“The question for debut authors: Should you go on a book tour?”
Bright Lines.ince my idea of a successful writing day means I haven’t eaten or left the house in hours, the idea of talking about my work over and over again with strangers felt completely foreign to me.
Still, I wanted to go on tour. If my book’s launch had two hundred people tightly packed into Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore, why wouldn’t people from other cities be interested in my book? After spending ten years working on something, shouldn’t I give it a chance to reach audiences across the country?
That’s precisely the sort of energy I wanted behind my publicity for a national tour. Within a few weeks, we assembled my tour, in cities I’d been to many times over, and ones I’d never visited. In each city—Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Miami, Atlanta, Chicago—I would be paired with a veteran writer to ground the conversations, help draw a crowd, and hold my trembling hand. Working with Jones, we built a tour of conversations with a dream cast of characters, including a novelist friend I’d only known virtually but not in real life, Nayomi Munaweera (author of What Lies Between Us) and the supremely talented poet Jericho Brown (The New Testament, 2014). Knowing that these writers would read my work in preparation for our talk blew my mind.
The first stop would take me to Detroit, to be in conversation with my dear friend, the poet Tarfia Faizullah. When she and I first connected on the internet, I remember feeling struck that I knew another Bangladeshi-American artist writing about war, survival, sex, and identity lived out there. Our initial conversation made such an epic impact on me that I used her poem “Dhaka Nocturne” as an epigraph for Bright Lines.
Besides, starting my tour in Detroit seemed like a way to scrub clean the event I’d had just before, at a museum that will remain nameless. Three people had shown up, something I hadn’t expected after the turnout of my other New York City launch events. I felt a sticky mix of hurt and embarrassment—especially since I was supposed to speak with another debut author who confessed that this had never happened to her before. Not only had this happened with me, I felt convinced it was because of me.
I wanted to forget the museum snafu as quickly as possible. What better way to do that than to read in another city, with a writer I loved?
When I arrived in Detroit, the crisp October air and the autumnal red of maples felt auspicious. Tarfia met me at the airport and we headed to a dive bar for some food and drinks, to relax before the night’s event. We departed for the reading an hour early, as a way to scope the scene and calm my nerves. As we drove thirty minutes to the venue, I took in a changing Detroit, with its classic brick homes—some abandoned, some newly purchased; within miles, the landscape shifted from developing to deserted. Sitting in the car with Tarfia, I smoked a cigarette while we listened to Kendrick Lamar, feeling like everything would be all right. (Yes, bad habits take root very early on in a book tour, between no exercise, vices, and fried food.)
The bookstore stood on a strip of long-shuttered shops, including an old ice cream parlor I wished were open, and a medical marijuana dispensary—very aligned with the themes of my book. We were greeted by the bookstore owner and one staffer, who let us know that we were welcome to wait or grab a coffee around the corner. With twenty or so minutes to go, I figured we could just walk around, document the moment on Instagram, and go over what we’d read. Those twenty minutes passed too quickly, and I had the strangest feeling that no one would be there.
We entered the bookstore, and now we had one more person sitting at a table, a handsome man who emanated “artist.” The five of us sat around a huge ceramic pumpkin filled with the sickly sweet scent of a pumpkin candle.
“Well, I was hoping for more of a turnout, but I’m so sorry about this,” said the owner, looking around.
“These things happen,” I said. I glanced at Tarfia, who seemed unfazed and ready. We nodded at each other: This is it, this is what it is.
“Well, I would love to read a chapter to you, and thank you so much for being here,” I said, looking at the one man who had showed. He smiled gently and folded his hands on the table, eyes closed, ready for me to read.
I often read different excerpts at my events, decided on a whim, dependent on my mood. For this Detroit event, I knew what I wanted to read as soon as I opened my book. A chapter from the point of view of Ella, a young person struggling with their sexuality, gender identity, and place in the family. In a vulnerable passage, Ella shears away ill-fitted clothes in a sort of beauty parlor baptism at the hands of their Aunt Hashi. The vulnerability of being naked and exposed felt all too apropos.
After I read, Tarfia followed suit, reading poems of hers I’d never heard before. This time, I let myself close my eyes, to let the deep resin in her voice calm me.
“Wow. More people should’ve been here,” said the man, who turned out to be a poet.
“It’s a shame that they weren’t,” said the bookseller. “This was a beautiful conversation.”
“That’s what we do,” said Tarfia.
“And honestly,” I joked, turning to the poet, “your energy is probably the same as at least twenty people.”
We drove back to Tarfia’s home; I felt very quiet inside. She asked, “How you feeling about that?”
“You know, I thought I would feel worse, since no one wanted to come tonight. But it actually was a beautiful conversation. So, I think I’m okay with it.”
