I was on the road, finally, dragging along a small but heavy rolling suitcase full of books with my right hand, another small rolling suitcase with essentials in my left (thud-a-thud-a-thud-a.) This was it: the book tour starring yours truly. I was the first author my small publisher had sent out in this way, and the venture was due to a combination of events: I wanted to do it; there was grant money from the Canada Council available; my publisher wanted publicity, and hoped that a cranky sort of person like me could drum up a little business and sell books — many books.
My job was to conquer hearts, and I thought I’d manage, all right. I’d been to many book talks in recent months, and I knew one thing was essential: I had to stay lucid, although I might be as nervous as a sack of gelatin. I’d seen the tragedies that befell those who didn’t: some babbled senselessly; others were painfully bland, or terrified and mumbling; one shy gray mouse read a paper about her book, head down, never once looking up, but putting the entire audience soundly to sleep. I’d heard brilliant, funny speakers too, and had come to the conclusion that what an audience wants is someone energetic, amusing, but disciplined. If I had to use notes, they were for reference only but I couldn’t read from them; excerpts had to be lively and short. Perhaps, it didn’t even matter what I said: when I was up there, in front of the crowd, I had to be entertaining.
From Toronto to Ottawa, I took VIA rail and it felt like luxury. I’d recently been living in and traveling through eastern Europe, taking not the sleek trains most tourists know, but small rattling branch line vehicles, and this modern Canadian train was quite a treat. There were carpets on the floor, comfortable seats, and the staff, smiling and polite, spoke in soft reassuring voices. This was not so for some of my fellow travelers.
When the service attendant came by with drinks and sandwiches, the woman across the aisle from me, she with hair frizzed into stalk-like clumps, said she wanted to see a menu. The attendant, smiling, patient (he’d seen it all) explained there was no menu, then he again listed what foods were available. There was a long silence while madam took in the information.
“I still want to see a menu,” she insisted loudly and with much entitled petulance.
Did she think this was the Ritz? The attendant was ever patient — he had to be — but I threw spikey clumps my dirtiest look. Which she returned, of course. Still, I think it was the dirty look that finally silenced her.
In Ottawa, I had two book talks to give: the one this evening was in the public library; a second, tomorrow, would be in a cultural center. I checked into the hostel where I was be staying (on a long book tour like this one, there would be no hotel luxury, but that was fine with me.) The hostel was inside a 150-year-old former jail — some claim the place is haunted. I hoped it was (for pure entertainment) but still, just to err on the side of caution, if you’d done an enforced stint inside, why send your spirit to serve more time? Nevertheless, my single room, once an authentic three-by-nine foot cell, was anything but dismal, and the jail was within walking distance from the library where I was scheduled to talk.
I killed time walking around town. I don’t know Ottawa at all well, and I hadn’t been there in years. Besides, what was the point in showing up at the library early? I knew things would roll on as smoothly as eggs on a sheet of glass: after all, my publisher’s publicity agent — she with sufficient piercings and tattoos to decorate an entire herd of cattle — had taken care of all the arrangements.
“We don’t get my people turning out for book talks,” said the nervous librarian, a polite young man who seemed puzzled by why anyone would even consider such a thing. “I did mention that to the woman who contacted me. But we do have copies of your books on the shelves.”
“Yes…well… we’ll just wait and see what happens,” I said with comforting bravado. We went into the small auditorium where the talk would take place. It was perfectly empty. So we sat, waited for something to happen.
“I did mention that we don’t get many people turning out for book talks,” said the librarian, once again.
“Yes, you did.”
“Unless it’s someone very famous, of course.”
“Or someone who’s known locally.”
“Yes, there’s that too.”
“I did tell that to the woman who contacted us.”
“Yes, I imagine you did.”
Five minutes before the talk was to begin, my friend Isa showed up with her latest beau. I was pleased to see her. We chatted like old friends who hadn’t seen each other in quite a while. Her beau was charming. The librarian was a nice guy. Time passed. No one else showed up. I talked a little about my books, then I left with Isa and the beau, and we went out to eat.
“Tomorrow is another day,” I said confidently. And that proved to be true.
“You’re here for a book talk?” said the confused-looking woman at the cultural center.
“Yes, uh…it was arranged by my publicity agent.”
“Well, yes, she did contact us, and we told her we would be more than happy to do one, and that the date was fine with us. But she never followed up, so we haven’t publicized or arranged anything.”
“Oh, I see.”
“We could see if anyone in the lobby is interested.”
The idea was not highly successful. One woman said she would be more than happy to hear me talk about the book, so we sat and chatted for a while. She even bought a copy, which was success, albeit on a very minor scale. The events organizer — she probably felt horribly sorry for me — invited me back to her house for a drink. It was a lovely house, warm, secure, inviting, cozy. It looked rather ideal from the rather dreary position I now felt myself to be in.
Then I went back out to my cell at the former jail. “Tomorrow is yet another day,” I told myself. And I knew that, once again, I would probably be proved right.