My Big Fat Book Tour
September 13th: Philadelphia
The doctor squirts clear goop on my belly and rubs the ultrasound receiver on top of it. On the television screen, a gray light dances and flickers. It's a tiny lima bean, an apostrophe floating in a darker gray sea. I tilt my head, squinting. “Eight weeks,” he says, sounding as pleased as if he's the one responsible. “Nice work.”
My first thought-my first feeling-is a great and overwhelming joy. I'd missed my period, had a fistful of positive ept tests, but the fact of the pregnancy didn't feel real until now. My second thought-hard on the heels of thought number one-is Oh, shit. My second novel, In Her Shoes, is coming out in six days. The four-week, 13-city book tour-the tour that is of vital, non-negotiable importance to the book's future-begins in 11 days.
I love book tours. I love doing readings and interviews; I love meeting readers. And a girl can definitely get used to staying in four-star hotels. But 13 cities in a month is a grueling pace. Between now and the end of October, I'm going to visit New York, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Lexington,
Memphis, Jackson, Birmingham,
Albuquerque, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle-an exhausting itinerary even without the delights of the first trimester. But here I am.
The doctor hits a switch. The machine makes a whirring sound, and a photo of the little lima bean comes curling out of a slot, like an atm receipt. I'll be fine, I think. I'll have to be.
October 2nd: New York City
And I'm off! My book party, sponsored by Vogue at the Kenneth Cole store in SoHo, is a well-attended blast, complete with shoe-shaped cookies, lobster crepe canapés, and a clutch of formidably gorgeous Vogue-ettes. My mother-in-law, my mom and my Nanna have come to soak in the scene, but it's not until we're posing for the Vogue photographer that I notice that all of the shoe-store staffers are wearing tight black t-shirts emblazoned with the legend shoe whore. I spend the rest of the night praying Nanna won't notice.
Back at the hotel, there's new publicity news: the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I worked for six years until December 2001, wants to do a profile of me. Laura, my publicist, is thrilled. I'm terrified. The Inky can be famously ambivalent about alums, and … well … if I were still working at a newspaper and had to write about a former colleague who'd hit the big time, I might not feel as generous as I would if I were, for instance, profiling a former colleague who'd wound up living on the streets in a Kenmore appliance box. “Don't worry,” Laura soothes me. “I'm sure it will be fine. The reporter sounded really nice.”
October 3rd: Boston
Philadelphia Inquirer reporter David Hiltbrand is sitting on a folding chair in the back of New Words bookstore, a lesbian feminist shop in Cambridge where I'm reading. He's middle-aged, tall and toothy-an odd choice, I think, given that my books are about the lives and times of calorie-counting, romantically challenged women in their 20s and 30s-but he's friendly enough. “I just want you to know,” he tells me over breakfast the next day, “that I'm a big fan of your work. I don't want you to worry. This is going to be a positive piece.”
The interview goes well-he's certainly done his homework, reading both In Her Shoes and my first novel, Good In Bed (which is still riding the best-seller lists six months after it came out in paperback). He asks intelligent questions about fiction vs. journalism and the truth of my life as opposed to what ends up between the covers. He finishes up by asking for the names of people who can talk about me. I start to name friends at the paper, but he shakes his head. “Oh, no,” he says, “we don't want to focus on your time at the paper at all.” This is strange-the Inquirer was where I spent the majority of my career to date, and it played a huge part in my development as a writer. But … okay. And Hiltbrand does seem nice. At one point, he wonders whether the questions readers ask aren't a little too personal, whether the women who lined up the night before to quiz me about my own life aren't crossing a boundary that shouldn't be breached. “I felt protective of you last night!” he proclaims.
Hiltbrand leaves, and I'm into my television suit (looks great, itches like crazy) and off to the glamorous world of cable access, a rite of passage for authors on tour in Boston. The host peers at me from behind eyeglasses the size of manhole covers. “So, Deborah,” she begins, “do you think that New York has gotten back to normal?” “Um,” I say. “I'm actually from Philadelphia.” And my name's not Deborah. “Ah,” she says, losing interest.
