Each Little Bird That Sings
Deborah Wiles’s Tour Journal
Welcome to the Tour Journal. Photographs and links to come.
In April 2005, Harcourt organized a two-week book tour for LITTLE BIRD and me. Fourteen days through seven states, thirteen bookstores, three schools, one library, seven airplanes, nine drivers, hundreds of children in many seas of shining faces and countless stories later, I came home with a new understanding of how a book makes its way in the world, and with a new appreciation for all those who work hard to connect books and readers.
I kept a journal that Harcourt distributed via email to the children’s book publishing community each day. Here it is. To everyone who came with me virtually, thank you. It meant so much to have your company. To everyone I met on the road, thank you for receiving LITTLE BIRD so warmly, for celebrating children’s books and reading so splendidly, and for sharing your stories with me. I hope I have captured all of you faithfully, below.
April 13, 2005
Noon, Tucker, Georgia
I’m on my way to the Atlanta airport in two hours. I’ll be on the road — a book tour! — from April 13 to 26 with EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS, my new middle-grade novel from Harcourt. I will visit seven states and the District of Columbia, thirteen bookstores, one library, three schools, who knows how many hotel beds and airplane seats. My itinerary is nine pages long — Cirque de Soleil has nothing on Harcourt’s Tour-de-Force marketing team. They’ve taken care of every detail of this trip.
I have taken care of important things, too: My hair is cut. New clothes are waiting to be packed. (Orchid and magenta figure prominently.) Bills are paid. Taxes are mailed (groan). Now, as I sip a Barq’s root beer, I realize I need something else. Something important. You.
Here I sit at my desk, staring at an empty suitcase, clutching my Delta boarding pass and asking you to come along with me. I’ve never been on tour. Will the road be lonely? Will the food be good? Will Miz Claudie remember to bring me her gloves for the Author Tea at the Brandon Library? Will the masses materialize at bookstores? Will I do a good job? Will everyone else? Just what goes into making a book tour a success?
In my fiction I write about community, kinship and connection; I can’t imagine going on tour without taking family. Come! I envision a short email every day or so detailing the perils and the pleasures of being “on tour.” As Aunt Florentine would say, “I’m not one to gossip, but..”
Vero Beach, here I come: The Adventure Begins. As soon as I pack.
Thursday, April 14, 2005
6am. Radisson Hotel Oceanfront, Melbourne, FL
I missed my plane in Atlanta yesterday. Thunderstorms rolled through snarled afternoon traffic on I-85. I was rushing toward “ticketing/check-in” with a minute to spare, wallet in hand to expedite everything. A Skycap grabbed the big suitcase. “Wait – my hat,” I said. I reached back into the car to grab it. Then, a wave goodbye for Jim. A turn toward the kiosk. No wallet.
I couldn’t call Jim — he doesn’t have a cell phone. I called Jen Haller at Harcourt in NYC and she went to work in that calm way she has: “This is like rain on a wedding day — it signifies good luck…” I got a seat on a flight leaving three hours later.
I tried not to feel 10-years-old or just plain incompetent. Jim noticed my wallet when he was halfway home, turned around, and brought it back to me. He called me from a pay phone in the airport: “Where are you? I’ve got your wallet and I’m in the airport.” He deserves a medal and he needs a cell phone. We had supper together — very nice — then I caught the 9:05pm flight into Melbourne.
Harcourt folks had a note waiting for me in my hotel room. “Deb: We know this has been a rough start, but your tour will be GREAT. P.S.: Look in the refrigerator. Love, Harcourt.” A luscious piece of key lime pie!
I slept fitfully, keyed up. Now I’m watching the sun come up on the horizon. The ocean is outside my wall of windows. It rolls to shore in that ancient rhythm, smoothing out yesterday’s drama. It’s an hour’s drive from Melbourne to the Vero Beach Book Center. A driver picks me up at 8:30am. I’m told by Cynthia at the Book Center to expect 100 schoolchildren! I brought my slide carousel and my stuffed chicken. Time for a shower — not with the chicken. Then, pie for breakfast! And we’re off.
Thursday, April 14, 2005
4:57pm Orlando airport
“Every heart tells a story.” I spout this truism at schools and conferences, and boy, does it come home to me on the road. Driver Carole Lawson arrived at the Melbourne Radisson at 8:30am with a seasoned smile and a comfortable car. I scrambled into the lobby late because my friend Jimmy Murphy had called as I was walking out the door, so enthusiastic to report that he and Kate would meet me at the bookstore. Old friend Tara Knecht was coming, too, from Orlando, with her two young sons — boys I’d never met. And 100 schoolchildren from St. Ed’s were gathering at the Vero Beach Book Center.
Not quite together, I shrugged off an embarrassed moment and applied my makeup in the car. Carole admired my Ziploc bags of Maybelline and, recognizing a neophyte when she saw one, briskly educated me: pack everything by days, with outfits for the furthest day away on the bottom. Bring a pillowcase for dirty clothes. Stay the night before in a hotel closer to the event: we had an hour’s drive ahead of us through traffic.
I began to hyperventilate when we were three miles away at event time. I called events coordinator Cynthia Granbenbauer to let her know our whereabouts, and when we walked into the bookstore a few minutes later, all was well: the folks at VBBC are author visit pros. A bookstore employee with a wonderfully emotive voice was reading LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER to a floor-full of attentive 4th- and 5th-graders. I took a deep breath and waded in. The water was fine. I’d brought my slides, and I spent 45 good minutes showing students where my stories come from and how I work. We laughed a lot and shared stories together. I read from EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS for the first time in front of an appreciative audience — my spine tingled with the realization — I was sharing my story. And… I signed books. Lots of books.
I was interviewed by 11-year-old Emily who was studious and thoughtful, who carefully recorded my answers in her notebook. “Are you like your character Comfort? Do you feel close to her? Why did you make the character Peach so sensitive?” Then, “Is Peach modeled after someone?” Yes, I told her. Truman Capote. I was honored to be asked to sign the author wall at the Vero Book Center (right under Janet Stevens’s fabulous artwork/signature), then went around the corner to lunch with Jimmy and Kate. And here’s a story I wish I had the space to tell you: until today, I hadn’t spoken to or seen Jimmy Murphy in 33 years. The surprises of the book tour!
