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Bigger than France

Peddling books in a state full of stories
by Published on

Illustration by Tomoko Kuwahara

When my third book came out last year, I was thrilled when my publisher announced I would be going on tour, giving readings in Manhattan, San Francisco, Berkeley, Portland, and Seattle. Then they told me my budget: $1,000. A whopping grand to cover expenses for traveling from the Third Coast to the two others.

Compared with my two prior book tours, it was a damn windfall. There was no budget at all for the first two. Nada. I had to get creative.

Book one saw me throwing a fundraiser in my kitchen, with live music in the backyard. My friends kicked in enough that night for me to drive from Austin to the East Coast in July, in a decade-old Toyota with no air conditioning that had once been pushed into a lake. Most of that trip was spent yelling consolations to my sweaty 8-year-old son in the backseat, the hot highway wind throwing my words out the open windows before he could hear them. In the front, I alternately listened to Delilah try to cheer up her depressed radio listeners and news reports of efforts to retrieve the bodies of JFK Jr., his bride, and her sister from the bottom of the Atlantic.

The second tour was the most memorable. Not willing to press my friends for cash again, I had to come up with something else. My friend, Dan, high on post-surgery Vicodin, slurred an idea I thought was genius: Take a tour of small town Texas libraries, he commanded.

Texas, as one of my favorite bumper stickers points out, is bigger than France. I did not take this into consideration as I e-mailed 700 librarians, begging for an invitation to convince their patrons to buy my book. I did not calculate the price of gas and hotels and wear and tear on my latest vehicle, a Subaru wagon old enough to vote and go to war. Nor did I take note of the obvious: People do not go to libraries to buy books. They go to libraries to not buy books.

Blissfully ignorant, I set out on a journey spread out over many weekends, across what seemed like roughly 700,000 miles, onto the Main Streets and into the back rooms of teensy libraries in countless, tiny Texas bergs. In all, I’d estimate I sold six books.

But the things I learned. (Besides the fact that you can order soft-core porn in the La Quinta in Odessa-Midland, onetime home of the Bush clan.)

The biggest was that I was hardly the only one eager to share my stories. Everyone I met wanted to share theirs, too. This is not an uncommon pitfall of Letting People Know You’re a Writer. As the old joke goes, everyone has a book inside of them, and that’s probably where it should stay. (More to the point, as my dog trainer friends once told me, they try not to let people at parties find out what they do because then they have to listen to dachshund and shih tzu tales for the rest of the night.)

But you can’t simultaneously go on a book tour and not let on you’re a writer. So in exchange for letting me tell my story, my listeners (on average about four per reading) were gently adamant about making me hear them out, too. So I listened and I learned-sometimes things that inspired me, sometimes things I wish I hadn’t heard. Sometimes I felt resentful that I’d driven so far to meet so few. Mostly I tried to be grateful that at least those few turned out, and that only once did I have an audience of zero (which the Brownwood librarian suggested I fix by standing in the middle of the room and reading out loud “to see if a crowd gathers.”)

In Alpine, I met an elderly man and his elderly wife (glad that at least one of them was legally blind since I ripped a gaping hole in the back of my pants moments before the reading). They were members of the Mock Family, a now-defunct outfit of classical guitarists. When their three kids were young, Mother and Father Mock trained them to play, and the whole bohemian outfit traveled the world, regularly strumming for their supper (perhaps in rundown churches in European towns no one else dared visit.)

In Marfa, I encountered Doc Edwards, then 78, who couldn’t hear well enough to understand what I was saying, but was wonderfully cheerful nonetheless as he took my soft, urban hand in his calloused, weatherworn country paw and announced that he, too, was a memoirist. Clearly a better marketer than I, he handed me a copy of his book, which I bought, putting me deeper into the fiscal hole. Titled Up to My Armpits, the tome was his firsthand account of being the go-to vet in West Texas for 50 years, the armpit reference pertaining to birthing calves.

