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

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.


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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Erik Larson is the author of six previous national bestsellers—The Splendid and the Vile, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm— which have collectively sold more than twelve million copies. His books have been published in nearly forty countries.

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