After one hour of catch-up stories (not nearly long enough!) and a change into my overalls for travel, I was back at the Book Center with hugs all around — the Vero Beach Book Center feels like a Big Smile: it’s open, airy, and friendly — then I flounced into George Weeks’s big black Lincoln and we created a story of our own. When George discovered I earnestly needed to find a FedEx center, he careened into a funeral home parking lot (how apropos!) where a FedEx truck was making a drop-off. He fairly ran into driver Kat “Can you take a box for us?” We’d startled her. She looked unsure. “I write stories for children,” I said, “and I’ve got to get this box to Harcourt by tomorrow… I’ve got the completed airbill, right here.” I think the overalls helped. “Sure, bring it on,” said Kat with a lopsided smile,“…I like children.” I was obviously in good hands all over the state of Florida.
On the two-hour drive to Orlando, George offered up stories of a childhood in Catalina, jumping off the long ocean dock into sky-blue water, his fists filled with rabbit pellets, sinking to the sandy bottom of the ocean, opening his hands and letting the garibaldi nibble the pellets off his palms. “The world’s not like that anymore,” he said. “I miss it… but all things pass, you know.” I do know. As he dropped me off at the USAIR counter (yes, I checked to make sure I had my wallet), I knew I’d been surrounded by friends all day; I’d found family. As Uncle Edisto says in EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS, “Everybody’s kin, Comfort.” I hope I’ll find family everywhere I go.
The only author event (of mine) I ever missed was at Politics and Prose a year and a half ago when I still lived in the D.C. area. My father had just died and I had clean forgotten I’d said I’d come to P&P and read ONE WIDE SKY to the kindergarteners from the Washington Hebrew School. I am shy to return to Jewell Stoddard and the Politics & Prose gang tomorrow morning. I know they understand, but I still feel badly about it. What will it feel like to return not only to Politics & Prose, but to the town I lived in for 25 years until I moved to Atlanta this past June? I have been homesick. I wonder if I’ll want to move back to Maryland.
Friday, April 15, 2005
10:02pm Washington, D.C.
A call and response of the day:
Politics and Prose is lively and smart and ready for me. I bask in Mary Alice Garber’s warm welcome. Dara LaPorte introduces me to fifth-graders from the Sheridan School and I talk about turning my “rotten red-headed younger brother Mike” into lacey-dressed Melba Jane in LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER. I talk about turning my dog, Sandy, into Comfort’s constant companion, Dismay (Funeral Dog Extraordinaire) in EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS. “Who do you love?” I ask. “Who drives you crazy? What stories do you have to tell?” I read again from LITTLE BIRD and talk about how I believe we live our lives in constant opposites: yes/no, up/down, good/bad, light/dark, life… death. “How many of you have ever seen… death?” I ask. All hands shoot skyward.
I sign while visiting with students, teachers — and friends! So good to see them. I jump into Bonnie Ward’s Ford Explorer (the Town Car is in the shop, she explains. No problem, I say, I like this car — I can see!) and I gaze longingly at the D.C. landmarks I know so well while Bonnie navigates traffic that rivals Atlanta’s. I envy the tourists crammed onto sunny sidewalks and into the mall area around theSmithsonian, but I have little time for nostalgia.
I jump out of Bonnie’s car at the National Press Club. Karen MacPherson, a journalist with Scripps-Howard who has a broad knowledge of children’s books, meets me at the elevator and up we go to the dining room on the 13th floor. Wood panelled everything, silver on the table, history oozing from the walls. “Tell me your story,” says Karen, and I realize, one hour and half a crab cake later, that all I’ve done is talk talk talk in the way that kindergarteners talk with me when I present ONE WIDE SKY to them: “I have a sandbox! I like squirrels! I went camping!” I don’t know what Karen will make of me: “I write essays! I have kids! I teach writing!” Karen smiles and scribbles. I like her. It’s okay. I’m sharing my story. That’s what I’m here to do.
Bonnie drives me to Timber Lane Elementary School in Falls Church, Virginia, where I present to the entire fifth and sixth grade. “We have a strong emphasis on writing,” says Jackie Hechtkopf, librarian, “and we’ve been studying FREEDOM SUMMER — could you focus on that story?” So I do. I love FREEDOM SUMMER. I have Jerome Lagarrigue’s beautiful artwork on slides and I recite the story out loud in a dark room, then talk about how I wrote that story, about what my heart needed to say. I read them some of Comfort’s story as well, some of Ruby’s story, I sing ONE WIDE SKY. These stories come out of my life, I tell them, even the tiny details of my life. What are your stories? I shake each hand as students leave the auditorium, just as I always do. Mohammed, Rixim, Shaunice, Alexandra.
Jackie and I are members of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C. and we use the few minutes between school-and-bookstore for coffee and a sandwich. We talk about our writing, yes, but as teachers always do, we drift into talking about the rigors of testing, the demands of teaching, the difficulty of reaching everyone, the joys of finding ways “in” to a child’s desire to Know… oftentimes with story.
The presentation area at Alina Gawlick’s Arlington, Virginia bookstore, Aladdin’s Lamp, is full of students and families. Another presentation, geared to the bookstore’s audience, lots of signing (there is only one copy of LITTLE BIRD left), lots of great conversation, too, including some talk with Judy Hijikata about the good work that The Reading Connection is doing in shelters and transitional housing sites in the DC area. Afterward, Alina and I talk about the plight of the small, independent bookstore. Alina says she used to be able to rely on county schools buying trade books at her store years ago—years ago there seemed to be plenty of money, too—but the county book contract has gone to a distributor, and Aladdin’s Lamp, like many small, independent children’s bookstores, is scrambling for alternate ways to survive and thrive.
We close down Aladdin’s Lamp. Bonnie drops me at a CVS so I can buy throat lozenges, then she takes me back to the Wyndham in D.C., where the tub is deep, the towels are large, the bed is a boat, and I feel likeSailor Dog. Scuppers is my name. I’ll try to stay awake long enough for a bath before sleep. Tomorrow: first to Baltimore, where I taught “Writing Techniques for Teachers” — ECED422 — at Towson University, and then to Dancing Bear in Frederick, MD. Frederick — the place where I lived and raised a family for fully half my life.
