Post Road Magazine #17

(Unexpurgated) Tour Journal
Wesley Stace, John Wesley Harding, and George Fisher (of Henley)

Monday, August 20, 2007

George Fisher vs. MySpace: The Pre-Bumbershoot Blog

Bumbershoot is my favourite festival in America and I'm doing triple duty this year: panel on Sunday, a gig (under the name John Wesley Harding) that night, and then reading from my new novel by George on the Monday.

A little background: the George of the title, or one of the two, is a ventriloquist dummy, who (which?) narrates half of the novel. George is not just based on, but is, a "real" dummy who (which!) belonged to my grandfather. And the actual George will be accompanying me on tour. You can see him here: www.myspace.com/bygeorgefisher.

The best thing that happened in pre-publicity was that MySpace featured the first chapter, narrated by George (as though it were his own blog), for a week on their books front-page.

This had the immediate effect of sending a few thousand people a day to George's site, rather than the usual two or three. And these new visitors were, I think, rather more typical of MySpace than George's usual select clientele. And they left lots of comments under the blog, and these are worth appreciating in full.

There was a lot of very polite "I liked it" etc. The first question was "When does the book come out?" to which came the reply: "It's already out!!! Yay," which I thought a little odd, because it simply wasn't true.

Anyway, there was the occasional off-the-wall classic—and I'm respelling some of these for the public good—("Wretched nubile flesh corrugating the souls of mankind"), the casual ("Yeah I'm sexy"), and the blasé ("i got dis buuk like lazt wkk"); a few pointed remarks ("this is fucked up you should not publicize these kinds a things"); a little literary criticism ("in the beginning it is usual, nothing special, but then you used details that make the story more interesting"), and even a mini-debate about my use of a quotation from David Copperfield—the first chapter of DC is called "I Am Born," so my chapter, because George is a dummy, is called "I Am Built" and uses the same first line to, one would hope, comic effect. This did not escape keen eyes: "your beginning sounds a lot like david copperfield." It even provoked an accusation: "a word for word copy! plagerism?"

Then someone said: "I just finished reading the book it was sweet so many twists and the Epilogue!" which was great to hear, but weird because it seemed unlikely that this commenter would have an advance copy and, besides, by George doesn't have an epilogue. And somebody replied: "i cant believe this is the last book i love them but i hate how so many people die as we're speaking my friend is finishin up the book right now we are takin a break so I can write this letter ok got to finish up the last chapter!" (Followed by 25 exclamation marks.) Others agreed: "lmfao, I've read the hole book, got it the very first night finished it two days later, it the best one i think."

And that's when the penny finally dropped: these people who had finished the book, hadn't finished my book. They'd finished A book. But it wasn't just any book, they'd finished THE Book—Harry Potter.

But nobody had mentioned Harry Potter, or made any reference to it, on the entire page.
And though George does have similarities to Harry Potter—part of it is set in a prep school, though the magic is all sleight of hand rather than spells and a "load of all warlocks"—it was then that I realized that people just saw the phrase "the book" and, as once they may have assumed it was, say, the Bible, so they now assume it is by J. K. Rowling. And this led to the horrible realization that, if they see any publicity for any book anywhere, they just assume it's for Harry Potter. Which in a way is fair enough, I suppose.

And when, beneath a blog written from the point of view of a ventriloquist dummy, that very first person had kindly asked: "i can't wait to hear more, george.... ??when does the novel come out??" the first person who answered: "its already out!!! Yay!" had already Pottered out.

Because, after all—and, though this isn't news—look round you at any person, parents and their children alike, next to you on the train, in the airport, sitting at Starbucks: you have never ever seen so many copies of any book simultaneously read. Who would assume that anybody was asking about any other novel?

 

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A Guest Blog: George Fisher on His Recent Performances

Goodness, I've just worked harder than I have in fifty-odd years!

It's awfully tiring. To start with, my box, which is not only my digs but my mode of transportation, has been changed. I admit the old Romando one was heavy; too heavy in fact. But I'm worried about this new one—it's a piece of carry-on, in which I am bent double, then wrapped in a green towel that smells rather of dog. Simply isn't sturdy enough! (No calamities as yet, though, so perhaps I shouldn't worry. Touch wood.)

Our first engagement was at a bookshop, which surely must be the biggest one in the world, called Barnes and Noble. (They had over a thousand books in there.) First surprise: we were in America! Not only that, but the Big Apple itself! I remember all the jokes from the war, but America seems very civil in 2007. My first impression: lots of well-behaved citizens, with simply incredible teeth, drinking from paper cups—there must be a porcelain shortage. This Noble place was where we did our first performance. It went well.

My new ventriloquist is, dare I say it, not terribly good: in fact, he can barely do it at all. But I'll say this for him: people laugh. I don't know WHY they laugh precisely, because they're not hearing any of my real zingers like "I'll have a beacon and eggs" or "Why am I feeling poorly? Because I haven't got any money!" But people seem to like it nonetheless. (And they look at me a little nervously. It used to be QUITE the opposite!) It's a new modern "humor" and perhaps I'm a little behind the times. I'll catch up, have no fear. Oh, perhaps it's just normal humour, but the "u" is missing. We need to put that "u" back in "humor."

Anyway, first he read from my memoirs. (I've had a bit of a sore throat.) And then we did our little routine. And then there was a HECKLER! What the devil! At first, it was a bit awkward—we were taken aback and didn't have the necessary comebacks—but then I realised what I should have known all the time: it was Cecil, at the hands of the humanly female Carla Rhodes. He's somehow also pitched up in New York City at the same time, and apparently went out of his way to come to Noble's just to heckle me! It all harks back to a rather unsavory incident on Brighton's West Pier in 1939, which involved Cecil, me and a purloined stick of Brighton Rock, which resulted in some rather unpleasant daubing. At the reading, we made a rather unhappy peace and he shut up so I could continue. There'll be more to this story, I'm sure. (I expunged him from my memoirs entirely—on the basis that any publicity is good publicity—and that may also be the root of the trouble.)

Then it was back in the box, a lot of bumping around, and I'm suddenly in some kind of speakeasy or gin palace, and everyone's congratulating me, feting me, on my book (at last!) and patting me on the head, and drinking and talking, and stealing free copies from a pile by the door. It was quite the liveliest place I've ever been in. A few people had a little fiddle with me. I don't normally like to be passed like a parcel, but there is a time and a place for everything, and this was it. Call me anything you like, but don't call me churlish. (Note: I had asked Cecil not to come, and he respected this wish. Carla, however, handled me rather nicely. Far be it from me to make Cecil jealous . . . but she could do better than him.)

Note to self: "Now is the winter of our discount tents!" I wonder if I can work that in somewhere.

Then a long sleep before my palace was unzipped and I was placed on a piano, with a microphone in front of me. It was another public or saloon bar, filled with people, all with funny accents like from Gone with the Wind. Harking back to my previous stage experience, I recall the smell of greasepaint, the whoosh of the satin runners, the moths in the footlights: but that era is long gone. Now it's all plain black stages with tape stuck all over them and big microphones—and the worst thing is: NOBODY is wearing evening dress! They all look like they're going to calisthenics class! It's quite casual, and perhaps all a little too . . . "unbuttoned." I think that's the word. But I don't say anything. (With regards to my partner, sartorial standards are quite high, I'm delighted to say.) And we did our "routine"—which he's stolen from Morecambe and Wise, I happen to know—and answered a few questions from these sweet drawling darlings. If this is America, I like it. I am coming to view it as the land of opportunity, where a boy might be a boy. The trouble with the setup of our show at the moment—because he's not very good, you see—is that we're just getting going when it's all over again and I'm back in the box. And this new "Ventriloquial Mime" thing he's trying to shoehorn into the act is, frankly, ridiculous. But, again, I don't say anything. I keeps my peace, like the wise old owl, and the equally wise Scotsman (of yore).

