Sunday, July 10, 2016

My four months of getting hassled by cops

Photo taken in Port Arthur, Texas, on the final hour of my journey.
On my walk across the Great Plains, I had countless encounters with law enforcement. At one point in Montana, I was awoken by an armed posse led by the local sheriff. In Petersburg, Nebraska, I was detained and driven out of the county on false charges of breaking into local homes. In Kansas, I was approached by cops every day — sometimes several times a day — so that they could check my ID and see what I was up to. In Texas, a cop pulled over and interviewed me to determine whether I was an environmental terrorist. In my normal life, I’m never approached by cops. But on this 146-day trip, I must have been targeted by cops several times a week.

On the one hand, I can identity with people of color who are routinely suspected of wrongdoing just because of how they look. (In their case, they’re black, and in my case, I was a bearded and bedraggled stranger.) But, on the other hand, I’ll never really understand what they have to go through. I never felt fear in any of these encounters. I never worried about getting manhandled, beaten, or shot. I never felt my dignity was being assaulted because I knew that this targeting would end the minute my hike did, and I'd go back to my old life in which my whiteness makes me invisible to cops. Honestly, being detained or cornered by cops was a source of amusement to me more than anything else.

I was treated with respect in all of these interactions. I’d call them “warm,” even. They usually ended with the officer wishing me good luck. One time, when things got scary in Atoka, Oklahoma — when a stranger approached my tent in the middle of the night — I called the cops, who came out to make sure I was okay. Another time, in Augusta, Kansas, the police department offered to let me sleep in their offices on a particularly cold December night. Despite being suspected of wrongdoing all the time, I ended my journey with great respect for cops and what they do.

But this is not a “all cops are wonderful” post. There is no question in my mind that African Americans are disproportionately targeted, mistreated, and killed. (Make sure you read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” before you disagree with that comment.) There’s no question that doing what I did — trespassing across the whitest part of America — would be one hundred times harder, and deadlier, for a person of color.

I’m not sure what this post is other than a double dose of sympathy from someone who’s neither black nor a cop: I sympathize with folks who are racially targeted and I sympathize with the men and women who put their lives on the line for us every day. This post is an acknowledgement of the good work our cops do and an acknowledgment that things must also change.

Detained in Petersburg, Nebraska on false charges of breaking and entering.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Trespassing across America—An Imperfect Journey

There’s almost nothing good that will come from reading a book review about your own book. After you’ve poured your life and soul into a book for almost three years, reading one critical sentence in an otherwise glowing review can ruin a perfectly good afternoon. Maybe I’m just overly sensitive, but I’m guessing that criticism is tough to take for most authors and artists, especially when this criticism is made public for everyone to read.

Most of the time I won’t read reviews unless someone has gone out of their way to tell me that it’s a great review, and even then sometimes I choose not to. Better not even chance it, I’ll think. But I do feel some obligation to read them, as I do want to grow as a writer and learn what I can from professional critics. And of course I’m simply curious to find out how people respond to a literary work that I’ve rewritten and reread a hundred times with the aim of making it a pleasurable read. Did I succeed? If not, how did I fail? 

There have been at least two negative reviews of Trespassing across America, which has been out for two months now. Since there are patterns to the criticisms in these reviews, I wish to address them. Not in an angry, vengeful, Twitter-war way. But in a literary and intellectual way. In a way that defends my book while acknowledging its shortcomings.

In one of the earliest reviews, written by LA Times book critic Dean Kuipers, Kuipers refers to me as a “a reluctant interrogator, constantly backing away from encounters that might prove too hot.” Kuipers is referring to my reluctance to talk with landowners about climate change. This is of course an important conversation for me to have on a journey in which I’m walk over a controversial oil pipeline. 

Ilgunas walks into a face-full of what one strongly suspects is regurgitated Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, and for reasons of either politeness or fear he can't break through. Finally, in the middle of the book, he is invited to lunch by Stan, a pro-pipeline guy who thinks climate change is fake but who says he hopes the backpacking stranger can help him understand differently. When he asks Ilgunas, "Don't you believe environmentalism is all about power?" — voicing a conservative belief that climate change is a plot to increase government control — Ilgunas shuts down. "From the phrasing of this one question, I gathered that any sort of mutual understanding was impossible.”… We need him to transcend the confrontation.