Saturday, April 16, 2005
11:35pm Hampton Inn, Frederick, MD
I need a Snowberger’s handkerchief! I walked into the Barnes & Noble at White Marsh in Baltimore at 10:45 for my 11am presentation. I looked for a contact person to show me where to go, and instead, I found Kathleen Cahall. Kathleen is the librarian at Alverda Reed Elementary School in Georgetown, Ohio. OHIO. I was so stunned I couldn’t speak. I tried to say, “Kathleen!” but I knew this couldn’t be Kathleen. She’s in OHIO. But it was Kathleen and her husband, Dick. I’d done a week-long writing residency with fourth graders at Alverda Reed in 2003. Kathleen and Dick knew about the tour, and they’d decided to make a weekend trip to Baltimore and to include me in their plans. I burst into tears.
Right behind Kathleen was Phyllis Kaufman, another wonderful librarian from another wonderful school,Farmland Elementary, in Rockville, Maryland. I’d spent a week at Farmland, too, working on personal narrative writing with fourth-graders. Teacher Cheryl Goldberg smiled at me next. Lizzie Dart, Heather Granruth and more… my Towson students were here, too! Oh, how they had groaned as I’d given them assignment after assignment to “Write from your life! Tell your story!” but now they were teaching in Maryland elementary schools, now they were teaching children how to write. Now they were telling me, “We loved your class…” heh heh heh!
Two girls clutching copies of RUBY were told by new-teacher Lizzie that they could have the books. Lizzie whispered to me, “How much are they?” I whispered back, “Let me give them to the girls and settle up with Barnes & Noble later.” When I tried to do just that with Borders’ Amanda Dahling, she waved a dismissive hand at me. “I’ll take it out of my budget,” she said. “That’s what it’s there for.” Amanda had set up a comfortable presentation space in the middle of the store instead of the children’s area, where Thomas the Train was making lots of noise. It meant that passersby stopped and listened as well. We sold few books, but every sale was heartfelt.
The sales at Dancing Bear in Frederick were heartfelt and through the roof. “Welcome HOME!” said Marlene England, as I stepped through the door at 3:45pm. A place of light and liveliness, Dancing Bear was packed with people I knew: former neighbors, old friends, teachers who had taught my children, colleagues who had given me freelance work, the photographer from the local paper, librarians from theC.BurrArtz Library, my 5th-grader correspondent and discerning reader Timmy, friend and media specialist Daryl Lindstrom from Middletown Elementary School, and more. Friends Cindy and Kay made brownies and brought RC Colas because Comfort loves RC Cola and suggests brownies as a good choice for funeral food. But this was no funeral. This was a celebration.
I stood in front of my gathering of friends — my family — in Frederick, Maryland, and we looked at one another in a silent moment before I began. Twenty-five years of history came home to me as I looked from face to face, trying to ground myself so I wouldn’t cry. But every face I came to told a story, and every face was radiant.
These people knew my story. They’d helped keep me and my family safe and supported over the past four years when so much around us was dying. EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS grew directly out of those dying — and living! — experiences, and those faces knew it. They knew me and I knew them. The story belonged to them. After a verklempt moment, I pulled it together and read from my story. We ended up laughing, reminiscing, eating too many brownies, and promising to keep in touch.
Cindy, Kay, and I ended the evening with dinner at Venuti’s Restaurant. EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS got its start at Venuti’s three years ago, when, trying to cheer us up, Cindy and Kay had taken me and my daughter Hannah to dinner there. Funerals came up. We began telling stories… and we began laughing. “I have to write these down!” I said. “I spent a lot of time in the Louin, Mississippi cemetery as a kid. I’ve got a family full of relatives buried there…” Kay had cavalierly tossed a notepad and a pen onto the table with these words: “I come from a family with a LOT of dead people.” It became the first line of EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS.
I’ve lived in Atlanta for ten months. I’ve been homesick for Maryland, but maybe what I want is to be remembered, and to not forget. Maybe that’s what we all want: To love and be loved, to be safe, to belong, to reach for our heart’s desire, and to know that our stories matter.
I know I need sleep. Tomorrow is a catch-your-breath day. No bookstores, no schools, no libraries. Sleeeep. I think I will. I fly to North Carolina tomorrow evening and we begin again.
Sunday, April 17, 2005
7:10pm Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
The glamour of the book tour! I woke with the right side of my face smashed so hard into the pillow my right eye was stuck shut. I blink-blink-blinked the blurry vision away, unwrapped all four plastic cups in the bathroom, filled them with water from the faucet, and drank deeply, in an effort to rehydrate my sandpaper mouth and lubricate my scratchy throat. I looked myself in the mirrored eye and spoke my name. A bullfrog croaked back at me. Clearly, I have been having too much fun.
And where am I? Oh, yes. A day off in Maryland. I’ll spend it mostly alone and be grateful for the quiet:
Coffee, orange juice, and several honey-lemon drops later, I head out to personal errands and professional reconnaisance. Harcourt says RUBY will be part of Border’s Summer Reading Program and LITTLE BIRD will be a Border’s “Original Voice” for May — wonderful! Let’s see if I can find my books at the Frederick, Maryland Borders. In the past, finding a Deborah Wiles title on the shelf at any Borders has been like finding buried treasure. How does one book get noticed, bobbing in the sea of books published each year?
Bookfame’s driver Bonnie Ward left me at Dancing Bear, so today I borrow my friend Sue’s car. I’ve missed fruits and vegetables. At the Common Market, my favorite organic foods store, I buy two pears, a banana, Throat-Coat tea and a small piece of ginger, plain yogurt, a bag of baby carrots, and a 70-percent-dark chocolate bar. Eight dollars for the lot. I brew the tea, slice ginger into it, then eat the yogurt and carrots alongside the Monocacy River in a quiet, sunny spot. Bliss.