Our next appearance was more like it—a stage, a theatre, footlights (VERY bright), but no curtain—what's wrong with a curtain? I found myself plunked on one of four chairs. And I sat there as the audience trooped in. And they took pictures of me! That was delightful. And I was just wondering how long this was all going to go on, feeling a bit of a lemon, unable to explain myself, when the show began: and on walked my vocal partner, and two attractive women, one of whom read and then started doing clown animals—she could make a dachshund very well, but her giraffe looked exactly the same as her elephant. When one of the balloon animals untied itself and reverted to being a long pink balloon again, she described it, quite frankly, in anatomical terms. (I'll hark back to the word "unbuttoned" if that helps. . . .) And I tell you this: my eyes nearly popped out! I have NEVER heard such language from a female before, let alone on a stage, and I thought that she would probably be escorted from the theatre, and ducked or some such. But everyone simply laughed, as though it was acceptable! And I'll admit: it was funny. Her name was Monica Drake. I found her reading stimulating and I shall make it my business to have her novel, Clown Girl, read to me (though I think it will require substantial expurgation, and perhaps the substitution of a few words). The audience also asked questions, and the accent was entirely different. Someone asked a trick question and I sensed the malign hand of Cecil. But no: it was just someone being funny. Audiences are much bolder these days. They used to do exactly what you told them.

One other thing—a major criticism of my previous partner was that he used to let my box (which, let's face it, is my home) become a kind of receptacle for all the ephemera he gathered on our tour during the war. And my new partner is doing exactly the same! Already I am sharing my living quarters with a board book for babies—which actually looks quite good: it's called Baby, Make Me a Drink! and it has simple visual cocktail recipes that anyone could understand; a book of essays by someone called Nick Hornby; a book of short stories by Jana Martin; a magazine called Swivel; and a small silver record thing that has a collection of "dummy"-themed songs to be played at the readings: “Puppet on a String,” “I'm Your Puppet,” and so on. There is also the Ventril-o stamp, some receipts, a copy of my memoirs, a packet of matches and a rather inquisitive ant. And they're all clanking around me the whole time. And I just don't see why they have to be. It's lazy. It's asking for trouble. And it's a little disrespectful. But I don't say anything. At least, I haven't yet.

When it's all going so swimmingly, it seems a shame to be folded in half and wrapped in a dog blanket. But the great news is that my memoirs seem to be making their way around the world. I hear they're going to be translated into Bahasa Indonesian, which is incredible—though it made me sad. I had a pal out there once.

It's been a quiet last few years; since that war, I suppose. But now we're back in the saddle (not literally) and on the road (also not literally). I'm going to enjoy every single moment.

George Fisher (of Henley)

 

Monday, October 08, 2007

Trains, Trains and Locomotives

I'm on the 3.51 from London to Oxford, where I am reading to/being grilled by the Blackwell's Book Club. I'm not exactly sure.

It's all part of the UK launch of by George, which keeps me here for a week. A trip to the UK is always a pleasure for me, but a dodgy computer has made this one a little more fraught than usual. The laptop had a major freak-out on arrival and had to spend "three to five" days in the Apple Store on Regent Street. To Apple's credit, this turned into no more than 24 hours. However, despite passing all the necessary tests (with its new RAM and Logic Board), it still seems to be doing some mighty strange things. I'm unconvinced. But I shan't go on about it. However, know this—no computer, no blog.

My book party was on Tuesday—a lovely evening featuring friends (some unglimpsed since teen age), family (some unglimpsed since June), and various writers and publishing people (some unglimpsed entirely). And then the next night was a similar do for Nick Hornby's new teen novel, Slam. And there's nothing much better than hanging out with old friends with free booze and few speeches. Interviews have been plentiful. The least interesting opened with this exchange: "How long have you lived in America?" "About seventeen years." "Do you regret it?" At this, I looked a little dumbfounded and said: "What an odd way of putting that. I'm still living there. Why do you put it that way?" The interviewer answered: "Because I can't imagine living anywhere but England." I guess I can.

The UK trip, amidst reviews, a little light shopping, and some surprisingly balmy October walks, has had some surprises. For example, keen readers of this diary will know that I glimpsed Martin Freeman (a man who I’m sure doesn't like to be known as "Tim from The Office") on Tokyo Station a few weeks ago. There he was, on the same train, later trundling his trolley next to me. I didn't say anything. However, on Monday, when I was standing outside a pub in Soho waiting for my friend, feeling rather useless, like my computer—perhaps it had jet lag too—Martin Freeman again passed by, pushing a baby in a stroller. At that moment, I felt it was time to say something. Partly this was because I was actually looking at Chris Morris at the time—a comedy hero who just happened to be standing there, in grey fatigues, chatting to someone in the rain. So when I saw Martin Freeman, he felt like an old friend. And I mentioned, apropos of nothing, that I'd just seen him on Tokyo Station, and we had a chat, and that was that. Very nice. Imagine my surprise, then, when the next day, in the Apple Store (that's still on Regent Street), I turned around to find Martin Freeman standing next to me, waiting his machine's turn. That was odd, as we remarked. Doubtless, I'll see him in New York sometime in the near future.

We won't need to make a plan. He'll just be there.

This one's for the cognoscenti: my taxi driver on the way to Paddington was Tony. If I tell you he's Tony from the Up series, it may mean something. I was excited. I congratulated him. And if you haven't seen the Up series, and it means nothing, then do: one of the most important film events of the last 49 years—I won't go into it, but Tony is one of the participants. And every seven years, as he talks about his life, his job, his family, they film him. And here he is, picking me up in my cab. Well, he's a London cabdriver, so perhaps that isn't surprising (and I do believe that Nick Hornby has had the same experience). But he seemed awfully pleased when I asked him if he was he—which he obviously was. He handed me his card: “Taxie Tony.” (You can look him up at www.TonyWalker49up.com.) And then he asked me if I could help him get on I'm a Celebrity! Get Me out of Here! I was left in the odd position of encouraging him to continue with the Up series, but he seems to want more, or different. He has an agent, though—so perhaps they can sort it out. I know way too much about him for him to be my cabdriver: he's trying to be an actor; he was once a jockey; he's just bought a place in Spain; he once said a very memorable thing about the most important three things in life being the three F's: "Friends, Family, and I'll leave the other one to your imagination" or something like that. Normally, all you know about your cabdriver is that they support QPR. I also had lunch at Pizza Express, sitting next to Gemma Redgrave. But after Martin Freeman and Taxie Tony, this was merely a celebrity sighting. London is a very small pond.

My computer hasn't crashed for a long time.

