It may be apocryphal, but supposedly there was a time when you finished a book, sent it in to your editor, and then immediately headed up to the deer lodge with a case of bourbon and a few pounds of hardtack, ready to start the next. No need to block four calendar months for promotion. No need to come up with a clever social media campaign (“I’ll be live-mumbling the entire thing on Slapfish!”), and especially no reason to alienate every last friend and family member by flogging a novel they’ve either already bought or have no intention of ever buying. No, you’d just hit the road with a publicist who looked like Rosalind Russell, hit a dozen cities, keynote a conference, and on the way home offend a ladies’ book club or two. Finis.
But in 2016, unless you’re packing Barnes & Noble every night, the efficacy of sending an author out on the road is dubious. Exactly how many books do you need to sign to offset your flight, hotel, car rental, and food per-diem? Let alone your publicist’s salary, travel agent’s commission, and fake brunch receipts? Plus, as anyone in publishing will admit after a few expensed drinks, most book readings are mind-numbingly dull. They tend to go like this: 1. Author stands nervously to the side while being introduced. 2. Author takes podium and apologizes for being nervous. 3. Author reads for way too long in a resigned monotone. 4. Attendees go home sleepy, swear to never attend another reading.
What’s most odd is the expectation that readings should be entertaining. Did we learn nothing from Andrew McCarthy’s character in St. Elmo’s Fire? The very traits required for authorship—a lust for solitude, a misanthropic bent, adventures with mental illness, and suspect personal hygiene—are anathema to performative delivery and impromptu witticisms. And yet the industry remains reluctant to admit that writing and reading your own writing aloud are two discrete and often opposing skills, like urinating on the hood of an Escalade and being able to repair its transmission.
So, yeah, I spent most of March touring across the country with my short story collection, Welcome Thieves, which just came out with Algonquin Press.
The first big reading on the home turf is always the best, a chance to hang out with friends and various mad denizens of the local scene. Before getting to the literary portion of the evening, Kevin Emerson and I played a few numbers as the Sean Emerson Five. Mainly because I’ve always wanted to warm up for myself. Also, there’s nothing the world loves more than two guys with acoustic guitars. Word is we crushed with an original called “Meatyard”, an up-tempo hillbilly song I wrote that’s about the hubris of using the phrase “A song I wrote.” I closed with my signature lit-nerd PowerPoint (more fun than it sounds) while people drank lots of free beer (exactly as much fun as it sounds.) You wish every night of your life was so full of love.
Estimated crowd: 79
Estimated books sold: 33
What I learned in a Personal Journey Kinda Way: Always tip 3 dollars more than you planned to. Then add another buck.
Medication I took one hour prior to event: Soporiphya™ (2 x 10 mgs tab). A new SSRI bomb from Pfizer that transforms your deep-seated suspicions of personal and professional fraudulence into the equivalent of a delightful Thai lunch.
The drive from down from Seattle can be disconcerting, since there’s always a deluge that reduces visibility to about 4 feet, and the stretch of highway just north of the city is ripe with meth vans and lumber trucks. But we made it. I know a fair number of people in Portland. Almost none of them showed. Here’s a fun psychological test: STEP ONE: get up in front of a large room full of people and charm them with extemporaneous remarks, then read powerfully from your life’s work. STEP TWO: do exactly the same thing in front of six folding chairs. So I went off-script and ranted about how if my name was Tucker Max instead of Sean Beaudoin, the store would have been packed to capacity, since Tucker Max is instantly memorable, while even my wife can’t pronounce Sean Beaudoin. “Having an odd name is the kiss of death in publishing, and my cheeks are covered in the lipstick of your indifference.” Definitely won a few converts that night.
Estimated crowd: 11
Estimated books sold: 3
What I learned in a Personal Journey Kinda Way: If they’re Shiny and Happy, they’re probably not even people.
Medication I took one hour prior to event: Selexone™ (60mgs x 3). Compelling med from Merck & Co that forces other people to get their ass back in the slow lane if not actively passing another car.
I lived in the city for eighteen years, so returning is always a strange experience. Partly because most of the people I knew then have been forced to cheaper climes, and partly because the bars, restaurants, and record stores that I once loved have been replaced by artisinal small-batch everything. Which isn’t a rant against gentrification, just a fact. Like Chrissie Hynde, I went back to (metaphorical) Ohio and not only was my city gone, it was replaced by an even worse Pretenders song. But it’s still a fun way to spend a weekend, plus a whole lot of your publisher’s cash. Which I did, giddily. Then gave a reading for old friends, writing group members, former co-workers, roommates, and the odd ex-girlfriend. Listen, people who are fully aware that you aren’t Peter O’Toole but show up anyway, despite the vast inconvenience and rush hour traffic, are worth their weight in pure, uncut Turkish hashish. I almost cried. I didn’t, because that would have to show a modicum of effeminacy and I’m a grizzled road veteran who has been in his share of bench-press contests. But almost.
