Not Dead: The Book Tour Story

So I got back from the book tour Saturday night, and I am apparently not dead.

It was a near thing a few times.

People on the book tour kept telling me I must love it. I have not yet found a graceful way to say “Well, no, this is a generally stressful experience for me and I am delighted that there are people who like my stuff and I want to make sure they have a great experience and I have to do this school visit show for kids and I want them to have a great experience and I want to not suck at it so I have worked very hard on getting a schtick down and doing it and I am proud of being able to do that well because it is not a thing I am normally good at but I would much rather stay home except that sounds like I’m not happy to meet the fans and I really am and if they are happy then I am happy to have made them happy but it’s all very complicated and weird and maybe I am complicated and weird, I don’t know any more, what day is it?”

This is difficult to state without running out of breath, so I usually just said something along the lines of “Well, I’m an introvert, so I’ll sleep for a week after this, but I’m glad everybody likes the books.”

(Seriously, though, thank you VERY much to the adult fans who came out for my various public bookstore events–it was very good to see people who like me who are over the age of eleven. I start to feel very weird and disassociated after too many school visits, and a Digger T-shirt or a pack of Red Vines or a jar of random honey in the right place makes me feel sort of like the real me again for a bit.)

Book tours are horrible for that sense of unreality to begin with. Book tours in California make you start to wonder if the rest of the world even exists at all, because clearly you are in a world where people pay twenty bucks for a club sandwich and that is not a world I normally inhabit and it may not actually intersect with my world, except when I am told to get on a plane and go to that other world.

I went to a hotel in Beverly Hills. I mean, the publisher had booked me a room. I wouldn’t have gone there normally. It was a little scary. I walked in grubby and clutching a stuffed moth that a fan gave me and somebody handed me a complimentary cocktail and nobody looked at my cheap shoes. There was no front desk, a woman came up to me at the bar with my reservation in a little leatherette folder. I had to put the stuffed moth down to sign it. They acted like it was totally normal to walk in wearing cheap hiking sandals and carrying a stuffed moth. Of course, all the best people carry stuffed moths.

Life is weird when people think you have money. I sated my spasms of lower-class guilt by photographing Moth-bob holding the cocktail. It is important to stay upbeat and positive. The alternative is uncontrollable hysteria. The bartender ignored this. All the best people photograph their stuffed moths with their free cocktails, clearly.

I have only hazy memories of the school visits. I get up in front of a hundred kids (ideally) and do my schtick. There are slides with Danny doing various amusing things. I talk about where ideas come from and ask them what their favorite monster is. Some kid on every tour always says “Slenderman.” It is important to stay upbeat and positive. I say “Ooh, creepy!” and go on to the next kid with their hand up.

We make up a story together. It’s almost always the same two or three stories. The secret is that kids are very creative but rarely original, and anyway, I can steer it pretty easily. It’s a cross between improv comedy and cold-reading. It looks more impressive than it is. I’m fine as long as one of the kids says their favorite monster is a zombie or a vampire, or Godzilla or a giant squid. (Other giant animals can substitute on the last one. Giant snake is often popular.) Then we make up a story about the monster. Kids are very eager to see zombies overrunning the school or giant kaiju stomping on it. If the librarian is a good sport, I make them the hero. They pull their sword or their harpoon or their garlic-shooting gun out from under the desk because monsters are hard on library books. There is an epic showdown, at which the librarian emerges victorious.

It is surprisingly easy to steer them toward this. Kids like a victorious librarian.

I try to stress that you have to practice and it’s okay to do a little chunk at a time and then take a break and then come back and do more. I am pretty sure that they are not listening to this bit, but they take it in good spirits because I am an adult and therefore cannot be expected to understand anything really important. The teachers tell me that it will stick in their heads somewhere, so I keep saying it.

Then I take questions. This is also like improv comedy. The truth, though, is that I would be a terrible stand-up, because the first heckler would destroy me. I am very fast and very clever as long as we are all friends and cheery and positive and I go to stammering pieces in the face of negativity and am left going weakly “Uh, let’s not do this guys…?” The teachers and librarians keep the peace. My publicist makes it clear that I am not a disciplinarian and they will have to do this. I find myself saying “Settle…” in the same tone I use on the beagle. It doesn’t work on him either.

I would like teachers and librarians to be riding herd on Twitter and tell people that they are not being their best selves and need to remember respectful listening. It is getting much too immediate for me. I can be ruthless and impassioned on a blog or a forum, but only if I get an hour to polish my post and rewrite it three times. Sometimes I just want to tell Twitter to settle.