Last time I wrote that, it crashed immediately and I lost most of this blog—there is nothing less pleasant than writing something all over again—and the sentence "My computer hasn't crashed for a long time" was left floating on the frozen screen, taunting me. And I knew I'd have to turn everything off, and thus destroy it all, to get the computer back on. Is that a mended computer? I think not! However, there are only five minutes left on the battery, so we are coming to the end whether I like it or not.
We pass through Reading Station as I wait for my battery to die. I stopped here many times when my father lived here. And then again in 1984, when I taught at a local school. I remember returning very late from a John Hiatt concert at the Half Moon, Putney. I really liked John Hiatt then. That gig was important to me. Now—and this may be more a reflection on me than John Hiatt—I wouldn't cross the road to see him play the greatest show of his career. Three minutes on the battery and counting. What to do? Oh I know: If anyone wants to knows about my first kiss, the moment is here. Look at: www.thefanzine.com.

Of books? I am shortly returning to the USA, where I shall ship immediately to San Francisco, for a reading at Booksmith (Thursday) and then a Literary Death Match as part of Litquake (see the message board). You know how literature isn't a competition? Well, this actually is. So, support me. (My battery has suddenly revivified for no good reason and is showing thirteen minutes. Do I trust this?)

***

The answer was NO.

OK. It's the next day. Well, what had happened to my computer, which was clearly not right, was that the newly inserted RAM had come loose. This was easily solved, but it meant yet another trip to the Apple Store, which I may as well give as my permanent address next time I come to London.

Anyway, now things seem to be right.

I am now on the 4.15 from London to Hastings, for a little breather. I've taken this train about a million times. But I don't think I ever computed as I listened to The Best of the Wombles. (You don't remember the Wombles, sir? Then I put it to you that you are not British.)

One thing I have noticed about being a writer is that you have to do an awful lot of writing. I don't just mean the novel: obviously you have to write that—it's the minimum requirement, for a novelist at least. I mean all the other stuff. You have to explain why you wrote it for keen readers of the paperback, and how you wrote it for keen readers of a journal. And there are various publications, mostly Web, but in this case also the New York Post, who like you to do your interview by e-mail, which is far more tiring than just having a thirty-minute chat on the phone. If I were a reviewer—a path a lot of novelists take, a path I won't (probably, can't) take—I'd be writing even more. But it seems to me that I already couldn't write more than I already do, that my computer and I would explode. Particularly because, as my keenest readers know, I type with two fingers (not "at society": you know, actually with two fingers) and occasionally a thumb on the space bar. It's not ideal, but it's always been fine for me. People laugh when they realise the cackhandedness of my approach. There may be a link to my guitar-playing. Perhaps I only have two fingers that are good for anything. Certainly, the little finger on my right hand is broken, and I have to ram it into the pick-guard to keep it out of the way of the rest of my dazzling two-fingerwork. I broke it while driving my motorbike in 1984. A van came round a corner very fast, down a country lane, and drove me off the road. When I got where I was going, my stepmother told me to put it under the tap. (Water famously mends splintered and fractured bones.) And look at it now, perfectly cocked at a permanently 35 degree angle. But, like that Roald Dahl story, you just don't really need your little finger so much. Nice that we were given them, however unnecessary.
Of course, I can name every station on this line by heart. We have just passed through Tonbridge. The girl opposite me has studiously avoided lifting her bag from the seat next to her so nobody can sit down next to her without actually specifically asking her to move the huge blue bag: she has a rather stern face and a skin complaint, so it's possible they don't want to get involved. We are just about to pass through Tunbridge Wells (no relation to Tonbridge), where my father was born. He's now exchanged England for Italy—Bagni di Lucca, which is (ultimately) more charming and far more beautiful than Tunbridge Wells.

My iPod is on the craziest shuffle: the Wombles, followed by Schubert's 5th, Jobim, “New York Mining Disaster” by the Bee Gees, “When Sin Stops” by Waylon Jennings, Boney M's "Rasputin" ("Russia's favourite love machine/There was a cat that really was gone . . ."), the Amazing Blondel and a track from the new Joni Mitchell album that has a really strange rhythm I neither would nor could have played. I wonder how I can have such good and bad taste in music at the same time. I often wonder that. I am well aware that I like music that is actually not good. I don't mean technically. It's just not great music. You wouldn't like it. Take the Amazing Blondel for example. I am listening to their album Bad Dreams, which I recently digitized in part of an ongoing project to get my vinyl onto CD—a move, by the way, that normally beats the official CD release by minus one year—anyway . . . Bad Dreams is not good. I'd go so far as to say that it is a bad record, far removed from the grandeur of their earlier classics, far after they should have probably called it a day. And yet, I really like it. And it's not even because I listened to it as a child. Oh no. I had to go out and actively seek this mediocre record at a little independent record store I know called eBay. Because I like Blondel and thus I don't like the idea that there might be a record floating around that has as much as one good second on it that would flesh out the Blondel story and make it even more Amazing. But if there is that second on Bad Dreams, they have planted it quite deep within the record in quite a cunning way. But I'll keep looking.

In days of old, when knights were bold, the train stopped at Tunbridge Wells for five minutes, during which you could get a newspaper or smoke a cigarette, have a cup of sugary tea or something equally old-fashioned. Now we speed through to Frant as though Tunbridge Wells barely exists.

I guess there's quite a lot to say.

Now added to the music is the version I did of the English national anthem ("God Save the King"), recorded for the Song of America compilation. I hope you like it. Janet Reno said about it, and I'm not even joking: "Somebody's got a sense of humor. . . . A perfect way to present the colonies opposed to the king. And the music that followed was just such a perfect juxtaposition to the song itself." Discuss.

And now my UK tour is done. See you in San Francisco on Thursday (at Booksmith—there I am also going to play the guitar) and on Friday (where I am in competition). . . .

 

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Literary Death Match: A Full Report

Picture this: a literary festival. Three or four hundred, let's just say "hundreds," of people packed into the Swedish American Hall on Market Street in the Castro. They are paying $15 a head to see four writers read for 8-10 minutes each. That's it. Just imagine that. Oh sure, Opium Magazine have gussied up the basic idea, turned it into a Literary Death Match, but basically that's what's happening. That the hall should be sold out, with a large line of people turned away: outrageous. It's a tribute to Elizabeth and Todd of Opium.

And Litquake.

How did they gussy? Four writers read against each other in pairs. This produces two finalists, who then compete in an extra-literary competition. There are three judges who evaluate on three criteria—literary merit, presentation and intangibles—and last night, they were an equal part of the show. Anyway, I was one of the four competitors, along with Evany Thomas, Daniel Handler and Gary Kamiya.

