The Hunt is On

July 7, 2011

Image of Suzzllo library, resembling a gothic cathedral

The Suzzallo Library, University of Washington

Once again I’m stranded in the “dark country of no ideas,” as a friend of mine once described it—that place where I end up after completing a book. For whatever reason, I never have a backlog of ideas waiting for me. At the point where I decide on a particular subject, yes, I’ll have competing ideas, but once I make my decision, those other ideas wither and die.   

I wish it were otherwise. I wish I could open one of my old notebooks and find half a dozen winning ideas just sitting there, waiting for me.   

What happens, I think, is that with each new book my thinking evolves, so that what once seemed compelling no longer does. For example, after I wrote Isaac’s Storm, about the giant hurricane that destroyed Galveston in 1900, I quickly found that I had no interest in writing about other kinds of disasters. I realized this most acutely when, after Isaac’s Storm emerged, I spent a day in San Francisco looking through materials on the great earthquake of 1906, thinking it might make a good book.

What I found, however, was that much of what I read had a strikingly similar feel to what I’d come across in my research about the Galveston storm. You could have substituted the word earthquake for hurricane. I felt a real ennui: been there, done that, ain’t doing it again. Plus, there was a fundamental narrative obstacle: The earthquake arrived with no preamble, which meant there’d be no opportunity to build suspense and momentum. The quake just happened. Boom. Crack. Dead. A book about the 1906 earthquake by its nature would be all denouement.

So disasters, as topics, are off my plate forever. Though any time I make broad statements like that, I’m almost invariably forced to retract them. Let’s just say that for now I’m not interested in disasters—not ferry sinkings, armament ships blowing up, or molasses flooding the streets of Boston.   

The other day, in desperation, I resorted to one of my old and typically ineffective tricks, which was to browse the stacks of my favorite library here in Seattle, the Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington, and just pick out books at will. I wandered from shelf to shelf in hopes that some random title would spark in me a new line of thought, before someone called the police. This was fun, but pointless.

I’m also trying to follow the advice that I give to budding writers, which is to read voraciously and promiscuously. My latest effort at this has sent me down some engaging paths. For example, a glancing reference in a novel sent me trotting to the library to take out half a dozen books having to do with the pathology of collecting. What is it that makes people collect things like medieval manuscripts and miniature books? And what causes this passion for collecting to veer into madness and, from time to time, murder?

Who knows? And I no longer care. Sated. Done.

Today I’ll be off on another track entirely, reading wildly, prancing about like a drunken wood sprite, and hoping that by summer’s end, some winning idea will leap out from behind a tree and smack me in the face. 

Because the reality is, the “dark country of no ideas” is actually full of ideas. They’re only hiding.

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Happy Trails: The Tour de Beasts Comes to a Very Successful End

June 15, 2011

Sculpture of a rocket ship on San Francisco's Embarcadero

Sculpture of a rocket ship, on San Francisco's Embarcadero

The Tour de Beasts has come to an end, more or less, and I leave the great road to authors whose books are just now coming out. It’s been a pleasure meeting readers face to face, and getting a chance to shake hands and sign books. This one, In the Garden of Beasts, hit the top of The New York Times hardcover bestseller list in its third week of publication, and now lingers in the number 2 slot and at or near the tops of major lists around the country. I could not be happier. Every book is like a child. You send it out into the world and want only nice things to happen to it. So far, no bullies!

Book tours are strange things, a combination of great fun and great drudgery, punctuated with lovely moments and peculiar encounters. One nice thing is that at various points along the way you run into old friends, who suddenly turn up in the audience or in a signing line. This is always a bit of surprise, and can be quite jarring. You see that face, you know that face, but who the hell is it?

High points:

–Portland, Ore. I was privileged to be a guest on Portland’s “Live Wire! Radio,” a charmingly homespun version of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. The theater was packed—not because of me, that’s for sure, but rather because the show is just plain fun, full of energy and good humor.

Chaotic image of action on stage during Live Wire! Radio show in Portland, Ore.

