Posting this from Nashville, where I’ve just returned home after three weeks of on-and-off touring. It’s been a thrill, meeting readers, independent booksellers, and hitting the road, falling in love with the Mississippi Delta, driving, thinking, and reading to audiences. Things kicked off here on June 22, the day of Mr. Peanut’s publication, though really they kicked off the week before with Jim Ridley’s great cover story about the novel in the Nashville Scene. That, in part, accounts for the great crowd we had at Davis Kidd, a gathering of friends, family, former colleagues (from the Scene and the Harpeth Hall School), students, parents of students, and other interested parties. I read from the Sheppard section, the scene when Marilyn first wakes up the day before her murder—it’s the reader’s first introduction to her—then a brief snippet of the Hastroll section. There was a terrific party afterward that my wife threw for me at Sunset Grill—in all, a roaring success.
The next day I drove to Memphis, where I stayed at the Peabody Hotel and finally had a chance to see its legendary ducks make their daily migration from the roof to the lobby, where they swim in the fountain until making their way back upstairs at 5. FYI, the ducks don’t waddle from the elevator to the fountain; they run. You have to be quick with the camera. Also took a nice run myself on Thursday morning along the trolley tracks to the bridge to Mud Island, which spans half the Mississippi, “that wide muscle of water” as a friend once described it, though it was so hot that morning and during my stay that I was surprised the baseball games at Redbird stadium weren’t called off due to inclement weather. Before my reading at Memphis’s Davis Kidd store (they had a fantastic display table set up for Mr. Peanut), I did morning television, News Channel 3’s Live at 9 show, which was a ball, as well as a fantastic interview on Booktalk, broadcast on Memphis 89.3 WYPL-FM and hosted by Stephen Usery. The man is a local treasure and a gift to the book world. His questions made for an incredible conversation and his command of the book was so complete that it made for the kind of in-depth spontaneity most talk shows utterly lack, not to mention that he has one of those voices you can’t shake, perfect for radio because it seems a universe away and impossibly near at the same time. That night at Davis Kidd, I read the same section as I had in Nashville, and later, rather hauntingly, a woman from the audience came up to me afterward and told me that I’d “written her life.”
That Sunday, Scott Turow’s piece came out on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, along with a Q & A in Paper Cuts, the paper’s book blog. Michiko Kakutani had reviewed the novel the previous Tuesday, and so I was flooded with emails, tweets, and Facebook posts from all over the country, hearing from friends I hadn’t communicated with in decades—even a guy I wrestled as a sophomore. It was all utterly surreal, one of those moments when you feel the book is something that, oddly, no longer belongs to you, the closest experience, I imagine, a man can get to giving birth—which ain’t close, mind.
Onward Monday evening to Blytheville, Arkansas, to That Bookstore in Blytheville, 70 miles north of Memphis, a fount of culture in the heart of a sleepy little town, run by the legendary Mary Gay Shipley, who has been to both the Clinton and Bush II White Houses to be honored for her contributions to literacy. We had a great dinner beforehand (killer chicken salad, plus peanut butter cake and peanut M & Ms). I signed the store’s annual chair, talked with Mary Gay’s husband about Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn (he’s a big fan and a Vietnam veteran himself), read sitting in a rocking chair, and was off the next morning to Oxford, MS.
I’d been to Square Books once before, many years ago, and then as now, I was in awe of the place. You see the pictures of the writers who’ve passed through on the walls,you sit in any of the store’s nooks, running your fingers along the spines of books you’ve read or haven’t yet and you feel, in its well-furnished rooms, that particular brand of anxiety—a nagging feeling of time passing and time compressed in these pages that reminds you of all the things you want to write before you die—coupled with the happiest reverence for all the great work you’re surrounded by. I had lunch at Ajax with Richard Howorth, Off Square’s owner (as well as Oxford’s former mayor), and who is, rightly, a legend in his own right. Also, ate a killer shrimp Po boy and kickass turnip greens.
Richard wrote about the reading I did that night on the store’s blog, which took place at Off Square Books, a block down from the main store. I’d gotten bored of reading the Marilyn scene, so I decided on the long movement in the Sheppard section that describes his first meeting with his long-time mistress, Susan Hayes, and ends with them having sex in Sheppard’s MG—a rousing bit of business. The high point for me, however, came during the Q & A, when a woman asked what my wife thought of the book. Unbeknownst to her, Beth was standing in the back and answered the question herself, and the woman seemed perplexed by Beth’s pride in the book. That question, by the way, has been asked more than any other all tour, and I find it interesting that it’s asked so often because it reflects, I think, a fundamental misunderstanding about how fiction is created, not to mention its function. Kafka, for instance, knew nothing about being a bug, but he wrote convincingly about isolation, just as Nabokov—no pedophile he—wrote so achingly about obsession. Mr. Peanut’s honest look at how marriages can descend into darkness is no more unflinching than its awareness of the opportunities for redemption and renewal in any relationship. It’s a book that argues for wakefulness. But enough of that. Actress Joey Lauren Adams was in attendance, she ate dinner with us later at TK, and since seeing Chasing Amy many years ago, I have remained totally smitten, so that was a thrill.
Made for Jackson, MS, next to read at Lemuria bookstore, owned by Joe Hickman. It’s an amazing place, the store itself is incredible and the staff is great (love me some Zita!) with a building adjacent to it where they not only hold events but also house several hundred square feet worth of signed first edition hard covers—as amazing a sight as any book lover will ever see. This building feels like a cross between a theater and a library, low lit as it is, with a podium set on a small stage where the writer reads, this spotlighted, so that you can barely see the crowd when you look up, and so it feels more like giving a performance than any other venue I’ve appeared in so far. The staff had hung the lights in the room with giant Mobius strips fashioned of construction paper, there was a little bit of beer-drinking beforehand, the feeling was loose and relaxed, and when I got to the end of the Sheppard section with its “thrice climax,” an enormous thunderstorm broke over us—very apropos—and it poured so long and hard afterward that people hung out well past the end of the Q & A.
The next morning, it was down to Greenwood, MS, to Turn Row Books, run by Jamie and Kelly Kornegay. I stayed at the Alluvian, the fantastic boutique hotel in the heart of Greenwood and had the pleasure of a great host, Jody Simcox, the brother of a very close friend. We played tennis midday, had lunch at Delta Bistro with Jody’s lovely wife Kim (the food was fantastic, Andouille Sheppard’s pie, with a slice of lemon pie afterward) followed by a tour of Greenwood and the Delta. There are gorgeous mansions lining the Yazoo River and I got to see a pivot irrigation system up close, which looks like the leg of a giant bug. Read in front of a very eclectic crowd at Turn Row that night. Among others, the multi-talented cookbook writer, Martha Hall Foose, was there, along with Academy-Award-winning cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, who was doing pre-production for the movie of The Help. Afterward, we had drinks and dinner at Giardina’s, with Jody, Kim, Kelly, and Jamie (soft shell crab, unreal) and the discussion ranged from the oil spill and its impact on the Delta to the relationship between critics and the book industry—which is all I’m going to say about that.