Last June I sent you a journal of the first half of my book tour for The Mermaid Chair
- a patchwork of reflections and photos from the tour– with the promise that I would send you the other half in July. At the time I made this so-called promise, I was in the first flush of joy at being home again after traveling to thirty-three cities in fifty-one days. As I recall, I was so starved for domesticity that I wrote longingly of doing laundry and turning the pages of cookbooks. Well, I’m over that now. What I did not get over as quickly, however, was the need to languish in the slow rhythms of summer and rest a while. Which is what I’ve been doing instead of writing this newsletter. So, the second half of my book tour journal is coming to you in mid August– better late than never, I hope.
When we arrive in Tampa, the cold virus I was nursing in Dallas has gotten worse. I tell myself that all I need is a day of rest in the glorious Florida sunshine, and I’ll be good as new. The skies, however, look like they might burst open from the weight of water. Checking into the hotel, we are told by the desk clerk that a monsoon is on the way. Sure enough, in the middle of my book signing at Barnes and Noble, the heavens open and the flood descends. Ironically, at the time I’m reading a passage from the opening scene in The Mermaid Chair
in which Jessie is watching a similar deluge from the window of her bedroom, worrying that the basement will flood. I’m not worried about Barnes and Noble’s basement, though, only that my throat is now so sore and my body so achy I may have to cancel tour events.
|A Cure for the Common Cold|
April 27, 28
The next day in Sarasota, the sun is back out and Caren Lobo of Sarasota News and Books meets me at the Palm Literary luncheon with a cup of hot tea and lemon. I deliver my talk with only a little bit of hoarseness, but by the time we arrive in Miami that evening the virus has won. I can barely speak. There is talk of going home. In an effort to keep going I suggest to Judi, my publicist, that all I need is 24 hours of Extreme Rest. I tell her this could likely cure me once and for all. She clears my schedule and arranges for me to stay at The Biltmore so I can park myself in a lounge chair by the pool, all 22,000 square feet of it. Twenty four hours later when I show up at Mitch Kaplan’s Books & Books, I feel like a cured woman. All my cold symptoms have disappeared. (And they never returned.)
|In Atlanta with|
June Racicot and Kathryn
Cliatt, Co-founders of the
Cedar Hill Enrichment Center
In Atlanta I peer out at close to a thousand people packed into St. Phillip’s Cathedral. My appearance is a benefit for Cedar Hill Enrichment Center, an ecumenical center for spirituality and ecology, and it deserves all the support it can get and then some. I have never been so happy to see so many people. My parents are sitting in the front row, as is Sandy’s mother, along with his brother and family. There are lots of old friends out there, some going all the way back to my childhood. After my talk, the signing line takes on the flavor of a family reunion. The next morning, as I’m packing, my good friend, Trisha Sinnott, shows up to have breakfast with me. When I tell her I’m out of clean black socks, she shakes her head and takes off her own black socks and hands them to me. Take them, she said. You need them more than I do. I protest; she insists. I put on her socks. This, I tell her, is the true meaning of friendship– giving someone the socks off your feet. An hour later I am at Sam’s Club, signing books in the tire department, wearing Trisha’s socks, and feeling loved.
I am in Santa Barbara, California- one of the loveliest places I’ve ever been- to speak at the Arts and Lecture series at the University of California. Just before the event at a restaurant across the street from the ocean, Sandy and I are having dinner with Randy Robinson, the producer who will be adapting The Mermaid Chair
into a television movie. Less than two weeks ago, the idea of The Mermaid Chair
becoming a made-for-TV movie was not even on my radar screen, and now I’m listening to this impressive, very nice man talk about how he envisions the story on the small screen. It’s a little unnerving to hand over my novel to someone to turn into a script and I have all my antennae up. I notice that his copy of the novel has been photocopied and placed into a notebook, which is flagged and marked with extensive notes. His recall of the various scenes in the book downright astonishes me. I am pretty sure it is sharper than my own. I like his propensity for adapting literary works and for retaining their substance. But the real thing I want to know is whether he genuinely loves the story and the characters. By the end of the meal, I’m satisfied in every way.