In the first round, I was pitted against Evany. A coin was tossed to see who would go first, but she had already asked me to let her go first, so this much, at least, was fixed. And she read an astonishingly funny piece, with which I couldn't compete, about scattering her grandmother's ashes. In fact, she didn't even read it, she recited it. I was worried, because the crowd was large, and wanted a laugh, and I, with the first chapter of my novel, was clearly going to offer them the least laughs of the evening. But I had a secret weapon: George. And when I was up, I placed him front and central, told the audience to "look at him, but listen to me," and read the first chapter as dramatically as I could. It was going well. Then:

In the middle of the reading—and this was jaw-droppingly unexpected—a woman stood up from her chair and started to heckle me. In particular she was annoyed that I was "reading, not TELLING!" —a point she made freely and forcefully over and over (until she was wrestled to the ground and eliminated). It turned out that she was (a) startlingly drunk on the free gin with which all were plied and (b) under the mistaken impression that the Literary Death Match was an extension of Monday night's "Storytelling Without a Script" event. Initially, people may have thought she was part of the routine, and I even thought she might be a plant, perhaps the stooge of an overly competitive writer out to throw me off by any means possible. (Daniel??) The weird thing is: when I am singing, I have no problem with heckles, or requests, or conversations—it's all part of the show. But I had lost myself in my reading, entered a kind of Dickensian other-consciousness, and when this racket began: I was surprised. All kinds of things went through my head: I thought I'd pretend that it was me throwing my voice; I think I said "Mum! Please be quiet!" or something along those lines; I feared that a beer was about to be thrown—this had famously happened the year before when one of the judges harshly described a writer's work as having "no literary merit"—a dickish thing to say at a good-humoured event—for which he received a free drink (facially). All these thoughts rattled through my mind, and probably out of my mouth, and then I went back to my text. Unbelievably, the next line was: "Nothing ever distracted him from his work." Which brought my house down. Godot moves in mysterious and welcome ways. I believe the offender was ejected.

Anyway, my rival Evany's performance was superb, as was that of the judges: Oscar Villalon of the Chronicle had become a father five days previously, and he expressed himself only via American football speak. The only thing I can now remember is that he said of Daniel Handler's gay-themed piece: "What I love about this guy is he loves his teammates, on the field, in the locker room. He's a real team player." Villalon gave four brilliant monologues, all in the name of judging "intangibles." I can only think (he says modestly) that I triumphed because of a sympathy vote due to the heckler, but it could also have been that I bribed the judges. I can't remember which. Anyway: I was through to the final.

Daniel Handler vs. Gary Kamiya was a tough call, but Daniel just swung it—the judges were going to flip for it, but were discouraged, and finally chose Handler because either (a) the whole thing was fixed (and more of this later) or (b) Gary's superb piece of his memories of North Beach ran about half again too long. And thus the final brought me head, or arse to arse (for that is how we stood), with Daniel Handler, of the Lemony Snicket and Magnetic Fields parish.

But were we to make up limericks, or write to the literary death? No such luck: we were to play basketball against each other—one small squashy ball, and one high small hoop each. The first to five: I lost, very enjoyably. I took a quick lead. But at some point (apparently) we were told to move nearer the hoop, since the oche—look it up, Americans! —was set too far back. But this news didn't reach me, and I earnestly kept throwing from my original position, a fact of which everyone was later pleased to inform me. I have this mental image of me standing six feet from my hoop and Handler reaching up and, without breaking sweat, dropping the ball into his, an insanely evil grin on his face. But that's probably not what happened. Anxiety dreams only happen when you're asleep.

I tried to make off with his crown at the end, but he chased me round the hall—and he was a worthy winner: most importantly, his story ("Briefly" from Adverbs) was about as good as it gets: very sad, very funny, very very funny. Not to mention the fact that he had never previously won an award for anything athletic—and so I, who have a cabinet full of bronze medals, cannot begrudge him. That aside, I come to bury Daniel Handler not to praise him: he cheated. That's the real headline here.

My trip to San Francisco was fleeting, so I don't know about the rest of Litquake, but the Literary Death Match was the most fun I've had at a reading in a long while, and probably George's sole best event. And if the rest of Litquake was that good, then I salute it and long to take part next year. San Franciscans are very lucky.

In news of my life, my family is still evacuated to Rhode Island, during the redecoration of our house, and so I am on a plane, somewhere over Colorado, returning to the pocket-sized T. F. Green Airport in Providence, Rhode Island, earnestly trying not to watch or hear, or even catch sight of, any of the Robin Williams vehicle Licensed to Wed. My next trip—and when you shall hear from me (unless something pops in the next couple of weeks)—is to Memphis, after which an insane piece of routing follows: the next day, New Haven for a gig, and then the next day in Austin for the Texas Book Festival, and (this newly in) a gig at the Cactus Café—I'll be onstage at 10.30 p.m. on Saturday, November 3rd. And check out the interesting PEN event with Sufjan Stevens and Rick Moody later on in November, at Southpaw in Brooklyn, just seconds from my front door.

It's not often I get to take part in a competition, let alone such a good-humoured one.
Viva Literary Death! Viva Opium!

 

Monday, November 05, 2007

Pull the String! Broken Strings and Other Things

It's one of those Sundays when last Thursday seems so long ago that I can't even remember when it was or what happened.

In fact, it all started in Oxford, MS, after a flight to Memphis.

Trip-wise, it was the beginning of a new era, a new world. Due to the birthday gift of an iPhone, I traveled for probably the first time ever without my trusty laptop, as (I suppose) will be the rule on short trips from now on. Weird. I'm still working out how the iPhone does things—but it's the working out what it doesn't do that's more interesting. Such questions inspired a phone call to Apple itself, the gist of which was:

ACT ONE
Consumer: I wanted you to tell me how to delete e-mail in bulk.
Support: Can't be done.
Consumer: Oh OK. Also, to drag music files over onto the iPhone, like I do on my iPod.
Support: Can't be done.
(INTERVAL)
ACT TWO
Consumer: OK. And how do you buy a video direct from the iTunes store to the iPhone?
Support: Can't be done.
Consumer: One last thing. I'd like to customize the front screen so I'm not, for example, forever looking at a little icon that says "Stocks" beneath it.
Support: Can't be done.
(CURTAIN)

Compared to much of the support one gets, this was precise, clear and helpful, so I shouldn't complain. And yet . . . And yet . . . How odd that the invention of the year seems to have taken one step forward and two back. Having said that, I get to watch Peep Show and have lots of pictures of my daughter to flash at people, so I'm delighted. It really is the best thing in the world.

I performed on Thacker Mountain Radio, a great show for readers and singers, at Square Books in Oxford's delightful, almost New Orleansian main square. Ventriloquism on the radio was once very popular, so I had a go. Unfortunately, there was a ventriloquial calamity. Just before we were due onstage, the string attached to the lever that pulls George's mouth up and down broke. I retied it, but the moment we hit the stage, with the very first pull, it snapped again. And that was that. George was mute.

Thinking hard (and let's face it—I'm used to broken strings), I realized that the only thing to do, since the string was un-retieable, was simply to "pull the string!" (as Bela Lugosi says in the masterpiece Ed Wood). And so I did. George probably didn't feel too dignified, but it worked. Square Books gifted me a T-shirt for Tilda, my little girl, and the T-shirt came tied with string. It is that Square Books string that now attaches George's mouth to the lever in his stomach. Thank you, Square Books.

We then ate fine Southern food, almost unimaginably Southern food: deep-fried peanuts in their shells—like soft-shell crabs, you just eat the shells as well: no mess! —hot tamale pie, pickle fritters. You think I'm making at least one of those up, but I'm not. I tell you—it's all going on down there in Oxford. Faulkner knew it. And now you do too. I'd also like to thank Jack Pendarvis for being my honorary heckler on this night of nights.

The next day was a nightmare of travel. The flight to Memphis was two hours late, leaving me stuck in Charlotte, trying to get to New York, whither all flights were cancelled. Finally, after some frantic ringing of promoters and managers, broaching the possibility that this could be my first gig cancellation in many many years of punctual business, I was bundled on a plane for Hartford. This got me much closer to New Haven, and with an hour to spare before showtime, but without guitar, clothes, etc. These appeared in the company of my brilliant wife, and the show went on, featuring a wicked long version of “Annachie Gordon,” and a lengthy disquisition on creationevidence.org, which I caught on the Bible Network on TV (and which needs no publicity from me, though I am told that the organization has its home base in Waco, TX, more than which I need not say). This was a long day, and not one you look back and laugh at.