At Borders I find LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER on a table by the front door under a sign that proclaims it a “classic read.” Next to it sits TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Well! I can die and go to heaven now, even though this must be a mistake. I wish I had a camera. In the children’s section there are more RUBYs on the table marked “Intermediate Fiction.” Here, RUBY sits between paperback editions of A SINGLE SHARD and HATCHET, a book I read aloud to my son Zachary more times than I can count. On the hardcover side of the table sit a fair number of LITTLE BIRDS, ready for a May debut at Borders.
I look around me to see if anyone else is seeing what I see. I can’t believe people aren’t crowded around this table and remarking on this phenomenon! “Are you finding what you need?” asks a sales associate. I nod telepathically in the direction of my books. The sales associate smiles and walks away. As my friend Jim says, “Nobody knows how famous I am!”
I lumber my non-famous self and my stuff onto the subway and ride into D.C. so I can catch my plane. I’m toting my Harcourt bag on my sore shoulders (a rotator cuff torn in February is still healing) and I’m pulling my enormous blue suitcase behind me. It’s full of clothes, a stuffed chicken, 45-year-old family photos, my slide carousel, and lovely presents from my various stops: mugs, tee-shirts, paintings, books. Two hours later I’m finally at the USAIR gate after paying a $30 overweight fee for my checked baggage. “Do you want to take nine pounds out of your luggage?” asks the ticketing agent. “Okay,” I say, and then, as I wrestle the suitcase off the scale and think about my left shoulder, I change my mind. “I’ll check it as-is.”
“Take a bath when you get to Greensboro,” says the agent in a kind voice. “You look worn out!” I eat my banana and half the chocolate bar — dinner! — and wash it down with coffee before my flight is called for boarding.
I eat my banana and half the chocolate bar — dinner! — and wash it down with coffee. The glamour of the book tour! Oh, and one more thing: there’s a volcano the size of Vesuvius forming on my chin. Please, if you see me in the next few days, don’t mention it.
Monday, April 18, 2005
8:02am Winston-Salem, North Carolina
I’m not sure what was the greater highlight of Sunday: the Borders book sightings (until now, finding a Deborah Wiles book on the shelf at Borders had been like finding buried treasure) or the hour spent beside the river, surrounded by birdsong. The trip to National Airport in D.C. was the lowlight. More glamour:
I’d struggled through the subway escalators and crowds, changed trains, raced for the shuttle to the far-away terminal, stood in the snaking-long security lines and bathroom lines at Reagan National, shunned the airport food, and then, when my flight was called, took another shuttle out to the puddle-jumper on the tarmac, where passengers sardined themselves into the plane for the 42-minute flight. Then I found a shuttle service to take me another 42 minutes into Winston-Salem. It’s Furniture Mart weekend in Winston-Salem. Everything smelled smoky to me, including the shuttle, even though I was the only person on it at 9:30pm.
The Courtyard Marriott was a two-floor affair far from everything and with no elevator. My bag weighs 59 pounds. A kind soul took pity on my worn-out self. My room was spartan and enough. Everything was bolted to the furniture, including the coffee pot in the bathroom which had no carafe. The sheets were stiff, the bed was like a board, and I could have cared less. I’d been trying to get there for six hours. I was home for the night. My eyes closed while I was brushing my teeth.
Now it is Monday morning. Two very different bookstore experiences await me today: The Barnes & Noble in Winston-Salem and the Regulator in Durham. A DRIVER awais me, too, hurray! I’ll have help and conversation. New stories.
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
9:50am Hampton Inn, Raleigh, North Carolina
Monday morning: I get into Michael Fain’s cushy Volvo sedan and immediately I think of EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS — the car is permeated with Uncle Edisto’s after-shaving smell! Michael is a few minutes late and then we get turned-around on the way to the Barnes & Noble in Winston-Salem. “Don’t worry about it,” I say, trying to hide my nervousness. “We’ll likely have few people there, and they can browse while they wait…” I think of Driver Carole in Vero Beach telling me to stay close to the event — we are almost 15 miles away. I fish my itinerary out of my bag, call Lynne Payne, Community Relations Coordinator, and she says in a bright voice, “Where are you? I’ve got 83 fifth-graders and their teachers waiting for you!”
We are ten minutes late, but my friends Jackie Pierson and Vicki Stanfield are regaling the students with stories of my school visits two years ago. Good save! I have twenty minutes to talk, and I do. I love talking in front of a group of attentive young people, and I’m beginning to get good at it after four years of learning, learning, learning how to do this gig. We laugh a lot, I shake hands (no book sales), and I thank Lynne, who has worked at B&N for ten years. She talks about her efforts to connect authors with children who need to hear about books and stories. “What I do can’t be about the money,” she says, “even though it broke my heart to realize that publishing is a business and it has to be about money.”
After signing stock and a catch-up lunch with Jackie and Vicki, Michael and I head the two hours to Raleigh, where I check in at the Hampton Inn and then, after a two-hour rest, I’m driven to Durham and to a hip independent bookstore, the Regulator. I know from meeting owner Tom last January, that a good portion of business at the Regulator comes from college textbook sales and I am so glad, as there are five people at my signing: a college friend and her partner, and a mother and her two daughters. The daughters are wild about RUBY, and have listened to Judith Ivey’s recorded version of the book several times. They buy the only copy of LITTLE BIRD sold that evening and I read from it. We talk about telling our stories on a beautiful spring evening. “Everyone’s outside on a night like this,” says friend Maura and I’m surprised to find that I don’t mind. I’ve enjoyed this intimate close to the day. I wonder if it feels all right to Regulator folks who have set up about forty white plastic chairs and a podium with a microphone in their small basement space.
Maura will pick me up this morning and we’ll hang out in Chapel Hill before dinner and a signing at Quail Ridge tonight. An easy-peasy day. “The View From Tuesday” is the Quail Ridge event. I met the Quail Ridge gang in January during a Harcourt pre-pub tour for LITTLE BIRD, and laughed myself silly at dinner. These folks are passionate about children’s books — passionate. And they love to tell their stories. Stay tuned.
