A Postcard from Tour: Manchester
You'll sleep anywhere if you're tired enough
Regifting another strange moment from the road …
On book tours you never get enough sleep. A publicist in Minneapolis told me a story about accompanying Kurt Vonnegut on his final book tour. Vonnegut was a devoted smoker, and the hotel in question only had smoking rooms on the second floor overlooking the swimming pool. The afternoon he arrived, Vonnegut hadn’t slept for a couple days, so it was crucial he catch a nap before that evening’s event.
But just as he went to bed, a crowd of rowdy conventioneers commandeered the patio and the pool and began a loud party. To get Vonnegut a little peace and quiet the publicist offered everyone free drinks in the bar, luring everyone indoors and keeping the pool area empty for the afternoon. It was the nap that cost a few thousand dollars.
Stories are the only good take-away from tours. For example, publicists told me that Maya Angelou was terrified of being caught in a hotel fire so she refused to stay in any room above the second floor. Trouble is, the ritzy hotels all have conference centers on the second floor, and often the guest rooms don’t begin until the fourth or fifth floors. This meant Angelou had to be booked in franchise motels like Days Inn or Holiday Inn, located in the outlying parts of town. The solution? The publisher eventually hired her a tour bus, like a rock star.
In my experience if the room is noisy, try the bathtub. Pull off all the bedding, and make a nest in the tub. Run the fan if you need white noise. This is a last-resort trick, but it’s a work-around. Especially in rooms with a connecting door that connects to a drunken couple hashing out their marriage. I’ve had that connecting door several times.
At one tour stop in Manchester I was beat. There was a talk to give at the Anthony Burgess Foundation Library, then a long car ride over the hills on a twisting, two-lane highway to arrive in Sheffield for an after-midnight talk to coincide with a showing of the Fight Club movie. We’d arrived in Manchester after nightfall and drove around in search of the venue. The library is beautiful, but not easy to find. By mistake we parked blocks away and walked around in a freezing wind until we found it. I was wiped out and asked if they had a store room where I could nap on the floor.
They had a basement. A long, narrow room lined from floor to ceiling with shelves, and those shelves stacked with all the papers and personal effects of Burgess. Long tables ran down the center of the room, and these were stacked with his books. I rolled my jacket to make a pillow and crawled under a table. Thin carpet covered the concrete floor. I fell asleep for a couple minutes, who knows?
Flat on the floor I looked directly at the lowest shelf along one wall. There sat two white objects. Grey-white, and knobby, like knotted-up hunks of thick rope. Captivating they were, and so close my nose would touch them with a nod of my head. They didn’t smell like anything, if anything they smelled chalky. I had to touch them, to reach over and take each one and feel its weight and look at it every which way.
They were human hands. The fingers were closed to make loose fists, the skin wrinkled. They weighed less than stone, didn’t feel cold enough to be stone, but not warm enough to be plastic or resin. If anything, they felt like bricks, like white clay, with the hardness of unfired bricks. Instead of napping, I looked at those hands for an hour. Until my hosts came down to roust me for the event. They found me handling the hands.
Of course they were the hands of Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange. At the time of his death, his wife, Liana Macellari, had cast each hand in plaster, these were the copies of his dead hands she’d created on his deathbed. They’d been misplaced since his papers had been shipped here. Now they’d been found.
And I did the talk and a reading. And we drove half the night to Sheffield where I talked at the cinema. But what I recall most clearly is lying in that basement examining those two dead man’s hands. Part of me has never left that basement.
Some wonderful news to share …
Colton Merris, who wrote last week’s story, Foodies, has been contacted by a publisher. Thank you all for reading and supporting him in this risky endeavor. This was exactly what I’d hope this newsletter would become: A sort of shop window where writers could get some real eyeballs on their work.
To date I’ve wanted to discuss and demonstrate aspects of Minimalism. The danger lies in too much talking about doing, and not enough of the doing. In this case, the writing. With Colton’s work, we’ll find some balance. I’ll continue to present concepts and push people to explore more physical, visceral ways to tell stories, but I’ll also be posting writing samples—typically scenes or short stories—submitted by subscribers. I’ll give praise and suggestions, and use each example to focus on at least one aspect of the Minimalist style.
Soon I’ll post a Gmail address where you can send work. I’ll pore through it and choose what to post to the newsletter. You must decide whether or not you want Comments to be enabled on your piece. Also keep in mind that shorter pieces—up to 2500 words—will most often be chosen.
Our final hurdle is a legal liability hurdle. The Substack legal team is drafting something that will protect them and me, in case some low-life plagiarizes work posted to the newsletter. I’m not sure what this waiver or agreement will look like, but it should be ready soon.
For now, please let me know below in Comments if you’ve got any concerns, and I will try to address them. Please take a look at the concept of the Bad Art Friend, and be warned. But do not be stopped.