My Book Tour for The Story of Beautiful Girl: Austin
But there was much I hadn’t known, as I discovered when I was in town on Feb. 17-19, during my book tour for The Story of Beautiful Girl (Stop #4).
Right outside my hotel window, the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge spanned the Colorado River. A month from when I spent a lovely weekend in this very walkable, friendly city, the bridge would become home to a million bats. Every dusk, I was told, they would emerge with such swift force, they’d register on radar, attract the cheers of thousands of tourists, and churn the night sky with their wings.
When I woke up on my first day in Austin, I gazed down upon this bridge longingly. I had the whole day to myself, and wanted to make the most of it, since it would be my last free day for the rest of the tour. But at breakfast time on that Saturday, it was raining.
So I spent the morning dispatching with two interviews. One was on the phone, with Gary Soulsman, reporter for my hometown paper, the News Journal. The other was by email, with John Valeri, of the Hartford Books Examiner. Each took about an hour, and all along I kept shooting looks out the window, hoping the sun would come out when I finished. The gods of Austin weather were accommodating; the rain ceased exactly on schedule. (You can see the News Journal article by clicking here, and the Hartford article by clicking here.)
I crossed the bridge. I’d already been on the road for 9 days, so although I was still energetic and looking forward to today’s adventure, I was also feeling a little lonely. Yes, I was jaunting along in a fun city, heading in the direction of the Capitol and the University, admiring the scullers on the river, feeling free and fulfilled. But I wanted someone else beside me. Someone like, well, my husband.
After I’d reached 6th Street, I turned left. Forget tourist sights. I had another destination in mind.
As a vegetarian, I sometimes have a challenging time when I travel. Even in a famously laid-back place like Austin, I’d found only one dish on the hotel menu that worked for me, and even that required some special requests for the kitchen. (As I put it, “Cobb Salad without the Cobb.”) So I headed where I always head when I have extra time in a city – to a health food store. And in a place like Austin, that means Whole Foods.
On the way, I passed other things I hadn’t expected.
Lots of bars, many of which, I guessed, played music.
Lots of homeless people, drawn, perhaps, by the warmer weather.
Lots of nondescript, but quite occupied, office towers.
When I reached the Whole Foods, I had another surprise: it was by far the hugest Whole Foods I’ve ever been in. And, as someone who seeks out Whole Foods whenever I’m in a city that has one, I’ve been to dozens. This one, I later learned, is the flagship store, which is why it’s 80,000 square feet. Though as Hal said when I called him as I was walking around, gaping at its cavernous vastness, “What else would you expect in Texas?”
I bought my beloved soy yogurt, unavailable in most supermarkets. I bought apples, which I can’t live without. I bought better hair gel than the ancient goo I’d been using, which had lost its oomph, and which made my hair earlier on my tour look dangerously close to weeds.
Then I realized that I was right next door to BookPeople, where my event would be held the next day. I felt just as partial to BookPeople as to Whole Foods, not only because they were on my book tour, but because one of their employees, Jessica, blogged a very moving, thoughtful review of The Story of Beautiful Girl.
I was impressed to see that Book People was also huge. (Naturally; it’s Texas.) Inside, I asked if Jessica happened to be in, and I was pointed toward the lovely woman at the cash register. I went over and introduced myself. “I thought that was you!” she said. She got permission to step away from the register, and we talked excitedly. She was an aspiring writer; I gave her a quick string of tips. She told me my book was one of her favorite books of all time. Just like that, in a matter of minutes and with just a few words, we made each other levitate.
I walked back across Bat Bridge, a little less lonely, a new spring in my step.
The day continued its upward trajectory. At dusk, I met Sheila, a woman who contacted me after seeing my interview with Judy Woodruff on the PBS NewsHour a week beforehand. Sheila is writing a book about a family member who’d lived in an institution, and she wrote me in the hopes that someday, somehow, we might meet. I told her I was on book tour, and, incredibly, she told me she lived near Austin. So we arranged to meet for tea.
She picked me up and drove me around the city, pointing out sites and telling me her family story. We parked in the garage of, ahem, Whole Foods (my choice). But we were too caught up to leave the car. So we sat there, losing track of the time, trading stories. She showed me pictures. We talked about acting on your conscience.
I went to bed feeling I was doing something important. Though the loneliness came back. I imagined Hal at home, making me laugh. I imagined telling him about the bats and the rain.
The next day, when I looked out my hotel window, I didn’t see rain – or bats – but thousands of runners. The Austin Marathon was underway. By the time I went out for a walk, it was over, but the streets were full of athletes. I called Beth, then Hal, and talked with them as I walked. The weather was in the sixties, and I felt free and happy and full of hope.
My media escort, Kristen, arrived at 1 PM, as planned. Friendly, sweet, hospitable, and well-prepared, she presented me with a basket of snacks and other goodies, let me know she was also married to an architect, and told me I was “the boss.” I laughed and said I didn’t feel like that, and then we drove around to do stock signings, as I had with the other media escorts. I enjoyed her company greatly, and felt even more enamored of those who take on this unusual work. Kristen told me she always has a gift basket, always looks up information on her authors to find commonalities, and always tells them they’re “the boss.” (Most react as I did.) She, like the other escorts, loves her job; “You authors are all so interesting.”