Bed at 1 a.m., and up at 5 a.m. to get the morning Jet Blue flight to Austin to the Texas Book Festival. Military planning and precision meant that this flight coincided with (a) Jet Blue's special "Setanta Saturdays" promotion and (b) Arsenal vs. Manchester Utd. How I pulled this one off, I'll never know. And very exciting it was too.

The Texas Book Festival was a lot of fun, more so than last time. The first panel, at the Continental Club Gallery, was a fiction vs. nonfiction smackdown. George Saunders was among the members of the nonfiction team, but even so, the fiction side won hands down. Of course, there wasn't actually a result: I'm simply claiming victory for fiction. Of course it was a tongue-in-cheek argument to begin with. Keen researcher that I am, and equally anxious not to appear a fool, I looked up the definitions of fiction and nonfiction on the Internet, starting at an educational site for children, where nonfiction was defined as something that is "true" and fiction as something that is "not true." But that's a terrible definition to put in an enquiring mind. In the best possible case, nonfiction purports to be about something real, whereas fiction doesn't, but the lines are so blurry, and you'll end up with funny vision and a twitchy eyelid, like when you've spent too long looking at one of those Magic Eye pictures. Anyway, Amanda Eyre Ward (who wrote my favourite book of a few years ago, How to Be Lost), Maxine Swann, and Eric Martin were on my side, and though we were up against tough competition, and as stated above, we won. It was a little like the Literary Death Match, without the grand surroundings and the basketball—in fact, the Continental Club was getting a little bit like the Black Hole of Calcutta, until a few people realized that it was just a bunch of writers yakking and made room for some fresh air.

This ran until about 9.45, when I hot-stepped it to the Cactus Café for my gig. A rather mellow and very enjoyable evening—lots of new songs, or so it seemed to me. And a few requests, one from a woman who knew none of my songs, but simply wanted to make a request, asked someone for a title and shouted it out. Needless to say, and not knowing this at the time, this was the request that got played.

Hey—clocks back! An hour's extra sleep. I like it. But I didn't bother to put mine back, because if I did, I'd only have to put it forward again when I got off the plane in New York that night. The next morning's panel was good too: interesting writers saying interesting things to an audience who seemed with it and were full of good questions. And then a brunch somewhere by a pool in the beautiful hills outside Austin on 2222.

Thanks to Bill for that.

And there you have it. My trip from Brooklyn to Memphis to Oxford to Memphis to Charlotte to Hartford to Brooklyn to Austin to Brooklyn. I then arrived back at JFK to be picked up by a chauffeur who took me, with great confidence, to a street with roughly the same name as mine in a totally different part of Brooklyn. I suppose I should have been paying more attention, but I wasn't.

I was watching a video on my iPhone.

And next weekend, Portland—scene of the crime of my latest album, which was finished, mastered and wrapped last night. I'll be in Oregon by Friday, for a gig at Mississippi Studios that night, and then a reading on Saturday, not to mention an appearance on the fantastic radio show Live Wire! from the Aladdin Theater. For those of you in Portland, you know how great that show is, and you are probably going. For those of you elsewhere, you won't be going. So there's not really much point in advertising it either way.

Thanks for listening, reading, watching, laughing.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

(A Lot of) The Writer’s Lot

One thing I have noticed about being a writer is that you have to do a lot of writing. By which I mean, more than you thought.

My novels are quite long enough, and require so much work that, though I can write songs on the side, I haven't yet managed to write a single short story, memoir-andum (about how my new novel relates to my personal life—presumably for the New Yorker) or lengthy op-ed about the war on terrorism (for example). I am genetically indisposed to writing reviews—somewhat surprisingly for someone with as many opinions as I have, so I must either be too embarrassed or simply too much of a gentleman—which is another accepted way to keep your writerly name out there.

My only extra-curricular writing has been this blog, which I suppose doesn't really add up to a whole hill of beans, though there's always a chance that at a particularly low point of my stellar writing career, I may allow them to be collated, edited and published under the name Diaries, Vol. 3: The Early Twenty-First Century.

But what has struck me is how much writing I have had to do in the promotion of by George: How I Wrote the Book, Why I Wrote It, What My Favourite Children's Book Is, What I'm Currently Reading, Whether I Prefer the Bible or Shakespeare. It all adds up to a lot of writing, most of it enjoyable—it's always flattering to be asked to do those little lifestyle-type interviews for British papers. I seem to remember that with Misfortune I was asked about the book a lot, but this time I seem to be answering questions about everything but. Come to think of it, this probably means that I have worked my way up, or sideways, to the lifestyle portion of newspapers. But it also means that there is a lot of the Internet, and apparently it's not quite full yet, and it has apparently fallen on me, and anybody who can use a computer, to fill it, as I am doing right now. And have been doing over the last couple of months or so. Fact: all these questionnaires are in the United Kingdom, whereas all the e-mail interviews are in America.

An unwelcome addition to the workload is the e-mail interview, out of which I perennially try to wriggle. You can understand how it's easier for the interviewer, but I'd far rather get an interview out of the way in half an hour on the phone. And despite all the guff they give you about how you can't be misquoted if you write it all down, the bottom line is: if you're like me, it's going to take hours, and you'll worry about it disproportionately. I'd rather be misquoted. (Or quoted quite correctly but claim I was misquoted. Even BETTER!)

Anyway, since I'm quite proud of the sheer amount of work I've done, I thought I'd make a list. That way I know it exists, that it was all worth it.

P.S.—There is a new song up on the MySpace jukebox. "Wrong Turn," the last of my two collaborations with Tuatara. It replaces "Orpheus Must Die."

In no particular order:

1. The Page 69 Test Applied to by George—in which I describe page 69 and how it relates to the book as a whole:
page69test.blogspot.com/2007/08/by-george.html

2. My Top Ten Ventriloquism Books for the Guardian. I absolutely take the blame for this one: I suggested it. Getting it up to ten was quite hard, though: books.guardian.co.uk/top10s/top10/0,,2193183,00.html

3. Easily the most annoying. I was asked by an English magazine, called (ominously) Bad Idea, to write a little piece for them on "something embarrassing." I can't quite remember the exact brief. And so I rewrote the Japanese Food Skirmish incident detailed in a previous blog(www.johnwesleyharding.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=573&sid=7556502b92be98b99ba80613ab1572b4 and called it "Lost in Transaction." This was rejected as inappropriate and I was asked to produce something else, by the next day, which offer I (and I think understandably) declined. The rejected piece lives on below (Exhibit A).

4. Easily the weirdest. I was interviewed for Japanese Esquire. They were to take a series of photos, and asked if I'd mind wearing a Cartier wristwatch in return for $500. I said yes, as any sane person would have done. But there is no free lunch, and, sometime after the interview, I received an e-mail asking me if I'd answer three questions about my experience of wearing the Cartier wristwatch for a later edition of Esquire. Not wanting to be disagreeable, I said I would. It was then that I realised I had somehow been inveigled, in the nicest possible way, into writing ad copy (something I have never done before) for Cartier, and hadn't even come out of it with a free $45,000 watch. And I have to say: it was a nice piece of bling. Anyway, the three questions, which will never be seen anywhere else in English are here (Exhibit B).