October 7th: Chicago
Time, Newsweek and Entertainment Weekly run pieces about Dave Eggers, even though his new novel is only available online and in a handful of independent bookstores. Note to self re next book: Consider selective niche marketing. Maybe sell it only in hand-picked plus-size boutiques?
October 8th: Chicago
In every city an author visits, he or she is assigned an escort whose job is to get said author from hotel to interview to bookstore and back. It's a given that at least one of your escorts will suck. When I was on the road for Good In Bed, I had a woman in Los Angeles who began our day by driving the wrong way down a one-way street, murmuring, “Oh, dear, I hope the policemen don't stop me; I've got so many tickets already.” Today's escort is an advertising executive-turned-addiction counselor whose main topic of conversation is Drunk Authors I Have Known. “Do you know,” he offers, careering around a curve, “that 70 percent of all Nobel prize-winners for literature were alcoholics?” He begins to list them: “Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Hemingway. … “
“I don't think Fitzgerald won the Nobel prize,” I say. He gives me a small, indulgent smile and jerks to a stop at a red light.
“And I don't think Toni Morrison is an alcoholic,” I say.
He blinks, as the cars behind us honk. “Who's he?”
The bookstore-a smallish independent in a wealthy Chicago suburb-is holding the reading next door, in a cozy coffee shop that has a fireplace and lovely tiled floors.
“Hi, I'm Jen, and this is my new-” RRRRRRRrrrrrrr. The racket I hear sounds like an express train in a subway tunnel. “I'm just going to read a little bit from-” RRRRRRRrrrrrrr. The audience giggles.
“Okay, what in God's name is that?” I ask. The bookstore guy mouths I'll take care of it and hurries out the door. I recommence with the reading: “Maggie Feller hopped off the bus and-” RRRRRRRrrrrrrr.
The guy comes back, looking chastened. “Sorry,” he says. Someone is taking out the trash, which involves rolling a metal dumpster down the tiled hall. Oh, man, I think. This is so not happening to Anna Quindlen right now.
October 9th: Cincinnati
I used to think the worst thing that could happen to an author would be to show up for a reading and find nobody there.
Today, I learn otherwise. At today's book-club luncheon, there are half a dozen women waiting to meet me. I sing for my supper, telling stories, reading pages, answering the obligatory I'm-a-writer-too-how-can-I-get-an-agent questions. And then I smile and retreat to a table and a stack of fresh books. “I'd be happy to sign books if anyone wants one,” I say. Unfortunately, it seems that nobody does. One by one, the women approach the table to thank me and say how much they enjoyed the event. One by one, they leave empty-handed. Out in the parking lot, I slump in the passenger seat as my escort gazes at me dispassionately. “Well,” she says. “I guess that didn't go very well.”
But things improve in the airport, where the new People-the one that's going to review In Her Shoes-has arrived. sexy at any size, the cover proclaims. Okay, a good sign. I fumble at the pages with shaking hands, and there I am, with my dog Wendell. The picture's really good; the review is even better. “Bottom line: Wonderful Fit,” it says. I sigh in relief. I might not ever get the Times, but at least I've got the People. And better than that, I get to spend the next four days at home.
October 10th: Philadelphia
When Good In Bed came out in May of 2001, I'd wake up in the middle of the night, sweaty and terrified. Had I made any mistakes? Did the copy-editor catch all the spelling errors? Did I make the ex-boyfriend's penis small enough to guarantee that none of my actual ex-boyfriends would come forward and claim they were my inspiration?
This time around, I still wake up in the middle of the night, only now I'm not terrified-just nauseous. Book worry has given way to the first-trimester blues. Sometimes, my husband Adam wakes up with me. We lie in the dark and toss baby names back and forth. Madeline? Too preppy. Hannah? Too popular. Nola? Sounds made-up.
October 13th: Philadelphia
It's my last night at home before another two weeks on the road, and I'd prefer to spend it curled on the couch. Instead, I'm all dressed up at the Philadelphia Convention Center at something called Moveable Feast, where two dozen authors are entertaining regional independent booksellers to try and convince them to carry our books. Some independents have given my books a warm reception. Others treat me-and, probably, all writers of popular fiction-like something that crawled out of a sewer and is determined to drag the American novel back down there with her.
