By CAROLYN COOKE, associate professor in the Department of Writing, Consciousness and Creative Inquiry. Her novel, "Daughters of the Revolution" (Knopf), is a finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan Prize for a first novel.
Your book has a season. Mine was Summer. "Daughters of the Revolution" appeared in bookstores on June 6th. (Booksellers hold their copies back so your book can—shazam!—appear on the shelves on publication day, and begin the mad dash to be noticed.) Soon after this I went on the road from the Bay Area to Chicago, New York, New England, and Los Angeles in the grand tradition, stopping in a new city every night or two, trying to lure friends (and their friends, and all our mutual Facebook friends and Twitter followers) into bookstores to a reading—and to buy the book. Touring is a shameless act of seduction: fun, humiliating, sexy—and (over time) a little grueling.
One day I drove from New York City to Concord, Mass., through thunder, lightening, and rain so torrential it actually held the windshield wipers in mid-arc. The Taconic Parkway was a muggy blur; I might have been driving down a water slide. In Concord I stayed at an inn dating from 1700 and drank a beer with an old friend and former editor from a pewter tankard once used by Paul Revere. (I may be making this up.) Concord is, of course, the birthplace of a Revolution—but not the sexual revolution described in somewhat relentless detail in my book.
The bookstore looked cozy—a port in the storm. But who would come out in such weather? The bookseller, of course. My friend/editor. The sister of someone in my writing group came; she lives just down the street. The mother of a former student appeared, nudged by her son who, because he lives in Africa, couldn’t attend. Two men came in together, and I was moved by the kindness of strangers. “Thank you for coming,” I confided—often a bad idea. “You’re the only people here I don’t know. I’m so glad you’re not just some long-lost cousins!”
“Actually,” said the older of the two men, “I am your mother’s cousin.”
What a strange object is your own book. It emerges into the marketplace as if it were an ordinary product, marked with its promise of quality control—what I have come to think of as the “wall of praise” that backs it up. Your sentences, ideas and images, the whole atmosphere and world you’ve created, are pitched and packaged (except in e-book form, where the print is detached from its platen and distilled into an essence, like vodka from a potato). Next thing, if you are lucky, you stand peering across the wild terrain of your id and ego into the faces of strangers—and the broadest swath of your ancient intimates. You open your book, which, in a sudden weird reversal, you are here to interpret and embody. You straighten up, find your voice, look them all in the eye, and pretend to read.