Aug 31st, 1:30pm PST: Things Will Probably Be Fine
This morning in Portland I said goodbye to my family, my neighbors, my garden and my cat. I packed a suitcase with heavy books and light clothing and my Writer Hat — the kind of hat I imagine writers wear. My wife kissed me on the airport curb, the TSA touched me inappropriately, and now I’m on a plane, seatbelt fully fastened, just floating in space. I’m headed off on a weeklong book tour on the East Coast, in cahoots with a handful of other writers — my colleagues, as it were, in the tiny yet notorious genre known as Bizarro Fiction. We will travel via rental car between cities, to visit rooms in buildings in towns, where between designated hours we will read aloud from our finest texts, and shout and mumble and sing, and generally play the role of Writer in front of anyone who can be induced to watch. We’re starting out in Richmond, Virginia and ending up in New York City. The first date isn’t until tomorrow, but we’ve just had our first crisis: Eric Mays, our colleague and host in Richmond, is suddenly laid up in the hospital with some kind of Non-Specific Thrombosis. We still have a show to do in Richmond, sans Eric … we just don’t have a place to sleep.
Welcome to touring, a thing bands and comedians and farm-supply salesmen and writers do. As adventures go, it’ll be kinda arduous. We will all eat bad road food and drive too much, bathe not enough and sleep rough. The odds are good that we will bicker, and that some of us will run out of cash. But also we’ll get to know each other better, and stare out the windshield at a part of the country I personally never get to see. And we’ll have a week in which our normal lives do not matter, one week together in which to hone and purify and then inhabit this weird identity we share, of Being a Writer, with “Writer” in quotation marks and italics and maybe some question marks sort of floating around overhead because, on the one hand, I think we’d all agree that you’re only ever a writer when you’re in front of your writing device doing some writing, but on the other hand there is this belief among Readers that Writers are a special kind of person in some way … with Special also in quotation marks and maybe underlined with a glittery purple gel pen; we are Special in the superhero sense, maybe, but also Special in the short-bus sense, definitely … but Readers seem to look up to us a lot, expect us to have higher brows and think prettier thoughts, and to be bold and honest and loud and to reveal to them our deepest inner weirdnesses, in exchange for which we hope to be understood or adored by some, and can expect to be disliked by others and ignored by many. That’s the deal we signed up for.
We’re doing this book tour because … what else can you do? I released a new novel this spring; so did about ten thousand other writers, independently or through various cute, inspiring, undercapitalized small presses. Of course we have all taken to the New Media to sing our own praises and the praises of our friends who sing our praises in return. Every one of us will ask you to like us, to follow us, to subscribe to our notions. Some of us will ask more pleadingly or annoyingly or big-budgetedly than others, but we all want the same thing: we want someone to give a damn for, or even notice, our adorable children, our freakish paperback brain-child books. But the New Media empowers you to ignore us all with a single click — and that’s fair, because as a general online population we are kind of annoying.
So what else can we do to be noticed, to be heard? How can we be better parents to our mutant children? I really don’t know … book touring, maybe? It’s hard to say whether this kind of city-by-city visitation is effective at all, but we have to try something besides all that online button-pushing. In these days as digitization dissolves physical things all around us, replacing books with e-readers and bookstores with websites and taxi drivers with Googlemobiles, I find human voices, up close in person, more comforting than ever. I love spoken word at its best, when a writer gets the chance to inject pitch and volume into what they wrote. I love when people look up from their phones and stare one another in the eye. I love the tension in a small room when the crowd hasn’t made up their minds if I suck or not. And I love to speak, and I love to travel, and I guess in a schmaltzy way I love America.