My name tag reads jennifer weiner/in her shoes. I long for the days when it read jennifer weiner/good in bed, which made starting conversations so much easier. I meet other writers-Paul Fussell and Connie Briscoe, Patricia Gaffney and Diane Duane-and, at last, an author of shocking short stories and noirish novels of suburban despair.
“Hi,” I say, shaking her hand. “It's so nice to meet you. I've been a fan of yours for years.” Her eyes dip down to my name tag and instantly glaze over. “Oh, hi,” she says, the words so fast that they run together in a single syllable: ohhi. She drops my hand like it's got gangrene and returns her attention to the young gay male author at her side.
All through dinner, I'm fascinated by the cliques. The literary authors-the folks whose books get long, respectful reviews in the Times and go on to sell 10,000 copies-ignore the commercial types. The commercial novelists-those whose books are ignored by the Times and get reviewed in Cosmo and People, and go on to sell 100,000 copies-shun the sci-fi folks, whose books are published in paperback, reviewed nowhere, and sell even more. And everyone seems to ostracize the bubbly, babbling first-time novelist who announces that she's been working on her book “since college, which was an embarrassingly short time ago.” Somebody actually groans out loud. I sit back in satisfaction. There's a nerd at the table, and for once, it isn't me.
October 16th: Birmingham
I try not to read articles about myself. No matter how sympathetic the reporter seems, no matter how funny I think I'm being, reading the finished product always feels like looking into a funhouse mirror-all weird bulges and odd omissions.
But I'm curious to hear what the Inquirer has done. So first thing in the morning, my husband calls and gives the piece the blah-blah-blah treatment-skimming over the standard stuff and skipping right to the meat. “Blah blah blah,” Adam begins, moving into Hiltbrand's description of my first book. “'A particularly nasty portrait in Good In Bed led one newspaper colleague to feel she had been smeared. And some coworkers have suggested that Weiner was too self-absorbed and ambitious to care.'”
Smeared? Self-absorbed? Is “ambitious” supposed to be an insult? I am beginning to get a very bad feeling.
“Blah blah blah,” says Adam. “Princeton. Film Deal. Oops, he says your mom's a social worker instead of a teacher. Blah blah blah-” And then his voice stops.
“Oh,” he says, very quietly. “Oh, God.”
He takes a deep breath. I can imagine him closing his eyes, weighing his options-a surgeon deciding where to cut. “Your father,” he finally says.
“My father what? What about him?” In all the articles written about me, nobody's published anything about my father. When reporters ask (and Hiltbrand didn't), I say he isn't part of my life and hasn't been in years, and that's the end. Until today.
And if the story's going to be out there, in all of its ugly glory, I'd prefer to be the one to tell it. So here goes: Since my father left my Mom and me and my three siblings in 1986, he's had moments that could be part of a Jerry Springer highlights reel. In December 1998, he was in bed with a woman when the woman who believed she was still his girlfriend walked in. The not-yet-ex-girlfriend had a very bad temper and very sharp fingernails, and the ensuing fracas involved the police, an ambulance, grievous injury to a very delicate portion of the male anatomy, several newspaper articles, and, eventually, many jokes on the Howard Stern show.
Adam finishes reading the paragraph. My former Inky colleagues have taken care to include every gory, grotesque detail, including the word “scrotum”-which, let's face it, is not a word any daughter wants to see in the newspaper in conjunction with her father-and the number of stitches it took to repair the damage. “Weiner was mortified,” says the story.
“But they never asked me how I felt,” I say. “How can they say I was mortified?”
I'm astonished. I've got a gay mom, an ex-stripper sister, a last name Jay Leno made fun of on The Tonight Show-all of which I talk about and write about. Isn't that fodder enough? Why go dig up my Dad?
All day long, my cell phone rings-friends, family. Then I get calls from chagrined Inquirer colleagues, who tell me that Hiltbrand's profile was fine until an editor decided the piece was “too nice,” and inserted the stuff about smearing a colleague, about being self-absorbed, about my father. And nobody in charge wants to tell me why that particular incident was included. I e-mail the managing editor, who explains: “What we had here were seasoned journalists making decisions in good faith about what to include in a story.” Then I hear that another editor said, “If any reporter would have put the number of stitches in the story, it would have been Jennifer.”