5. The Financial Times asked me to contribute to their series "Once upon a Time," where writers name their favourite children's book:
www.ft.com/cms/s/0/0df1bbf0-8429-11dc-a0a6-0000779fd2ac.html

6. I was asked by the Fanzine to answer some questions about my first kiss, which was later edited together to look like a written conversation—and I was delighted to see my first kiss illustrated:
www.thefanzine.com/sections.php?s=columns&id=170&a=articles

7. The Irish Times asked me what I was currently reading. The answer, and for probably most of this year—it's really a very long book—is Clive James's Cultural Amnesia. I can't find the piece online, or maybe it's yet to appear. It appears here (Exhibit C).

8. The Observer's "Just a Minute" questionnaire—yet to appear. Included some tricky questions, as I recall.

9. For Little, Brown's Web site, and presumably for the back of the forthcoming paperback where they print book group notes, "Res Ipsa Loquitur: Why I Wrote by George":
www.hachettebookgroupusa.com/authorslounge/articles/2007/august/article25427.html

10. A long interview (with illustrations) for Powells.com, which I remember doing mostly in a hotel in Osaka:
www.powells.com/ink/stace.html
This was an interesting format: they gave you twenty questions and you chose the six you liked most—or something like that. They also asked me to write my six favourite books in a category of my choice. I chose football, and, since I don't think it's online yet, I call it Exhibit D.

11. Jonathan Ames, who is a wonderful writer (and I unreservedly recommend Wake Up, Sir!), interviewed me for the New York Post:
www.nypost.com/seven/09022007/entertainment/dummy_up_a_tale_of__two_george.htm?page=0
We did this (see above) by e-mail. I append the entire unedited version as Exhibit E.

12. There was a lengthy e-mail interview with Scott Butki for Blogcritics.org:
www.boston.com/ae/books/blogcritics/2007/10/wesley_stace_ak.html

13. And Verb magazine asked me “What’s on Your Desk?” And I told them here:
www.readingwriters.com/VERB-Aug07-p3.htm

 

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Trophy Shelf

Portlanders can't imagine moving anywhere else. They love Portland. As do I. Half of Seattle has recently decanted there. It's an arty town with a sleazy underbelly, like John Waters's Baltimore of the ’60s. But the underbelly is barely hidden—it's right there on the surface along Burnside, just near Powell's. Which, by the way, is a bookstore. As we landed, the man to my right was telling me all about it, like I wasn't a human being, like I'd never heard of books.

After my nightmare travel day from Oxford to New Haven, I'd had my fill of the close shave, so I flew in a night early, which happily coincided with my friend Jim Brunberg's surprise 40th birthday party. This ended up with a live version of "Don't Fear the Reaper," on which I seem to have sung. A very well-planned surprise it must have been too, for he had no idea.

The next day, I took a trip to the little-known bookstore Powell's, where I found some books. (Like the Peter Cook sketch about the miner: "Look! I've found some coal!" "My goodness! That's the very thing we're looking for!"). So I did manage to locate some books there: one for Abbey, three for Tilda and two for me, durable editions of The Rock Pool by Cyril Connolly and Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point. (I have become old, literature taste-wise.) I can't stop reading Huxley at the moment. I get off at Brave New World, for I have no patience with visions of the future, ironic utopias, 1984 (or the Eurythmics album of the same name), etc. But I hadn't read the novels written before he became a prophet and subsequently a psychedelicatessen, and these I recommend: Crome Yellow, Point Counter Point and Antic Hay—like Evelyn Waugh but with greater purpose. And now I'll have to stop reading him, because I appear to have run out of pre-Brave New World novels. Tilda, on the other hand, benefitted from Powell's to the extent of Richard Scarry's The Rooster Struts and The Christmas Mice, not to mention I Spy Christmas. You may have noticed a theme emerging and I can only say that I hope she isn't reading this or, come Christmas morning in Hastings, the surprise will be ruined.

Monica Drake, with whom I read at Bumbershoot, then appeared dressed as a clown, surrounded by rubber chickens in the window of some large Macy's-type store in the middle of downtown Portland, reading from her excellent novel Clown Girl, her words broadcast into the street by PA. And it was raining. But still people sat, in luxuriously upholstered red vinyl chairs, as she read. I think this may have been the kickoff event of Wordstock, Portland's book festival, or festival of the book and/or word, my prime reason for being Northwesterly this weekend.

But first, there was the small matter of a gig at Mississippi Studios, my favourite Portland venue, owned by none other than Jim of the previous night's surprise birthday party, who, still fearing the reaper, hadn't got up until 5 p.m., and was in only marginal shape to perform his support set. However, he rose to the occasion and we even did some songs together, the most interesting (or weirdest) of which was "Sweetheart Like You" by Bob Dylan, which Jim suggested. It's rather tragic, since I never really play Dylan songs unless at the suggestion of others, that when the opportunity does arise, I appear to be word perfect on every song in the oeuvre. It's wasted knowledge. Our parents knew reams of Keats and Shelley, Longfellow and Poe—but we know lots of song lyrics. Great song lyrics. But still. We also know lots of bad song lyrics. The other day, I saw a bloke perform a spoken-word version of "Beat It" by Michael Jackson (or was it "Billie Jean"?) with every single "ooh!" and "yeah!" inserted, in the correct place, between the lines. It was a masterpiece of performance and concept. It is not entirely relevant here.

Anyway, the gig occurred, I enjoyed myself, the piano was in tune, Jim didn't die and I played these songs, apparently:

Mississippi Studios
Portland, OR
11/09/07

Come Gather Round
Protest Protest Protest
Goth Girl
Congratulations (on Your Hallucinations)
Things Snowball
Your Mind's Playing Tricks on You
The Bull
It Stays
Two Sleepy People
Save a Little Room for Me
Top of the Bottom (w. Jim Brunberg)
Paradise
Someday Soon
Annachie Gordon
Monkey and His Cat
The Devil in Me
Daylight Ghosts
Browning Road (w. Jim Brunberg)
Sweetheart Like You (w. Jim Brunberg)

How these things come together in such a good-looking and reasonable shape, I have no idea. They take on a life of their own, that's for sure. I see that it started off a little protesty, and was then somewhat amusing, before it got serious. I seem to remember that the requests were “Paradise,” “The Devil in Me” and “Save a Little Room for Me.” Requests shape a show. And having a newly finished but unreleased album also shapes things a little: six new songs, I notice. And I say: thanks to the people of Portland for not complaining.

The next day Wordstock took over. This started with a reading in the Convention Center. (I had already taken the bus to the Expo Center, by mistake. And I never take busses, so there's a lesson there. Mind you, a helpful fellow traveller had told me confidently that this was the right bus for the Convention Center; the same one who later tapped me on the shoulder and said that I was going in the wrong direction.) The reading before me was Peter Sagal of NPR: the authors had a bird's-eye view of the cavernous Powell’s stage from the hospitality suite. The turnout for his reading was simply enormous, and I thought, if I have even a tenth of that audience, it'll be a lot of people. But in fact a tenth didn't seem like that many people at all, particularly in a place the size of Shea Stadium. We have to face the fact that an NPR profile and an extremely funny (I've read it!) nonfiction book is worth a lot more than a novel. Nonfiction—the merits of which, as opposed to those of fiction, we debated so lightheartedly in Austin last weekend—might well have lost that particular argument, but today she reigns triumphant. All you can really say about a novel, publicity-wise, is that it is the first novel—which is way more interesting than a second to tenth novel—or that it relates to the author's life in a particular way—i.e., make it as much like a nonfiction book as possible. I didn't hear Peter Sagal's reading, but I did hear him on Live Wire! that night and he was absolutely the highlight of the show. As we signed books afterwards, he asked me "if I dated." I demurred, being married, etc, but it turned out that he was asking whether I put the date beneath my signature in the fronts of books. (Answer: yes, if the recipient is in front of me.)