But the work has diminished, as publishers send authors out less and less often. I asked why we were getting sent out at all. She wasn’t sure, but later a media escort pointed out that book tours are actually way cheaper than ads in publications like the New York Times. They are also, it was suggested, the publisher’s gift to the booksellers, and evidence of their confidence in the authors.
Kristen drove me into the outskirts of Austin, where the scenery is dramatic, with rock outcroppings and many hills. She pointed toward a town where the founder of Dell Computers lives. She told me how much she loves the area. She added, as others already had, “In Texas, everyone wants to go to Austin when they die.”
We also talked about our husbands, and how I was missing mine. She said, “When my friends become widows, there is one thing all of them say: I should have held his hand more often.” I clenched my hand into a fist, holding air.
All of the stores we drove to were Barnes & Nobles, but I mentioned that I was interested in going to an independent, Bookwoman. The owner, Susan, had gotten in touch on Facebook a year ago, but only earlier in the day had she realized that I was in Austin. She was so sad she wouldn’t be seeing me that I said I’d try to stop in. She informed me that she had only one copy of my book. So in the time we had left before the event at BookPeople, Kristen asked: One more Barnes & Noble? Or Bookwoman?
It was an easy decision.
Bookwoman was a small store where the personal touch means everything. The moment we stepped in the door, Susan saw me. As it turned out, the marathon had led to the cancellation of all the buses, so she’d had a terrible time getting to work. Yet she knew she had to get there; I’d told her my event at BookPeople was at 4 PM, so if I came it would be close to 3. Racing the clock, she’d finally flagged down a cab and shared it with a stranger, desperate to get to her store. She’d arrived moments before I got there. We laughed and hugged, and then, when I signed her book, she asked that I make it out to her.
Going to great lengths to sign one book for one person can mean the world. If it’s the right one book, and the right one person.
Finally I went back to BookPeople for my event.
I was thrilled to see my friend Jan. She’d once lived in Texas but now lives in Pennsylvania, and months ago had made plans to fly across the country to attend my event. She came with several friends from Texas. We reminisced, in front of the crowd, about how she’d come to LA in 2005 to attend the film premiere of Riding The Bus With My Sister.
I was stunned and moved to see Gloria, who once ran a transit association in Connecticut and hired me to do a talk in Union Station, New Haven, but who had recently moved out to Austin. Her husband Wendell came, too, and said that a conversation we’d had back when I’d met him (maybe 2003 or 2004) had motivated him to record a CD. He handed it to me: There he was, Wendell H. Mills, playing Lerner and Loewe on the piano. I remembered talking with him, though had no recollection of saying anything so significant. Having one conversation with one person can also mean the world. Even if you didn’t know that it did. (You can learn more about Wendell and his music by clicking here for his website.)
Sheila came with a friend. So did people who’d connected with me through social media, or who were aware of my work but had yet to read anything I’d written.
I was very happy to do the same talk I’d been doing, though the event space was right at the top of a staircase, so whenever a customer bounded upstairs and stepped onto the second floor, the audience’s attention strayed. Still, they remained as I spoke, and did Q&A. Some customers even stayed around, buying my book later.
After the event, I hung out for awhile with Jan and her friends – back at the Whole Foods. I picked up my dinner to eat later in my hotel room, knowing I needed to get to bed for an early flight. I felt burned out, which didn’t make much sense. It wasn’t like I’d been up late the last few nights.
But I realized as I talked with Jan and her friends that one of the challenges of a book tour is that you’re always ON. You’re ON when you’re in an airport, signing books. You’re ON when you’re taking a walk in a strange place. You’re ON when you’re spending your spare time doing interviews, or writing blogs. You’re ON when you’re meeting stranger after stranger, even those who love your book or are very openly and emotionally telling you their story. You’re ON when you’re in front of the crowd.
Always, I am me. But when you’re far away from home, even if you’re surrounded by people who are, in a way, cheering you on, you don’t ever really relax. You need to hold that special hand. Only then can you feel at home.
The sun set. I went back to the hotel, said goodbye to Kristen, had dinner, and packed. Everything had to be ready so I could wake up at 4:30 AM, leap into the shower, and fly off to the airport.
All my possessions in place, I got into bed and turned out the light.
But when I didn’t fall immediately asleep, I thought, “I’ll take one more look.” I rose, and went to the window.
There were no bats, of course. There was only the river and the bridge. But as I looked down to the place where a million bats would take up residence only a few weeks later, I wondered:
What do they feel like, when they burst out from their private nest? Do their spirits come alive as they fly into the night?
Do they enjoy the sensation of moonlight upon their wings? Do they long to be with someone special, despite the pleasure they might feel in those beside them?
“Remember,” Kristen had said when we’d parted, “when you get home, hold his hand.”
I pressed my palm to the glass. If the warm winter had brought them here early, the bats would return to the bridge in the morning. But I would never know. I would never see the morning. I would be gone from this city long before then.