Elizabeth Kelly of the Star Tribune writes something similar: 

Time and again, confronted with ranchers, farmers, oil workers, merchants who stand at the other pole from Ilgunas on the pipeline issue, he mumbles that his mission is merely a long walk rather than risk the direct challenge of an opposing view… [U]ltimately this backing down by the author reduces his account to a mere travel journal when he had begun his journey with the announced intent to change the world’s energy habits.

On one hand, I certainly see their points. In a book sort of about big, important political things, you want the author to charge ahead and tackle them head on. You want the protagonist of a book to act heroically. To act courageously. To act assertively. And oftentimes I was calculatedly unassertive. As a liberal New Yorker illegally walking across people’s lands in arguably the most conservative part of America, I certainly had to exercise a lot of caution. Bringing up a subject as contentious as manmade climate change, I recognized, could be the difference between my having a positive social interaction and one in which I’m legitimately worried about my safety. To their credit, these critics acknowledged my unique situation, even if they didn’t let me off the hook for it.

But to defend myself and my book, I should say that I did have many talks about pipelines and climate change. Most were too unexceptional to make it into the book, or they overlapped with other conversations I had. I got a lot of people’s positive impressions of the fossil fuel industry and their disbelief in manmade climate change, for all the usual reasons. These are peppered throughout the book. What I’m getting dinged for is not sticking up for what I believe in. For not confronting these folks with the hard facts behind manmade climate change. My constant sheepishness can be frustrating to the reader.

I am not proud of my sheepishness, but I feel that my depiction of my sheepishness needs to be defended on two levels. Firstly, my confronting a few dozen — or even a few hundred — landowners on climate change would have accomplished nothing. Debating climate change is almost like debating religion: people’s minds, especially among older-aged folks, are made up. Persuading folks, one after the other, of the validity of climate change was never my goal. In the end, I got what I came for: their beliefs and an understanding of where they’re coming from.

And on another level, I deliberately kept my sheepishness in the book because I wanted to faithfully chronicle one normal guy’s experiences talking about a subject as toxic and complex as climate change in the years 2012 and 2013. Then and now, climate change is not an easy subject to bring up, debate, or change someone’s mind about. (Even scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, arguably the person most equipped to persuade ordinary folks about the existence of manmade climate change, has said he won’t debate deniers.) If you happen to live in a progressive bubble, it may sound unusual that I felt reluctant talking about climate change with other folks. 

But out there, on the Great Plains, climate change is a subject that’s explosive and emotionally-charged. Tied up in the issue of manmade climate change are folks’ livelihoods and identities. Implicit in a conversation about climate change are threats of having to undergo an upheaval in how we live and how we identify. Will we have to leave behind the images of ourselves as hardy, self-sufficient, small-government individualists in order to tackle something as tremendous as climate change, which will require a robust government, collective action, keeping fossil fuels in the ground, building an international coalition to impose greenhouse gas limits, and containing the evils of the free market with stricter regulations—all anathema to the right-wing mind? 

Rather than coming to terms with things that imperil the sanctity of their identity, it’s easier for them to just deny climate change and angrily dismiss believers as deluded halfwits doing the dirty work for a nefarious, power-grabbing leftwing. Imagine talking about abolition with a sympathizer of slavery in 1850’s Georgia. Talking about climate change in a red state today isn’t quite that bad, but it is one of those subjects where there’s starkly different opinions and little-to-no middle ground for sympathy and mutual understanding. When your identity is so synchronized with a belief, it’s something worth going to war over—and it was this tension that I felt whenever I brought up environmental subjects.