Live Wire! Radio, Portland

–Chicago, Ill. I always have a grand time in Chicago. I stayed at the Hotel Palomar, and loved it—a new hotel, with a cordial staff, well-appointed rooms, and a good bar. One night I went out for steaks with a friend to Gene & Georgetti, at 500 N. Franklin in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, under the elevated tracks, where I had a filet the size of a cannonball, but a whole lot more tender. The place is classic Chicago. Very simple decor. Okay, no decor. But lots of ambience, like from the set of The Godfather. It’d be an honor to be whacked here, if in fact that were one’s fate.

Image of Chicago, taken from a bridge over the Chicago River

Ah, Chicago!

Another Chicago treat: The Bongo Room, in Chicago’s South Loop, where Roosevelt meets Wabash. It’s quite possibly the best breakfast place in the world, though I suppose that could be a bit of an exaggeration. Unknown to touristas, the place is packed with Chicagoans. I only learned about it because one of my daughters goes to the University of Chicago, and thus knows everything. We make it a stop whenever I visit, along with a restaurant near the Art Institute called Russian Tea Time, on Adams. Of course I had to try one of the restaurant’s many flavored-vodka flights, my favorite example being horseradish-infused vodka. I had the pleasure of dining here with my daughter and two of her friends. It is always nice to be in a Russian restaurant with three beautiful young women. There was something very Dr. Zhivago-esque about it, I think. All that was missing was a sleigh and some snow.

–Iowa City, Iowa. I gave a talk at the new public library here, sponsored by the famous Prairie Lights bookstore, and stayed at an excellent hotel next door, the Hotel Vetro. My room was one of the most interesting of all the two dozen hotel rooms I occupied during my tour—polished concrete floors covered with handsome rugs of what seemed to be jute, or maybe sisal; edgily modern but comfortable furnishings; soothing colors; overall, a kind of cool Scandinavian feel, like something from a Henning Mankell novel. Utterly unexpected, actually.

Gorilla pounding its chest, in display at Museum of Natural History, in New York City

Everybody's a critic (gorilla at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan)

–New York, N.Y. Whenever I go to New York it always takes me a couple of hours to catch up to the city’s pace, but once I’m caught up, I love it. I was one of several authors who gave brief talks during a Book Expo breakfast, and in the green room just before it, I had the honor of meeting Roger Ebert and his wife, who shared the podium to talk about his new memoir. As always, I had dinner with my friend and agent, David Black, who really knows how to pick places to dine. This time we went to Maialino, one of famed restaurateur Danny Meyer’s establishments, and got treated like royalty. It’s in the Gramercy Park Hotel, and is Meyer’s take on a Roman trattoria. Nick Anderer, Maialino’s chef, asked whether we wanted to order off the menu, or if we’d like him to cook for us. Twist our arms! What a treat—dish after dish, each a surprise, each wonderful. Two tables over we spotted Tom Hanks, and—bless New Yorkers—no one got up to bug him for his autograph or tried to sneak an iPhone photo. Earlier in the evening, Lady Gaga had dined here as well. Whether she was wearing her meat dress or not is unclear, and I’m almost certain that she arrived in a car rather than an egg. By the way: For great drinks, in great glasses, in a very sleek Manhattan milieu, try the first-floor bar of the hotel Setai. Very posh.

–San Francisco, Calif. I’ve lived in San Francisco twice in the last several decades, and each time I return I fall in love with the city all over again. Even now, though overrun with webnocrats, there’s still room for people and places that you tend not to encounter in other cities. Case in point, my media escort David Golia, who when he’s not squiring authors around town plays bass in a polka band with his wife, “Big Lou,” who plays accordion. I closed the tour with a couple of drinks with a friend at a bar I’d never been to before, the Persian Aub Zam Zam Club, on Haight Street. The drinks are great, but the thing that’ll make me keep coming back is the mural behind the bar.

Image of an elaborate mural, vaguely medieval, over the backbar in a Haight Street bar called Persian Aub Zam Zam

The Persian Aub Zam Zam, on Haight Street in San Francisco

In Corte Madera, 45 minutes north of the city, I gave a talk at Book Passage, where I got a major surprise. The daughter of the Dodds’ landlord in Berlin came to my talk along with her husband, son, and assorted family members. Ruth showed me a couple of photographs of herself and her brother, Hans, when they were children in Berlin in the 1930s, one of those lovely little moments where present touches past and books come alive in unexpected ways.