And so we proudly present the Bizarro Across America tour, which will visit all four of the United States of America, not counting the forty-six states we’re skipping. And so here I am, flying Across America in a Boeing MD-80, waiting for a uniformed agent of American Airlines to deliver me a cup of that delicious thirty-thousand-foot coffee. I am hoping for the best. I hope Violet LeVoit doesn’t get sick of me. I hope Eric Mays doesn’t die. I hope people come to our readings, and I hope we don’t drive them away. I hope we sell more books than we buy gasoline. I hope the rental car doesn’t smell like cigarettes, babies or dogs. I hope I don’t start smoking. I hope G. Arthur Brown doesn’t make me call him “G. Arthur.” I hope we aren’t pulled over by scary East Coast highway patrolmen. I hope none of us are booed offstage. I hope Bradley Sands doesn’t have a dizzy spell and fall over during a reading, but if he does I hope I get it on video. I hope that we surprise ourselves, and each other, and whomever notices us doing this thing we seem to be compelled to do. I hope I don’t drift off at the wheel. I hope we find a place to sleep every night. I hope that writing can stop being this thing I do for attention and prestige and a need for cash, and can get back to being the gift I give to strangers, just to decorate the world.
September 1st, 11:59pm EST: James River Take Me
Richmond is beautiful, a landscape I only know from civil war re-enactment films. People here live in flat-roofed brick row houses with mighty front porches, all shelved in tight like library books. There’s not much brick on my West Coast — it all fell apart in earthquakes — but here they use it for sidewalks, streets, buildings and parts of the sky.
Richmond is also hot as a stove, and slightly muggy. I woke up in Zach & Noelle’s attic — old-school Zoobombers, and friends of friends who took me in at the very last minute last night — then had a delicious breakfast at The Lamplighter, their coffeeshop, then bummed around Carytown looking at the murals on the bus station and the alleyways as the day got hotter and hotter. At noon I found myself desperate to jump in the James River. I finally found a beach at Brown’s Island and waded out to just above cell-phone-pocket depth underneath a historic-looking train bridge. The river there is warm and pleasant, wide and slow, like a wading pool crossed with a canyon, and all the bridges across it look great from underneath.
Then I got a text: Violet has arrived! So I hopped soggy into the rental car — this futuristic, surly looking silver-gray Passat, it feels like I’m driving around in Robocop’s head — and picked her up at the Megabus stop. We went to a historic colonial-style 7-11 for peanut M&Ms and a slurpee. Then off to Chop Suey Books to see whether we’re late or early for the workshop. Good news: we’re early!
Violet and I were both a little bit giddy, from sugar mostly but also because after all the pimping, planning and booking (ugh, the booking!) this thing, the tour, is finally on! Chop Suey is a gorgeous bookstore, and it felt like a temple to me — even more than all these templicious Jeffersonian government and college and corporate edifices they have downtown by the river.
Then John Lawson arrived, making good his threat to join us on this leg. The three of us are comerades and strangers. Chop Suey Ward, the friendly proprietor, sets us up in the Richmond Young Writers Program office upstairs, a colorful room full of paper and pens, little kid chairs and a see-thru anatomical model of a shark. Perfect for our inaugural workshop.
Attendance at the workshop was light but friendly. As an exercise, we interview each other and write profiles. A nice guy named Eric wrote glowingly about my affection for architecture, and I wrote a MyCarthyesque screed denouncing him as a closet Bolshevik about to go on a shooting spree. We agreed to burn that document.
Workshop over, then tacos, then more Carytown murals and non-stop chatting about the museums in D.C., our histories with Bizarro and other misc writer stuff, and how damn cute Richmond is. We kill off the afternoon, then head to The Wingnut for the evening event, the Reading Proper. Google sends us over a toll road, through a creepy gothic cemetary, past a low-income housing development on Poe street (no joke!) and around a corner to this big, brightly painted Victorian house, its double-sized front porch covered with murals and stencils and slogans and piled with kitchen equipment and chewed up shreds of dog toy and just stuff everywhere, and the curb flanked by two equally radicalized vehichles: a pickup and a short bus.
This is The Wingnut, the home of Richmond Food Not Bombs, Richmond Cop Watch, Occupy Richmond and probably a dozen other radical organizations. Mo, our host, greets us with her flock of dogs and a selection of delicious dumpster-dived popsicles. Yay anarchy! Inside, the house is stuffed with activist resources of all kinds, and every wall has at least one well-organized bookshelf.