I wanted my sheepishness to be a part of the book because it says a lot about our times. And I wanted it to be in the book regardless of whether or not it makes me look bad or ultimately frustrates the reader, because it showcases how difficult it is for a person to have a conversation about a politically-charged and scientifically-complex subject. It’s about feeling awkward about identifying as an “environmentalist” to Republicans. It’s about not having any confidence in my ability to marshal facts about CO2 levels and ice-core studies in a conversation. It’s about not talking about contentious subjects in the unprecedentedly partisan atmosphere of the Obama era. (Early on in the book, I recount a story of one of my drivers on my hitchhike who threatened to kick me out of his car if I said something positive about President Obama—this is a prime example of the hyper-partisan country we’re living in.) Consider these facts from a recent New York Times article that borrows data from a Pew Research Center survey about contemporary partisanship:
  • “For the first time since at least 1992, the majority of Democrats and Republicans say they view the opposing party ‘very unfavorably’…  [A]round half of the members of either party said their opponents stirred feelings of fear and anger in them.”
  • “Today… 91 percent of Republicans view the Democratic Party unfavorably, with 58 percent holding ‘very unfavorable’ attitudes toward it. Among Democrats, 86 percent view the Republican Party unfavorably, while 55 percent hold it in a very unfavorable light”.
  • “The Republican Party strikes fear in the hearts of 55 percent of Democrats surveyed, Pew found. Among Republicans, 49 percent felt the same way about the Democratic Party.”
  • “Roughly 1 in 3 members of each party said they considered their political counterparts to be less intelligent than other Americans.”
  • “Exactly half of Republicans and 46 percent of Democrats said they find talking politics with a member of the opposing party to be ‘stressful and frustrating.’”

That I couldn’t have difficult conversations or even refer to myself as an environmentalist (which I certainly did plenty of times, but in the book I wanted to point to the instances in which I didn’t for all of the above reasons) is a testament of our toxically-partisan era. My sheepishness then is not just a personal failing; it’s a product of social, political, ideological, and religious forces that affect us all. It’s something worth developing in a book about climate change set in the 2010’s.

I should also say that my book is about an imperfect journey. It doesn’t wrap up neatly like Eat, Pray, Love or A Walk across America. There was no life-altering transformation. I didn’t marry anyone at the end of it. I didn’t change any minds about climate change, and I certainly didn’t singlehandedly stop the Keystone XL.

So is my book worthwhile even though I accomplished little? Should it have been written? 

Critic Elizabeth Kelly says that my “backing down” reduces the book to “a mere travel journal when he had begun his journey with the announced intent to change the world’s energy habits.” This line is difficult to take not only because of the many months of research that went into the book — of Great Plains history, American property history, environmental ethics, and energy policy — that I undertook with the intent of turning the book into something much more than a mere “travel journal.” But my so-called intent of changing the “the world’s energy habits” ought to have been regarded as the tongue-in-cheek naïveté from a dreamer consciously reveling in a moment of ridiculous monomania that it was. The journey was not about “changing the world”; it is about one person walking out to confront climate change head on, which, given one individual’s relationship with something as enormous, amorphous, and out-of-my-hands as climate change, the journey could only result in feelings of despair, impotency, powerlessness, and occasional hope. 

My journey was imperfect and incomplete. Yet there is value in presenting it in such a way because most journeys are imperfect and incomplete, and our journeyers usually don’t quite accomplish what they’d originally set out to do.

I once talked with a young guy who’d hiked the Appalachian Trail. This young guy seemed disturbed by his reflection that he’d changed and learned little from his months-long journey. If we’re honest with ourselves, like this young man was, we’d acknowledge that often the expectations we take into our journeys go unmet and that the romantic notions that led us into them were in some ways misguided. 

One of the travel books I most admire is Robyn Davidson’s travel memoir Tracks, about her 1,700-mile trek across the Australian desert with three camels in 1977. I’m not sure if I liked Tracks, but I admired and respected the hell out of it. 

I’m not sure if I liked Tracks because Davidson is a tough character to like. She presents herself as unsociable, misanthropic, and sometimes as stubborn as the camels she takes on her trip. A lot of the book is her griping about the paradoxical nature of her trip: She wanted to trek across Australia with camels as part of a grand, solo adventure, yet she must rely on a sponsorship from National Geographic. And this sponsorship requires that she routinely meet up with a photographer who takes staged pictures of her, undermining the authentic spirit of the trip she’d imagined. She reflects on how her newly-won fame gave rise to a series of unpleasant experiences with tourists, who gawked at her as an eccentric novelty: the 27-year-old “Camel Lady.” Davidson, then, is not an adventurer in the style of the great explorers of the past whom she so admired. Rather, she’s embittered by the fact that she’s something quite different: a tabloid adventurer who needs the support of the public as much as she resents it.

