Out of the Rain: A Book Tour Tribute
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by Keith Lee Morris
When I was 23 years old, in 1986, I decided that I was going to become a fiction writer. There was no reason to believe that I would be successful at it. I had taken up reading fiction only recently, after I had flunked out of the University of Idaho and spent a year or two wandering around the country imagining that I might become an actor, a vocation for which I had no apparent skills or prospects, either. I was living in the French Quarter in New Orleans and working as a bellman.
It was part of my morning routine then to read The Times-Picayune in Jackson Square. One day, I found in the calendar a literary event that seemed interesting. The author in question was a guy I’d barely heard of — at that time I was familiar with only one or two contemporary authors. But someone at some point had shoved a copy of the most recent Best American Short Stories in my hands, and there was one story in it that I really liked, called “Communist,” which was about the kind of people I’d grown up around in Idaho. The author of “Communist” was doing something called a “book signing” at Maple Street Books, which was Uptown off the streetcar line. I’d never heard of a book signing and didn’t really know what it might entail, but, since I planned on becoming a writer myself, I thought it might be a good idea to meet one. Might as well begin with this guy, whose name was Richard Ford.
…since I planned on becoming a writer myself, I thought it might be a good idea to meet one. Might as well begin with this guy, whose name was Richard Ford.
It started pouring rain while I was on the streetcar — a New Orleans rain, the kind that floods the gutters and jumps the curb in a heartbeat — and I was soaked through by the time I reached the bookstore a block or two from the streetcar stop. I had expected — I don’t know — lines spilling out the door, a bank of photographers, angry cops trying to quell a riot by restless lovers of literature. What I found was the author and his wife settled behind a foldout table with a few stacks of paperback books on it. Other than the clerk behind the counter, there was no one else in the store.
I wasn’t sure if I should just walk on in and introduce myself, but, meeting no resistance, that’s what I did. I’m sure other people must have wandered in and spoken to Mr. Ford and bought books and had them signed, but I don’t remember it. I remember the rain outside the windows and how quiet it was in the store, how it seemed like a place of refuge.
I think I talked to Richard Ford and his wife for about 15 or 20 minutes. She was kind enough to find me a towel so that I could dry my hands and face. It turned out that Richard Ford and I had a lot in common, or at least I imagined we did. We were both born in Mississippi. We both had an interest in sports — my father was a football coach and Mr. Ford had been a sportswriter. I’d spent most of my life in Idaho, he’d lived in Montana and written a book set in Wyoming. I was living in the French Quarter, and he and his wife were thinking of buying or renting a place there. He was the author of the short story “Communist,” and I wanted to be the author of a story just like that.
I must have figured out by that point that the purpose of a book signing was for the author to sell and sign books, so I used what little money I had to buy two — a recently published novel called The Sportswriter, featuring a character named Frank Bascombe, and an earlier novel that Mr. Ford recommended called The Ultimate Good Luck (maybe the title reflected what he thought I’d need to fulfill my authorial dreams), which he signed for me. He and his wife were gracious and warm, and I don’t remember, even once, either of them stifling a laugh or rolling their eyes at me. I got the impression that writers were decent, caring people who did important work. At times, now, when I start to wonder if that’s true, I try to remember that day. I left the store with the feeling that, concerning my future, I wanted to do exactly what Mr. Ford did.
I got the impression that writers were decent, caring people who did important work. At times, now, when I start to wonder if that’s true, I try to remember that day.
Thirty years later, with my fifth book of fiction, I’m fortunate to have a publisher who has agreed to send me on a book tour of the type that’s steadily disappearing — the type that brought me into contact with Richard Ford at that out-of-the-way shop in New Orleans. All authors have their own horror stories to tell about the old-fashioned bookstore appearance — in San Francisco, I once read to an audience that consisted of my wife, the bookstore manager, and an undergraduate who had to do a report on a reading and chose me because mine was the last available author event of the semester — and I suspect the signing in New Orleans that day might have been one of those for Richard Ford (remember the time with the torrential downpour when no one showed up except that crazy, half-drowned kid?). But I also know that no blog, no website, no online interview, no podcast, no Amazon author page, no Goodreads giveaway — none of the more cost-effective marketing methods that publishers are steering toward — can take the place of the kind of interaction I was fortunate to share with Mr. Ford that day.
When my first short story collection was published, a reviewer for The Believer called me “the heir to Richard Ford.” I was prouder than the reviewer could have known. A few years later, when I had become a professor at Clemson University, I was honored to host Mr. Ford as a guest of our literary festival. He didn’t remember me, of course, but I was able to tell him how much that brief encounter 25 years earlier had meant to me, and we hit it off just as well as we had the first time. Before he left, he re-signed that same copy of The Ultimate Good Luck.
There are still plenty of festivals, still plenty of colleges hosting visiting authors, still some indie bookstores doing their damnedest to bring writers into contact with readers, but the days of the book tour are numbered, it seems. If this is my last time out, I’ll try my best to be grateful, no matter what size the crowd, and I’ll remember to stay on the lookout for someone walking sheepishly through the door on a rainy afternoon, someone a lot like me.