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
5:22am Raleigh, North Carolina
Last night I discovered how to read from LITTLE BIRD. I’ve been reading the first chapter because it introduces so many characters, including Dismay, Funeral Dog Extraordinaire, but Great-uncle Edisto dies in the first chapter, making this chapter too heavy for a bookstore introduction to Comfort’s story. Last night I read Comfort’s “Top Ten Tips for First-Rate Funeral Behavior” and I was laughing along with everyone else:
“Tip number three: During the visitation, people wander up to the open casket and stare at the deceased and say things like, ‘He looks so natural,’ which is silly, because he DOESN’T look natural, he looks dead. But that’s okay, he’s supposed to be dead. But don’t say, ‘He looks so dead,’ that’s not a good idea.”
Things I love about Quail Ridge:
1. The author event is in the middle of the store, it’s well-lit, there are lots of chairs and space, and every one of my books is for sale in hardcover and soft.
2. Stephanie Greene presented with me, so I didn’t have to hold forth all by by myself for the prescribed hour. Stephanie, author of the Owen Foote chapter books and a new book titled QUEEN SOPHIE HARTLEY, was hilarious and had the audience chuckling appreciatively. We met for the first time and had dinner before the event with fellow author Candy Dahl and enjoyed one another’s company, along with a good dollop of gossip. Candy and Stephanie are both attending the Vermont MFA in Writing program and I graduated from the program in 2003.
3. “The View From Tuesday” is a monthly Quail Ridge event featuring authors and educators. Teachers who attend receive continuing education credits. We had a great crowd.
4. “Author Signings” is Quail Ridge’s middle name. What nights do they NOT host a signing?
5. Quail Ridge knows individual readers well and hand sells books. A third-grader left the store with Siddhartha today, because a sales associate knew he could connect with it and would love it. Now, that’s knowing your customers.
A mother-daughter bookclub came to last night’s event. The girls sat on the front row, grinning at me and clutching dog-eared paperback copies of RUBY. It was such a pleasure to sign these well-loved books. We took lots of photographs with lots of mothers, lots of cameras. LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER has appeared on 27 state book award lists since its publication in 2001, including the North Carolina state book award list. Teachers who read RUBY to their students now bought LITTLE BIRD. “I hear it’s sad,” said one. “But it’s so funny,” said another. “You’ve already read it?” I asked, surprised. “Quail Ridge lent me a galley,” said the teacher. Another loyal customer.
Harcourt sent me to Quail Ridge with sales rep Michael Hill in January. Michael and I rode around the Southland on a mini-pre-pub tour in the Carolinas and in Georgia. Michael introduced me to independent bookstore owners and staff, handed out galleys of LITTLE BIRD, conducted his sales call while I browsed each bookstore, then took us all to dinner. I loved seeing the Quail Ridge staff again — wonderful book people connecting readers to stories. For the next two days I’ll be back in these Carolina stores, back with new friends, glad for familiar faces.
I’m about to grab the Hampton Inn shuttle to the Raleigh airport, where I’ll fly to Greenville, S.C. I’ll arrive at 9:30am. I sign at the Open Book at 5pm. I’m not sure what I’ll do with myself in the meantime. I stay in Columbia, S.C. tonight. Hmmmm….. I know there was a method to our madness when we combed through this itinerary. I’m trying to remember what it was, but the coffee hasn’t kicked in yet.
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
8:45am cell phone call to Editor Liz Van Doren (as if she could help) from the tarmac of the Raleigh-Durham airport:
Help! Help! Help!
I’m sitting inside a Tinkertoy with propellers!
There are four human beings on this plane! Two are in the cockpit, which has no door. I see a notebook in the cockpit: “Crew Training Department.” Gack! I’m sitting in seat 2A. There are 18 seats on this plane. The co-pilot asked the other passenger if he would move past row 6, so we could “balance the load.”
It goes without saying (but I will say it anyway) that there is no flight attendant, no beverage service (who cares) and no bathroom on this plane, which is a real shame, because I need a bathroom. Badly.
The engines are starting. I have no earplugs. My bladder is collapsing. I’ve been meaning to make out a new will.
An obituary flashes into my head: Children’s book author Deborah Wiles, wearing overalls and a chicken hat and looking suspiciously like Ellie Mae Clampett gone to seed, plunges to her death Wednesday in Tinkertoy airplane on her way to Greenville, SC, on a tour to promote not only her new book, but our collective stories, kinship, and connection. A fiery ending to a brief
The horror! (Thank you, Joseph Conrad.)
Help! Help! Help!
Thursday, April 21, 2005
8:46am Columbia, South Carolina
Yesterday’s booksigning at Greenville’s Open Book was the kind I’ve dreaded: that hour alone at the table. But it was ultimately enlightening (those opposites, again). Here’s what I’m learning about the author tour and book signings (and maybe I’m trying to make myself feel better, too):
The bookseller’s job begins before the signing and kicks into high gear after. It’s great to have public awareness for a book, and I like having folks to talk with, so it’s lovely when bookstores can bring students, book clubs, or teachers to signings. It doesn’t necessarily translate into instant sales, as I’ve seen. And, as Duff Bruce, owner of Greenville’s Open Book told me yesterday, it’s important to look at the long-range, cumulative effect of the book tour, to look toward eventual paperback sales that build on these first efforts, and to think about the big picture: “I’ve already hand-sold fifteen or more hard copies of LITTLE BIRD, and I consider that quite good. I know I’ll sell this signed stock as well.”
This makes me feel better for both myself and for Duff, who was expecting a book club group that didn’t materialize. And, clearly, Duff believes in LITTLE BIRD. So does Open Book employee Howey, who works in Children’s. I signed a book for Howey, four for Duff, and one for Duff’s sweet sister-in-law who came to the signing and made me feel like at least one person showed up. We used the hour to talk shop. I can see, it’s the love of a particular story that sells books. How does that story appear on a bookseller’s or a reader’s radar screen? That’s what the book tour is about.
“So is this signing a success?” I ask Duff, and we debate the meaning of the word. What are the parameters of success? Success is measured in sales, yes (I think of Lynne Payne at the Winston-Salem Barnes & Noble talking about her sobering realization that “this is a business and it’s about money”) but I believe it’s also about relationship. And good stories. The book tour creates these relationships on the grassroots level. For me, it’s important to be in the South with my Southern stories. And now, I’ve met kin; I know Duff; he knows me. I know Open Book; Open Book knows LITTLE BIRD. Open Book knows its readers and which ones would love LITTLE BIRD. The work goes on.