Tracks is very much a 21st Century journey. Different from the Age of Discovery between the 15th and 18th centuries and our early 20th Century races to the Poles, the late 20th Century and early 21st Century journey is something else entirely. Because everything that’s presently discoverable has already been discovered, these modern-day journeys are undertaken for other purposes: they’re for “causes,” self discovery, breaking speed records, or simply recreation. Yet we all want to feel what those old explorers felt. Unlike the adventurers of the past (see Thesiger’s Arabian Sands or The Journals of Lewis in Clark), we modern adventurers have one foot in the past, in which we strive to achieve the transformational qualities of the “man vs nature” dramas, and one foot in the present, in which our planet has 7 billion people, far fewer wild spaces (that only exist because of government protection), and has been thoroughly Google-mapped. (Think Chris McCandless of Into the Wild, or really any modern thru-hiker.) There’s something inherently sad about a modern journey—for we're setting out to embrace something that’s no longer truly there. It’s almost as sad as playing a video game set in a Medieval world in order to desperately escape our service-economy present to live virtually in a wilder, more adventurous, but long-gone, past.

Still, these modern-day journeys are most definitely journeys (they’re just far more existentially complex than the simpler discover-and-plant-a-flag journeys of the past), and that’s why Tracks is so valuable: Davidson honestly confronts the messiness of the modern journey in which things like branding, sponsorships, Kickstarter campaigns, and the media all get entangled in journeys that are never quite what we imagined them being. To make a worthwhile 21st Century travel book, this messiness needs to be dealt with honestly and made central, even if it’s just quietly lingering in the subtext.

I’ve tried to do that in my book, which is certainly not immune to criticism. Like with any of my writings, there’s plenty for me to be embarrassed about and the book has its share of shortcomings. One could easily and perhaps rightly criticize a few cheesy lines, some repetitious walking passages, and the sometimes disjointed nature of my trying to weave together history, reflection, and the travelogue itself. With this entry I don’t mean to insist that my book is above criticism; I only mean to defend what critics have twice now pointed out to be my book’s fatal flaw, which, though still a flaw, is also a strength when the book is read with the context of our times in mind. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Upbringing of a Trophy Kid

Portrait of an average kid. 

One thing that's always bugged me is the label "trophy kid." 

"Trophy kid" is a slur used by older generations to demean millennials. The slur implies that because the millennial was handed unearned participation trophies and because he was mollycoddled by his parents (who protected his fragile self-esteem from ever being bruised by the harsh Darwinian world), the millennial enters the real world with a sense of entitlement, unrealistic expectations, and a bloated ego. 

This label contrasts with the characters of the Baby Boomer generation. They'd have us believe that, in Caucasian America's Golden Age, they grew up in a brutal Hunger Games-like era, where they chopped their own firewood, ran marathons to school, and benefited from a more callous dog-eat-dog world that formed them into hardened, upstanding, non-consumeristic individuals. An ideal upbringing, according to this line of thinking, might be gotten in Stalingrad in 1943, or from eating your shoe in the Great Depression. 


A life's worth of participation trophies.

While visiting my parent's home, I started doing a little organizing of old stuff and came across a box of old test scores, report cards, and trophies. 

I was a trophy kid. I was awarded a participation trophy after every baseball, hockey, and football season. But the trophies did nothing to make me feel exceptional. I always knew my place. Even the most mollycoddled first grader has some understanding of where he stands among his classmates. He knows who's the smartest, the dumbest, the fastest, and the slowest. Here are a few test scores and report cards: 


Thoroughly average first grade test scores that were followed every year by average scores. 

The dreaded "area of weakness" check mark.

(Two goals in eighteen games. Yikes! (But notice Walden on Wheels's character, Josh Pruyn, with zero.)

Slightly better than average SATs.

I always knew how smart I was in relation to the rest of the class. I always knew who the better athlete was. I didn't just intuit these things: there were statistics that routinely and very clearly reminded me of my position in the pecking order. Sometimes I could tell where I ranked to the percentile. 