|Interview with the LA Times|
Waiting in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles for an interview, I notice a man on a cell phone across the room begging someone to give him another chance. He seems heartbroken and has actual tears in his eyes. That evening at an event in Pasadena for Vroman’s Bookstore, I refer to Freud’s infamous question, the one he said he could never answer despite thirty years of research into the feminine soul: What DOES a woman want? I tell the audience that when I was writing The Mermaid Chair
, I got the feeling that my novel was trying, in its own way, to speculate on an answer, this answer: A woman wants love and she wants freedom, at the same time. During the Q&A, a man in the audience asks: So, what does a MAN want? I am sure I don’t know, but then something occurs to me. You know, maybe it’s the same thing a woman wants, I offer. Maybe he, too, wants love and freedom at the same time. The man nods, Exactly, he says.
|After an Interview|
for “Northwest AM”
May 6, 7
In Portland I speak at a beautiful old Congregational Church as part of the Portland Arts and Lecture series. There really is truth in the notion that the speaker draws inspiration from the audience. I feel it almost immediately- something intangible, but galvanizing. It’s one of those captivating audiences you always wish for. At breakfast the next morning Sandy and I dine on Salmon hash and extol the virtues of Portland. As I check out of the hotel, I have a surreal moment. I stand in line behind a woman who has The Mermaid Chair
tucked under her arm. Noticing the book, another woman says, Oh, that’s that new novel by The Secret Life of Bees
’ author- what do you think of it? I brace myself. I know I should merely be happy that one of them is reading my book and the other recognizes it; I shouldn’t be bothered if it gets a mediocre review. That’s true in theory, but the fact is I’m standing right here shoulder to shoulder with them, and I want so much for her to like it. I love it, the first woman says, and I let out such a loud breath they both turn and look at me. They have no idea they’re staring at the author. Feeling shy, I say nothing. But now, if by some remote chance one of you is reading this– that was me standing there sighing with relief.
|Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen|
and Sue Book Passage in
Book Passage in Corte Madera
It’s Mother’s Day. My publisher has sent an entire basket of Ghirardelli chocolate to my hotel room in San Francisco. They are aware of my weakness, and I love them for it. My children have sent Mother’s Day cards in care of the hotel. In truth, my children are my real weaknesses. They are grown, gone away and married, and yet tears spring to my eyes when I open the cards. It happens to me every single year. Later at Muffins and Mimosas for Mother’s Day at the Book Passage in Corte Madera, I’m surprised when Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen shows up to introduce me. She’s the author of several books that have affected me in a groundbreaking way. As she speaks to the audience, something memorable from her memoir, Crossing to Avalon, pops into my head– lines in which she compares the experience of motherhood with the experience of creativity: A woman may also give birth to her own creative work, in which she has had to plumb her own depth as a woman and labor to bring it forth. The work comes out of her and draws from her talents and experience, and yet it has its own life. The last thing I think about at the end of the day are the children and the books I’ve birthed, wanting them to have their own life.
|Signing Books at|
Stacey’s San Francisco
After a lunchtime talk and signing at Stacey’s bookstore in downtown San Francisco, we head up the coast to Capitola Books, where the audience turns out to be a sharp and enthusiastic crowd. One woman also has the ability to surprise. She shows me a framed photograph in which she is standing beside a tall man in a monk’s robe. This is my monk, she says, smiling. Hmmm. I don’t know what to make of this, so I simply smile. It brings back something my mother said when I presented her with a copy of The Mermaid Chair
. As I handed her the novel, she said, I fell in love with a monk. My jaw dropped until I realized she was talking about my father whose last name is Monk!
|Sue Posing as “Lucy”|
My eyes light up when I spot several props left over from a Charlie Brown/ Peanuts production backstage in an auditorium in Naperville, Illinois. I’m back here waiting to speak at an event sponsored by Anderson’s Bookshop. As a bonafide Peanuts comic strip fan, I love the whole gang– Charlie Brown, the hapless Blockhead, who can never seem to win; Lucy in her Psychiatric Booth, meting out crazy advice; and Snoopy, the Literary Ace sitting atop his doghouse relentlessly typing the Great American Novel. I plop down behind a desk that is adorned with the sign from Lucy’s Psychiatric Booth: Psychiatric Help 5 cents. I prop some copies of The Mermaid Chair
on the desk and ask Sandy to take my picture. A few minutes later as I step on stage, I’m still smiling, aware of the humble truth that no matter what a person does, there is some of Charlie Brown, Lucy and Snoopy in all of us: the Blockhead, the Know-It-All and the Struggling Virtuoso. Lest I get big, inflated ideas about myself, that photo of me as Lucy now resides in my study to remind me to laugh at myself.