At 6:30pm our time is up and Driver Carol Shealy has come to take me to Columbia, SC. I’ve signed stock that will go into the book fairs that Open Book organizes for local schools. I’ve watched Duff hand sell LITTLE BIRD to a customer when I’m some distance away and I’ve seen just how it’s done. One book at a time. Hard work and an art.
I spent Wednesday before my signing with Jean Hiott, author escort, who picked me up at the Greenville airport in her Buick Park Avenue at 10am. Here in South Carolina the southern accents are more pronounced, and the language is more precise. Slacks, not pants. Azaleas and dogwoods bloom everywhere in a spring riot of color. I lived in Charleston for two years when I was in high school — my Air Force dad was stationed there — and I remember South Carolina as Junior League territory. Jean takes one look at me in my travel overalls and tells me we’ll go to her house before my 5pm signing at Open Book “so we can clean you up.” Hahahaha! I’m back home in the South, for sure. My Mississippi-born mother and father would approve.
This afternoon I’ll be at Happy Bookseller in Columbia, Andy and Carey Graves’s place. What will I learn there?
Every bookstore has its own personality. Every bookstore is so different, in just the way that every city is different, every reader is different, every story is different. Even I am different: these bookstores, these signings, people’s stories are changing me, too. In my stories I’m always writing about home. As an Air Force kid and as a child of the South who lived elsewhere for so long, I am on a constant search for home. Jean and I spent some time in a used bookstore in Greenville. I walked out with a fat book published in 1969, edited by Hal Borland: OUR NATURAL WORLD: THE LAND AND WILDLIFE OF AMERICA AS SEEN AND DESCRIBED BY WRITERS SINCE THE COUNTRY’S DISCOVERY. It wasn’t until later, as I picked around in the book more and saw essays collected on arranged topics: The Woodlands, The Plains and Deserts, The Mountains, that I realized I’d chosen a book about home.
I’m beginning to think of the book tour that way, as a search for home, family, kinship, and community. I wonder if, as readers, this is what we’re searching for when we read, on a deep down, elemental level. I wonder if, as readers, this is what we’re asking that bookseller or that teacher or that librarian for, as well: Connection.
Friday, April 22, 2005
6:01am Tucker, GA
At Happy Bookseller in Columbia, South Carolina, I felt…happy. All afternoon. I arrived early to sign stock. Andy, wearing his apron, and Carey, fresh from a school bookfair, regaled me with stories about recent signings at their store. The memoir written by Essie Mae Washington Williams, Strom Thurmond’s daughter, brought a circus atmosphere to the store, with publicists and people galore. Earlier this week, the Food Network’s Paula Deen signed her new cookbook and 700 people showed up at Happy Bookseller. The line was out the door and down the block.
My line was not that long. However, it was teacher appreciation night at Happy Bookseller, and RUBY had been on the South Carolina state book award list, so here came a steady stream of teachers, students, and book lovers. I signed lots of books, most of them LITTLE BIRD. “It’s wonderful to have a children’s author in the store!” said Carey. “It’s rare, and it’s such a good thing. There are so many books published each year. We try to read as many as we can, of course? sales reps and book tours bring titles to our attention. I’m so glad to see you again, so I can tell you, face-to-face that I loved your book.” I love her.
Happy Bookseller champions local authors, organizes school book fairs, and is involved heavily in building a reading community in Columbia. Each customer is greeted by name as he or she comes into the store! The staff circulates, smiling, patting on books, recommending good reads.
I love that there are customers recommending EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS!
From an elementary school librarian: “I bought it yesterday when I knew you were coming, and I read it last night. I cried twice, but I laughed a lot, too. Good job!”
A fourth-grade teacher: “My mother died last year, and then? well, other things died. Thank you so much for this book. Comfort brings comfort.”
Conversation with ten-year-old Madison, who is handing me LITTLE BIRD to be signed:
Madison, shy: “I loved it.”
Me: “Do you hate me for? well, for ‘you know what’?”
Madison, shaking her head: “No. It happened to me, too…”
Good conversation, good coffee, good company. Lots of literary feeling. The Augusta Baker Storytelling Festival kicks off in Columbia today. Christopher Paul Curtis is in town for the festivities. I’m in town to sign my new book. Kids are coming to Happy Bookseller to read their stories. I spoke with the Reading Club in the Happy Bookseller Café. Third- and fourth-graders showed me their personal narratives, complete with photographs. “Talk to us about writing,” said the organizer. “The Deborah Wiles guidelines for great prose,” I said: “One,
keep a notebook. Two, BIC — put your butt in the chair and just do it. It can be messy and full of mis-steps, that’s okay, because, Three, you’re going to revise, revise, revise? that’s where the magic lies.”
A short plane ride (not a Tinkertoy!) from Columbia to Atlanta, a shower, a load of laundry thrown into the washer, and I’m snoring in my own bed. I have a few hours home before I fly to Memphis this morning. How I wish we had time for a trip to Graceland! I’m writing a novel for Harcourt wherein Graceland figures prominently in my character Birdie’s mind. 1966 Mississippi. A pivotal time for both Birdie and this country.
Mississippi has always seemed like a land of opposites to me. It is the landscape of my childhood. Another homeplace. I’ll be signing at Square Books in Oxford this afternoon. Faulkner territory. THE REIVERS ranks as one of my favorite novels of all time, right alongside Eudora Welty’s DELTA WEDDING. I know that reading these stories about home and family, kinship and connection helped define my writer’s voice.
I write for children. That’s where my sensibilities lie. I write Southern stories. I hope they are universal stories. Their roots lie deep in the geography of the heart. Here I go, into the heartland.
Sunday, April 24, 2005
11:03 am Jackson, Mississippi
Whirlwind weekend. Flight cancellations and delays, long car rides, strange food. Wonderful new stories to tell.
