How Humanity (Not a Book Tour) Changed My Life
Maybe the best way to describe it is “like one of those daydreams”: you’re not fully asleep; you can still hear silverware clinking; you can see what’s around you and you know what it’s supposed to mean, but all you can do is stay asleep and keep dreaming.
“You know, you’re really lucky to be here,” a lady with a badge told me with an air of incredulity. “This is the American Booksellers Association…the Winter Institute…you should be excited! This is it!”
This was it, indeed. That’s what everyone kept telling me.
One hundred Slim and The Beasts were stacked to my left. Next to me sat a woman who’d written a book about multi-tasking and its dangers. The massive, carpeted room was filled with dozens of tables: those lining the walls for the authors, the center tables for food and drink.
During such fanciful affairs, I’m more used to serving hors d’oeuvres than being referred to as “sir”—I have catered just as long as I’ve written novels, all seven years worth. To calm the nerves, I talked to the bartender for a while about IPA beer (he said its hoppiness—what I call bad-tastiness—is due to mouldy cargo holds in creaky ships). I gave him the Wi-Fi password (apparently he wasn’t allowed to have it) and returned to my “author table” to begin greeting booksellers from across the country.
This was the seminal moment. I was a published man with a public image. I picked up a pen, ready to sign. It exploded in my hand immediately. And then hundreds of booksellers flooded through the doors, trying to get their hands on the next big thing. Whoever was at the table next to me had a long, slithering line of signature-seekers. T.C. Boyle was out there somewhere. According to the brochure, this certainly felt like “it.”
I never had a line, but many people came up to me and almost invariably asked about the ink stain. “You know you have ink all over your hand.” “What can I say … I’m new at this.” Stripped of prestige, slightly tipsy, I met and spoke to dozens of kind booksellers for the next two hours. I made some great connections there, but these connections were necessarily fleeting: at an event like this, it’s all about eye contact and the handshake. And so this is what I remember most about the ABA Winter Institute—not so much the book signing or mention of potential screenplays, but the kind bus driver with a jolly face who now has a copy of Slim and The Beast; a beautiful dinner with Ingram Distribution representatives, one of whom announced her retirement over tapas and beer; and discussing feminism and race relations with a Floridian bookseller in a bumbling shuttle bus. I woke up at 6am to drive from Asheville, NC down to Chapel Hill, the hometown of Slim and The Beast. I saw the sun rise in the Appalachians. The Winter Institute was indeed a memorable experience.
Although the ABA event was the “highest profile” of them all, McNally Jackson Books in New York City was equally exciting. I felt at ease reading and discussing the book in front of friends and their acquaintances, and was helped by some fantastic questions from a red-dressed lady in the audience. But what I remember most is the importance of community: I drank wine with family friends from the French village where I was born; with my twin brother and my mom; with my girlfriend from Paris; with my best friends from childhood; with a great friend from Seattle who was at the inception of Slim and The Beast; with virtually all of my college friends … the list goes on and on. The event at Molasses Books in Brooklyn also felt more like an apartment party than a “book event,” which is how it is supposed to be.
I don't feel like the book tour was about me, really. It was about an idea that began three years ago. It was about all of you, the backers, and about a celebration of community. I am incredibly fortunate to have found Inkshares when I did, and still have trouble believing I am a “published author,” which probably has to do with the distinct feeling that I haven't done anything special. People write and publish books all the time. Hundreds of thousands of writers, many more talented than me, will never see the published page. If I have done anything special, it’s about the way I went about publishing, and therein lies the paradox: the entire point of Inkshares is that it's at least as much about community as it is about me. To that extent, I feel like all of you should be front and center. I can take the role of representative, maybe; but the thought that it was MY party, MY book tour, seems to miss the point entirely. “In an ideal world we’d all be sitting in a circle,” I should’ve said at my events. And maybe that's my hippy free love background talking, but I really do mean it: the notion that I should be elevated because I’m now published is ignorant at best, and flat-out wrong at worst. If I’m here, writing this backer update, it has to do with the backers, not “me.” There’s nothing special about writing a book, but there is in finding the book’s community.
For too long, in my opinion, writers have been revered for the wrong reasons. When considering the writer as something almost mythical, it seems the harder to interview, the harder to read, the harder to analyze, the larger the myth. In short, the less connected the writer is with her community, the more renowned she becomes. There is a bizarre dance that occurs between writer and reader, in which the writer (and the writer’s ego) seeks to put herself higher than the rest, while the reader (and his desire to create the “writer myth”) pushes the writer away. But great writing isn’t about genius and deference, but patience and humility. More than anything else, it’s about humanity and the book’s community. So if the Inkshares model has proven (and continues to prove) anything, it’s that “having what it takes” isn’t about some misplaced sense of accomplishment or belonging to a “higher plane,” but about having faith in humanity, which in turn had faith in me. Belief in the goodness of people can also become one of its main causes; so if this entire experience has taught me anything, it is a firm belief in dare to dream.
A while ago I wrote a piece, “How Humanity (Not a Literary Agent) Changed My Life.” After reaching the 1000 books mark, I can only change the title and reiterate the same feeling. Since I can now speak from “book-tour experience,” I know that the book tour isn’t “it,” at least not in the narrow sense of book sales and fame. I have a foot in the door, which is more than anything I could have imagined, but “it” isn’t about 1000 books or a 2nd print edition; “it” is about talking to my editor about my next novel; eating a breakfast burrito in a roadside diner with my fantastic colleague, Thad Woodman, and my Parisian girlfriend; sitting in a Lower East Side apartment talking about Batman, psychedelics and heart surgery; and drinking with a published, well-reviewed Columbia MFA candidate who struggles to find an audience, just like me. My life has changed for the better, but it has also remained the same: I have a few more Twitter followers, a few more dollars in my bank account, and more than a few beautiful memories that will remain with me; but I still live in my 15m2 apartment, I still do part-time work I’m not necessarily proud of, I’m working on a new, totally different novel, and I still struggle to write every day.
This is “it.” This is how it’s supposed to be. One year later, after crowdfunding, editing, choosing the book cover, learning about marketing, book sales and book tours and editing a 2nd edition, I’m back at square one, and couldn’t be happier. Whatever the future holds, Slim and The Beast has been a success, and that’s only because you believed in me.