I was constantly reminded of my averageness. This followed me throughout my whole childhood. While the advanced students were awarded honors and got to take AP classes, I did okay in second-tier classes among my fellow second-tier peers. From age six to eighteen, all of my sports teams were horrible. Virtually every season was a losing season, and my team was always among the worst in the league. I knew nothing but academic mediocrity and athletic failure. My peers beneath me certainly were aware of their lowly position and my peers above me were probably far from satisfied in the competitive school environment in which there's always someone better. My point is that awards and trophies will never give a kid a bloated sense of self esteem in an ultra-competitive environment where he's constantly reminded of his inferiority to someone else. 

All this isn't to make a statement about trophies. Kids always know who the true winners and losers are, and the trophies were as much junk to us then as they are now. Perhaps they were meaningful to the kids who were floundering as students and athletes, and, if that's the case, I think that's enough reason to keep the tradition alive.  

And this entry is neither a condemnation of nor praise for standardized testing and a competitive grading environment. Despite being reminded of my averageness nearly every day for twelve years, I felt loved by my family, liked by my friends, and encouraged by my teachers. From them I built up enough self esteem to withstand the constant reminders of my averageness. 

I suppose all I'm trying to say is that there's no such thing as a trophy kid, at least as it exists as a label for an entire generation. It is a groundless slur used in senseless generational warfare. And I think it's wrong to suggest that building self esteem in young people is something that should be frowned upon. My trophy kid generation had among the highest suicide rates in the last sixty years. Giving a low esteem kid a certificate to tack up on his wall or telling him he's better at something than he really is, in the long run, won't do him any harm. 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Books for the 21st Century Environmentalist

Mashable has kindly published my list of recommended books for the "21st Century Environmentalist."

It's interesting to see how environmental literature has changed from decade to decade. It began with the romantics: folks like Wordsworth, Rousseau, Thoreau, Gilbert White, Muir. These guys -- often mixing poetry, philosophy, and naturalist observation -- more or less championed the goodness of nature or wilderness.

In the early 20th Century, we see folks like Muir and Roosevelt fighting for specific things, whether it be the preservation of an animal or a landscape in the form of a national park. By the middle part of the 20th Century, we got books like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, which depict a world that is an interconnected ecological network, in which an insecticide like DDT could have a massive impact on the whole ecosystem.

Nowadays, in the 21st Century, we're seeing books about food and food production in, say, Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and Jonathan Safron Foer's Eating Animals. There aren't as many premier environmental books calling for more wild spaces (with the exception of E.O. Wilson's recent Half Earth). Rather, we see books like Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction and Jared Diamonds Collapse, which are grim reality checks about our destructiveness as a species and our increasingly fragile planet, now challenged by overpopulation, thinning resources, and an unstable climate.

The earlier books, surprisingly, are just as readable and relevant today, as their call to embrace nature is, I think, a necessary step our society must take to surmount our much scarier environmental problems today. For a wonderful survey of all environmental writing, from its birth to its much more diverse form today, I strongly recommend American Earth, a collection of writings edited by Bill McKibben.

So what exactly is a 21st Century environmentalist? It may be a person who combines all the environmentalisms of yesteryear: someone who has the aesthetic nature-loving sensibilities of the naturalist-romantics, the desire to preserve wild places and animals in perpetuity, the understanding of a vast and complex ecological system that needs careful management, and the concern for animal welfare and the fate of our planet.










Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The end of the tour

Credit: David Dalton. Asheville, NC book reading at Malaprops
As publishing lore tells it, the “book tour” used to be a common tool for authors to sell and promote their books, but in recent decades publishing companies have become less eager to commit resources to a marketing strategy that has gotten increasingly less effective. 

So I was a bit surprised — and honored — when my publisher asked if I’d be interested in going on my own fifteen-city book tour for Trespassing across America.

The tour — organized and funded by my publisher — began in late April in Washington D.C., the day after my book published. It ended last week in New York City. 

On my first morning, I began with a radio “satellite tour” from my hotel landline on which I’d talk to seventeen different radio stations, one after the other, in a six-hour timespan. I was a little nervous for my first radio interview, which would air in Dallas. I was anxious to pitch my book in a compelling way. I wanted to give crisp and articulate answers while also coming across as carefree and charismatic. But by 1 p.m., with sixteen rapid-fire interviews under my belt, I was leaning back in my fake leather chair and giving answers in my final interview as comfortably as I possibly could. So, that night, when I got up in front of my first audience at the Politics and Prose book shop in Washington D.C., I felt oddly confident, even serene, like I’d already given this talk seventeen times before.