Friday at Square Books, Jr, in Oxford, Mississippi. The capable Katie Snodgrass introduces me to an audience of school children, parents, and teachers in a colorful, spacious, kid-friendly area. It’s a thrill to speak to Mississippians! They “get it.” They lived the landscape of FREEDOM SUMMER as well as LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER and EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS. Adults nod their heads and chuckle in solidarity as I show them pictures of my maiden aunts and talk about chickens. Square Books carries all my books, even ONE WIDE SKY, from which I sing.
Saturday at Lemuria in Jackson, Mississippi. My parents were born and raised in Mississippi and had lived in Jackson, just a stone’s throw from Lemuria, for thirty years. Coming to sign books in Jackson is a poignant experience, as both my parents died in 2003, and those deaths are part of the fabric of EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS. My mother and father made sure that I had a homeplace, Mississippi, as I grew up moving all over the globe as an Air Force child. I tell folks at Lemuria that I believe that we are all family, as Uncle Edisto says in LITTLE BIRD. It is through our shared stories that we realize our kinship.
Lemuria feels like a comfortable old chair. Even the lighting looks like lamps burning softly.
Melissa Wright is here! Melissa invited me to speak at the Mississippi Library Association in Hattiesburg in 2002. She also invited my mother to come and sit on the dais and hear me speak for the first — and last — time ever. I showed slides of my childhood and spoke about how childhood experiences found their way into my fiction. I got to introduce librarians and readers to my mother, who had been such a champion of my work. She had been a chemo warrior in 2002, and she would be gone within the following year, but she had wanted to hear me speak; she came to Hattiesburg that day. It meant a lot to me that Melissa had been so gracious and that the MLA had included my mother in their plans.
Now Melissa is here, at Lemuria in Jackson, with HER mother. What a privilege it is to meet her. What a feeling of coming around full-circle.
Yvonne Rogers has elevated the organization of Lemuria’s children’s books section to an art form by inventively finding ways to face a good portion of her stock face-out, so that customers’ eyes fall on those beautiful covers. My eyes fall on Walt Whitman’s WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER (luscious illustrations by Loren Long) and SONG OF THE WATERBOATMAN AND OTHER POND POEMS by Joyce Sidman — I must have them. I’m buying books as fast as I sell my own!
Lemuria carries all four of my books. Yvonne puts me at the front of the store, right next to the adult books sections, near the cash register, which is a smart idea. She introduces me to folks as they walk in, tells them about my stories, and she stays right with me, handing me stock to sign when I’m not signing books for someone. After a half hour of meet-and-greet, I’ve gathered a nice-size group at the table and I tell the story of LITTLE BIRD, then read from Comfort’s “Top Ten Tips for First-Rate Funeral Behavior.” Even the staff pays close attention and laughs in recognition. I can feel it: I am home, home, home. Here, we understand sweet tea and congealed salads. We understand death and mayhem and how they go hand in hand with… life and mayhem! in Mississippi.
On the way back to my hotel, I tell author escort Jim Allen that I’m going to rest for two hours and then be ready for him to pick me up and take me to a tea at the nearby Brandon Library, where I’ll wear my tea dress, hat, and gloves, It will be a welcome-home affair with good library friends and my family in Brandon, Mississippi.
When Jim picks me up at 3pm, he has brought his friend Barry with him. Barry will drive me to the tea, says Jim. “I figure, if you’re going to high tea at the Brandon Library and wearing your gloves, you should be driven in style.” I walk outside and Barry opens the back door to his 1959 Silver Cloud Rolls Royce.
Well! The ride is dreamy, like silk, only it’s leather, red leather that I’m sitting on. A beautiful car, every detail is luscious. Folks stare at us as we stop at lights, round corners. I actually wave back and smile Ha!
At the Brandon library we laugh and tell stories. The entire library staff is dressed for tea! Hats everywhere! Gloves! Teapots are on every table. Young people, old people — we are black, white, tall, short, round, skinny, smiling faces. My cousin Carol Booth has helped arrange this day, as has Ann Graham, library manager, and Jonelle Anderson, Kathy Sparkman, and so many more. Aunt Beth and Uncle Jim are here! Cousin Bubba! (Really!) and his grandson Will – it’s another Old Home Week. I can hardly compose myself to say what’s in my heart. I wish my parents were here, I say. And I do.
Tomorrow I meet the folks at Windows, A Bookshop, in Monroe, Louisiana. Owner Elisabeth Grant-Gibson sent a letter to Harcourt when she found out I would be on tour with LITTLE BIRD. It started out:
“We have been trying to make a booksigning happen with Deb Wiles since LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER (four years!). She wanted to come here, but at the time her mother was ill, then her marriage died, her mother died, her father died, even her dog died, so we never got it together. WE REALLY WANT HER NOW.”
Okay! I want them, too. Windows will be the last official stop on this two-week tour. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Jackson, Mississippi to Monroe, Louisiana. Jim Allen, driver extraordinaire and kind person, will drive me all the way there on Sunday afternoon.
Sunday night, April 24, 2005
Today was a travel day and a day off. I spent it with family. Driver Jim Allen dropped me off at the Cypress Inn, where I met cousins Brian and Mary Margaret Hindman and their daughter (my cousin) Margaret. We shared a midday meal outside (catfish and hushpuppies – it took me back to childhood), surrounded by cypress trees drippin with Spanish moss, and a bayou filled with turtles. After a tour of Monroe which included a “hey!” to the Windows folks and a dropping-off of my belongings at Betty Jo Harris’s house (Betty Jo works at Windows), we drove the half-hour to Ruston where I spent an evening at my cousin’s house – I’d never visited before — looking through scrapbooks with 13-year-old Margaret, and drinking in the pungent odor of shrimp etoufee that Mary Margaret was cooking in her cast iron dutch oven.
How soul-filling to be with family. Kin. Now I’m about to drop off to sleep in a comfortable bed that’s situated in an apartment over the garage at Betty Jo’s in Monroe. Betty Jo is down to earth and… earthy. Ha! Very real. Her eyes sparkle. She is the mother of four boys. And she has that twangy Louisiana accent that could tie a horse’s tongue. I could listen to her all day.
I am going to sleep. One more day on tour. There is an alligator crossing outside my window.