A rather lazy afternoon included a necessary trip to buy some briefs. (I should add that this iPhone has totally screwed up my packing. No laptop anymore, which also means no laptop bag—not that I keep my briefs in my laptop bag—but somehow this has made the whole packing experience exponentially trickier.) It seemed like a good shop to buy underwear but it was in fact too good a place to buy underwear. The selection—41 designers from around the world—was simply too wide. I was asked if I'd like any advise, and finally I gave in. The salient point here is that I learned a whole new concept, an apparently vital one in the world of cutting-edge undergarments: the Trophy Shelf. I'm not going into it here—though in the briefs shop, I was shown a cross-section diagram of the shelf, its workings, its contents, its qualities. Impressed, and somewhat cowed, I did not leave with a shelf. I did however buy underwear by Aussie Bum (and when you're modelling Aussie Bum, you might as well shelf it too . . .), Frank Dandy (of Sweden, I was excitedly told), and Papi: this last pair is the sine qua non of modern smalls—but enough about my underwear. What do you think of my underwear?

That night was Live Wire! —in which I played two songs ("The Bull" and "Top of the Bottom"), was interviewed by my wonderful ex–Live Wire! comrade Marc Acito (who was costumed as an NPR presenter, complete with bow tie), did a little ventriloquism and played banjo (including an actual solo) in a version of a Folksmen song (from A Mighty Wind), and performed in honour of Harry Shearer, who was there to talk books. They worked me like a dog. And I liked it. Aside from the wonderfulness of the Aladdin Theater, and the astonishing standard of the show's comedy writing, I can't imagine that much more entertainment could have been packed into a single evening (and this, despite me). Again my non-existent hat goes off to Live Wire! which is, I believe, the best night out in Portland. It should broadcast farther and wider.

And then, as if planned just for me, it did come to pass that the Minus Five, otherwise known as John Wesley Harding's Negative Quintet, were playing a show at the Towne Lounge. Not only that, but the Tripwires were supporting, which meant that half of my best friends from Seattle were in town. This meant a very late night, which included, I seem to remember, George surprising Scott (and how!) with a ventriloquial duet on "Twilight Distillery," not to mention me popping on and off stage regularly to ornament their songs with my late-night vocal stylings. The show got better and better—you know how this happens—and climaxed with Scott handing over to the Tripwires for "She's a Mod" and then an astonishing guest appearance by Rock Star Heaven's very own Michael Maker. It was all just too good to be true. Quite a night. And thank you, Portland.

I even got home to Brooklyn two hours earlier the next day, for some complicated aeronautical reasons. In this instance, I harnessed the power of the airlines to my advantage. Yes.

Then home for a week before a KGB reading this Sunday, with Daniel Wallace. This was a lite version of the spectacular in North Carolina (see the poster! watch their lips move!) the Saturday after next. And then a dinner for about 25 people, at which one member did that thing at the end where they say, on arrival of the bill, "I only had a beer and a pasta dish, I don't want the bill divided equally by 25." I said I couldn't really negotiate for him, but he could take it to everyone if he liked, to which he responded: "If I'd have known, I would have drunk and eaten a whole lot more." I understand that money is an issue, but who goes out to dinner with 5 drunkards and expects them all to do mathletics (?) with a bill at midnight.

Wow. It's all happening here, as you can tell. This is big news.

We are now back in our house, after the redecoration, and things are roughly back to normal, despite the fact that my new shelves aren't up, so I can't move into (or in) my study for boxes of books. Yesterday called, in order, the dishwasher guy ("No juice going into the back"), the electrician ("It doesn't have its own circuit breaker, this could take some time") and the locksmith ("All your door handles now work, that will be $1705.00. . . . Oh, and I forgot the tax"). Today I have to pick up the dry cleaning, drop off CDs of the mixes of the record with my lawyer, and return a broken hard drive (I had a huge music disaster at the weekend, while backing up the contents of my iTunes). So, it's just another normal day at the office.

One last thing: the new record. You keep asking and rightly so. Thanks for asking.
The record (title TBA) is now done, mixed, mastered and nearly ready to go. If there was a label putting it out as of now, like, today, then it probably wouldn't have a release date until April or so anyway. As it is, there are other things to consider, one being that the backing band is the Minus Five (essentially, as you know, Peter, Scott and Bill from R.E.M.), and that R.E.M. are going on tour for many a month next year after their new record comes out. Of all records I have ever made, this new one would be the least great to tour without a band, particularly the band who made the record. Of course, that's what will probably turn out happening, but obviously I, and any record company who cared to put the record out, would want to let that occur if possible—so it needs some careful planning. And all this has to fit around the various tour plans for by George or, as it's known in France as of now, Les Garcons, which I like to loosely translate as Waiters.
So, all this adds up to: I don't know when the album is coming out. Perhaps I'll release it digitally to you first. The record business being as it is, we artistes now have to think more carefully than ever about whether it's worth being on a record label at all. Laziness normally wins that argument, but there are many good reasons to do most of the work yourself. So we'll run it up the flagpole and see who salutes. I'm certainly saluting as I hoist—it's a noble follow-up to The Confessions and Adam's Apple: the end of a trilogy, I think. I didn't think I'd get to make such a lush, ambitious record, but (thanks to the confluence of many elements and, in no small measure, to the kindness of strangers) it's made and ready to go. So now it's over to the people who have to decide whether they can make money off it. And who knows? Perhaps they can't! Or perhaps they can! They certainly won't have spent any money on the making of the music, which was entirely paid for by Plangent Visions (my longtime music publishers) and myself. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

On with my day—a rainy walk with dog and baby in the park. That's actually better than it sounds. In fact, it's great.

 

Epilogue

Bad Luck in Paris

I am now in Paris, where, in perfect Parisian style, I woke up and went for a wander, sliding ungracefully on a large slime of dog shit, before browsing some beautiful clothing stores (with newly clean shoes). In other words, a typical Parisian morning. Later, I was told that stepping in dog shit is considered good luck, but just when I had clutched this slim superstitious straw, I was informed that this was only if the left foot was implicated: Zut alors!

I then ate lunch at Le Procope, "Le Rendez-Vous des Arts et des Lettres" and the oldest literary café in the world, where Franklin wrote some well-known American document, Voltaire and Rousseau argued about the price of milk (and where it should go in the encyclopedia), and Verlaine ate tête (but not langue) de veau ("as cooked in 1686" and I wonder if the menu said that then? Oh, probably). At Le Procope (which I will insist on going to again tomorrow, because the whiting was off, and who doesn't want whiting?) I drank a murky green cocktail of Pernod and absinthe: a good thing to do before an interview with Elle and an appearance on France 24 TV? Apparently yes! This arrived at our table accompanied by an extremely flamboyant glass fountain that very slowly dribbled iced water onto the lump of sugar before it decomposed into my glass. It was lovely, the perfect prelude to my marrowbone, and my green bean salad.