Fortunately, there are still teachers and librarians in the schools. I answer the same questions, often four or five times in a session. I do not lose my temper after the third time someone asks how I got the idea for Danny. It’s fine. They weren’t listening. Honestly, I’m not listening to myself either at that point. I can answer that question in my sleep, sideways. If I talked in my sleep, I would be explaining about dragons not fitting in at school. Possibly I am, and my husband is sleeping through it.

The adults have more complex questions that require thinking. Sometimes the kids in the back–usually the higher grade levels–ask me a professional question about revising, and I try to answer it quick before the first graders in front get bored to pieces. If we have time and the technology is working, I draw for the last five minutes. The technology is almost never working. The publicist is very clear that I have an iPad and will only do schools that can hook it to a projector. The schools all claim they will do this. About one school in four can actually get this to work. They never have the right dongle, or they will totally do AirPlay except I’d need an educational account and oh yeah, the new school security won’t let me in.

I keep a backup on a USB stick that’s supposed to be Hello Kitty except that you pull her head out of her body to get to it. “Here,” I said, nearly every time, “let’s use the severed head of Hello Kitty.” They usually laugh. I assume they think I’m a serial killer in my day job. It is important to stay upbeat and positive.

I only nearly got trampled once, and it looked scarier than it probably was. I was a little freaked out. The teachers yelled. Not at me.

They send out a person to meet you at the hotel and drive you from place to place, and that’s good, because I would never get anywhere on time. This person is either someone from the bookshop or a paid “media escort.” Apparently that’s a thing you can be paid to do. Who knew? They pick you up at the hotel and drive you around and make sure the signings go well. Some of them will tell you about other authors, whether you have any idea who they’re talking about or not. (I usually don’t.) Most of them are very nice. They blur together after awhile. There was the weird woman who read me obituaries before the presentation and then said something vaguely racist and fell asleep while I was still trying to think of something to say that wouldn’t involve me no longer having a ride to the airport. That was probably the low point. I could also have done without the one who talked to herself in high pitched baby talk while driving, or the name-dropper who ran out of names before we hit one I recognized.

There are good ones. I will be forever grateful to the woman at the bookfair in Charlotte who took me home over the lunch break and let me take a nap on her couch between shows. Sometimes book stores give me gift certificates and I wander the aisles wondering what I can fit in my suitcase and looking at gardening books for a climate that is nothing even remotely like my own.

Sometimes the people who drive the cars want to talk. A dude tried to explain birds to me. I am pretty sure it was mansplaining but he might have been a douche to both genders, so I can’t swear to it. I laid in the back of the car, more horizontal than vertical, and grunted as he confused wrens and egrets. (I wish I was making that up.) The next one had a talkative hippie. If we drive up and down the road from Santa Cruz to the airport hotel in San Francisco, I can now show you every place he’s camped. And skinny-dipped. Incidentally, he plays drums.

He told me that he was sure I wouldn’t have the book tours any other way. I grunted.

This time a bookshop sent me a wonderful woman who grew salvias and kept bees and we spent all of the car rides talking about gardening. It was wonderful. And the escort at the end was a life-saver. My presentations went from a hundred kids to “Oh, yeah, this is a full school assembly, five hundred kids!” and I panicked and she said “What do you want to do?” and I said “I guess I have to go on,” even though I really wanted to throw a diva fit except that I don’t know how to do that, because I think it involves disappointing people and that is basically my Kryptonite so I went and I did it and it was kind of horrible because that many kids is a wriggling sheet of chaos and there is no way they can keep focused and I cannot hear the questions and the teachers cannot shut down all the distractions, but we got through, and afterwards the principal told me it was wonderful and I tried not to look too glassy eyed and I don’t remember what happened next, except the media escort told me she was writing the publicist and telling her that I was a trooper.

She was very nice. She could say “no” on my behalf and make it stick. I really need people like that. By the end of a book tour I am basically a large sack of ground ham wearing black tank-tops and a flattering jacket. I will agree to anything if you make it sound like this is something that all the authors do. I am focusing so intently on not dying on the spot that I have very little processing power for anything else. When we had downtime, she parked in the shade and I got to play Marvel Puzzle Quest on my iPad and that was really awesome because it’s only the computer throwing fireballs at you.

