End of the Line

Traveling Salesman

The not-so-glamorous life of an author on the road

Illustration: Barry Blitt

People want to argue with me: “Are you sure you look like that?”

Afraid so.

“Well, you’re not like I expected,” they say.

No, I’m not like I expected either. Why do they think I got off into writing books?

I’m not writing one as I speak to them, though, I’m promoting one. My twenty-fourth, which I will mention the name of just this once: Save Room for Pie. In twelve cities, bing bing bing.

I am probably not even acting like myself. I’m on a book tour.

The book, I say, is what matters. The author is the sizzle (or not), the book is the steak. And the reason the author is standing here talking to you, I suggest as delicately as I can, is so you’ll buy the book.

“Well, I just like hearing you do it in your voice,” they say.

They can, I tell them, buy the audiobook, which I rubbed my larynx raw trying to record right. I don’t like listening to it, myself, because it sounds so much better in my mind. Actually, books shouldn’t be expected to make noise.

To be sure, audiences enjoy hearing me read aloud. From this book. Would they enjoy hearing me read from auto-maintenance manuals? No. It’s the book. And food, which the book is about. Food is funny. Especially when you talk about it. And when you write about it? Let me put it this way: Look at a potato. How long does it take you to start smiling? Now look at the word “potato.” See what I mean? So you can imagine how hard it is for people to contain themselves when someone stands up in front of them, however wrong he looks, and reads them a poem—a poem—about okra.

I am not selling okra, however. I am selling—trying to sell—books. And I am a terrible salesman.

I was brought up to be gracious. I like being gracious. But here’s what I want to shout out: The book! Is the point! Buy the thing. I’ll sign it for you. I’ll inscribe it to your mother. Whether or not she’s really your mother, I’ll lie and say she is. Just buy it.

Here’s what an eminent author once told me. I won’t tell you his name, lest you come to hate him as much as you are beginning to hate me. “Say my book was a restaurant,” he said. “You wouldn’t come in, inhale the aromas, go back to the kitchen and ask how the various dishes are made, take several bites, express vocal appreciation, and then leave.”

You would feel like you should buy a meal!

Okay. It wasn’t an eminent author who said that. It was me. But the eminent author agreed.

A book tour does enable me to visit my daughter, Ennis, in North Carolina. “How is it going?” she asked. I was reading aloud to people, I told her, and they were rolling in the aisles. And then many of them were rolling right out the door. Satisfied. Of course if they really wanted the book, they could find a place online where they could download a disembodied version of it for free. That would be illegal, but hey, there’s something cool about piracy, as long as you’re not the source of the booty.

Ennis did not like hearing me gripe about my audiences. “You give them joy,” she said.

Where did I go wrong? When Ennis was growing up, did I stress insufficiently the value of mercenary motives? She is a committed (and joyous) social worker. Helps poor children for a living. No one does that for the money.

But she does get paid.

Here is something I thought but did not say, even to my own daughter. I am going to write it, however, to you, my column reader. Evidently, you don’t mind assuming that I look pretty much the way the great, merciless Barry Blitt draws me (that’s my nose?) every issue. Nor do you expect this page to burst into sound. And when I am writing for a page, I am trying to get at what I really think. (Don’t you love a page? I love a page. My book has 304 of them.) So. This—at least when I’m on a book tour, and may not be myself—is what I think, as I look at an audience:

I want to sell them some joy.