man approaches me with a bottle of wine. “I’m a friend of your sister,” he says. “I’m her realtor.” That’s odd, I think. Ann lives in Atlanta. “I found Sarah her house here in Seattle,” he says. I tell him I’m sorry, but Sarah is not my sister. The realtor does not believe me. “Sarah told me her brother wrote a book and was giving a reading tonight,” he says. He reaches into his bag and produces a printout of an email. As he reads it to himself, it appears to confirm that I have a sister named Sarah who has recently purchased a home in Seattle. He shows it to me, and Sarah turns out to be the sister of a designer I used to work with. “Oh,” says the man. “Well I have to leave early but if Sarah shows up will you give her this bottle of wine?” I promise I will.

Maybe it’s Matthew’s presence, or maybe the book really is starting to get some traction, but the crowd tonight is quite decent—maybe 30 people. Matthew goes first and tells a hilarious story about meeting Darth Vader at a book signing when he was eight. People laugh. I read. I talk. I open it up to questions. Sarah’s realtor raises his hand. “What religion are you?” he asks. “Catholic,” I say. The realtor nods, stands up, and walks out the door.

I answer a few more questions and then sign books while Rob fetches beers from the café. The first person in line introduces herself as Sarah.

“Your realtor was here,” I say.

“He was?” Sarah says.

“He was sitting directly behind you. Didn’t he say hello?”

Sarah says he did not.

“Anyway, he asked me to give you this bottle of wine…”

Thursday, March 17

I write my appreciation to the Alexis Hotel on the title page of Cast of Shadows and place it on the shelf. Downstairs, a car is waiting to take me to the airport. On the plane I start to read Home Land. Good gravy, is it funny. Laugh-out-loud-annoying-your-seatmate funny. I wonder to myself if it’s one of those guy-funny things. I make a note to find a woman who’s read this book and ask what she thinks.

A driver named Jean meets me at baggage claim and we head directly for Burbank. I’m scheduled to tape the Dennis Miller show this afternoon at two. I call my brother Pete, who happens to be in town on business and give him the address for NBC studios. A guest pass should be waiting for him at the gate.

As we pull up to the studio entrance, I can see lines of people waiting to be in the audiences for various shows. We drive directly past the Ellen line. A producer named Amy meets me at the studio door and ushers me to a dressing room with my name on it. Backstage, everything seems very Larry Sanders—efficient and brightly lit, but drab. There are no colors on the walls or pictures of any kind. I suppose no one wants to jinx the show by personalizing the space.

I’m scheduled to appear on the Varsity Panel, a Politically Incorrect-like segment in the middle of the show. They invite three people—pundits, entertainers, celebrities, writers—to weigh in on the events of the day. Yesterday, Kevin, one of the show’s producers, phoned me with the scheduled topics: steroids in baseball, the death penalty, and, if there’s time, a website that allows people to hunt over the internet. I’ve written three jokes about each subject, figuring whatever Dennis asks me, I can steer my answer to one of the gags.

Before long Pete appears and we do some catching up, switching the TV back and forth between the first round of the N.C.A.A. tourney and the Major League steroid hearings before Congress. “This is cool,” Pete says. Despite the sterile surroundings, or maybe because of them, I agree.

Kevin arrives to deliver me to makeup. There I meet the other panelists—Leslie Marshall, a popular radio talk show host, and Bill Engvall, comedian and co-star of the WB’s Blue Collar TV. Leslie and Bill are cooking up some sort of confrontation over the hunting issue. I get the impression they’ve done this panel a million times before and they are both kind and encouraging.

Pete and I grab some sandwiches in the green room, where we bump into comedian Paul Rodriguez, who is a guest on the show. Rodriguez reluctantly admits that the “Too Hot Tamales,” a pair of gringo chefs appearing in today’s final segment, really know their way around Mexican food. Amy takes Pete to his seat in the audience. I return to the dressing room and turn the television to the in-house feed. The taping begins and I watch Dennis’s news desk monologue. He really is good at this. I’m a Norm MacDonald fan (and a Tina Fey fan as well), but Dennis Miller was the best of the Weekend Update hosts.

Soon Kevin leads the three of us out to the set. We are miked and placed in director chairs, off camera. The audience is probably 100 people. Before Dennis introduces Paul Rodriguez, he teases our segment and when he gets to my name he turns to me and says, “Was your old man the baseball executive?” My mike is off but I tell him he was. “With the Pirates, right?” the one-time Pittsburgher says. “I remember him.”

After the interview with Rodriguez and his teenage son, also named Paul and apparently the most famous professional skateboarder in the world not named Tony Hawk (did you know that? I didn’t know that), they set us up on stage.

