The Book Tour Journal- Part I
The Mermaid Chair
book tour ended recently and I’m home again, thrilling suddenly to mundane and domestic things- sorting laundry, flipping through my soup-stained cookbooks, tugging dead fronds out of the Boston ferns. When I think about the thirty-three cities I visited in fifty-one days, the word whirlwind pops into my head and I picture Dorothy’s cyclone in The Wizard of Oz, not because the tour was a tempest (though it did have its tempest in a teapot moments), but because of the countless ways it lifted me off my familiar foundations and set me down in unimagined places. I didn’t have Toto with me, but I did have my husband, Sandy (who’s going to just LOVE that comparison). During our travels we kept a small journal and snapped pictures, so this month, and next month, too, I’m going to share bits and pieces from the journal along with some photos.
The Charleston airport. The Mermaid Chair
publication day. We’re delayed because of a mysterious equipment problem with the plane, which I really don’t want to know about in any detail. It means, of course, that we almost miss our connection in Charlotte and have to jog to the gate. Settling into our seats (still panting), I ask Sandy if he thinks people will come to the kick off event that night in Hartford, CT. I’m having a flashback to the beginning of The Secret Life of Bees
hardcover tour in 2002 when only one woman showed up for my event and we spent most of the time looking at pictures of her grandchildren. Sandy smiles and suggests I buckle my seat belt... So many hundreds of people show up that night at Asylum Hill Congregational Church, I assume there must be some other event going on as well. No, they tell me- just you. At the reception following my talk, I glimpse a towering chocolate fountain where you can drench strawberries, and the book signing line spirals into the distance like the yellow brick road.
|Sue and Diane|
of Diane’s Book
At the Greenwich, CT library, Diane Garrett (of Diane’s Books, which is sponsoring the evening) meets me in her gorgeous red cape, and so does my literary agent in her gorgeous 100% cotton white T-shirt with the cover of The Mermaid Chair
on the front. She has had a bundle of them made for people who worked on the book: editor, publicists, assistants, writer, spouse of writer... the whole gang. The back of the T shirt has Team Mermaid written across it, which is what this pod has come to call themselves. When I step to the podium, I see my editor and publicist sitting on the front row, beaming. Team Mermaid is here! Support is a wonderful thing.
|Book Group Tea|
Party at Warwick's
In La Jolla, CA, at Warwick’s, I meet with a book club on a bougainvillea-draped patio behind the store, where we’re served tea with mermaid and bee cookies and perfect California sunshine.
Before the Border’s general manager’s meeting in San Diego where I’m to give a keynote speech, we have a private assembly line going in a back room. Someone opens the novel to the right page and slides it in front of me. I sign (wondering why I ever thought THREE names were a good idea),then someone pulls the book away.
|Boxes Containing the 600 Signed Books|
I sign 600 novels in an hour and 15 minutes. I don’t know why I’m so proud of this, but I’m infected now with the idea that in the future I can beat this time. I’m told that certain authors have signed 1000 books in an hour. I speculate on various strategies that could help me pick up my pace... At midnight I wake with my hand throbbing. I stick it in the ice bucket, cured of any further need to sign my name with speed.
I’m speaking at the public library in Hershey, PA, standing before a packed crowd reading the following line on page 284 of The Mermaid Chair
: There had been a bowl of Godiva chocolates at the entrance- I look up from the book, chagrined. I am in HERSHEY, where I’ve enjoyed the fine hospitality of the Hershey Hotel, eaten Hershey chocolate sauce on my steak, bathed with Hershey chocolate soap and delighted in a stream of free Hershey bars, and I’m standing here touting Godiva! Luckily the good people of Hershey are full of humor and tolerance.
April 11, 12
In Lancaster, PA, I speak at a luncheon for the Friends of the Public Library where I get an introduction I could not love more. I am heralded as a woman on the loose. (A phrase taken from my memoir, , p. 204)
My first order of business in Philadelphia is to go to the Emergency Room. My eye has decided it will take this opportunity to puff and swell. Ordinarily I might not rush to the hospital, but I’m scheduled for a live TV show the next morning and have visions of wearing an eye patch. The ER is full of people who have far worse problems, and I’m justifiably and repeatedly bumped to the bottom of the list. Three hours later I’m discharged, though I have to wear my hospital bracelet to bed because we have nothing sharp enough to cut it off.
Thanks to a miracle eye ointment and a borrowed pocket knife, I show up the next morning at WCAU-TV without the eye patch or the hospital bracelet. The show is being broadcast from the lobby of Loew's Hotel and I have barely arrived when the fire alarm goes off. Luckily, the fire truck arrives and it’s determined the building is not on fire and the show can go on. After all this, I have exactly two minutes on air to explain what The Mermaid Chair is all about.
|WCAU-TV Morning Show|
When I walk onto the stage at the Philadelphia Free Library, I have one of those moments when everything hits me.