Attendance at the reading is light but friendly. We meet everybody and it’s real informal, just chatting on the porch and starting when it feels like time. Violet leads off with a funny, lewd story about getting bored at a stuffy reading. There’s always that moment when you fear the audience, but when she gets to the dirty parts nobody blushes, and when she gets to the funny parts we all laugh, and even at the nerdy parts all seven listeners are still paying full attention.
We went on like that, John & Violet & I taking turns for an hour or so, then we sold some books — thanks, Richmond! — and chatted some more. Now finally John is on his way back to his house in Maryland, while Violet & I eat dinner at the Third Street diner — where water can be ordered with or without lemon — and catch up on all this important twittering, facebooking, et cetera. Them cows ain’t goin’ to click themselves!
Tomorrow: DC! No events scheduled but we hope to do some lobbying, influence foreign policy a bit, then get lunch and see some museums. It is predicted to be the hottest day of the year. We give prayers to Gladys, the goddess of parking, beseeching her to find us a spot in the shade.
September 2, 2013, 9:00pm: WE ARE BRIEFLY UNIMPORTANT
We left Richmond bright and early in the morning, pulled out onto the wide open I-95 North, got about half an hour away from town at the prevailing freeways speed of ninety miles per hour. We were feeling very pro and cool and ahead of schedule … then I realized I’d left all my books back at the Wingnut. The books! The precious cargo! Duh, duh, a thousand times duh! So we turned around and sped back there, woke up a sleeping housemate, extracted the box in question, emitted a cloud of apologies the way an octopus emits a cloud of ink, and slinked away feeling like jerks.
We left Richmond again, somewhat later in the morning (after spending another half-hour totally misdirected and lost in non-rectillinear North Richmond, the result of using Google Maps to find “a banana or some fruit”) and drove, drove, drove to Washington, DC, with our sights set on the National Mall. The neighborhood at the edge of town started out looking Richmondy — modest brick row houses and outdoor advertising — but as we got in deeper the walls rose up higher and higher around us and grew to seven stories of slate and marble looming on all sides. In central DC, every single architectural element that can make a building appear mighty and important — massive stone blocks, neoclassical columns, chiseled inscriptions, bas-relief Greek philosophers, parapets, gun slots, rows of anti-car-bomb barriers along the sidewalk — is used on every single building! It looks like a fortress of banks and Roman temples. The streets are wide and flat and full of important-looking people in serious clothing, talking on cell phones, crossing against the light. I felt a brief pull to understand it all, to wonder how it all worked … the King’s court, the corridors of power, K Street, the democratic process. But I live out West, in the suburbs of government. My world is as far from this world as the heel is from the brain.
There was nothing on our schedule today, no events booked. We had tried, we had failed. There’s just not that many bookstores in DC and they’re all about politics. If you’re not a politician in DC, you’re just a tourist. So we ate some world-famous chili dogs, then hid from the sun in some museums, then gave a brief guerrilla reading in the shadow of the Washington Monument — which felt like a monument to human smallness, really — then escaped back into the blissful refrigeration of the rental car and made our escape. Tomorrow is another day, in Baltimore, the home town of both Violet and G. Arthur Brown. A normal-sized place full of normal-sized people where we can feel larger-than-life again.
Sept 4, 2014 — 5:45pm. Baltiomore, Fast And Slow.
Baltimore’s favorite cookies are Berger Chocolate Creams: sloppy lumps of sugar and cake farted out of an industrial baking machine and dumped carelessly into a crooked cardboard box. According to Violet, the city once came close to riot over the brief unavailability of Berger Chocolate Creams. These cookies do not give a rat’s ass about you and your food-cart mustache bacon culture, and neither does Baltimore. “Eat me,” they say, “or fuck off.” One of them is delicious, but that’s about all the sugar I can take. Violet, a major glutard, loves them but can’t eat them at all.