A book reading can be extremely “hit or miss.” It’s hard to predict where you’ll have a good turnout, and where no one will show up. I had about twenty people show up for my Washington D.C. event, close to fifty for my Greensboro event, and less than ten for my events in Lincoln and Omaha. What gives?

City Audience Size
Washington D.C
20
Durham, NC
35
Greensboro, NC
50
Asheville, NC
40
Denver, CO
30
Missoula, MT
12
Omaha, NE
10
Lincoln, NE
8
Aurora, NE
15
York, NE
25
Wichita, KS
30
Tulsa, OK
60
Houston, TX
6
Buffalo, NY
20
NYC, NY
30

I was puzzled. I figured that all three of my events in North Carolina were hits because I had book reviews in two of those cities and a local NPR interview that aired statewide. Yet I also had good interviews published in newspapers in Lincoln and Missoula, but those events were lightly attended. I had no exposure at all in the Wichita and Tulsa press, yet they were among my best events. It was unpredictable. 

My talk, itself, hardly varied from one reading to the next. By the end of the tour, I’d subtracted about a minute’s worth of ineffective content, but the talk was more or less the same from the start of the tour to the end. 

My talk is about my Great Plains journey, broken apart into sections that are designed to evoke different emotions. The beginning, when I explain how I planned my journey, is supposed to generate excitement. When I discuss my environmental-minded motivations and describe the tar sands of Northern Alberta, I hope to bring out a feeling of sorrow and outrage. When I discuss my hike and my mistakes, I try to make the audience laugh. Lastly, I end on a note of suspense to goad the listener to buy my book.

One of the interesting things I observed is that audiences almost always respond in the exact same way. I always knew when I was going to get laughter. I knew when I was going to get nervous titters. I knew when I was going to see a little emotion in my listeners’ eyes. When I was asked if I ever felt lonely on my hiking journey, I told the story of when a coyote ran away from me and how I wanted to yell, “Come back!” This story wasn’t meant to elicit laughter, but it got laughs at every reading, and I made sure to retell it along with other material that had gone over unexpectedly well.    

While I’m not a professional speaker, I can give a few words of advice to future authors:
  1. The worst and most boring part of a book reading is the actual book reading. So don’t read! I’d read only two short passages that took up less than two minutes of speaking time.
  2. Keep the talk short (20-25 minutes) and rely more on the Q&A. 
  3. Never drink alcohol before a reading and always have a copy of your speech in hand. (I once had a century-long beer-induced brain freeze and had no way out.)

Meanwhile, the book reviews began to trickle in. I googled my name every day and found neutral-to-negative reviews from Kirkus and the LA Times, and good ones from a number of mid-sized papers, like The Buffalo News, Asheville Citizen-Times, and Greensboro News and Record. Everything about this is mostly unpleasant and emotionally exhausting. Bad reviews stick with you and hurt for a good 48 hours. The good reviews only make you hungry for more, and you end up feeling nasty pangs when they don’t come. You reach a point where you say you're never going to read a review again, good or bad. You’re terrified of the absolute lack of control you have over the whole "promoting" process and simply want to move onto your next project, where it’s just you, an adventure, and the open canvas of a fresh Word doc. 

As for my book tour talk, it never varied. The reception of it, however, did, and this reception depended on a few uncontrollable factors—namely the quality of the venue and the size of the audience. For audience size, bigger is always better. When an audience is small (like six people), it makes audience members self conscious. And because there is no one laughing around them, they don't want to be the lone, crazy laugher, so they're less willing to give in and immerse themselves in a collective emotional experience. So there I am, in front of six people, giving a talk with the same passion that I gave to a laughing and responsive audience the night before, but now all I can hear, in the spot where I normally pause for laughter, is the cappuccino machine gurgling in the background.  

These weakly-attended events can feel humiliating. I’d think about how I’d traveled hundreds of miles to go to this bookstore in order to talk about a book that I’d worked on for over two years and walked 1,700 miles for, and yet only six people show up! In Lincoln, I had three people in the audience (one of them a friend) at the 7 p.m. start time. I postponed the reading for ten minutes and about five more folks (who should be knighted and get go to heaven) trickled in. 

