Tales from the Trailette

Posts from book tours usually come under the heading of Tales from the Trail. For this abbreviated book tour Trailette is the best I can do—and I can tell you that the fact-checking spellchecker on this computer doesn’t like the word Trailette AT ALL!

The first day of the tour took me to Fort Myers, Florida, for the Southwest Florida Reading Festival. I’m a night owl. Having to be up at five AM for a five-thirty pickup isn’t in my wheelhouse, and I did that whole day’s worth of travel on two hours and thirty-four minutes’ worth of sleep. I know that for a fact because my watch is like Santa Claus—it knows when I am sleeping, and it knows when I’m awake.

Upon stepping out of the airport in Tampa, I found myself in a strange new world. Some people were wearing masks, but most weren’t, and I was overjoyed to see faces again. I’ve missed being able to see people laughing and smiling. And I’ve missed conversations, too. Until Covid, I had no idea how much of my hearing was connected to being able to see people’s lips moving. By the way, having masked people make announcements in airports isn’t such a good idea, ether. I didn’t hear a critical announcement about a gate change and had to hustle to make my plane.

I hadn’t been to the Fort Myers festival before and didn’t know what to expect. Usually at festivals, authors are booked in to do a series of panels, and my strategy for surviving book tours is to wake up in the morning, check the schedule, and then do whatever the schedule says I’m supposed to do that day. So, on Saturday morning, when my hostess came to the hotel to pick me up, I asked what time my panel was. “You don’t have a panel,” she said. “You have an hour-long solo appearance starting at eleven-fifteen.” What? A solo appearance? Well then, okie-dokie!

When I arrived in Seattle in the early eighties, I was still selling insurance. A few months later, my employer offered to pay for the Dale Carnegie course on Winning Friends and Influencing People. Thinking it would make me better at insurance sales, I signed up. During the first class I discovered that this was actually a course in public speaking, so I tried to back out, but the only way to get my tuition reimbursed was to finish the class. I did so and am I ever glad I did! It was during a coffee break in one of the Dale Carnegie classes when someone suggested I should write a book. I decided she was right, and four days later, I did exactly that—started writing my first book, and the rest is history. But by completing that course, I also learned how to do be comfortable doing public speaking. A year or two later, when I sold my first manuscript and knew that eventually I’d be out doing live appearances, I spent a year in Toastmasters as well.

In other words, when that hour-long solo appearance in Fort Myers dropped on my head with no advance warning, I was ready—for everything EXCEPT the height of the podium.

There’s a reason the risers on stairs are all of a uniform height. I’m not exactly sure what that measurement is. I’m writing this on another early-morning flight, and I can’t Google it at the moment. I believe the standard is height is six or seven inches. So, when I was escorted into the festival tent with two hundred or more people already seated in the audience, I was faced with a stage that was a good sixteen inches off the ground—two and a half of that standard riser height and way more than I could manage.

I stopped short and said, “I can’t do that.” Here’s what happened next. The emcee and two others—literally two men and a boy—grabbed me by the arms and hauled me up onto the stage like a landed halibut. Talk about a dignified entrance! The people in the audience thought it was hilarious. I did not! After the introduction, it took a moment or so for me to gather my wits. Then, realizing that the people in the tent were there to have fun, I channeled my inner Carol Burnett and told the story of another less-than-dignified author event.

This was back in the old days—back when I wore heels and No Nonsense Panty Hose. (Now I wear Skechers. If you wanted to see me in heels and hose, you should have been at book events twenty or thirty years ago!) In this case, the event was scheduled for the Sun Lakes Library south of Phoenix. It turns out that I’m very popular in Sun Lakes. The library has a room that holds maybe a hundred and fifty folks, but the demand that day far outstripped available seating. As a consequence, I agreed to do a second seating—one book talk and signing followed by another.

Talks at book signings generally run an hour in length. After doing the first round at Sun Lakes, my energy level was depleted, and I asked if there was a stool I could use for the second seating. (This was a library after all, and librarians have stools!) The one they brought was tall enough and had wheels on it. Unfortunately the room had a polished concrete floor. I’m sure you can already see where this is going. When I tried to hitch my butt up high enough to sit on the stool, it went slamming out from under me and crashed into the wall behind me. And there I was, heels, pantyhose, and all, flat on the floor in front of a roomful of appalled people!

Two men in the front row jumped up to come to my aid. One was very tall and one very short. On construction sites, when it comes to lifting heavy loads, they use tall cranes as opposed to short ones. So I pointed at Mr. Tall and said, “You’re my guy.” Together we managed to lever me up off the floor.

When I finished telling that story in Fort Myers, people were pretty much rolling in the aisles, and by the time the talk ended, I was in a room filled with friends and lots of new fans. (Thank you, Carol Burnett!).

I can tell you that watching people smile and laugh during a talk and hearing them applaud afterwards, is very different from sitting in my dining room at home, talking to a computer screen that may or may not choose to freeze up at any given moment.

Something I’ve really missed during the pandemic are the personal interactions with audience members. During my talks, I often tell about my challenging sojourn with a first husband who died of chronic alcoholism at age 42—a journey that forms the basis of my book of poetry, After the Fire. I’m always moved afterwards when people approach the signing table and share their own similarly difficult backgrounds. Those quiet, personal moments really touch me. On my Zoom events, the only real social interaction is often between me and my two dachshunds, Mary and Jojo, who abhor the gardener’s leaf blower and will launch off into a spasm of barking should that dreaded piece of equipment fire up anywhere within their hearing distance. I can yell NO at them ’til the cows come home, but they’re doxies, and it makes no difference. Instead, it usually better if I simply give up and sign off.

My public events are generally more storytelling than they are readings, and they’re often similar in nature. In other words, if you’ve seen one, you’ve more or less seen them all. I share things about my family background, my history and often my characters’ histories as well. Most of the time I try to include insights into the origins of the book that happens to be the “new” one at the time.

In Fort Myers, panels were taped. On Tuesday of this week, they sent me a YouTube link to the various panels featured at the festival. I’m including the link in case you’re interested, but I’m pretty sure that opening pratfall is not included.

Southwest Florida Reading Festival 2022 Author Spotlight: J.A. Jance

This tour being done solo, and it’s a lot different from being on the road with Bill, my husband, pal, and media escort extraordinaire. It’s also the first time I’ve attended the Tucson Festival of Books while staying at a hotel rather than having a Tucson residence to go home to each night. Boy howdy, has life ever changed in two years of not doing book tours! But this morning that’s where I’m headed—back to Tucson and to my alma mater, the University of Arizona.

With any kind of luck, orange blossoms will be in full bloom!