It's disappointing … but I know it's part of the book-tour process, just as surely as lost luggage, late planes and insane author escorts. Still, I can't help but wonder whether F. Scott Fitzgerald's hometown paper ever dug up dirty details about his father's private parts. Note to self: Check.
October 20th: Los Angeles
Today's Times reviews the new novel of Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk. Again. Note to self re next book: Consider enhancing “cult” following by taking up smoking and fighting, and/or moving to Pacific Northwest.
October 22nd: Albuquerque
I've heard about her in movies. I've read about her in books. But it's not until this afternoon, at an independent bookstore downtown, that I finally come face-to-face with the Fan from Hell.
I believe that books are, in large part, about connection-about readers seeing themselves and their lives in a novel's plot and characters, and feeling less alone in their own skin, or in their own heads. Certainly, I've seen it, in readings across the country-women who come up and whisper that they thought they were the only ones with weight woes, or mean fathers, or gay mothers, or learning disabilities, or mental illness in their families. The trouble is that sometimes, readers feel a little too connected.
As I'm sitting in an armchair, going over the passage I'm going to read, a woman approaches. Cute denim skirt, nice haircut, and she's brandishing a copy of Good In Bed that looks like it's been through a war. “I … loved … your book,” she says. “Ilovedyourbook! It was my story! Every single thing about it! Me!”
“That's great,” I say. She goes into detail-her bad breakup, her rotten college years. And, inevitably, the book she's working on. “And you're 32, and I'm 32! We have so much in common! I feel like I know you!” she says. “I feel like we're friends!” She grabs my arm. I resist the urge to wrench it free.
She follows me up to the podium, walking so close behind me that when I stop, she slams into my back. After the reading, she asks if I want to come over to her house for dinner (“No, sorry, I've got an early flight.”) Or maybe out for margaritas? No? Well, will I give her my phone number? (“Um … “) Or how about my e-mail address? “It's in the back of the book,” I say weakly.
“Great!” she says. “Because I'd love to send you my book. It's got these characters who are loosely based on my ferrets.”
I shoot a desperate look at my book-tour escort. I say hasty goodbyes and hightail it out of the parking lot. Ferret Lady waves goodbye, forlornly, from her car. Part of me feels terrible-I should have been more friendly, I should have gone out for a drink. The rest of me, however, keeps looking in the rearview mirror to make sure she's not following us.
October 26th: Pasadena
Sometimes, it's hard to remember the point of all this. Between newspaper pieces that range from clueless to cruel, radio interviewers who don't seem to have read past the flap copy, days spent in a blur where the only things you see are the inside of your hotel room and the highway whizzing by, it's easy to forget what it's all about-the book, the story, the characters, the readers.
But then, at my reading tonight in Pasadena, a woman in the middle of the crowd reminds me. She raises her hand, and when she starts to speak, her voice is shaking. “I don't have a question. I just wanted to tell you that Good In Bed came to me at just the right time in my life. I had a baby. … ” And that's as far as she gets. “I'm sorry,” she says.
I know how to handle just about everything in terms of the parallels between my books and readers' lives. I can talk about the weight stuff, the family stuff, the jerk-who-broke-my-heart stuff. But I've always found it very hard to talk about the premature baby stuff, which was a major plot point in Good In Bed. Now, it's even harder.
The woman starts again. “Thank you,” she says. “That's all I really wanted to say. Just thank you.”
I tell her she's welcome. I tell her that I've been there, too-not where she is, exactly, but an equally dark place. When I was writing Good In Bed, I'd just gone through a bad breakup of my own. Writing the book felt, in a way, like writing out my dreams for what I wanted in my life-a man to love, a house to live in, a fabulous career, a film deal, a baby. I tell this audience, now, that I wrote it, and then it all came true. “I started believing I had magical powers,” I joke.
Fifty women line up to have their books signed. The crying woman hangs toward the end of the line until we're alone. “Would you write something magical for my baby and me?” she asks.
I take a deep breath and pick up my pen. “every happiness,” I write, in inch-high letters, and I sign my name.