It’s moments like these — when your pride is wounded — that you feel gratitude for the friends who made an effort to show up (and resent those who didn’t). It’s then when you think, “I’m never doing this again!” You can’t help but wonder if it’s worth the trouble for your publishing company to spend the hundreds of dollars — on airfare, hotel, rental car, and food — to get you to one of these ill-attended stores where only half the listeners buy books anyway. 

There are other times, though, when you feel honored to be talking to a receptive audience that is interested to hear your story, thoughts, and opinions. When a talk is going well, and you know you have an audience that’s absorbed, you feel loved and appreciated. It’s then when you think that maybe suffering through the humiliation of a poorly-attended reading is worth experiencing the joys of a good one.

My Tulsa, Oklahoma event was by far my best. It was in a proper theater in the brand new Woody Guthrie Center. I had a proper stage with a big screen for my slideshow. I had a packed audience that I could only vaguely see in the dark. I had a warm light shining down on me. When I read from the script that I had just about memorized, I found myself talking more articulately. My pace was more comfortable. More natural. I took my time. I didn’t speed the talk up, as I sometimes do before non-responsive audiences. I got such good, hearty laughs that I’d often have to wait five to ten seconds to let the laughter die down. It wasn’t that I had suddenly become a better speaker. It was that the venue made the audience better, which made me better. 

Tulsa event at Woody Guthrie Center. Credit Tim Landes Jr.

Woody Guthrie Center
In Buffalo, I had to give a talk in a bookstore where there was a rhythmic and very distracting thumping noise coming from the floor above. One audience member said he thought it might be a jazzercise class. At one point, plaster fell down from the ceiling. Between the poor venue and the small audience size, my talk suffered. 

I’ve found that the quality of a talk depends largely on the “crowdly atmosphere.” A loving crowd will no doubt bring the best out of a speaker. Some speakers, I’m sure, can capture an audience of any size or temperament, but, for now, the success of my events are largely determined by these uncontrollable forces. 

I also learned that the turnout for a bookstore reading has little to do with NPR interviews and getting reviews in local newspapers. Rather, it depends largely on the bookstore’s culture and their tradition of bringing in speakers. If it’s something they commonly do, aggressively advertise, and have a routine group of people who show up, the better your turnout will likely be, regardless of how much exposure you'd gotten in the local media. 

I could complain about the long hours of travel, the radio interviews that cut into much needed nap time, or my reliance on bad airport food, but mostly I felt grateful for this rare (most likely once-in-a-lifetime) opportunity. And I felt grateful to have a publishing company (that I very much wish to please) that believes in my book

The success of a book tour is almost impossible to determine. I didn’t come close to selling enough books to pay back the expense of the tour, which probably cost several thousand dollars. (I’m guessing book tours rarely “pay off” in this way.) But the point of a tour isn’t necessarily to instantaneously sell a whole bunch of books. It’s to get the word out. It’s to get local reviews and exposure in local radio stations. It’s to get the book in the hands of folks who will write Amazon reviews, propose it to their book club, or buy another copy for a family member at Christmas. 

There are some things an author can do to to make his or her book successful. But, like a turnout for a book reading, most of a book’s success is outside of your control. After the initial publicity push, it largely depends on luck, on what’s going on in the world at the time of the book’s release, or on how passionate the publisher is about your book. So part of dealing with the turbulent emotions that come from a book’s release is just reminding yourself that you’ve written the best book you could and that the rest of it is up to something as abstract and uncontrollable as "fate." More important than the book’s initial “splash,” anyway — you remind yourself — is how it's appreciated over time.

My rental car got broken into in Houston, near the Museum of Fine Arts. My lap top bag was stolen.
 A couple of notes: (1) It wasn't a great payday for the burglars. I'd left my laptop at the hotel and I had my iPad in hand for navigational purposes. All they got was a copy of Trespassing across America, my book tour speech, and a few cords for my electrical devices. (2) When I tell this story, at least I get to say that I was out doing something cultural, and not "ordering a 5-for-5 at Arby's."


Credit: David Dalton. Friends Gavin and Michael in Asheville, NC book reading at Malaprops

Credit: David Dalton. Asheville, NC book reading at Malaprops