“Yes. I’ve learned that with these things, it’s better to just accept what it is, and give it everything you’ve got, each time.”
That night, we did exactly what I wanted to do—stayed up talking, eating pizza, and taking each other in before I left. The nagging feeling that I’d made a big mistake by choosing to go on tour persisted, quietly, but at least I’d found a way to enjoy this moment, unlike the bout of depression I’d felt after the museum fiasco. The shame or embarrassment was just as real as the profound enjoyment of talking to our one attendee. I couldn’t diminish that even if it weren’t much better, this was still better.
After that night in Detroit, I resolved to be open to learning from this tour. I readied myself for disappointment. I tried to be mentally prepared for the fact that people just might not show up. The fear is reminiscent of that childhood angst of whether or not anyone will show up to your birthday party.
My tour took me to California next. I’m a New Yorker with a deep love of the West Coast, its epic nature and mercurial microclimates. So, even if no one showed, I told myself, I could lace the tour with excursions into Muir Woods, Joshua Tree. The quietude would let me gather my strength for the next event. That first evening in San Francisco, at the renowned City Lights bookstore, I shared the stage with Achy Obejas, a prolific novelist and poet I had admired for years. Our audience of forty or so people was mostly composed of friends, family, wondrous strangers, and kindred writer spirits. Obejas and I both read our work, then jumped into a lively conversation. Not only had she read my work carefully and compassionately, her questions hit the core of what my novel was about—gender and sexuality, coming-of-age, imperfect fathers. Judging by the sales, we gave the crowd a compelling enough sliver of Bright Lines to get them to buy the book.
This experience let a newfound confidence seep back in. In Los Angeles, the surreality of being on tour struck me, hard, while in conversation with one of my novelist heroes, Laila Lalami, and an old friend, D’Lo, a writer and actor I’d first seen at a queer conference as a college student. Here we were, speaking with one another openly and wholeheartedly as if we’d known each other forever. To hear one of your favorite authors say the words, “One of my favorite things about Bright Lines . . .”is probably be enough for me to say it’s all worth it.
So, the question remains for debut authors: Should you go on a book tour? If you’re a writer who will be paying for much of your own tour, as I did, only go to cities where you have friends and loved ones. While you may have a publicist from your publisher, most first novels do not get a budget for extensive tours. So hiring a publicist specifically for my national tour made the most sense. For each event, be in conversation with kindred writers. It’s much more comforting to have company, and besides, it’s more interesting to hear people dish about writing than to hear a book being read. Be ready to eat quick and greasy and forget regimens. I liberally, if not radically, used my credit card (which I am still paying off now), Airbnb’d when I needed privacy and couch-crashed when I felt comfortable enough to do so.
Being on the road for weeks at a time is a romanticized trope. I wanted to believe myself some sort of traveling author inciting crowds while signing millions of books. That’s not reality for a debut author. It’s hard on the body, hard on the spirit. It’s hard to leave your lover and friends back home. Yet I’ve found that my first book tour was the best way to experience wondrous conversations about a novel that I’d given a decade of my life to.
By the time I got to my last book tour stop at Powell’s Books in Portland, I presented my novel solo, without anyone moderating or conversing with me. Playing a solo set meant I needed to spice up the usual format, so I made a slideshow presentation of Brooklyn in 2003 versus the present day, a visual of gentrification and changing neighborhoods. Seeing so many people of color in the crowd, in a city known for its racial homogeneity, reiterated to me that this wasn’t just for me, that this work was important to readers too. They craved stories about young, queer, immigrant, second-generation brown characters and wanted to hear this work. That is probably the most important thing I’ve taken away—there is power in speaking and sharing your work with readers. The culmination of my book tour at Powell’s reiterated all that I’d worked for. I recalled my first visit to this epic “city of books” back in 2008, only dreaming that one day I would be reading my book there. This euphoric realization that I needed to be here gave me the perfect response to a rather offensive request by an older white male audience member—can you say something in Bengali? His question revealed his ignorance, yes, but also the disgruntled rumbling from the crowd revealed that this ignorance was all too familiar.
“Na,” I replied, in Bangla. No sounds the same in so many languages.
I would have ordinarily felt confounded or insulted, but with my audience, we turned his ignorance into a discourse about race, alienation and cultural difference. We were creating culture in the moment. This is what a book tour does—it lets people hear authors speak their work into existence.
Tanwi Nandini Islam is the author of Bright Lines, a finalist for the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Her writing has appeared in Vice.com. Elle.com, Open City, Billboard.com and Gawker. She is the founder of Hi Wildflower Botanica, a small-batch, niche perfume, candle, and skincare line. A graduate of Brooklyn College MFA and Vassar College, she lives in Brooklyn, New York.