How in the world has it happened that I am writing novels and that all of these people
have actually come to hear me read from one of them? I look at the audience, temporarily awestruck, then so overcome with gratitude my knees want to buckle... Later I will think how important it is to hold onto that facility of surprise. A novelist should always walk around a little awestruck.
|Philadelphia Free Library|
|Before the Good|
Morning America Interview
Sitting on the set of Good Morning America, waiting for my interview, I try to trick myself into thinking that I’m not about to be on national television. Pretend you’ll be alone with the interviewer having a regular chat and fifty jillion people will not be watching. Pretend the cameras are broken. The plan works fine until the lights on the camera flash on. I can’t remember a lot of what I said on air. I do remember reading a passage
from the novel that reflects Jessie’s need to redefine herself at mid life. And I recall talking about my own need to shift direction at mid life and begin to write fiction. About tending dreams. Otherwise, the interview is a blur. One day I’ll get up the courage to watch the tape.
|With Robin Roberts on the|
set of Good Morning America
In the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, I speak about the Black Madonna, not only how she is portrayed in The Secret Life of Bees, but how she is also being understood as an ancient and contemporary image of the sacred feminine. There is a vast number of people in the audience- more than a thousand, and 99% of them are female. I wonder how this hints at the deep, resonating hunger for a divine feminine presence. The air is full of it.
|Senator Mikulski Presenting|
Sue with a Black Madonna
Sandy and I are maneuvering through security checkpoints, making our way into the Senate office building. Senator Barbara Ann Mikulski of Maryland has invited us to lunch. It turns out that she really likes The Secret Life of Bees. I’m surprised and touched when she gives me an image of Our Lady of Czestochowa, the powerful Black Madonna in Poland. In my address the night before in the cathedral, I’d projected this particular Madonna’s image on a screen and quoted some lines from Margaret Atwood’s THE CAT’S EYE:
My Virgin is fierce, alert to danger, wild. She stares levelly out at the viewer with her yellow lion’s eyes. A gnawed bone lies at her feet. ....Later in the Senate dining room, I eat Maryland crab cakes in honor of the Senator’s home state. Between bites, I pinch myself under the table.
|Lunch with the Senator|
At Barnes and Noble (Union Square)in New York City, Team Mermaid is back on the front row. I glimpse a few of The Mermaid Chair T-shirts. After my reading, my publisher throws a grand celebration dinner at Union Square Café, complete with Champagne and a mermaid cake. It’s late when Sandy and I return to our hotel (full to the brim in more than one way). I’ve loved being on tour- all these places, these moments, but standing on the corner of 17th and Park, I’m hit suddenly with the potent desire for home. I recall a line in The Mermaid Chair, in which Jessie says, I felt the pull that must happen inside the egrets when the moon rises in the early dark- that unbearable tug home. That’s what I feel, the unbearable tug.
|Phoebe Pember House|
Charleston. We arrive home for a few days of R&R and earnest clothes washing. We are in our house long enough to throw one load into the washer before we head for the Charleston debut book signing of The Mermaid Chair at Phoebe Pember House, where I’m proud to be the Writer-in-Residence. I’m surrounded here by friends who fill the piazza, the walled gardens and the rooms of this beautiful, historic house which is home to the Sophia Institute, a center for the Sacred Feminine, directed by my good friend Carolyn Rivers. I choose to read a passage from my novel in which Jessie is on the ferry, moving through the salt creeks, coming home.
|Standing behind Sue|
and Sandy in Barnes and Noble,
from left to right:
Sue’s nephew Will,
his fiancé, Ashley,
Sue’s daughter, Ann
R&R hasn’t quite started yet. One more event on my home turf, and THEN I plan to sit on the dock barefoot and watch an entire tide cycle... I’m in Barnes and Noble, Mt. Pleasant where the book signing line is looping up and down the store aisles. Voices lilt through the air, the thick music of Southern drawls. You hear it? I ask Sandy, who sits beside me at the table and opens each book for me to sign. We pause a moment as if listening to a concert.
We arrive in Kansas City where I’m to do a reading and book signing for Rainy Day Books. How’s it possible this is my first trip here? One drive through and we decide we’re coming back; I see little of it this trip because I sit in the hotel room doing interviews by phone, an all too common occurrence. I talk to the Milwaukee Journal and the Portland Oregonian, as well as several radio stations. I prefer this, though, to TV interviews because I don’t have fix my hair, figure out what to wear, or worry about an eye relapse. Plus I’ve taken to doing all interviews sitting in bed, propped against the pillows. I worry at times I may doze off in mid-sentence. There are moments when I feel I must be repeating myself. Did I say that in this interview or the one before? The number one most frequently asked interview question is: Was it hard to follow BEES with a second novel? The oddest interview question? Did you put a monk in your novel because your maiden name is Monk?
|St Louis TV Station|
There is a terrible thunder storm with threats of hail going on in St. Louis. And STILL, two hundred intrepid people come to the St. Louis Public Library for my reading, sponsored by Left Bank Books. For this, I will always love St. Louis.
