A Postcard from the Road
The Agony and the Anticlimax
A Postcard from Seattle, 9:06 AM Pacific Standard Time
I’m writing this from Seattle, from a Hilton that’s like a fun puzzle room. At my first room the key swipe device on the door broke apart. Here in my second room the coffeemaker broke apart. There’s no paper menu for ordering a pot of coffee from room service, so I called and room service said the menu was on television. The television said the Guest Service menu was offline. The front desk said to order through the website. When I did so, Room Service said the on-line menu was out of date. You have to laugh.
Pre-Covid, a publisher didn’t send you on tour to draw a crowd. It was of little importance whether a hundred people heard you read and bought books or zero did. Tour was about getting local media. Free advertising. If you went to a city you became a local story, and you got into the newspapers and on local radio—in particular NPR affiliates—and local daytime television. Every market had niche book media, and it cost relatively little to send a writer to, say, San Fransisco to scarf up the free coverage.
Which brings us to morning shows. Almost all locally produced morning television programming has been replaced with nationally syndicated content. Think The View. But it used to be you’d guzzle coffee at the Prescott Hotel—every author going to The City had to stay at The Prescott, it was such a rule that China Miéville would leave his books with the Front Desk for me, and I’d leave my books at the Front Desk for Irvine Welsh. For authors, the Prescott Hotel was the crossroads of the world.
Anyway, at The Prescott you’d ask for a four AM wake up call so you could get to a television station and wait in the green room hoping for a slot. It was a crap shoot. Those TV green rooms were always overbooked with authors and actors and doctors and inventors, everyone pushing some product. The program only offered so many seven-minute segments, and the bookers would bring in too many guests just in case a few dropped out. Say, eleven guests for an eight-segment show.
The fear was that if one guest was too entertaining, they’d be held through the commercial and gobble up two, or even three segments. And that meant even more of us other guests would be wasting our time and losing sleep for naught.
Once in San Francisco, I found myself sitting backstage between Eric Nies and Eddie Fisher. The It Boy of the ’90s and the It Boy of the ’50s. Nies had been an MTV heartthrob, and now he was pushing a rubber strap device you could hook on a doorknob and use as resistance as you did sit-ups on the floor. Fisher was pushing a memoir about the women he’d had sex with. In a green room you’re always meeting people at the rise or fall of their careers. People at the peak don’t need local television.
People at their peak don’t need to beg.
At one point the camera crew said they needed extra B roll, so they asked Nies to demo his device. Shirtless, he lay on the hard carpet and did sit-ups against the resistance of his rubber device hooked around a doorknob. He did sit-ups until he was so drenched in sweat that his back muscles, his lats, were leaving a dark wet V on the carpet. The program director kept saying, “Just a few more minutes, Eric, keep going!” The cameraman stood over him. The director and the cameraman were smirking. No red light shined on the back of the camera, so it wasn’t even turned on. They were only torturing Nies for fun. It was painful to watch as Eric Nies gamely did countless sit-ups, sweating and gasping.
For his part, Eddie Fisher was funny and frail. A very old man with a much younger Asian wife who acted as his nurse. We two sat watching Nies, hoping we’d get a segment of the show. Other people also watched. A movie actor? A dog trainer? Who knows. We were all secretly hating each other and hoping the program director wouldn’t ask us to do something humiliating to justify audience attention.
It was a brutal thing to watch, Eric Nies sweating half-naked and getting laughed at, but he got his segment. As did Eddie Fisher. As a boring author who’d dashed out of the Prescott Hotel at five AM to be there, I got bumped. So many guests, so little time. No segment for me. My time and anxiety were all for naught.
That’s show biz. Back in the day, that was book tour. You think you’re crushed, but you’re not crushed. You think you’re crushed, but fuck it, you just write another book.