Estimated crowd: 32
Estimated books sold: 14
What I learned in a Personal Journey Kinda Way: It terms of classic rock, there are three rules: 1. Never Bang a Gong. 2 Never Come Together (Aerosmith version) 3. Never Turn the Page.
Medication I took one hour prior to event: A big dose of 1930’s Soma acquired off eBay as part of the Huxley Estate.
SAN FRANCISCO II
Originally this gig was supposed to take place at a famous but unnamed literary landmark that canceled at the last minute for what remain dubious reasons. Or maybe someone in the back office finally got around to skimming my book. Instead I secured a place in a literary salon held at a dark Mission bar, as all literary salons should be. I was the last of seven readers and my mind began to wander almost immediately. Not because I didn’t care—my brain is just too random and schematic. I couldn’t listen to Jeffrey Dahmer for more than three minutes without daydreaming about old Sears catalogs, or different varieties of Kentucky Bluegrass one might plant if one were lucky enough to own a lawn. So as usual I floated off into Miss Othmar land and thought about my hardcover copy of Billy Lee Brammer’s The Gay Place. It’s a non-fiction account of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s reelection campaign written in 1957. The title is easily visible on the spine. For decades I’ve found it amusing to watch guests of all varieties spot it on my shelf for the first time, the looks of confusion or wonderment, worry or relief, disgust or secret surprise. You can tell a lot about a person by how they react to a big, hardbound copy of The Gay Place. Then the reader before me finished, so I got up and did my thing.
Estimated crowd: 19
Estimated crowd who wasn’t a reader, or the person they came with: 6
Estimated books sold: none (I forgot to bring them)
What I learned in a Personal Journey Kinda Way: If you’re at a venue full of people who already love you, by all means debut an experimental tone-poem about granite striations, but if you’re at a loud bar full of strangers, read something full of sex and euphemisms for mustard.
Medication I took one hour prior to event: DowntownLoft™ (2mgs, suppository). From SmithKlineGlaxo, gives you the sensation that at any moment you’re going to step out of a claw-foot tub and walk around E. 9th St. for a few hours with Lou Reed.
The gig was in West Hollywood. I was staying at the Standard, which boasts a thriving pickup scene for out-of-work script supervisors. Also, there was a young lady in her underwear typing on a laptop in a Plexiglass box behind the front desk. From a design standpoint, it was hard to pin down the intent. Sort of Clockwork Orange if Malcolm McDowell wore a pink Maidenform, meets Boy in the Plastic Bubble if John Travolta were an Asian girl with pigtails. I walked over to the venue, which the concierge warned was “possibly dangerous.” Instead, it was beautiful and sunny, a caricature of idyllic LA. Turns out there’s lots of other stuff to do in West Hollywood besides see me read. Afterwards, a young woman raised her hand and asked one of the Three Unanswerable Questions: “How do I become a writer?” I said “There are eleven ways for you to become a writer” and then asked if she wanted to hear them all. She did.
- Get through your twenties without giving up, while simultaneously coming to the almost-impossible-to-embrace-during-your-twenties notion that you’ll have no clue what you’re doing until you’re thirty.
- Avoid writing classes like the plague and/or references to Camus. Listen to unusual music, go to museums, and watch art films instead.
- Feel no pressure to publish. Work feverishly on something until you think it’s perfect, then put it aside for a year and work on something else.
- Never try to convince anyone of your talent or worth. They’ll either spot it or they won’t.
- Avoid cheap critique of other people’s work. Be supportive. Be generous with your time and attention. Making a “connection” with someone semi-famous at a party will help your career a lot less than being remembered ten years later as having been relatively human.
- Forget NY and SF and LA. Move to an unexpected place, like Little Rock or Topeka.
- Start your own scene. Be the person who sets up cool art and lit events instead of the one who complains about the lack of them.
- Intern/do shit work in a high-end field like finish carpentry or Zen landscaping. Soak up all the knowledge you can while keeping your mouth shut. After a few years you’ll have a skill that can forever subsidize the making of art, and possibly even a sunny, light-filled loft.
- Be a voracious, observant reader. Ignore purists in every genre.
- Even for those with famous parents or patrons, every successful writer works their ass off. Let your work ethic equal your obsession.
- Save the 60k in MFA loans and backpack through Southeast Asia for two years instead.
Estimated crowd: 10
Estimate crowd of people I didn’t know: 2
Estimated books sold: 6
What I learned in a Personal Journey Kinda Way: Answering any of the Three Unanswerable Questions is always a bad idea.
Medication I took one hour prior to event: Ephidrone™ (2.5 oz., sublingual paste). Makes it possible to talk about yourself for another hour, even when you can’t stand to listen to yourself talk about yourself for one more goddamned hour.