In Denver at Tattered Cover Bookstore, I give my typical half hour talk interspersed with three readings. My first reading is a passage about Jessie just before she gets her summons to dive. It offers a glimpse of a woman lost in the small spaces of her life, living on the surface, overly identified with her roles and understanding herself primarily through her relationships to everyone else. It becomes a moment to talk about the threshold Jessie will soon cross toward Self-Belonging. The second passage I read is the All Girl Picnic scene, which presents the circle of women on the island and opens a discussion of how such circles can become containers of healing and transformation. The third reading is about Jessie’s mid life marriage, her contemplation of the glue that held it together and her lament on how it eventually became unglued. I quote some lines of poetry by David Whyte that I kept on my desk as I wrote The Mermaid Chair, about a mysterious blade that doesn’t cut things apart, but together. There is real paradox and mystery in that, I say.
After the talk a woman seeks me out. My marriage has been falling apart for years, she says. Your novel made me wonder if it might be renewed. I’m going to look for the blade that cuts things together. When I climb in bed that night, I think of her. I think, too, of another woman who told me that after she read Jessie’s story she suddenly began painting again after feeling blocked for a long time. She seemed as surprised by this as I was. And just before falling asleep, I remember the woman (in Kansas City?) who told me that after reading the scene where Jessie wades alone into the ocean, saying to herself, I take you, Jessie....For better or worse... To love and to cherish, she created her own marriage ceremony with herself. This is the thing I love about stories- how they offer us new lenses through which we can see and understand our own lives.
|Tattered Cover Book Signing|
|View From Sue’s Room at the Inn|
There is snow on the ground! Four feet of it. Park City, Utah is breathtaking. In the Stein Erickson Lodge, Sandy eats elk and wild boar chili. I am happy simply to watch... My event is at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, where I’m thrilled to be one small morsel in a feast of art programs that Executive Director Terri Orr brings to the community. But backstage before going on, I start to pace. I’ve seen the stage; it’s very BIG. And there will be LOTS of people in the audience. People who are accustomed to fine performances. I usually don’t get nervous, but I can feel my heart start to pound. This is the moment I’m sure the audience is going to pull back the curtain and expose the Great Oz as an unexceptional, garden-variety person just pulling a lot of chains and levers. I take a deep breath and go to that core of trust I have inside, the one that tells me it’s okay to be myself. In a few moments I calm right down. The next morning as I stare at the white mountains, I know that every creative expression, great and small, is an act of courage.
|Albuquerque Reader Who Has|
Flagged Her Favorite Passages in
THE MERMAID CHAIR
In Albuquerque, I speak at the University of New Mexico, an event sponsored by Bookworks. I tell the audience about my inspiration for The Mermaid Chair, referring to the real mermaid chair that sits in a little church in the village of Zennor in Cornwall. Afterward, I meet a wonderful man from Cornwall who tells me I MUST go and see it. Oh, I plan to, I respond, and a woman standing near by says that she and her friend are already planning a trip to England to see The Mermaid Chair. One of the amazing surprises of the book tour has been meeting numerous people (including an entire book group) who tell me they’re going to see the chair!
By the time I get to Dallas, I am nursing a cold and worn-out vocal cords. Team Mermaid morphs into Team Mother Hen, sending lozenges, Throat Coat Tea, and actual chicken soup to our hotel room. When I stand up that evening to deliver my talk for the Dallas Museum Arts and Lecture Series, I wonder if my voice will hold out. There are moments when it cracks and fades, but all the words I’ve planned to say manage to get spoken, and honestly, despite my hoarseness, I feel remarkably energized. Maybe it comes from being back in Texas again where I went to college, or possibly I’m just high on lozenges. I suspect, though, it’s the engagement of the audience that buoys me.... Boarding a plane the next day, Sandy points out that we are roughly half way through the tour. You know, if I hadn’t been with you, he says. I could never have fully understood your experience no matter how much you told me about it.
Now, with the tour behind me, especially as I set down these snippets from my journal for you to read, I think about those words of Sandy’s. There were so many unfathomable moments on this yellow brick road that I wonder if he’s right. Maybe it IS impossible to express it fully, but never mind, I can distill the most important part down to four words, and it’s this: I met my readers. That was the real gift of it all.
Next month I’ll be back with the final installment of my Book Tour Journal. Meanwhile, thanks for being part of my pod.