Wednesday, May 27, 2009
A week after the final reading of the book tour, and a couple of months removed, now, from the days when we were on the road for weeks at a time, it seems profitable to reflect upon the experience. I didn't know Kathleen Rooney very well when I called to ask if she might be interested in joining forces. I asked her because (1) I enjoyed and admired her writing, (2) our books were coming out around the same time, and (3) she seemed like she would be a hard-working tour partner, and that if we worked together, we could introduce more readers to each other's work.
What I hadn't anticipated was how extraordinary a tour partner Kathy would be. She was quite frankly better than I was at almost every aspect of putting the tour together. Her organizational skills are unmatched by anyone I've ever met, and she proved to be very good at implementation, too. Most of all, I was impressed by her skill with people. Her network is vast, and it's not a superficial vastness. In city after city, we were greeted by her many friends, and I felt lucky that some of that goodwill and enthusiasm could extend to my book, as well.
My greatest admiration for Kathy would probably extend to her reserves of energy and strength. I couldn't match her drive, her stamina, nor her will for optimism. I admire all three, and wish I could match them.
In addition to the things I thought the tour would offer -- the opportunity to connect with more readers, the opportunity to interact with booksellers and critics, the opportunity to get to know other writers -- the tour also provided me with an opportunity to reexamine and reevaluate what kind of writer I want to be, and what role I hoped writing would play in my professional life. On grounds of my personal life, the tour proved to be ill-timed. Right around the beginning of the tour, I learned that I had been laid off from my teaching position at the university where I had been working, and I felt the heaviness of the loss throughout the tour. My wife had given up her teaching post so I could take the one I had now lost, and I spent the weeks on the road in daily worry about whether one of us could find something that would provide money enough for us to live, and, perhaps more importantly, health insurance, since our youngest child was born quite premature and therefore has a suspect immune system.
I had long treated my writing as a purely artistic prerogative, believing that teaching would provide income and time enough to let me write whatever I wanted, even if what I wanted was only to write unremunerative short stories and poems, and even if it meant only publishing books on small presses. But going on tour, and interacting with writers who have found ways to make a living largely on the strength of their writing, made me think that it might be possible to do the same, especially since my aesthetic interests had recently turned more sharply toward the novel and toward reportage.
The other example of a writerly life I saw on tour and admired was that of the writer who chooses a concurrent career path that is completely outside any traditional writerly career path -- writer/physicians, writer/attorneys, writer/civil servants, writer/special effects technicians -- career paths that enable writers to become what Dana Gioia called "Spies in the House of Commerce."
My own post-In the Devil's Territory work has been driven by frequent investigative trips to Haiti, where I have been working on a narrative nonfiction book and a novel. In the Devil's Territory was a book largely concerned with the world of my childhood, but now I feel like I want to create pieces of writing that engage more fully with the world outside myself. In Haiti, where there is a breakdown in the rule of law, and where what is at stake daily is literal life and death, I have seen how closely intertwined public policy can be with human misery. And I have also seen how people with basic, ground-level skills -- nurses, dentists, physicians, agriculturalists, structural engineers -- can ease human misery in specific places, and vastly change the quality of the lives of people. I want my writing to begin to more broadly engage both of these matters, micro- and macro-, and also to achieve a broad enough audience that what is discovered might have some traction beyond the pleasures of literature.
I also want to begin to cultivate at least one of these extra-writerly disciplines on my own, as a means of liberation from dependence on the academy, as a means of deepening the knowledge base that informs the authority of my writing, and, most importantly, as a means of making possible a front-line human response that I can offer independent of my work as a writer. Toward that end, I'm going to spend some time in the next year exploring some of those disciplines in preparation for choosing one as a parallel career path.
It is no exaggeration to credit the people I met on tour, and most of all Kathy, as catalysts for varieties of active reflection that will no doubt shape the kind of writer I will become, going forward. Traveling to 25 cities, meeting hundreds of people of diverse inclinations, eating and drinking at many tables, enjoying conviviality, engaging in occasional arguments about things that matter, and pushing past physical and psychological exhaustion to achieve a marathon of interaction with other people (an area that, I'll admit, is far from my strength), all of it I'll count among the most valuable, extraordinary, and life-shaping experiences of my life.
I am extraordinarily grateful to everyone who opened their home to us, to everyone who came to a reading, to everyone who bought a book, to everyone who followed the blog, to my family for being gracious about my long absences, and most of all to Kathy for being my better in so many ways on a 25-city tour the likes of which very few people are ever able to experience. I feel very lucky.
With warm wishes,
May 27, 2009
Posted by Kyle Minor at 3:59 AM