Patience, planning and a sense of serenity
By Wiley Cash
I have been fortunate to publish three novels in the past five years, and I have been even more fortunate that my publisher has sponsored national book tours for each of my books. After the years it takes to write and publish a novel — much of that time spent in solitude and self-doubt — it is very rewarding to visit a bookstore, library or college campus and meet people who have read your work. I love hitting the road to answer questions, sign books and learn what readers are reading when they are not reading my books. When I first sat down to write my debut novel, I never imagined I would be so fortunate.
For my most recent tour in support of The Last Ballad, I spent almost two full months on the road, most of it alone. The wonderful time spent with readers is only a fraction of what you do when you are on book tour. The vast majority of your time is spent running through airports, eating fast food late at night, lying awake in hotel rooms, missing your family and wondering if — in the end — the grind of the road helps book sales. This essay is about how to survive those many long, lonely moments.
Here are a few steps you can take to overcome the perils of the book tour. I ask you to keep in mind that this is what has worked for me. Because of many factors, a book tour is not the same experience for everyone; this is based only on mine.
Gear: If you will be taking any flights longer than an hour, consider getting a neck pillow. Yes, they are awkward to pack and you will look silly carrying it through the airport, but nothing is more awkward or silly than your head lolling against your seatmate’s shoulder or your chin bouncing against your chest while you fight sleep in midair. A vacuum-sealed, stainless-steel thermos also comes in handy: It will keep water cool and coffee hot for hours while you travel. You may also want to invest in an extra phone charger with a long cord. Outlets in hotels are often located behind the headboard or bedside table, and a long cord makes it easy to charge your phone and use it as an alarm clock without moving furniture in your room. Finally, take a book, and make sure to take a book you actually want to read instead of a book you think you should be reading.
Airport: Always check your bag if your host or publisher is paying for your travel because book tours can be long, and a day off from lugging your luggage is a gift. Otherwise, find a carry-on bag that holds a lot of stuff and is easy to transport. After checking your bag, empty your pockets before security and put everything except your ID and boarding pass into one of the small, zippered compartments on your carry-on luggage. There is nothing more annoying than standing at security while people empty their pockets before going through the metal detector. The same people will hold up the line on the other side of security while spending even longer putting everything back into their pockets. Do not be that person. For the same reason, wear shoes that are easy to slip off and on, and go ahead and take your laptop out of your bag. If you find yourself holding up the security line for any reason, do not be cute about it. The security line is not an open mic. There is nothing cute or funny about wasting people’s time when they are rushing to catch a flight.
Food: Except for in a few cities, the food is irredeemably bad at most airports. There is no way around this. I have no suggestions to make about airport food except to avoid it if you can. Once you arrive at your destination, spend a few minutes scouting around online for good food that is nearby. When eating on the road, I walk a fine line between finding something convenient and fast while also wanting to have a distinct culinary experience. If I am in Austin I want to have the best barbecue. If I am in New Orleans I want to have the best gumbo. If I am in New England I want to have the best clam chowder. Keep in mind that “the best” does not always mean the “most famous.” Trust the people at the bookstore and hotel when it comes to food. They are locals. They know. There is also no judgment, at least not from me, for eating cheap pizza or a quick sandwich. You will often find yourself short on time, and settling on something simple is an easy way to make quick decisions. A book tour is not a vacation, and you cannot plan to eat like you are on vacation.
Hotel: I have a particular routine when I check into hotels. I like to feel settled, so if I am staying for more than one night I unpack the necessary clothes and place them in drawers, and then I put my shaving kit on the bathroom counter before stashing my luggage in the closet. Then I turn on the television (CNN or ESPN) and iron the shirts and pants I plan to wear. I always iron during leisure time because there is nothing more hectic than ironing as you are preparing to rush out to a bookstore or catch a taxi to the airport. Clothes unpacked and ironed, I unplug the alarm clock by the bed. If you do not do this you can plan on it going off at 5:00 a.m. and being unable to figure out how to stop it. Go ahead and unplug it and set the alarm on your cellphone. No outlets close to the bedside table? Thank goodness you have your extra-long cord for the charger. Are you a coffee drinker? Most hotels have in-room coffee makers with coffee available. Some hotels have free coffee in the lobby. No matter what the setup, avoid Styrofoam cups because coffee served in Styrofoam cups is an offense to humanity that cannot be forgiven. I know of a few writers who pack their favorite mugs along with fresh coffee and French presses. This is not a bad idea.
Family: I have traveled with my family, and I have traveled without my family. It is easier to travel without my family, especially if we are staying in one hotel room, but it is also very lonely. To offset said loneliness I will often FaceTime with my wife and our girls. This inevitably ends with one child or another wanting to hold the phone while the other child gets upset, which inevitably ends with the phone being dropped or hung up or repossessed by my wife. Everyone gets off the phone feeling a little sadder and more frustrated than before the call. Sometimes I find it better to have my wife text me photos of herself with our daughters, and she posts many of these on Instagram so I can flip through them before bed. But I always go to bed feeling a little sad. I often wonder if it would be easier and less frustrating just to hear their voices instead of seeing their faces.
For me, the easiest part of book tour is standing in front of a group of readers and discussing my book. The hardest parts are being away from my family and the constant feeling that I am running late for the next thing, whether that thing is a flight, a reservation, an interview or ride.
But a book tour can also feature pleasant surprises that masquerade as disappointments. At the end of the most recent tour I was on the way home from out west when I missed a flight in Salt Lake City due to fog. It was noon, and the next flight that could get me home to Wilmington would not leave until midnight, and I would have to connect in Atlanta and would not arrive home until late the following morning. After getting my new tickets I had two options: sulk in the airport all day or go out and see something of Salt Lake City, a place I had never visited before.
I caught a cab into the city and had an incredible day. I visited the King’s English, one of the most iconic bookstores in the country. I had lunch and a beer at a local brewery. I visited the Mormon Temple downtown, and I ended the day with an impromptu decision to catch a Utah Jazz game before catching the train back to the airport.
It was an exhausting day that had begun with great disappointment, but it ended in joy and the certainty that despite how long I had been away and how far I was from North Carolina, I was headed back to my wife and children. I unzipped my backpack, removed my neck pillow, and settled in for the long flight(s) home.
Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His new novel The Last Ballad is available wherever books are sold.