I sit in a beautiful room in the Wisconsin Club about to speak at a luncheon for the Friends of the Milwaukee Public Library and Harry Schwartz Books. My table is full of smart librarians. Listening to them, I’m moved by their obvious love for what they do, how they tend the knowledge of the world and induct people into a vast and amazing story-universe. I’m seized suddenly by nostalgia for the tiny library in my small hometown in Georgia. As a child, it was the most spellbinding place I knew. I spent hours during the summer, combing the aisles of the children section, choosing books. The anticipation of what was inside those books- the myriad of secrets, mysteries and hidden worlds- was almost unbearable. I usually started reading in the car as my mother drove us home. That night I would read by flashlight long after she told me to turn off the lamp. At some point, under the covers, mesmerized and held captive by the power of story, I became a writer.
|NPR Interview for “On Point”|
May 13, 14
My parents meet us in Boston where they combine sightseeing with a family visit. We dine together at the hotel, where my intrepid mother orders regular coffee with her dessert, I order de-caf, and somehow the orders gets switched. I realize this during a sudden epiphany at 1:00 A.M. long after Sandy is asleep, and I am so wired I feel as though I could re-grout the bathroom tiles. I watch part of a movie in which Frank Sinatra pretends to be a Nazi soldier. At 2:00 I outline an entire one-woman play I think I might write one day (which I throw out the next day due to how awful it is). Around 4:00 I re-pack my suitcase. Asleep finally at 5:00, I pop up with the alarm at 7:00. My parents come along with us to the NPR station for my interview where I try to be coherent– forget charming– and then on to Brookline Booksmith for my talk and signing. I fall asleep in the car on the way back to the hotel.
Now and then on the tour I have to do little reality checks. Like now. Yes, I am standing backstage at the Lincoln Center in New York City. Yes, that’s Lauren Bacall over there. And next to her, Renee Fleming. And next to her, Edward P. Jones. ... I’m at a gala for Literacy Partners to give a reading with these three people. On the stage I can see my husband and children in the audience. They are sitting directly behind Yoko Ono! The evening raises over a million dollars for literacy in New York. After the program, there’s dinner and dancing on the promenade. When it’s over, I pause with my family on the steps. In my first novel, The Secret Life of Bees
, there’s a line at the end of the book in which Lily says: A person shouldn’t look too far down her nose at absurdities. Look at me. I dived into one absurd thing after another, and here I am in the pink house. I wake up to wonder every day. I feel a little like that now.
Before my event at Happy Bookseller in Columbia, SC, Sandy and I sip tea in the back room with owner Carrie Graves. Our conversation wanders to the large colony of best-selling authors who live in the Low Country of South Carolina. While on tour I was told about an article in the Atlanta newspaper about this. We drink our tea and consider various reasons. Is it because the region is one of those story-soaked places in the South where the art of spinning tales is still revered ? Is it because the Low Country is laden with such vivid characters? Is it the peculiar intersection in its history of extreme tragedy, loss and violence with extreme charm, humor and soul? Or is it simply the mesmerizing beauty of the place- all that light on the marsh? I don’t know the answer. I do know that the depth of a place breeds stories. The writers follow.
|Signing at Happy Bookseller|
In the Jones Chapel at Meredith College in Raleigh it’s possible you would need a shoe horn to get one more person inside. I’m here on behalf of Quail Ridge Books, which is one of many reasons to love Raleigh. Another reason is the Jane Doe Book Club, which is made up of women at the Raleigh Courthouse, and which is one of the most fun-loving groups of women I’ve had the pleasure to meet. They selected The Secret Life of Bees
for Good Morning America’s Book Club and had a lot to do with catapulting it toward success. The last time I was in Raleigh I joined them for dinner and got myself inducted as an honorary Jane Doe. To my delight, tonight, I spot some of them in the audience with copies of The Mermaid Chair
|Signing at Litchfield Books|
Pawley’s Island, SC
It’s the last day of the tour, and I’m like a fidgety child pining for summer vacation. Speaking at a Moveable Feast luncheon on Pawley’s Island, SC, I feel, though, that I’m practically home. I am at least back in the Low Country. My last official act of the tour is to sign books for my friends, Vicki and Tom Warner, who own Litchfield Books.
The first thing I did when I got home was to bend down and kiss the ground. Just kidding- I only felt like kissing the ground. What I actually did was to bend down and pick up my grandson who was waiting for me on my doorstep along with his mother and father. The book tour for The Mermaid Chair
taught me a lot more than I’ve been able to express here. Mostly I learned how grateful I am for my readers. And I learned that you don’t have to be on a book tour in order to wake up to wonder. There’s plenty of it at home, too.