Another friendly senior smiled appreciatively at me as I read that same night. Later, I learned she would soon be completely blind. Her response to receiving this devastating news from her doctor was to come up with a plan to see as many things as she could before permanent darkness fell. So she’d set off for the Galapagos Islands for some turtle watching and, much closer to home, up to the nearby McDonald Observatory to take in the then-very-close planet Mars through an uber-powerful telescope. Of all the things she could have done that night-and I have to admit that looking for the Marfa Lights might have been a tad more exciting-I was flattered that she chose to offer some of her dwindling vision to me.

After a reading at the Mt. Pleasant library, I entertained a smattering of personal anecdotes from folks who wanted to tell me about their own writing endeavors. But the real story I was treated to was that of Henry Clay Thurston, who, because he’d been dead a hundred years or so, could not speak for himself. However, he did have an excellent representative in a friend of the Mt. Pleasant library, a slow-moving gentleman who, after my reading, took me to a field of dead grass and led me to the ancient, faded tombstone of Thurston, who at 7 feet, 7 and a half inches had been the tallest Confederate soldier. My guide told me locals were trying to raise money to erect a pillar the precise height of old Henry.

My trip to Denison brought me the most unfortunately unforgettable story of all. I arrived the night before the reading, and Liz, a librarian, put me up in a little cottage, clean and bright, warning me to watch out for scorpions in my bed and asking would I mind if she stayed with me for a spell. She told me many stories late into the night. This one stuck:

When Liz was a teenager, visiting a friend, there was a knock on the door. Enter her friend’s handsome pal, Walter. Liz left her friend’s after a while, running home to get her car and meet her family at a restaurant. Getting into the car, she failed to notice her mother’s toy poodle at her feet and slammed the door on the dog’s head. The dog crumpled.

Hysterical, Liz ran back to her friend’s place. Walter, tall and consoling, offered to help. Walking back to Liz’s, where Walter buried the dog in a shoebox in the yard, he told her that-what a coincidence!-the week before, he had run over a puppy. They bonded over dog tragedies and soon after married. They’re still together. Walter even bought Liz a toy poodle to replace the one she accidentally killed. (Unfortunately, they left this poodle unattended in a room with a rottweiler, which did not bode well for the smaller pooch, ultimately convincing the family to stop adopting little curly dogs.)

My final stop was a suburban Dallas library, where I was not invited to read, but to stand around a table filled with my books (of which I did not sell one) and chat with a crowd that failed to materialize. Unless you count the other authors who, with no one else to talk to, heaped upon one another the stories they had come to tell non-existent fans.

One woman told me all about her book of morning meditations, and her mission, with her husband, to bring the Lord to prisoners. Then I was blindsided by a juicy authoress who gushed about how she and her husband co-wrote kids’ books and cookbooks and inspirational romances and antique books, as if writing were as easy as crapping after a big bowl of chili-you’re never sure what form it will take, but something will pop out if you just sit still for a minute. (I eavesdropped while this woman’s husband told another author the secret method he and his wife used to collaborate: “She adds the sensory details and makes sure there’s no redundancy. She makes the women sound like women.”)

Another woman approached me as she, her husband, and their grandson entered the room weighted down with books they wouldn’t sell, either. “My husband didn’t know he was an author, but the Lord inspired him,” she confided, describing his daily home dialysis and how it’s different than at the clinic and how the fluid she deals with isn’t blood but “looks more like IV liquid.”

When another author pressed upon me some cheesy opening poem from his book, I couldn’t take it anymore. I smiled and nodded. Inwardly I became a total snot, telling myself I am so much better than these people and asking myself where I went wrong. I didn’t like this about myself, that my inner judge had come thrashing to the surface, but by then I was beyond worn out from so many miles driven, so many books unsold, and so many other people’s stories heaped on me like too much gravy on a chicken fried steak.

But wait. Can you ever really have too much gravy? I mean, aside from the fact I’ve never eaten a chicken-fried steak, I have to admit in the end that all we have are our stories. Of course we want to tell them. Of course we hope others will listen.

Spike Gillespie is an Austin writer. Her latest book, Quilty as Charged: Undercover in the Material World, about contemporary quilting, will be released in the fall by University of Texas Press. She’s planning a tour to visit every single quilt maker in America-all 27 million of ‘em.