The woman in the seat next to me is beautiful—so beautiful I can’t figure out why she isn’t famous. For a moment I wonder if she could be the Harold Baines of beauty, Baines having the most hits of any major leaguer currently not in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Then I realize she probably is famous but I’m so clueless I don’t recognize her. She’s probably Beyoncé.

Scott Peterson having been sentenced yesterday, the first question is about the death penalty. When Miller gets around to me he says, “Guilfoile, I don’t know your politics. I assume you’re a lefty. What’s your take on the death penalty?”

“Well I am against the death penalty,” I say. “But if you’re going to have it, I don’t understand lethal injection. The electric chair at least was a deterrent. They’d flip a switch and your hair would catch on fire and you’d writhe in agony for 15 minutes.” The audience laughs and Dennis agrees, calling lethal injection wussy and comparing it to a colonoscopy. “Right,” I say. “First they give you a pain killer, then a sedative. They put you to sleep, and then they gently slow your heart down until it stops.” I finish this off with an easy Liza Minelli punch line that gets a big laugh from the audience. Miller throws it to commercial and as the music plays he leans across the table to give me a high five. “Guilfoile!” he says. “A beautiful shot in his first time out!”

After the show, Pete and I have a bite and a drink with Kassie, the agent handling the movie rights to Cast of Shadows. Then Jean takes Pete and me to Dutton’s, a bookstore in Brentwood. Dutton’s must have had advance word of the meager crowds in Madison and San Francisco, because they have me reading in front of the cash register with a single bench for seating about two feet in front of me. Behind that is a giant table of books and beyond that is the front wall of the store. At 10 minutes to seven, however, there are already 20 people here and by the time the reading starts there must be more than 30 crammed into the small spaces between shelves and tables and practically spilling out into the street.

Barb McCarthy, a friend of my wife from high school who now works in casting for Paramount, is here. So are Eric Helin, who used to work at Coudal Partners; Michael Colton, one of the founders of Modern Humorist; and Lew Temple, an actor and screenwriter who became my good friend more than a decade ago when we both worked for the Houston Astros. The reading is great fun, but the blur of airports and hotels and car rides is starting to wear on me. I was told the book tour can be tiring and for the first time I’m starting to feel it. My friends head out to three different bars but Pete and I return to the Regent Beverly Wilshire and watch me on television. Then Pete grabs a cab to his hotel and I sleep.

Friday, March 18

After breakfast I’m picked up by Chris, a professional actor. Chris looks familiar and after he runs down the many commercials he’s appeared in, I understand why. We drop in on a half dozen bookstores, and at one of them I pick up the latest issue of The Week magazine, for which I’ve written a short feature about genre books. We still have a few minutes before we have to leave for the airport so Chris takes me to a jewelry store where I pick up a present for Mo—a vintage bracelet from the ‘40s.

When I buy something now, I always calculate it in terms of books sold (at an average royalty of x, this bracelet is worth 95 Cast of Shadows). It’s silly, of course. We live within our means, and our ability to pay the mortgage doesn’t hang on the success or failure of this book. I wonder about the wisdom of the tour, however, and whether flying me from coast to coast and putting me up in the Sultan Suite is the best use of finite CoS promotional dollars. Then again, I have 11 years’ experience in advertising and marketing and when I ask myself what else they should be doing, I have ideas, but I can’t say any of them are better.

The next stop is Charlottesville (via Atlanta) for the Virginia Festival of the Book. I have a jillion frequent-flyer miles so I’ve upgraded for the cross-country flight. Though I’m just terrible at identifying faces out of context—even if I see my neighbor at the mall it takes me a moment to place her—I’m still disappointed to be leaving L.A. without a single decent celebrity sighting. Fortunately I spot actor Stephen Root on the plane, an easy one if you’ve seen Office Space as many times as I have. The woman in the seat next to me is beautiful—so beautiful I can’t figure out why she isn’t famous. For a moment I wonder if she could be the Harold Baines of beauty, Baines having the most hits of any major leaguer currently not in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Then I realize she probably is famous but I’m so clueless I don’t recognize her. She’s probably Beyoncé.

I finish Home Land. Funny. Funny. Funny. The woman who is probably Beyoncé shares a box of vegan cookies with me. The airplane has this GPS monitor in the first-class cabin showing the real-time location of the plane over a map of the United States. It’s mesmerizing. Although I am very tired (and won’t be arriving in Charlottesville until after midnight), instead of sleeping I eat vegan cookies with a beautiful, famous, nameless woman and watch the plane inch across the Texas border into Arkansas airspace.