This summer, Atticus author Tommy Zurhellen is driving across the country, from New York to Seattle, to read at local bookstores and libraries in support of the second book in his award-winning Messiah Trilogy, Apostle Islands. He’ll check in with us from time to time, sharing stories from the road while he tries to answer a burning question: why is the simple act of reading out loud such a lost art? Tommy’s good friend and fellow fiction writer Baker Lawley is along for the ride (our prayers are with Baker.) As these two authors cross the country in search of truth, justice and a good audience, we have our own question to ask: how much trouble do these two get into before this whole literary experiment goes south? How much can they take before this indeed becomes The Last Book Tour?
Day 3: Beloit, Wisconsin
I am sitting in the back row of chairs in an empty conference room at the Beloit Public Library with my eyes closed, silently shaking my head and saying to myself, it’s not your fault, it’s not your fault, it’s not your fault. Okay, it’s really nobody’s fault. When I open my eyes, I notice this is a cavernous space, square and sterile with long fluorescent lights and grey carpets, the kind of room where you’d expect to find a motivational speaker with rolled-up sleeves and a microphone glued to his cheek banging his fist on the podium. They have a podium set up front for me tonight, but I won’t be needing it; my reading was scheduled for seven, but it’s now twenty past. I have thirty empty chairs and one nice lady sitting next to me to show for it. She says she has brought questions.
Last night this book tour kicked off at Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, NY. I had a few more folks show up there, and I sold a few copies. I also had a twelve year-old answer his cell phone in front of me while I was reading, but I’m used to that by now.
The library director pops in every few minutes, wringing his hands and carrying apologies, but there’s nothing to apologize for; any writer worth their weight in disappointment has given readings where no one showed up, let alone one nice lady with questions. It’s part of the job. I had a snappy little intro to the reading all planned (My book has angels! And Beloit is home to the world famous Angel Museum, right down the street from here! Wow!) But in a few minutes when the giant clock on the wall hits seven thirty, I’ll finally give up on reading; instead I’ll spend a half-hour or so talking with the lady about the new book, or writing, or the weather, or whatever else she’d like to talk about. She’s very nice to stay and chat, and I’m grateful. I’m about a thousand miles from home, and I’m certainly not going anywhere tonight.
Maybe I should be a little angry – after all, five or six local friends who told me they were excited to come out tonight have now officially bailed on me – but I know better. I realize that for most folks, “going to a reading” ranks somewhere between “open heart surgery” and “visiting the cemetery” on the scale of fun things to do on a Tuesday night. It only takes one bad reading to sour people on the whole idea. There was probably that time back in college when their professor gave them extra credit to sit through the torture of some visiting writer droning on, not looking up from the page for a good hour and a half. In a word, ouch. But if they had come out tonight, my friends would have been pleasantly surprised; I take a lot of pride in giving good readings, and I’ve worked hard on the performance of reading my work out loud. After all, that’s a big part of the job, too. It’s the part that too many writers neglect. And as old Billy Shakespeare said, there’s the rub.
Later tonight when I do the math, I’ll realize that in essence I drove almost a thousand miles yesterday in order to chat with this one nice lady tonight.
Luckily, I’m horrible at math.
If you spend enough time in the literary world, you come to recognize a few universal truths: first, most books really can be judged by their covers. Second, most writers don’t like to listen to other writers read.
And finally, most readings really do suck.
All apologies to my fellow writers out there. But y’all know what I’m talking about. We’ve all sat through our share of bad readings, the ones where the story or poem somehow is worse when it’s read out loud than when it’s read on the page. It’s supposed to be the opposite. A reading is supposed to make the work better. It’s supposed to entertain and get complete strangers engaged and excited about the work, make them curious for more. But instead what we usually get is the drony-voice/torture chamber reading, or the witty-banter reading, or just plain old banter. We get readers whose voices don’t rise above a soft mumble, or readings that go on way too long. We get stories that make no sense and get as many laughs as a heart attack. We get poems read the same way we read the back of a frozen dinner. Monosodium glutamate. Polysorbate eighty. High fructose … Ouch, indeed. No wonder folks don’t want to come out to our readings.
This is a big problem, the sucky reading. And allow me to get all hyperbolic for a moment: it’s an epidemic. Maybe we should give this social disease a catchy name, like Sucky Reading Syndrome (SRS). You may laugh, but if you take the art of writing seriously like I do, it’s actually not very funny. It’s a pre-existing condition that we’ve all just accepted as permanent: readings will suck.
That’s exactly why I’m out here on the road this summer, trying to find a cure to this condition, one reading at a time.
We always complain about how nobody reads anymore, but maybe that’s not the problem. Lots of people like to read. They just don’t want to lose an hour of their lives by sitting there listening to you indulge yourself. Repeat after me, writers: readings are not for us. They are for the audience, who have graciously taken time from their busy lives to be there. And if this literary epidemic is anyone’s fault, it’s your fault, lazy readers. This summer, I am calling you out. You’re out there, leaning on podiums, telling stupid jokes, and ruining things for the rest of us. Thanks a lot.
That’s exactly why I’m out here on the road this summer, trying to find a cure to this condition, one reading at a time. This summer tour is all about showing folks that readings can be downright fun. And maybe — just maybe — the next time they get an invite on a Tuesday night to hear someone read, they’ll actually want to go. They might actually look forward to it.
A revolutionary idea, I know.
I’m not alone in this crusade against literary dullness, tedium and apathy. Tomorrow I’m heading to Minneapolis to pick up my great friend (and a great reader) Baker Lawley. He’s got an Alabama accent, which (studies show) automatically makes anything he reads 27% better anyway. Yeah, I’m jealous. I have a Yonkers accent, which probably has the exact opposite effect. Together, we’ll head west and hit the towns that need our help the most. (We’re talking to you, Fargo. Stay on your toes, Missoula.) Will I fail in my quest? Probably. But we’re not calling this The Last Book Tour for nothing. This is it, our last stand against boredom. It’s our desperate end run, our impossible mission against impossible odds. We are that rag tag mix of rebel x-wing fighters, and boring readings, you are our Death Star.
Sorry, sorry. I got all geeky there for a moment. I do that when I’m excited.
We’ll be talking to a bunch of other writers along the way, getting their thoughts on the art of giving readings, the writing life, and whatever else they’d like to talk about. And I hope everyone will leave comments in the comments section below, and get a conversation going.
Okay. Off to the Twin Cities tomorrow, so I have some prep work to do before Baker and I along with our good friend Mark Ehling read at Cahoots coffee in St. Paul. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll come out for a spell. I’m pretty sure you’ll be glad you did, which might be the first baby step towards the elusive cure of Sucky Reading Syndrome.
So people, if you ever find yourself in Beloit, be sure to visit the Angel Museum. You won’t be disappointed. And keep following us here for more updates from the road!
Tommy Zurhellen is the author of Nazareth, North Dakota and Apostle Islands, both from Atticus Books. The third installment in the Messiah Trilogy, Armageddon, Texas is forthcoming from Atticus in Fall 2014. For more information on Tommy and to find out the remaining dates on the tour, check out his website at www.tommyzurhellen.com.
Baker Lawley is the author of several novels and story collections, including Battle Hymn and The Man Who Invented Writing. His short story “Uncle Skillet Rides Again” appeared in the Atticus Review in 2012. For more information on Baker, check out his website at www.bakerlawley.com.