Saturday, September 4, 2010


To paraphrase Magritte, this is not a book.  This is a cake, frosted to look like the book I've been plugging here so obnoxiously in the past few weeks, and this is one of the many pleasant surprises of doing a book tour -- courtesy of the wonderful Lauri Ver Schure at Murder by the Book in Denver.  The touring novelist, who has been folded into his car so long he feels like a paperclip, wobbles into the store, talks about his book to an impressive number of almost suspiciously nice people, and then -- voila! -- the cake comes out.  And everybody admires it and then wrecks it by grabbing a piece. and the whole group hits a sugar high, and the novelist tells them everything about his life except the time he almost got tattooed, and then a bunch of books get signed and it's over.  Except for the 700 miles to the next store.

Is this cake cool, or what?
Look, it's even got a spine.

The question we who tour are often asked is, "Is it worth it?"  Financially, no.  In terms of fame and sales, no.  But to see a cake like this and to meet the people I met in my 3900-mile trek -- you bet.  It's a bit staggering, in fact, to realize that there are all those people out there who have made time in their undoubtedly demanding lives to read me.  And who, having waded through God knows how many pages of me flailing at the story I'm trying to tell, actually want to hear me talk about it.

Mostly, of course, it's car/store/car/hotel/car/store/hotel and then more of the same.  But there are always those readers, and the bookstore owners and employees, for whom there should be a special express elevator to heaven.  And then there are the occasional illuminations.

Most of America is absolutely drop-dead beautiful and as empty as the space between electrons.  The average number of people per acre in Montana is about 1.2.  They can barely see each other.  Utah is breathtaking, New Mexico is heart-stopping,  I drove between mountains of salt, surrounded by pool-table-flat, stark-white salt flats outside of Salt Lake City in a blinding, lightning-illuminated storm.  Absolutely extraterrestrial.  Sparks, Nevada, is a dump.

Poets write some road signs, especially in New Mexico.  My favorite: HIGH WINDS EXIST.  I can't help but wonder what language it was translated from.  And in Arizona, just west of Phoenix, the most disconcerting sign I saw the whole way:

                                                             STATE PRISON

My immediate thought was, "No thank you," and then I began to wonder what it meant.  No one could tell me.

Some illuminations have mileages attached to them:

127 miles: Arcade Fire is the greatest rock band in the world at the moment and "The Suburbs" is the CD of the year.  I recognized that again at about 390 miles and approximately every 400 miles thereafter.  They got me through the driving.

355 miles: Cruise control is a really good idea when driving an absolutely straight, absolutely flat, resolutely empty highway (I-80, heading west) because it keeps you from suddenly realizing that you're going 145 miles per hour.

Poetry comes from nowhere and goes nowhere.  The Queen of Coalville paints her face/Her teeth as white as bleaching bones/a burlap bag across her back/to hold the soft and gleaming stones/from veins that lace beneath the soil . . . and on and on and worse and worse and eventually even the urge to reach for a pencil evaporates.

490 miles: Bliss, Arizona needs a thriller set in it.  You can smell the fear in the air.

And so forth and so on, and thanks for reading this far.  I've been home for three days and I can still feel the car moving beneath me, and there are 120 miles to cover tomorrow.

Is it worth it?  I wouldn't miss it for the world.


  1. Hi Tim,

    Don't worry, the book is promoting itself! I can't wait to read it but I haven't seen it in SA yet. I'll get a copy when I'm in the US next month. And that cake is great!

    Stan and I feel exactly as you do about book tours. We don't think they are "cost effective" in a commercial sense but meeting readers and getting their input makes it more than worthwhile. And we get to argue about our plots as we drive. I bet you do a lot of thinking on the road when you're not interpreting road signs!


  2. We have a beautiful morning here in New England. The category 4 hurricane, with 150 mph wind, fizzled out just off North Carolina. Nantucket was scheduled to take a full hit.

    The islands of North Carolina, where there was a mandatory evacuation, had some wind damage, no injuries. By the time it got to New England, less than 24 hours later, it was a plain, old nor'easter, nice in the summer when 2 inches of rain, is not 2 feet of snow.

    So the sun is shining, the electricity is on, and the coffee is made. Then I read your column and came to STATE PRISON

    and my husband wants to know what could possibly be so funny.

    Were you too disconcerted by the information to find it funny at the time or did you laugh for 50 miles? I think there was a highway department employee who was bored and decided that everyone driving that route deserved a laugh.

    I hope everyone today will send positive thoughts in the direction of all the east coast meteorologists who are going to be pilloried today by the people who think they create the weather. Yes, some people did have their Labor Day weekend plans ruined but what if the hurricane had lived up to its predictions? There would have been lives ruined instead of barbecues.

    Best of luck with the book. I read it and thought it was engrossing, sad, and filled with hope.


  3. Delicious post!

    And what a gorgeous sign - high winds exist. (For better or worse, I suppose).

  4. I've driven past that sign many times, and I'm always glad someone left off the ", Arizona" so it would be more difficult for people to deduce that there's a state prison in Surprise, Arizona.

    Bliss would be a good setting for a thriller, and perhaps Why, Arizona could get a mention somewhere. That's Why, population 4 (if you count a dog or two), on the way to Las Vegas.

    I suppose someone could escape from the prison in Surprise, stop to get gas in Why, and wind up in Bliss?

  5. Hi, everybody and I apologize for putting this post up 14 hours early. I was in speedboat mode on Friday night, getting ready to leave at 7 Am Saturday for two more bookstore stops, and looking at my to-do list, I realized I hadn't written anything for this week. So I bashed this out, looked at my watch, saw it was 10:30 PM Pacific time, and sent it, since I figure midnight in NY counts as Sunday. But, of course, it was Friday night instead of Saturday. Sorry sorry sorry. If a guest blogger was scheduled, he/she can have this coming Sunday.

    Michael, absolutely agree with you -- and also, I bought your first book as a result of having seen you at The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood, when you'd been held up for an hour or something on the 405. So you do get new readers, it's just that each one costs $567.32. If you got a million new readers this way, your family would be in debt for generations to come.

    Beth -- I laughed out loud and kicked myself (the car was on cruise control, so I had a free foot) for not having written down all the great signs I passed on the last one. And I mentioned the sign at the Poisoned Pen event and got a big laugh, although no one explained it, and someone said there was another one that read STATE YOUTH DETENTION FACILITY and beneath that, HAPPY VALLEY.

    Dorte, New Mexico is so gorgeous that the signs have to compete for attention, and this isn't the only one that's apparently been written by a mystic who's trapped inside a DMV somewhere.

    Cathy, great and funny as hell. It would be wonderful to do that in a book without calling attention to it, just a private joke. I wrote a graphic novel once in which one character was a little Asian girl who wore a Japanese cartoon T-shirt, and her nickname was Anime. About 20 pages later, you learn her last name, which is Wong, and I'll bet not one reader in 50 went from Anime Wong to Anna May Wong, the first Asian star in American film history and one of the most beautiful woman ever. I love to do stuff like that.

  6. Hi Tim,

    So that was YOU up after us at Mystery Bookstore in Westwood! If only we'd stayed on! But I think we had a long drive ahead to somewhere... I remember saying to Stan that presenting a powerpoint show was a great idea and we should think about doing something like that.

    By the way we owe you an apolgy for delaying you. We WERE held up but still would've started only a few minutes late. The REAL problem was that our schedule showed us talking an hour later than the bookstore's schedule. Our publicist is really good but, alas, not perfect!