So, this Very Famous and Talented Author and I drove two hours north for a reading in the quaint little village of Bellingham. On the way, I told him about West Hollywood. He said, “What are the other two Unanswerable Questions?” I said, “Where do you get your ideas?” and “How did you find your agent?” He asked why they were so unanswerable. I said less because of their content than the fact that the people who ask them don’t really want an answer. He thought about it for a while and said, “So then what do you say?” I said, “For Where do you get your ideas I immediately deadpan Walgreens. For How did you find your agent I immediately deadpan Costco.” He asked if I am often randomly punched and I answered yes. Then we had a steak at a place called Dirty Dan’s. Although in general I admire the 19th-century miner/lumberjack spirit, I wasn’t convinced Dirty Dan’s was the best name for a restaurant. The Very Famous and Talented Author agreed, and then ordered a gin & tonic, which he said he wasn’t really even thirsty for but that the quinine was likely to kill whatever tang of salmonella hung in the air. Which seemed like genuine wisdom. While reaching into a basket of Dirty Dan’s Homestyle Jonny Cakes, I realized why he was Very Famous and I was not. After leaving an absurdly large tip, we did our reading.
Estimated crowd: 16
Estimated books sold: 1 (it’s a pretty solid estimate. I sold exactly one book)
What I learned in a Personal Journey Kinda Way: It’s not really fair to blame Che Guevara for the fact that people continue to wear Che Guevara shirts fifty years after his death, even though it’s obvious that if Che Guevara suddenly floated down from heaven, the very first thing he would do is round up everyone wearing a Che Guevara shirt and shoot them in the neck with a rusty pistol.
Medication I took one hour prior to event: Prozactly™ (4 x 100mgs chewable tab). From the wonderful folks over at Novartis, lessens feelings of pure liquid inferiority while sitting next to Very Famous and Talented Authors as they sign many books and bask in the adoration of the general public, but in particular dissolute sweatered librarians and wanton mom-types.
It rained really hard. The city felt empty. At the bookstore they said, “Oh honey, don’t you know no one drives in Austin when it rains?” I said, “You know I’m from Seattle, right?” They said, “Would you like a slice of pie?” Turns out I did want a slice of pie. Also, below is a 20 second time-lapse video of the post-reading interview, in which I appear to discuss Napoleon-era musket techniques.
Estimated crowd: 14
Estimated books sold: 4
What I learned in a Personal Journey Kinda Way: If you were watching yourself from the audience, would you want more of you, or would you be dying for you to finish?
Medication I took one hour prior to reading: 6 fluid oz. Jack Daniels, from the fine people over at Jack Daniels.
So I was reading in this ramshackle farmhouse that looked like Judy Garland once slept in it, when these loud sirens started to go off. I figured it was just a bank being robbed down the street, so I kept going. I am, after all, a professional. But the sirens got louder and seemed to come from every direction. People got up and hastily left. Schoolmarms, cowboys, high-plains hipsters. All with fear in their eyes. I looked over at the guy running the event and he goes, “Oh, it’s just the tornado warning system.” And I was like, “Well, shouldn’t we grab some canned beans and cower in the basement together?” And he was like, “Nah. If it’s gonna get us, it’s gonna get us.” Which, I happen to believe, is a lovely sentiment. So I kept reading. I am, after all, a professional.
Here’s an actual photo of what was about to touch down across town:
Estimated crowd: 26
Estimated books sold: 3
What I learned in a Personal Journey Kinda Way: Movies wherein a dog and Tom Hanks appear together on late night hotel cable are possible the best, most redemptive movies in cinema history.
Medication I took five hours after reading: Turner & Hooch (1 x 1 hr 39 minutes -Touchstone Pictures, with a side of Dunston Checks In)
UPTOWN KINGSTON, NY
I stayed in a Quality Inn that had a pool in a sealed internal courtyard. Every fiber in the room was imbued with the stench of chlorine. All that night I dreamt that I read The Wapshot Chronicles aloud to Mark Spitz.
Estimated crowd: 44
Estimated books sold: 9
What I learned in a Personal Journey Kinda Way: There’s nothing quality about the Quality Inn. Unless they’re interested in me for any branding/endorsement deals, in which case they’re without question the best budget hospitality chain in the country.
Medication I took one hour prior to reading: Slithium™ (30 micrograms) From French pharma giant Roche. It’s like Lithium, but with an S.
The last stop on the tour. You haven’t read until you’ve read in Manhattan, and you haven’t read in Manhattan until you’ve read at KGB Bar. It was a prose-putsch! Many hardliners were toppled! Also, free oysters. Basically, I lost my head and spent the entire time explaining why I always dress in black, but do not, in fact, excel at “Folsom Prison Blues” during karaoke.
Estimated crowd: 28
Estimated books sold: None (even a purse is too much to carry in NYC)
What I learned in a Personal Journey Kinda Way: Forget your wild hairs and brilliant ideas—always just read the story that mentions the Thompson Twins un-ironically, Black Flag rhetorically, and the Tao of Pooh metaphorically. It never fails to kill.
Medication I took one hour prior to event: Drugs kill.
Finally back home in Seattle, I rested for somewhere between eleven and sixteen hours, then started the final revisions on my next book, Cornelius Wrathbone, which will be out on Candlewick Press, fall ’17.