Monday, April 25, 2005
9:45pm Brandon, Mississippi
I am on television in Monroe, Louisiana. Save me. Or better yet, save yourselves! Gack! At 7:00am I trundle out the door of Betty Jo Harris’s home in Monroe, where I’ve spent a glorious night sleeping in an old country-club converted into a rambling home next to a Louisiana bayou. I’ve already applied my makeup and hidden my Ziploc bags deep in my Harcourt-blue tote bag. The interview is actually painless, as the morning host at KNOE’s Good Morning Ark-La-Miss, Randy Prewitt, is seasoned and knows how to put me at ease.
Betty Jo next whisks me to the local NPR affiliate at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, KEDM, where I am interviewed by news director Sunny Meriweather for a local program called “Lagniappe” which is Cajun for “a little something extra.” Sunny loves children’s books and has read both RUBY and LITTLE BIRD. We spend a lovely 9 minutes together on the air. The program will be archived for a week at the KEDM website (www.kedm.org).
Next, a bevy of fourth-graders at Sally Humble Elementary School, a two-hour put-your-feet-up back at the country-club-house, then a middle school audience of 8th-graders at Lee Junior High, and finally, “the jewel in the crown” as Elisabeth calls it, two hours at Windows. Owners Elisabeth Grant-Gibson and Pat Grant have spent the weekend with their able helpers – several teenagers who work for book credit starting when they are eleven, and become full-fledged employees at sixteen — inventorying everything in the store and installing a computer system that will track sales for them. “No more green ledger sheets!” says Elisabeth with glee.
Gleeful is a good word for the folks at Windows. Careening is another. They careen from moment to moment, laughing, fondly calling the store “Winnders,” as in “Here at Winnders, we have fun.” And they do. They are into a little bit of everthing, connecting with their community, surviving, thriving. Elisabeth is organizing a summer film fest to be held in the back room. A camera crew is also here, filming a commercial for Windows. They film my interactions with students, parents, and teachers as the back room fills up. “Just ignore us,” says the man with the hulking-huge camera on his shoulders. The careening continues. I am having a lot of fun, laughing along with everyone else.
At 4pm we all gather in front of the fireplace for a short talk and reading from LITTLE BIRD. It’s a gala atmosphere charged with a meaning I can’t interpret. What comes to me, though, is “We live to serve.” It’s the Snowberger family motto, and is a major theme in LITTLE BIRD. Ten-year-old Comfort has spouted this saying all her life. As her story unfolds, she learns what it really means to serve. I am learning this as well. A book is an offering. And we don’t “help” others; we serve them. We serve one another — that’s what creates peace, I say to the Windows crowd, a crowd that Elisabeth and Pat have gathered from all over Monroe, Louisiana with their media and school efforts. I get teary thinking of how Windows serves its community, how a book serves a reader, how a story serves a heart longing for connection to something universal, how my job is to serve the story and to offer it up as a way to look at how we are human.
“I have to go now!” says a little person who tugs at my skirt. Me, too. I’m done. Elisabeth and Pat will drive me back to Jackson, where family is waiting for me. While we speed through the dusk, Elisabeth and Pat comb over their first computerized printout of sales and exclaim over all the Deborah Wiles books sold. Yes, we had a good sales day. I had a good two days in Louisiana.
One more night on the road – I’m staying with Cousin Carol in Brandon — then home to Atlanta. But is Atlanta home? Or is home held in every story I’ve heard on the road? I don’t know how I feel, it’s all mixed up. Atlanta is still so new to me, and story is so old, and I am so weary. Home again and again. I want to know what it means.
So… stay with me one more day, will you? Help me finish this story.
April 27, 2005
Noon, Tucker, Georgia
I have flown home to Tucker, Georgia, and I am sitting in the little house I bought almost a year ago, blinking at the sunshine coming through the kitchen windows and marveling at how strange-yet-familiar my things – and I – feel in this new home. The book tour is over. How does one measure success? Here is one yardstick.
One book tour: Fourteen days through seven states, thirteen bookstores, three schools, one library, nine drivers, hundreds of children in a sea of shining faces, and countless stories later —
Some of what I heard:
— “You’re my favorite author!”
— “What’s your name again?”
— “I’m writing a novel?.”
— “Bless your heart!”
Some of what I ate:
— grits and stewed tomatoes
— Krispy Kreme doughnuts
— fried everything
— too much coffee, man
Some of what I was gifted with:
— lavender bath salts and a nail file
— RC Colas, peanuts, and moonpies
— two hunks of fresh ginger
— one chalk drawing by Madeline, age 8, picturing me standing between Madeline and Ruby Lavender.
So many stories. I am convinced that WE are stories. Every breath we take — in/out — is a story. Every word we utter has power and changes our lives. Every action creates a reaction, a consequence. Just as Great-uncle Edisto posits in EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS, those opposites are always at work. One moment I’m wresting my luggage and myself onto a Tinkertoy airplane and the next I’m riding in a 1959 Rolls Royce. And it is all good. All grist. All story.
I find myself wanting to say thank you. Thank you to Harcourt, who kept me safe and surrounded by family and friends for two weeks, who believe in the power of story. I can’t wait to say thank you in person at IRA and ALA this summer. Thank you to everyone I met on the road, to everyone who took the time to come see me, to arrange for an author visit, for a bookstore signing, for an overnight accommodation. It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a universe to host an author on tour.
Perhaps the universe is my home. Maybe I’ve had such trouble defining home because I’ve thought of it as a geographic place, when it is so much bigger than that. I’d like to think we belong to one another, no matter where we live, no matter who we are, or what we are.
For now I am home in Atlanta and it is good. The birds sing outside my Georgia window this afternoon, just as they sing to Comfort on Listening Rock in Snapfinger, Mississippi, just as they sing in my long-time Maryland home, just as they sing in China, Mexico, Israel, Jordan, Russia, the Philippines.
Outside every window, each little bird sings a song, each little bird tells a story. Each little bird — that’s us. It has been my privilege to hear these stories on the road, to feel that spark of recognition, of resonance, in each of them. It has been my delight to go on the road with family — you. Thank you for coming along with me. Thank you for embracing my story. I can see it clearly now: through telling our stories we create and define our lives, we understand ourselves and one another, and we find a place to call home.
I am home in the heart of story.