Violet grew up in this city; she was happy to play tour guide. We visited wild, colorful, sparkling places such as the American Visionary Art Museum, the Geppi Museum of Entertainment, Comics, Toys and Stuff Mister Geppi Likes, and a vintage shop near the wharf specializing in artificial fabrics from the seventies. But all that color got wiped out of my head around five o’clock when we got caught in rush hour traffic next to miles of squat, bunkerlike housing projects with dead lawns, and crept at one mile per hour past the detention center complex right next door: a high-security prison, smack dab in the center of the city, pushed up against roads and freeways and homes, made from five different epochs of squat, surly prison architecture Frankensteined together with concrete walls and copious amounts of hurricane wire. A castle for the damned. Everybody in Baltimore is tired of people comparing the real city to The Wire, but nobody denies the narcotic-industrial complex is a real thing, and it’s big, and it weighs on everybody. Ali and Mirah, two of Violet’s school friends, met us for milkshakes before the reading. They are both smart young women with their shit together and big plans for the future. The fact that they can’t feel safe walking five blocks alone at night in Baltimore’s arts district doesn’t register as a problem to them. They display their glibness about it like a proud psychic tattoo. It proves they’re local.
We looked everywhere for John Waters but didn’t see him. He definitely didn’t come to the reading, but other people did. Our spot was the Terrault Contemporary, a newly built-out gallery in the CopyCat Building run by Brooks Kossover, a young painter with tons of manic energy and enthusiasm for the arts. He does these giant, surreal oil portraits of artists, musicians and drug dealers, all of which stared down at us from the walls before, during and after the reading proper. After we waited for the last few stragglers to dribble in, Violet opened with the same story as last time; then I read two funny stories, and went long, but people were into it; then John Lawson did short flash pieces and G. Arthur Brown read some funny family-nightmare stories from his chapbook; then Violet came back on and did, entirely from memory, a very perverted, psychosexual dream-sex story about horny haunted photographs in a motel room. It was one of those stories writers feel the need to write but then secretly hope their parents never read … but there, sitting in the front row, were Pat and Drew, Violet’s parents! They not only came, stayed and applauded but also brought dim-sum for everybody. They are lovely people. (Happy birthday, Drew!)
September 5th, 2014 — 11:05am: The Part That Starts To Grind You Down
I knew there would be good nights, I knew there would be crap nights. Last night we read at a punk house in West Philly called The Farm. It should have been great. It marked the convergence of eight authors: Violet, Gary, John and myself plus Christoph Paul, Bradley Sands, Scott Cole and Andre Duza. It was the biggest bill of the whole tour; it was also the worst-attended show so far. Not counting the writers themselves, and their significant others, and our hosts Kevin and Matt at The Farm, we had 1 (one) attendee. I still don’t understand it. We had three Philly authors, but none of their friends came. We had a local punk scene, but the punks didn’t show. We contacted local media and event listers, but nobody listed us. Violet and Scott stapled up posters all over the neighborhood, but they didn’t fly. I tried to bury my disappointment in a layer of smiles and kindness, but I don’t think I fooled anybody.
I felt like a jerk, flying and driving thousands of miles to waste everybody’s time. Maybe it’s wrong to believe that anybody cares about Bizarro, or spoken word, or us. Maybe our tour has garnered bad Yelp reviews behind our backs. Maybe the things that determine the success or failure of any endeavor are entirely beyond our control. There was another reading across town, I’m told, that all the punks were at. And The Farm wouldn’t let us print their address, because they don’t want their landlord to know about their parties. And the DIYPHL event listing site wouldn’t list our event because The Farm asked them not to … Now I’m wracking my brains wondering what else I can do to get people to come to the Brooklyn show, because if nobody comes to that show I think I might die.
Thankfully there were enough writers in attendance to form an audience. We read to each other — and to Eric, our single sainted audience member — and it was cozy. Because Violet had promised music in the posters nobody read, she brought her accordion out and played happy-creepy clown chords for some of the readings. Andre Duza read a work-in-progress about a she-stalker. John Lawson read an ironic kids’ book. Gary Brown read Diff’rent Strokes fan fiction. Scott Cole read about the theme park in God’s corpse. Christoph Paul read about the mud shark that partied with Led Zeppelin.
