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By Stefan Kanfer

The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage.

Book Tour Diarist

Stefan Kanfer
The Long Slog
Summer 2011

Authors have varying ideas of purgatory. Some think that the worst time is when they have writer’s block—when the blank page stays blank for hours, days, and even months. Some dread the moment when the publisher demands “just a few” changes—alterations that mean a wholesale revision of the manuscript. For me, the nadir of authorship comes after the book has been published. This misery is called the Book Tour. During it, the author is expected to ingratiate himself with listeners in the hope that they’ll buy his book and ask him to sign it. I once asked a publicist whether book tours were worth the trouble. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “But that’s the way we’ve always done it. I mean, there’s such a thing as tradition.”

It goes without saying that the tour will involve flights—lots of them—and that most of these will fail to leave on time. As a consequence, they’ll fail to arrive on time. This leads to greater woes. Take the night I flew to Toronto on short notice. I had planned to have dinner at my hotel, but the plane was three hours late, and I didn’t get to my destination until after 1 am. The local restaurants had closed by then; so had room service. A drive-time TV interview had been arranged for 7 am—meaning that I had to appear at the station’s green room at 6:30. What to do? A small refrigerator in the corner of the hotel room contained pretzels, peanuts, and several tiny bottles of booze. I selected two vodkas and a ton of salted crunchies, and in a somewhat smashed state grabbed four hours of sleep. That I was coherent on Canadian television was nothing short of miraculous.

Then there was the bookstore in western Florida. This time, the schedule was much more indulgent. I didn’t have to show up until 4 pm. The audience was large and responsive. I noted, however, that a white-haired gentleman in the last row was fast asleep. No matter how loudly I talked, his low snore punctuated the monologue, discombobulating the speaker and confusing the spectators. When I finished, the store’s owner passed around a microphone so that listeners could ask questions. Suddenly, the somnolent party awoke and demanded to speak. “I didn’t hear a word you said,” he declared, glowering at me. “Everyone else here seems to have followed me,” I pointed out. He rose and shook his bony fist. “Everyone here isn’t 96 years old!” He didn’t buy a book.

And then there was the two-hour trip from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, where I was due to speak about film noir. I planned to write the speech in the back of the limo, but the driver was a nonstop talker. After an hour of his maunderings, I requested a pit stop. From the gas station’s john, I phoned a friend and asked him to call my cell in five minutes. As I climbed into the car, the ringing began. The driver was quiet while I answered. “Good news,” I informed him. “My friend is going to read me the script of the new James Bond film.” I kept the dead phone at my ear, nodding occasionally while I wrote the speech.

The coup de grâce came when CNN booked me on its morning show. I live in Westchester, and my publisher decided that it would be better if my wife and I stayed at a hotel near the studio, rather than drive in from out of town. No one short of Dante could adequately detail what followed. Our cramped lodging was of the kind that Henny Youngman used to describe: “Even the mice were hunchbacked.” The toilet failed to flush, the staff was surly, and the television showed only one channel—not, needless to say, CNN. So while I palavered about my book, my wife was forced to watch Suze Orman yammering about personal finance for women whose husbands had let them down.

After missing innumerable meals, tracing lost luggage at airports, and speaking to people who have told me that they’ll read my book as soon as they can borrow it from the library, I have resolved to tell the publisher next time, in the words of Sam Goldwyn, to include me out. I note that Cormac McCarthy has never gone on a publicity tour. Neither has Thomas Pynchon. Neither did J. D. Salinger. I’ll stick with those guys. I mean, there’s such a thing as tradition.

Stefan Kanfer, a contributing editor of City Journal and a former editor of Time, is the author, most recently, of Tough Without a Gun, a biography of Humphrey Bogart.

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