Let me cast my mind back to Friday night in North Carolina. But first I'll put that Grand Entertainment in perspective.

Perhaps the most valuable thing I have learned during the promotion of by George is that readings are not really that effective. Let me explain.

Some of course are great—Charles Dickens's were probably quite good. And he enjoyed doing them so much that he almost killed himself performing. I'm afraid I mean contemporary readings in bookstores. People don't seem to be very interested in them. Perhaps they were interested in them, but have grown bored as they've grown more common. Or perhaps it's only me and everybody else's readings are simply incredible. What I really mean is: if a writer has the chance to turn their bookstore reading into anything BUT a bookstore reading, then he or she should. It's the wise thing to do.

For example, in San Francisco, I read at Booksmith, one of my favourite bookstores. I was delighted to be invited. It was fine. People came. I read. I even played the guitar. They bought books. It was a good example of a very enjoyable reading. Unlike the last book, there is no music I can (or want to) tie in with by George, so despite the presence of the lad George himself, there isn't much going on apart from the reading and the signing bit.
           
The next night—and of course it's an unfair comparison, but it demonstrates my point—I read at the Literary Death Match, as described in an earlier installment. Here I felt (apart from when I was playing basketball) like Charles Dickens himself: I projected to a packed house from a podium under great lighting. I could be dramatic, play it for laughs, generally turn it on. The stage was made for it. It was marvellous—and people were paying, whereas the previous night was free. (And having just played on Friday to 300 people paying a minimum of $35 a head, I have finally, belatedly, come to the conclusion that people think free entertainment worthless.)

All the best events during this promotional period have been the extra-curricular activities: at Bumbershoot, the panel with Monica Drake; in Portland, the Live Wire! radio show; the Thacker Mountain Radio show in Oxford, MS; the gig and reading at Decatur; the astonishing fiction vs. nonfiction panel in Austin—basically anything that wasn't a straight reading. That's when I have felt that I am really getting the book across to people. And don't think I'm negative about the readings—quite the reverse, I love doing them and would happily come to your individual homes and delight each of you with a bedtime story. I like to read. But the public seems to agree with me—the extra-curricular events are more fun.
           
And on Friday we had a truly magnificent evening in North Carolina and I commemorate it thus as not only one of the highlights of the last year, but also (in an odd way, perhaps next to the Seattle Songs of Misfortune show a couple of years ago) one of the most ambitious shows I've been part of. I knew I was excited about it because I had two "forgetting my lines" dreams during the previous week. What was it? Well, I met Daniel Wallace at the Festival America in Paris (coincidentally) last year, and we hatched a plan to do New York and Chapel Hill readings for our new novels, given the way they dovetail in theme. We decided on a variety show, as a benefit, at the Barn in Fearrington, NC, attached to McIntyre's bookshop and we billed the show as a cast of thousands, on the basis that I'm two people on my own, and that made three already. The idea was: a reading each, a few songs (perhaps some duets—Daniel is fingerpickin' good on the banjo), a little ventriloquism, some magic if possible.
           
The evening, "A Feast of the Five Senses"—why not "A Feast FOR the Five Senses"? I don't know, and I came up with the title—turned out beyond out wildest dreams. We had more or less a day's rehearsal, cooked up a running order, got an MC from the local radio station WUNC (one of the beneficiaries) and a fabulous prestidigitator called Geoff Lloyd who performed close-up magic at people's tables. And we wung it.
           
Here's what they got, apart from food and up-close magic:

ACT ONE
Intro by Frank Stasio, MC
Intro by DW and WS—duet of "Tom of the Bottom" on guitar and banjo
Reading: DW (from Mr. Sebastian and His Negro Assistant)
Music: JWH (“Darwin,” “Congratulations (on Your Hallucinations),” “The Bull”)
Chat: Frank and WS talk about ventriloquism
Reading: WS (“The Birth of George” from by George)
Magic Trick—a grand illusion performed by DW, involving a disappearing red handkerchief and an astounded audience, to be explained by DW and WS at the end of Act Two

ACT TWO
Intro by DW and WS, in which DW is mistaken for many other writers, including David Foster Wallace, Wallace Stevens, Wallis Simpson, etc.
Reading: DW (from Mr. Sebastian and His Negro Assistant)
Ventriloquist Routine: DW and WS (a much extended version of the bit I've been doing at readings, with DW in the role of Ernie Wise)
Music: JWH (“Hamlet”)
Chat: Frank and DW talk about sideshows, magic and carnies
Reading: WS (“Androcles and the Lion” from by George)
Music: WS and DW (duets of “Sussex Ghost Story,” “It Stays,” “Browning Road”)
Magic Trick—in which DW and WS explain the trick to the music of Chariots of Fire

Encore: Ukulele Lady—DW on guitar and WS on the ukulele

(CURTAIN)

The Barn was a spacious, er, barn, with sparse sound equipment and no one to work it, soon filled with 300 people and waiters buzzing round pouring wine and serving canapés, which accounted for a few of the five sense right there. Daniel and I put pretty much everything we could into this performance—if I'd known how to tap-dance I would certainly have lived out the Gene Kelly fantasy (that I don't actually have) at some point. It was a magical night, and a great pleasure to see so many music fans there. (I know I haven't overentertained you in North Carolina recently, so I really appreciate your coming out to the Barn, even with that slightly expensive benefit ticket price,
particularly because you didn't know quite what you were going to get. And let's face it: I didn't know what you were going to get until that morning. But you certainly got it.)
           
Yet, all this grand variety show really was, rather like the Literary Death Match, was a reading with a twist. And this one made about $10,000—if you can believe that—for WUNC public radio and Chatham Young Writers. So everybody felt good about everything. And I got a chance to wear my black suit with the flouncy Vivienne Westwood shirt, which you have only previously seen if you were at my wedding.
           
Love and thanks also to Laura, Daniel and his lovely daughters, Nick, Geoff "Spirits of Diablos" Lloyd with the magic fingers, and Jamie from the Barn. We should definitely do this again and I think we shall.

Tomorrow is a big day of action and interview, featuring two business meals—one with booksellers, the other with journalists. So tonight finds me back in my hotel quite early, ordering room service, half watching Nantes drawing nil–nil with Montpellier on my television—I will literally watch ANY football on TV—and wondering when my jet lag will allow me to sleep.
           
Paris is full of potential Christmas presents.
           
Avoid the dog shit and you're absolutely fine.

 


Wesley Stace was born in Hastings, Sussex in 1965, and educated at The King's School, Canterbury, and Jesus College, Cambridge. Under the name, John Wesley Harding, he has released fifteen albums, ranging from traditional folk to full on pop music. His most recent pop release, Adam's Apple, was called "the finest album of his career" (All Music Guide), "one of his best, a sharp collection of pop that cleverly weds sunny melodies to dark matters" (The New Yorker) and "a dazzling piece of popcraft that shows wide range and real heart" (No Depression.) His first novel, Misfortune, was published in 2004 by Little, Brown and was nominated for The Guardian First Book Award, The Commonwealth Writers' Prize, The James Tiptree, Jr. Award, listed as one of the books of the year in The Washington Post and The Boston Phoenix. His second novel, By George, was published last August.

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