Tuesday, September 18, 2007

On the Road, Raleigh/Quail Ridge Books

To the rhythm of “I DO believe in spooks” say it three times fast: I LOVE Atlanta-Hartsfield airport, I LOVE Atlanta-Hartsfield airport, I LOVE Atlanta Hartsfield airport. I’m trying to convince myself. And I DO, I DO, I DO, but sheeesh at the flight delays in Atlanta these days. I finally get off the ground on Monday afternoon – in a new airplane at a different gate – and arrive in Raleigh, North Carolina almost two hours late. Carol Moyer, children's buyer and manager at Quail Ridge Books and Music, has left a message on my cell phone. She’ll pick me up in a half-hour for an early supper. I check in to my hotel and do the thing my mother instilled in me when I was young: “Go wash your face and brush your teeth.” I’m ready.

Carol is on point in the store while Rosemary, Diana and I scoot to dinner at a good restaurant in the same shopping center as Quail Ridge. It’s so good to see them again! And it’s so good to talk books. Books, books, books. I’m sold on several before I even hold them in my hands.

Diana has opinions about ALL-STARS: “I love House. I love who he is. I love how the kids in your books make their own decisions, and how the adults let them do that.” I love that, too. And I’m relieved that Diana sees this! One of the themes that runs through my books is that every human being is worthy of dignity and respect. Even (especially?) FREEDOM SUMMER has that theme. I don’t consciously write with a theme in mind, no, not ever. But I see themes – the same themes – emerge over and over as I’m writing a story. Maybe it’s inevitable that writers work out their questions and wonderings on the page. I know I do. Respect. It’s an old childhood issue for me. But, as Phoebe Tolbert, the town gossip in all three Aurora County novels says, “But that’s another story for another time.”

At Happy Bookseller in Columbia, I found a stack of Deborah Wiles' books next to a shelf of Chekhov (one of Eudora Welty's favorites). At Quail Ridge, I cozy up to Poet Laureate Charles Simic. I like that, too!

It’s a night of reunions before we even begin the signing -- what a joyful time! We're bringing down the house in the children's section! From left to right, Sue Harris, librarian friend whom I have not seen in two years, Molly Davis, whose school I visited three years ago (she brought her new husband with her, too), Sandra Wagner, librarian at Salem Elementary School, Candy Dahl --author of EMMA AND THE CIVIL WARRIOR -- moi, and Stephanie Greene, author of QUEEN SOPHIE HARTLEY and the wonderful OWEN FOOTE series, among others (and a brand-new book from Greenwillow, CHRISTMAS AT STONY CREEK). Stephanie, Candy and I are all alums of Vermont College's MFA program (more on Vermont College when I get to the left coast!)

I wish I could give you a tour of the Quail Ridge Children's room -- so big and rich and full of good literature, original art on the walls, a staff so dedicated to teachers, librarians, kids, parents -- readers. Here's Carol in front of a display of fall books. Carol excels in matching a reader with a book. These are the books that took my breath away and that I immediately put in my pile to buy and have Quail Ridge send me: THE ARRIVAL by Shaun Tan, BECAUSE OF YOU by B.G. Hennessy and Hiroe Nakata, 1-2-3 A CHILD'S FIRST COUNTING BOOK by Alison Jay, and THE WALL by Peter Sis. When I'm home from tour, I will open this box with great delight and will sit and savor these beautiful, meaningful books. I may not be able to gift them! Yes, I will. But I may need to buy copies for me as well.

What I love about independent booksellers is how they serve. In EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS, the Snowberger family owns the town funeral home. "We live to serve" is their motto. I see the same spirit in independent bookstores. For instance, Quail Ridge sponsors "The View From Tuesday." Teachers come to the bookstore to hear speakers on various topics (I was that speaker, with Stephanie Greene, two years ago) and receive continuing education credits for their experience. "We can get it for you," and "If you liked that one, you'll love this!" and "How can we help you with your school/library book needs?" It's a constant dance, I know. At Quail Ridge, I feel like a partner.
I've settled on reading the first two chapters of THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS, along with a newspaper clipping from Phoebe Tolbert. This takes me about 15 minutes. I begin: "Mr. Norwood Rhinehart Beauregard Boyd, age 88, philanthropist, philosopher, and maker of mystery, died on a June morning in Mable, Mississippi at home in his bed." There's that southern storyteller, ready to spin you a yarn. I look up. A gaggle of ten-year-olds sits right up front smiling at me -- "here she goes again, talkin' about death." Ha. Now they can tell me, too, "but it's really about life!" Yes, it is. I love meeting these young readers afterward, as they hand me their dog-eared copies of LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER or LITTLE BIRD, as they thumb through ALL-STARS and scour the map in front, “just like the other books!” Yes.

When it's over, Carol, Rosemary, and I pose for a job-well-done photo. Rosemary sells me LITTLE CHAPEL ON THE RIVER: A PUB, A TOWN, AND THE SEARCH FOR WHAT MATTERS MOST by Gwendolyn Bounds, a book I wanted and knew she loved because I keep up with her picks on the Quail Ridge website. She also makes sure I put PLUM WINE by local novelist Angela Davis-Gardner in my pile. Yes! Local talent highly recommended.

Carol and I sing down the evening at a local coffee shop over key lime pie and banana cheesecake. I send my love to Trish, who couldn't be with us tonight; Trish was part of the inspiration for Finesse in ALL-STARS. Back at my hotel, I call Sweetheart Jim so I can hear his voice. I fall into bed and know nothing until 5am, when I have to remind myself of where I am.

There’s lots to see in the beautiful Raleigh/Durham area; I won’t see anything but the strip malls and interstates. So much of the book tour is in-and-out travel. Lots of cabs, drivers, airports, seat 12A, gate B15, “will I make my connection?”, “where’s the coffee shop?” and “can you put me on the shuttle at 7am?” (I know, I know, Kia, take a cab. But you know what? I hopped in a cab at the Raleigh airport and we followed the Marriott shuttle all the way to the hotel! So this morning, I just hopped on the shuttle at 7am and voila. Still – it’s not always that predictable, I know).

I did manage to pack everything into carry-ons. I wish to report that I removed my white shoes from my luggage – it’s after Labor Day – and I have finally begun to recover from the ferocious fire ant bites on my feet, a present from walking through Uncle Jim’s garden in Mississippi on Friday. Such glamour on the book tour.

Time to fly to San Francisco this morning. My flight is being called for boarding. I’m changing planes in… Atlanta. I LOVE Atlanta-Hartsfield airport, I do. Please, y’all, let’s be on time today. I fly across the country and sign at the Barnes & Noble in Walnut Creek, California this evening. I want to think about bookstore signings – what makes them work? How do we judge success? I have thoughts. Stay tuned, and we’ll talk about it together. How does an author face five or six people who show for a signing? (I can answer this.) It’s it awful if nobody comes?

Well… you’ll come. Good.