I've spent the last three weeks on book tour with my novel, The Dream Merchant, which is about a salesman who can sell anything to anyone. My protagonist, Jim, hawks sundry products but on the bottom line he sells hope and the good life. Jim is gifted with charisma and infectious passion but also he is not impeded by fear of hell. Jim can be the best friend you'll ever have but when it's called for he'll walk over you. There is nothing Jim won't do to land a big deal. All of this, and considerably more, I had in mind when I took to the road with my novel in hand. How would I measure up?
It began in Florida, a small market for literary fiction. New York, LA and Boston would follow -- I wanted to be well-rehearsed before operating in the bright lights. On the flight down to Palm Beach I thought about my pitch. At the beginning of my novel Jim is a ruined old salesman. He tells his imposing rags-to-riches-to-ruin saga to a beautiful young woman named Mara whom he has fallen in love with. Jim has given up his devoted wife, incredulous children and a struggling business for this girl and their unlikely future together. But this darkly motivated and enticing seductress is Jim's final big chance and if he dies in her arms, well, he can accept it -- not a bad final act he decides. I wondered if I should read a section in the Coral Gables store about Jim's attraction to Mara -- how unquenchable yearning for her, and frankly for their sex, has swallowed up even his dreams of a final run at wealth and glory.
But thinking about my presentation on the plane I was feeling nervous. I'd spent 10 years of my life writing the novel, mostly alone in my office. I'd written it carefully, artfully but that hardly mattered right now. It was my pitch that mattered and I couldn't decide what to say. It didn't seem fair.
Should I talk about the sex between an old man and a woman 50 years his junior? Or should I skirt the subject for fear of offending women? Women are the book buyers in this country. But maybe women wouldn't mind the sex. I fretted about this question, and others as well.
My first book signing took place in Miami, a lovely store with only a handful of people waiting to hear about my first novel after years of writing non-fiction. But that was okay -- I wasn't prepared yet for big audiences. There were several men and two or three women, including Melinda, a Facebook friend I had just met for the first time. Melinda is very smart, a terrific writer herself, with a great sense of humor. I glanced at Melinda and then at another woman who was staring at me with a motherly smile. She could tell that I was nervous and was trying to be supportive. I blushed and chickened out on my discussion of Jim's fatal attraction for Mara.
I began to explain the unusual way I have structured time in The Dream Merchant, mentioning James Joyce as an analogy, but then stopped in mid-sentence. No one cares about James Joyce today. So I veered away from Joyce into the violence in the Brazil section of my book.
"As the plot evolved and darkened I wanted to see how my character would survive or prosper in a lawless world -- I wanted to put Willy Loman into the Heart of Darkness."
I talked about a string of murders and described tiny man-eating jaguars the size of house cats. These hideous creatures leap out of the bush in packs of four or five screaming like babies while they claw their way up a man's body.
I didn't mention the uncommon sex in the Brazil section of my novel. I sold a few books in Miami but I felt like a coward.
I was back in my hotel room thinking about my pitch. "Waitzkin, you cannot be afraid to talk about your own book. You didn't spend a decade writing a Dick and Jane story." The next afternoon I would be speaking in a small shop in Palm Beach. The book store would be packed with men in their sixties and seventies. I knew this because my friend Ronnie had invited guys from his senior softball league -- the wizened but still passionate boys of summer. This would be the perfect venue to talk about Mara and Jim. Maybe the key was to tailor my pitch to different audiences. I needed to be flexible like Jim -- whatever it takes. I was thinking about this when the phone rang.
It was my first live radio interview about The Dream Merchant. From the start I felt a kinship with the host of the show, Bill Kenower. He has terrific energy and an infectious love for books. He told me that he had just finished writing a memoir about his son who was diagnosed with autism. I had also written a memoir about my son. We had a lively discussion about how memoirs are very close, almost inseparable from fiction. I mentioned a couple of memoirs that read to me like novels and he responded that the only "truth" that counts in good writing is emotional truth. I enthusiastically agreed. Kenower is a terrific guy. I felt like we could be friends. We went on trading insights of the trade for a half hour but it felt like five minutes. I got off the air feeling elated. This was the high point of my book tour, no question.
A little later I talked on the phone to my wife about the interview. From her voice I could tell that she didn't share my enthusiasm. "What's wrong, you didn't like it?"
"It was fine," Bonnie said, "But you didn't mention your book. You are supposed to be selling your novel, not having wonderful conversations."
By now you are getting the feel for my book tour, which I think is typical for an author today. It does not matter if a writer's work is delicate or deep or inventive or learned or crass. With thousands of books published each week, authors are begging for a signing in a prestigious store, no less a radio interview or a feature newspaper article. On book tour a writer is a traveling salesman peddling books to pay off the mortgage.
Let's skip to LA, tinsel town, where I was booked on a nationally syndicated television show, "Connie Martinson talks Books." Speaking to thousands of book fans in one sitting is a rare opportunity for a novelist today. Connie Martinson has interviewed all the big names. Before coming on I'd watched her smart, lively interview with Barack Obama.
The studio was ready to go. Connie was seated in one chair with a poster of my book set on a table to the side of her. I took the second chair on the set, directly across from her. She was holding a copy of my novel with 20 or 30 post-its stuck into the pages. It appeared that she had read the novel closely. And she had. But I had it in mind to guide our talk to Jim and Mara.
To thrive and navigate a bizarre dangerous life, Jim must re-create himself several times, which entails walking away from a complicated nagging past. Young women are always the catalyst for his transformations. On my first television appearance, I was resolved to broach the subject of Jim's unlikely relationship with Mara. I had to do this -- frankly it felt like a moral imperative. How could Nabokov ever have had a serious discussion about Lolita without talking about Humbert's unquenchable physical desire for the nymphet Lolita?
But the show began with a slight stutter. Connie opened with a lovely introduction about my novel, which she called "Felliniesque" but then stopped short when she noticed that I was looking directly at her, quietly nodding. She explained to me that although she would be looking at me while asking questions that I mustn't look back at her. Rather, I was to direct my stare about sixty degrees to the left, which was where one of the video cameras was positioned. Frankly, I felt a bit disconcerted by this stage direction, carrying on an expressive conversation with a smart lady without glancing toward her -- it felt autistic, weird.
"Do you understand Fred? Keep looking at camera," she repeated, anxious to get the show started. I nodded without conviction. Could I manage to remain congenial, relaxed and thoughtful while looking away from Connie? It was then that an old lady seated in the audience said, "Just look at me. Pretend that you are talking to me when answering her."
"Okay," I said, gratefully. I would look at this kindly octogenarian, as if she were Connie. Perfect. Almost perfect. But how on earth could I describe this old man's insatiable lust for young Mara while speaking directly to an old woman who was trying to help me do my best.
I didn't. I spoke again about the violence in the Brazil section of the novel. The murders. The little jaguars that scream like babies. I chickened out again.
I could imagine my character Jim, never constrained by inhibition or conscience one day in his selling life, shaking his head in disgust.
Follow Fred Waitzkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@fredwaitzkin