The room was an ultimate punk rock basement: spray paint everywhere, a dingy bar in the back built from scrap lumber, benches of 2×8 planks and milk crates, a tangle of christmas tree lights for ambiance, a smell of old beer and mildew, a really loud box fan. It was an inspiring space — it reminded me of a time in Portland where every good party had a couple bands in the basement, bands you could hear a block away but could just barely see across the lake of heads, twenty or fifty or a hundred sweaty heads of drunk kids, bouncing up and down, waving their arms, dropping their beers and singing along. It was a great room, but dismal without the kids. The letdown stung me in the heart.
Nevertheless, Eric said he really liked the show. So that’s something.
Sept 5, 2014 — 2:00pm: Friends In Obscure Places
There’s a part of me that is fascinated with, and desperate to dissect and qualify, the shifts in architecture between regions as we speed past them in the rental car. Baltimore row houses were taller and thinner than Richmond; in Philly the square brick houses all have complicated timber party-hat roofs. Rural Pennsylvania is the home of a certain kind of giant square barn that I’d love to turn into a movie theater. But the truth is, the buildings loom large because we’re moving too fast to see smaller things. Every morning we wake up late, panic a little, hike around in search of wi-fi and a cup of stress, then drive all afternoon on the over-amped freeways. We meet a lot of people but it takes time to get to know them, whereas places and things are easily grasped, sorted and filed. It’s only been a few days of touring but my memories are already boiling down to a slideshow: here’s a weird place we read, here’s a beautiful person who housed us, here’s a bagel, a funny sign, an on-ramp. I wish I had more time everywhere, time to get to know and appreciate people like Mo in Richmond, Kevin the gentle punk in Philly, bearlike Jim Lewin in York, and all our other hosts, people who’ve carved out a spot in their worlds for culture-bearing strangers like us. Their hospitality and generosity humbles me. I dearly hope that what we manage to bring to these places somehow equals everything we’ve been given on the road.
York, PA was all right. Our reading at the York Emporium was filmed for cable access television. A couple dozen middle-american book readers came out and listened with respect and amusement as we did our writer things for them and fifty thousand cable TV subscribers. We sold some books, bought some books, enjoyed banter with the owner, ate too many of the cookies his wife baked us. My friends who hail from central PA had told me to expect a statewide cultural vacuum — “PA is Pittsburg and Philadelphia separated by Kentucky” to quote one of them — but The York Emporium was a gem, a mystic time-capsule of a place, a labyrinth of dusty books and memorabilia, lost texts of all kinds, but also cigar-box banjos, collectible posters, old movies, misc antiques and more lava lamps than I’ve ever seen in one place. The longer we were there, the bigger the building got & the more stuff they seemed to have. It’s the kind of eclectic, disheveled used bookstore that Amazon put out of business almost everywhere, but York is so far removed from the forces of history that its Emporium survived the purge. The drive from Philly took us all afternoon, so we arrived just an hour before the show; I didn’t have a hundredth of the days I’d need to properly binge on books. Maybe that’s for the best, since I’ll be humping my suitcase all over New York City this weekend, but I have to admit I’d go out of my way to come back to this place.
Brian Keene was our special guest star and local foster parent. He was the one who set up the York event and handled local promotion. Brian is a Serious Professional Writer, decades going; anyone who’s into horror can tell you all about him, his many books, his work for TV and television and comics. He won a Bram Stoker Award! He is pals with all my favorite mega-authors! I don’t know what exactly I did to deserve so much of Brian’s affection, but he loves Bizarro and believes it’s the future. He’s an easy guy to like, very brash and funny and worldly, full of mega-author mega-gossip. I realize I know very few pro writers; I think I could learn a lot from Brian about how to persevere in the face of bullshit. He lured five of us back to his cabin in the woods, then disemboweled us with fine whiskey and cigars. Snapshot of the writer’s home: austere, clean, hundreds of books in every room, deer antlers and guns and pictures of his son hung up on every wall, an old well in the backyard where he draws up water for coffee. He’s up at 5am in the morning, typing away with that serious focus that I find so hard to cultivate. The rest of us finally stir at ten or so, the liquor pounding various nails in our various heads. We mumble and stumble through showers, breakfast, handshakes, hugs, a fond farewell.
Now I am Sergei Brin’s slot-car again, obeying the Googlestructions as we thread our way from turnpike to turnpike, closing in on Brooklyn and the final night of tour, where we hope to do something to deserve all this kindness. I have a feeling it’ll be okay.
