Cold Mountain is a first novel and so, of course, I have never done this
particular thing before, going out and reading from my book and answering
questions about it. Having to own up to it. In my mind, before the fact,
the summer looms like two-dozen dissertation defenses all strung end to end.
Because I hate flying and because driving is generally relaxing to me, I
want to drive as much as I can during the tour. The publicist for the book seems
a little nervous about my plans, probably seeing her carefully constructed
itinerary coming unraveled at the first breakdown. So I mention only in
passing, and with the great nonchalance of a used-car salesman, that though my
car has 200,000 miles on its odometer, they’re mostly road miles.
At one of the first readings, a woman launches into a rather involved
question, and as she brings it to a conclusion I can see on her face that she
is appalled by the way her phrasing has worked out. In brief, her question
is this: She has seen several good reviews, the kind blurbs on the book
jacket, a flattering local newspaper article, and she wonders if I’ve thought
that this might be the only book in me, that I will never write again, and
that my life will all be downhill from here. This last point she illustrates
by raising a hand to head height and then letting it fall with the doleful
glide of a dead leaf in autumn.
I go for the quick laugh and say, “No, ma’am. Not until right now I haven’t.”
Then I answer the question I think she meant to ask, which is, am I nervous
about starting a second book. In brief, my answer is yes and no.
I’m sitting at a huge fireworks stand near the Alabama-Tennessee line. I’m
on my way to Nashville and trying to call home on a pay phone, but two
truckers sitting in the parking lot are talking on their CBs and the phone
will deliver only their chatter punctuated with static. They’re parked 10
feet apart, and I can see their mouths moving to match the voices I hear
crackling on the line. Two Indian women in elaborate purple saris walk
toward the bank of phones. One of them is tall and beautiful, and one of the
truckers cannot stop talking about her. She strikes a chord in him, is the
theme of his comments. The woman pauses and takes off her shoes and walks
barefoot across the hot blacktop. The man groans into his mouthpiece. The
other trucker is talking about his mama, how he needs to get on the road
because she’s expecting him before dark. I think it must be hard to write
authentic country songs in this new world.
Out on the two-lane blacktop of Highway 61, heading for a reading in
Arkansas, I take a wrong turn and end up on a single-track dirt road that
dead-ends in a marshy bottom near the Mississippi River. A man is knee-deep
in the dark water and looks to be fighting something, maybe grappling out a
big fish. I climb from the car and go down to the water’s edge to ask
directions, and see that he is trying to free a snagged line. He waves me
off, too deeply enraged by the nest of monofilament in his hands to speak. I
drive along, zig-zagging generally westward past silos and soybean fields,
gray barns, boarded-up little groceries — vestiges of old America, Kerouac’s
or Guthrie’s or Whitman’s.
I finally return to 61 and make my way to That Bookstore in Blytheville
barely on time. The back room has old wood floors, a wood stove, a tin tub of
cold drinks on ice. There are more people than chairs, and the owner, Mary
Gay Shipley, spreads quilts for people to sit on. Everyone is friendly. The
thing I have failed to factor into my thinking is that they have elected to
be here. The experience could not be more unlike a dissertation defense.
Instead it is like telling stories by the fire in a country store.
I have a week of such visits to wonderful independent bookshops like Burke’s
in Memphis, Square Books in Oxford, Lemuria in Jackson, Quail Ridge in
Raleigh. Old-fashioned stores, at least in the sense that they seem to
mirror some part of their owners’ personalities and that the staff members
know many of the books on the shelves and many of the customers who walk
through the doors and try hard to match the two successfully, which must be
something like spending your day arranging blind dates.