Wednesday, August 20, 2008

How This Tour Came To Be A Tour

The first time I saw Kathy's name in print was the day my contributor's galley copy of Random House's Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers arrived in my mailbox at Ohio State University, where I was teaching and taking graduate classes. The first thing I did when the book arrived was flip to my own essay, "You Shall Go Out with Joy and Be Led Forth with Peace," and make sure I hadn't committed any embarrassing typos to the page. The second thing I did was read the essays with the most evocative titles, and there was no more evocative title in the book than "Live Nude Girl." I didn't know what to expect, with a title like that, but I was taken from sentence one by the confident, elegant prose of this Kathleen Rooney, and especially by the story she told, which put me, for the first time, in the mind of an artist's model, one who liked her job and did it well.

I wrote Kathy and told her I liked her work. We struck up an occasional correspondence, and over the next few years I kept running into her poems and essays in the literary journals I most admired. My novella "A Day Meant to Do Less" appeared in the Gettysburg Review alongside the work of a fiction writer I liked, Martin Seay, and soon I found out he was Kathy's husband. I read and enjoyed her first nonfiction book, a smart critical study of Oprah's Book Club titled Reading with Oprah. She left her position teaching at a liberal arts college on the West Coast, and her successor was one of my best buddies, who reported how she was a generous teacher and everyone seemed to miss having her around. I found out about her generosity firsthand when a visiting writer at our university pulled out of a teaching gig. I called Kathy and asked her to fill in, and with less than a week's notice, she bailed us out. I sat in on her class, learned something, and got an essay out of what I learned, which will appear in January in Dinty Moore's Brevity Magazine.

At dinner that evening (Beirut restaurant in North Toledo; Mediterranean cuisine!) we talked about what we had been talking about for awhile, which was the difficulty in connecting with readers, and the responsibility of writers to do it themselves. By then we both had books under contract that we expected would come out around the same time. And by then we both had begun to build audiences. We figured if we could merge those audiences, we'd right away double each other's readership. We also figured we could do what indie bands have been doing for decades: tour relentlessly; team up with good bands (in our case, writers) of local acclaim; put on a good show; sell some merchandise; make some friends; have a good time; leave the road with pluses all around.

We were lucky. Both books had found homes with good publishers willing to try something new. We sat down with our publicists and editors and brainstormed. We emailed and phone conferenced. We made lots of lists. We talked about our favorite writers and asked them to join us. Many of them said yes. We love them even more now. Their generosity, happily, matches their talent.

Now it's August, and the hard work continues unabated. There are still plenty of details to nail down. We have to find ways to reach the local media in each city. On a book tour, the media coverage often nets more new readers than the reading itself. And we want to give something back to each city that hosts us, so we have to find venues for free community writing workshops we plan to offer.

If all of this sounds fun to you, let me assure you: It's crazy fun, at least for me. I like working with Kathy, with Melissa and Dan (our publicists), and with the writers we plan to read alongside. I like dreaming 25 good evenings with readers who care about stories enough to come hear them read aloud. I like feeling connected to the writers whose live readings have most moved me, among them Lawrence Weschler, Mary Gaitskill, Edward P. Jones, John Edgar Wideman, and John Dufresne. Most of all, I like the idea of touring with a writer I admire, and learning city by city how to do a thing I plan to do the rest of my life. It's going to be fun, all of it.

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