Essay Fiction 2008

My Life In Sales

A month of living in a suitcase, eating in airports, and cracking your forehead open against hotel-room walls in the middle of the night often comes to very little. But the only thing worse than going on book tour is not going.

Perhaps I should put my novels in a sample case, the expensive new hardbacks on one side, the smaller, friendlier paperbacks on the other, and go door to door through some neighborhood in St. Louis with my wares. If someone wanted me to stand on the sidewalk and read to them, I would read. If somebody wanted his or her book gift-wrapped for the holidays, I would wrap. If they wanted to cry in my arms, I would hold them. The door-to-door sales perfected by Fuller Brush and various encyclopedia companies seem to operate on a more reliable formula than the schemes of publishing houses. Even as my audiences got a little bigger, most hovering in the 15-to-25 range by the Magician’s Assistant days, I could still fly halfway across the country to a room full of empty chairs. Who knew that I was scheduled to read in Chicago on the night of an NBA playoff game (back in the days when that meant something substantial), or that Ethan Hawke would be reading from his new novel in the room across the hall from me at the Texas Book Fair? I never minded reading to three people. I had plenty of experience. The key is that all of you must sit very close together.

All this raises the question: Why don’t I just stay home? Believe me, I’ve asked myself that many times, mostly in dark hotel rooms when the alarm goes off at 4:30 in the morning because I have a flight to catch. Partly because touring is in my contract. Selling is part of the job. But more important, I really do believe Allan Gurganus. Watching a book wither on the shelf would be worse than never having the chance to fight for its success. The market out there is big and crowded, full of noise and hype demanding your attention. The book, weighing not much more than a pound, with no jack to plug it into, can use all the help it can get. I know a lot of writers whose publishers, because of lack of funds or confidence, don’t send them out. I don’t know any writers who wouldn’t jump at the chance to go.

And then there’s this: if my house were burning down, the one thing I’d rush in to save would be my copy of The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, which I had signed at the first author reading I ever attended, the year that I was 16 and the author was 70. I could discourse endlessly on why my books are in no way improved by my signature, and my words are just the same on the page whether or not I’ve read them aloud. And while I know better than anyone that I am no Eudora Welty, I know how profoundly I was shaken to see her, how I felt that my book had been transformed by the touch of her hands.

Late one night, I was reaching the end of my signing line for Run after having given a talk at Washington National Cathedral. A woman came up to the table with a girl who might have been 16, though I doubt she was as old as that. “You’re up awfully late on a school night,” I said to her.

“And it’s going to be a lot later before she gets to bed,” the mother said. The daughter was looking at the floor. “We’ve got a four-hour drive back to West Virginia tonight.” She beamed at me. She was a mother, after all, and very proud of what she had accomplished for her child. “I knew you would tell her something she needed to hear, something she’d always remember, and you did. You’re her favorite writer, you know. She’s going to be a writer, too.”

I wished to God I had something to give that child, an amulet or a golden compass, something that would have proved just how completely I believed in her. She didn’t say a word to me, and I put my arm around her and let her mother take our picture. I wrote her name and my name in her copy of my book. I thanked them both for coming, but there was no way to thank them enough. It was late, and people were still in line behind them, and they had a long drive ahead.

Presented by

Ann Patchett is the author of five novels, including Bel Canto (2001) and Run, which will be out in paperback this summer. Her most recent work of nonfiction is What Now?, based on a commencement address she gave at Sarah Lawrence College in 2006. She will be on book tour for the paperback of Run in August.

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