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Terror on the Road: More Notes from the Tour de Beasts

June 2, 2011

Guest rooms in the Hotel Palomar in Chicago have photographs of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893

The Hotel Palomar in Chicago, where guest rooms sport photos of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893

So I’m back from the core portion of the national book tour for In the Garden of Beasts (ITGOB, if you prefer), which took me to Chicago, Iowa City, St. Louis, Kansas City, and numerous other locales. It’s been satisfying, but also grueling, as these things often are, especially if public speaking makes you nervous.

And I do get nervous, especially in the 15 minutes or so before I speak. Something about getting up before one’s peers is uniquely unnerving, so much so that I did a little research. I was appalled to find that public speaking is a proven heart-attack trigger, according to a study published a few years ago in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity. For this study, researchers asked volunteers to give “a standardized laboratory public speech” in front of a video camera, “following a light standardized non-caffeine containing breakfast.” I do not know what a “light standardized” breakfast is, but I am guessing it did not include chicken-fried steak or biscuits and gravy.

The subjects were then stuck with an intravenous cannula, which by itself seems rather terrifying, though afterward the volunteers were “allowed to sit quietly for 30 [minutes] for habituation to the testing environment followed by blood drawing.” Which is interesting, because I do know people for whom having blood drawn is about the most horrific thing they can imagine. This sub-group includes my wife, by the way, even though she is herself a physician. She has no problem at all drawing other people’s blood, but risks losing consciousness when donating her own.

Next these volunteers were asked to perform “two back-to-back public speaking tasks,” which involved “preparing and presenting a speech in response to one of two situations, being accused of shoplifting and an automobile dealer not honoring a warranty.” They stood before a video camera and were told “the performance would be videotaped and rated by experts on poise and articulation.” Eight of the volunteers died immediately. Sorry, that’s medical humor. None of them died, at least not during the study, though the experiment was conducted at the University of California, San Diego, so it is entirely possible that one or more was later killed by a volley ball.

The point was to study biophysical changes induced by the terror of public speaking. The researchers found increases in all kinds of physical markers of stress: norepinephrine, epinephrine, lumphocytes, monocytes, and neutrophils, as well as increases in the number of cells having the tantalizing name, CD3+CD8 T cytotoxic, and of course, as would be obvious to anyone, increases in the CD3+CD4+ T helper cells. There were increases as well in CD3+CD8+CD62Lhigh cells and in….well, suffice it to say, lots of changes occurred, and these contributed to what the researchers described as an “adverse circulatory environment.” In short, you speak, you die.

Otherwise the tour has been a lot of fun. I got to meet readers and booksellers around the country, and I can report that though the publishing business may be in disarray the love of story has not waned at all. I also noticed an increase in the number of younger folk who turned up for my book talks, and I was startled to encounter increasing numbers of people who asked me to sign their Kindles (on the back, of course, not the front.) I considered this a particular honor, because having an author sign the back of a Kindle with a permanent marker is akin to slashing wrists and becoming blood brothers. Asking an author to sign the front would be a marker of mental illness and a cue for the book-store owner to call the police.

Another change from past tours: Everyone takes a photograph, because everyone now has a cellphone with a camera. So if you detect an upsurge in the number of really bad photographs of yours truly appearing on the web, now you know the cause.

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Another Secret-Army Fugitive Caught on Film

A Red Rose tea figurine hiding out on a window sill in Iowa City

Spotted in Iowa city

A camera-laden drone photographed another fugitive member of the Secret Red Rose Army, this one hiding on a window sill in Iowa City, not far from the new and comely Iowa City Public Library.

Again, anyone finding one of these fugitive figurines—and there are many now, in far-flung locations—should send it at once to Erik’s agent. As always extreme care must be taken in approaching them. It is often helpful to numb their reflexes. They are said to be particularly susceptive to alcohol, especially Bombay Sapphire martinis with just a hint of dry vermouth and a twist of lemon, though they do require that the glass itself first be chilled in a freezer. It is this pickiness that makes them extremely dangerous.

Close-up of the Iowa City fugitive

Closer view of the Iowa city fugitive, looking deceptively angelic

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