Sept 7, 2014 — 10:23am: Out The Other Side
The final stretch! Once again we got a late start and drove all day. Once again the traffic was terrible. The east coast highways are full of tailgating assholes who would rather be dead than slow. Bradley had to pee a lot. So did the sky; in the mid-afternoon we drove through God’s own car wash, a cataclysmic sliver-gray flash flood where you couldn’t see the road or hear the radio for the rain, and the air conditioning filled up with the smell of rust. Then came rush hour. Then came Brooklyn.
We got there an hour before showtime. Emerging from the car into this Williamsburg arts & coffee district by the Morgan St. L station was like crash-landing a Space Shuttle on the Planet of the Hipsters. The people walking in and out of these buildings and pushing bicycles up and down these sidewalks are all young, wide-eyed and thin. They seem entirely without an economic care. Wandering around a single block I saw corner antique sales, a photo shoot, a vintage shop in a mobile home, an art opening about to close, lots and lots of sophisticated graffiti and other big murals covering the walls of this former heavy industrial warehouse/factory zone with wild color and energy. Super inspiring — it made me want to write on the walls, or draw mustaches on the street garbage, to contribute another layer to the layers and layers of human output on every surface. But, as usual, there was hardly time to catch a glimpse of all that before the event proper. Time to unload boxes, comb hair and Enter the Venue.
Mellow Pages is a cozy curated lending library where you can come and read all day, or check out titles if you’re a member. They seem to have an emphasis on alt.lit but they’ve got a little bit of everything, and they maintain an excellent relaxed reading mood inside. They’re in this warehouse called the Bogart Building that’s full of lofts and galleries. Across the hall in a big white artspace, some kind of semi-improvisational dance/music/movement/noise/shuddering/yelping performance with four musicians and six dancers went on and on, providing a minimal, mostly-quiet-occasionally-deafening background track. Matt, a Mellow Librarian, greeted us with smiles and pronounced relaxation. Then Violet arrived with her man Zev and her young son Linus. I drafted Linus to help me tape the labels to the beer cans. (Mellow Pages has a simple deal for users of the space: they ask us to bring beer, which they sell at the event to raise money for the space. If they don’t sell the beers, it’s okay; they’ll drink them later. I brought along special labels to make the beers look like cans of WD-40; if you read my novel this might or might not make sense.)
Then, before I even had time to get neurotic about the public coming, they began to arrive! By 7:15 the sun was setting in the big factory windows and the room was crammed with friends of literature, all of them hot, a little sticky, buzzed on WD-40. We gave them our finest hour. Violet read THE AUTHOR SPEAKS, and Christoph read a funny section about budget-balancing and shark attacks from GREAT WHITE HOUSE, and I read from I, SLUTBOT, and Leza was totally honest about her anxiety and tried a couple different sections of WONDERLAND IN ALICE, and Bradley read a funny poem about alt.lit and a chapter from DODGEBALL HIGH where the hero has a mustache-growing fight with Burt Reynolds. Everybody spoke with confidence and energy and pride. None of the dozen things I worry about happening in readings happened; none of us mumbled or ran too long, none of them walked out or fell asleep, there were no sudden loud noises or crying children or dog fights or fire alarms or cops. Is it corny to say that I only want to make people smile? Everybody smiled, a lot.
And just like that, the tour ended. We hung out for a while, met people, sold them books, chatted about alt.lit, Bizarro and other words for what we do. I bid farewell to my new and dear friend Violet, who needed to get her son back to Philly before midnight. I stood in front of the rumbling air conditioner, drank cold WD-40 and luxuriated in chilly waves of full-body doneness, a purely physical feeling of relief. All the planning, all the spending, all the traveling, all the worrying is done and gone now, like shackles off my legs, and all that remains is the connections between people we met, the breadcrumb trail of books we left behind, and this excellent catalogue of memories. Thanks, America!
Mykle Hansen is the author of six books of fiction, including the novels I, SLUTBOT and HELP! A BEAR IS EATING ME! He lives a charmed life in Portland, Oregon.