After the school visits and the bookshop things (the bookshops are better because you don’t have to do the schtick the same way and there’s not a set hour you have to fill and there are often adults in the audience and sometimes you even know who they are and sometimes they bring you stuffed moths or want to talk about ecology) you either get on a plane or into a car and then you go to the next hotel. The hotel has always lost the credit card authorization from the publisher, because the publicist talked to the day manager and the day manager wrote a note and the night manager doesn’t know where the note is. You give them your card and then call the publicist (who is on Eastern Time so it’s usually ten at night and you feel guilty) and the publicist groans and apologizes and then it all gets sorted out in the morning.

Because schools start early and you have to drive to them, you generally have to get up at 6:30 in the morning if you want to eat breakfast. I started actually doing the thing where I put the little hanger card on the doorknob saying that I do want room service to deliver breakfast. It feels horrifically extravagant but I get another half hour of sleep. I order a bagel and cream cheese and coffee and orange juice. They come during a fifteen minute window, usually around 7:10, and set the tray with its little covers down on the writing desk. I tell myself that they are an adult human who just wants to get this over with and get a decent tip and I sign the little check that the publisher is paying for and there is probably no way they can tell that I am thinking oh god oh god I am getting room service and I feel guilty and this is too much money even if it isn’t my money and I used to be on food stamps and maybe you should just take the food away and I will eat the squashed power bar in the bottom of my purse because at least I understand squashed power bars except that I’m pretty sure that is written in very small type in my eyes so I try to avoid prolonged eye contact in case they figure out I’m a lunatic.

There is plastic wrap over the orange juice. Frequently there is a cut orchid. I wish they wouldn’t cut an orchid for me. It is depressing that somebody hacked off part of an orchid that could take ages to bloom just to put it on my tray so that I can bolt my bagel and stare at the orchid at six in the morning. Six in the morning is a lousy time to try and appreciate an orchid. I can’t grow orchids. It is important to stay upbeat and positive, but that probably didn’t do the orchid any good.

(The waitress at the hotel breakfast buffet the last day saw that I only ate fruit and knocked off the buffet charge and only charged me for a fruit side. I got a little choked up, although I think I hid it well. I had been on the road for a week at that point and it seemed ridiculously, extravagantly kind.)

“You’re not an introvert!” said the media escort in LA accusingly, after the second day of schtick, when I had spoken to approximately three hundred children total. “You say you are, but you’re not!”

I am still vaguely resentful of this, even though it’s been a week. Should I have brought a note from my doctor, or my husband?

I thought about explaining that introverts do public speaking all the time and we can even be quite good at it, it’s just that we have to sleep for a week afterward. I wanted to explain that I really do hope people are glad to see me and I hope they come out because if they don’t, I’ll still be on the book tour being exhausted anyway, except nobody will be there to talk to about books and that’s the only reason this is worthwhile. It is definitely not the room service bagels. I thought about explaining the bit where I will sleep for a week.

Instead I grunted. As the owner of my favorite coffee shop pointed out, when I was relating this tale of minor woe, that was really the most introverted response. (Then I went to the drugstore, then I came home and slept for two hours. There are empty places in my chest that will not refill without hours spent asleep. Which is probably why I am awake and typing at three in the morning.)

But anyway, I appear not to have made too bad a hash of it and I am home and trying to get back into my reality from that reality and it doesn’t fit quite right yet, but it will probably be fine by the end of the week. It is important to stay upbeat and positive. Or something like that.

  • reply Lynn ,

    Thank you for being amazing and summing up how I feel about travel/vacations/people and putting it all in perspective. You are amazing! Thank you!!!

    • reply Emma ,

      Next book tour I’ll come with you and be your bully assistant, you can grunt at me & I’ll tell them no or make sure you have red vines, a mental health break and good coffee at all times. I can be extroverted and a bully for other people but I am personally terrible at it for myself… Now, go back to sleep, author lady. 🙂

      • reply dester'edra ,

        Sooooo right there with you. Public speaking in front of 100 people i don’t know of any sort (let alone 500) is my personal vision of hell; maybe i could do it with a lot of prep, but i’d come out vibrating and incoherent.

        People have told me repeatedly that they don’t think i’m as much of an introvert as i think i am; i tell them that if they only ever see me in the middle of a cluster of friends i know and trust, that’s not a good indicator.

        Shame they can’t mitigate some of the effects by losing you in the woods or a nearby botanical garden for a couple hours in between engagements; the trees have this lovely habit of not talking back.

        • reply LonOtter ,

          Fellow-introvert grunt of sympathy.

