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Taking it on the road: The changing shape of book tours

March 8, 2010 |  7:22 am

Danchaondriving

As he prepared to read in Maryland, James Ellroy waited in an uncomfortable, closet-sized room off the side of the stage. In Pittsburgh, after a sparsely attended appearance, Bill Cotter ordered the classic comfort food, macaroni and cheese. Every place Dan Chaon stopped in Illinois and Iowa, he got compliments on his rental car, a 2010 Camaro. As I hit the road to find out how authors hit the road, there were many details that didn't fit into my article on the contemporary book tour, which was in Sunday's paper:

As the book tour takes on new shapes, what will it mean for writers -- and for readers? Authors like [T.C.] Boyle don't just read -- they perform and stay until they've signed every book. They know the value of connection. But how will their lesser-known counterparts connect?

Bill Cotter and his longtime girlfriend, Annie LaGanga, realized their first books were coming out -- on McSweeney's and Red Hen Press, respectively -- at pretty much the same time. So Annie set up a DIY tour, which I caught in New York and Pittsburgh. I asked them if there was a moment on their tour when it  was what they'd wanted.

Bill Cotter: Mine was in Salt Lake City, which was the second reading: I was shocked that I wasn't nervous. It was really a shock and a delight to me that I could stand at a podium with people in a room and have words come out of my mouth without fainting. That was a surprise; it was empowering to me.

Annie LaGanga: At KGB bar. I liked my dress, I liked my hair. I got to say my poems in a room of people who were listening. I loved being in New York. That moment, for me, felt so good. What I had written and how I was delivering it was being heard, by people I thought were neat.

I tagged along with Dan Chaon from Chicago to Naperville, Ill., to Iowa City, Iowa, and back to Chicago again. He gave readings, met with booksellers and taught a class; I took notes. There was also a lot of driving, so inevitably we talked about it:

Jacket Copy: Do you find yourself at all affected by the landscape?

Dan Chaon: Yeah. I find myself very affected by all this traveling that I do. I actually don't think “Await Your Reply” would have been written without book tours. It was deeply influenced by book tours.

JC: Were there specific moments, like when Randy is in Las Vegas, and he's looking out at the lights from his hotel room, and sees himself in the glass --

DC: I wrote that chapter while I was in Las Vegas doing a thing for the University of Las Vegas and for the city of Las Vegas' One Book program. It was an incredibly well-funded program, so they put me up at the Mandalay Bay hotel, and I stayed there for a week. That was the week that I wrote the first version of that chapter. It was like nice double-duty.

JC: Do you find it possible to write when you're traveling to promote your books?

DC: I find it possible to take notes. And a lot of the early process of putting together a book for me – little details notes, quotes, fragments. Eventually, I'll put those together to make a chapter. It's a process of gathering, even though it's fictional information. It's still gathering information.

JC: How much time do you feel like you need in a place to get a sense of it to render in fiction?

DC: I used to think you needed years. And now I'm less convinced that that's necessary. I think in my earlier books, the landscape and place were much more sort of rooted into the narrative. Not to say that they're not in this book, but somehow the ephemeral quality of people's relationship to the place has dovetailed with my own ephemeral relationship with a variety of places. 

After chasing authors from city to city, I also began to feel an ephemeral relationship to place; a book tour can be dizzying. Keeping focus is important, because book tours have so many dimensions: readings, signings, meetings, interviews, planned and chance encounters. Although book tours seem to be endangered, I hope authors will be able to continue to experience the delight of connecting with a roomful of strangers around their books. The Internet can do a lot, but I don't think it can do it all.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Author Dan Chaon drives in Illinois. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg

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