          • reply Yapha ,

            So glad that you braved it. The kids are still talking about how awesome you are.

            • reply ursulav ,

              And I just got the packet of their thank you notes! Yay!

              I am glad to know that the talk does stick there a little bit…

            • reply Darla ,

              With practice, almost anything can LOOK easy. That doesn’t mean it IS easy.

              In personality tests, I sit right on the line between introvert and extrovert, and where I fall depends on the day (apparently “balanced” isn’t an option, but that’s another rant). I find that if I don’t have a balance of time WITH people and WITHOUT people, I go a little bit bonkers. This careful balance works great, until situations like school trips and crowded buses mean that I have to somewhat rabidly guard my private time, confusing those Happy Young People who just want to PARTY.

              I’m glad for your sake that you’re home, and settling back into your usually (mostly) quiet world. I just came back from a school trip myself, surrounded by 35 people who are half my age and fairly diva-esque. I don’t anticipate leaving the house for anything except work and school for a few days, and woe be unto those who try to pry me out to “have fun” until I’ve recovered my equilibrium a bit.

              Happy recuperating!

              • reply C. S. P. Schofield ,

                Dear Ms. Vernon,

                Though I didn’t see you on this tour, or on any others (I am a homebody these years, for reasons to numerous and depressing to recount), I very much want to say “Thank you”. When I was in high school I got to see assembly presentations by both James Beard (he made pasta) and Jackson Browne (a recent graduate was being a roadie on his tour), and although I don’t really like french cooking or Mr. Browne’s music (nothing WRONG with it, just not me.) I will always be grateful that they took the time, and think well of them for that reason. That you travel so far out of your comfort zone makes you, in my eyes, a wonderful person. I feel sure that the kids you saw will remember the day a real author came and talked to them, and it was somebody who wrote books they really liked, instead of something they were supposed to read because it was good for you.

                Your writing, in Digger, on this blog, and in the two books I have bought, is very special to me. Special in a way that so few books are, especially after childhood. Your fairlytales especially. They resonate with me the way Robin McKinley’s Rose Daughter did (Finally, an Beauty who wants to stay with the Beast she fell in love with, instead of some insipid Prince!!!). The way the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” did when my parents read WIND IN THE WILLOWS to me.

                So, thank you, for sallying forth and bringing a little magic into school for a bunch of kids who, with luck, will include one or two inspired storytellers like yourself. I’m sorry it’s so draining. Florence King once said of authors, talk shows, and books tours, that she would forever think of the man who died on the Dick Cavett show as “the man who got even”. And Florence King is a take-no-prisoners extrovert. May whatever powers you look to bless you for your courage and your humor.

                • reply Mean Waffle ,

                  Whether I could say no and make it stick would depend on the phases of the moon. I’ll try to remember the red vines and random honey. Just in case I’m ever in your audience.

                  Oh, and the stuffed moth – totally normal for California. Even posing with a free drink.

                  • reply mjfgates ,

                    The very best people *do* walk into the hotel carrying a stuffed moth. As has been demonstrated here.

                    Also, it sounds like whoever hires these media escort people knows exactly what she is doing. Standing in front of a hundred elementary-school kids and talking to them is about four full-time jobs by itself; that’s why they try to have a teacher for every twenty-some students!

                    • reply Lauren ,

                      The chicken attack was my favorite of the day. Hope you’re recovering! We were glad to have you and so were the kids.

                      • reply ursulav ,

                        Thank you! Slowly recovering…

                      • reply Mark the Medic ,

                        Please advise if you are ever in the market for an on-call driver/butler/bodyguard/carrier-of-luggage-and-stuffed moths. Sounds like an interesting job in general, and ten times moreso when *you* are the driven/buttled/guarded/recipient-of-moths. And to echo Schofield’s very well-written remarks, thank you on behalf of all the small cattle (er, students) out there, who very much need to be taken out of their fattening pens on occasion, so that they can see the sky, breathe the free air, and moo querulously at someone who survived school AND did NOT wind up as a cutlet or scallopini. (“Hey — if she can do it — maybe we can, too! Now, let’s ruminate on some books!”)

                        • reply Joni and Garth ,

                          Without taking too much more of your time and attention, we would like to say that seeing you in person was fantastic, we really appreciated it, and we bragged about it for weeks afterward.

                          Yours,
                          That couple in the costumes

                          • reply ursulav ,

                            Bah! I am glad to have you take my attention! Thank you so much for coming out! *grin*

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