You're Not Pretty When You Whine

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Tony Earley, author of
Somehow Form a Family
Photo Credit: Jim Herrington

by Tony Earley

This revealing essay by Tony Earley appeared in the most recent issue of The Algonkian, the literary magazine from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. In it, the editor noted that "even the most successful authors find themselves occasionally challenged by their book tours. We asked Tony to tell us about his own worst behavior."

Let's face it, traveling around the country at someone else's expense doesn't strike me as much of a hardship. Still, writers -- myself included -- are notorious whiners. I try to remember that nobody really cares about the time I found a roach the size of a Border collie in my motel room. I do remember, though, one of my less-than-perfect bookstore visits. I hope I've matured considerably since then.

I should have known San Francisco wasn't going to be a Tony Earley town when I pulled into the parking lot and saw, stretched from one end of the bookstore to the other, a banner that proclaimed WELCOME DAVID SEDARIS! in letters roughly the height of Sedaris himself. (He was coming the next day.) I was with my wife, Sarah, who had flown out for my birthday, and my friend, Dennis.

"Nice sign," Dennis said.

"David Sedaris is very funny," Sarah said. "We saw him in Nashville."

"There's nobody here," I said. "There aren't even any cars here."

"Six," said Dennis.

"Stop whining," Sarah said. She comes from a long line of dour Scots and doesn't suffer writers gladly.

"You're not pretty when you whine," Dennis said.

"I'm not whining."

"Actually, yes, you are."

"I wish we didn't have to leave tomorrow," said Sarah. "I'd love to see David Sedaris.

"Welcome!" said the shift manager. "We're so pleased to have you. We love your book."

She wasn't fooling me.

"We have a few minutes before your signing. Can I get you anything?"

"Maybe you should eat something," Sarah said.

"I want a sandwich," I said.

"A chicken sandwich."

"He has low blood sugar," Sarah said. "He gets cranky when he goes without eating."

"I'm not cranky."

"Actually, yes, you are," Dennis said.

The manager led us to a table outside. I pulled out my cell phone.

"Who are you calling?" Sarah asked.

"My publicist. David Sedaris and I shouldn't be within five hundred miles of each other."

"You mean, you shouldn't be within five hundred miles of him," Dennis said.

"Put down that phone," Sarah said.

I stuck the phone in my pocket. "Well, of course David Sedaris is going to be huge in San Francisco," I said. "But I'd like to see how many people he gets in Raleigh."

"Actually, he's from Raleigh," Sarah said. "I imagine he does really well in Raleigh."

"Okay, then, Ashville. I'd like to see how he does in Asheville."

Dennis and Sarah stared at me sadly.

"Fine then. Forest City. I bet that at Fireside books in Forest City, North Carolina, I kick David Sedaris's butt."

"That's where you're from, right?" Dennis asked.

I nodded.

Dennis thought for a minute. "Okay," he said, "I might give you that one."

"Damn right," I said.

I paced back and forth in a small stock room, listening to the shift manager introduce me over a PA system that seemed entirely too loud for a deserted bookstore.

"I'm not going out there," I said.

"Tony . . ." said Sarah.

"I mean it. There are only six people at this thing, and I brought two of them with me. It's humiliating."

"So it's not a big crowd," Sarah said. "So what? There are four people out there who came to see you. What about them?"

"I don't care."

"Yes, you do."

"Well, okay, I do, a little. But don't get comfortable. I'm going to read eight minutes, then we're getting the hell out of here."

"Hi," I said into the microphone.

"Hi," said a man sitting in the front row. "I'm Don and this is my wife, Hope."

"Hi Don. Hi Hope." The two women sitting in the back didn't introduce themselves. "I'm going to read from Jim the Boy."

"We're looking forward to it," said Hope.

After I had read a page or two, I saw Don gently elbow Hope in the ribs. They looked at each other and nodded. They liked it. More important, they liked me. I began to read directly to them. Don and Hope became beloved children I was reading to sleep, the congregation of a church I pastored, favorite teachers I wanted only to please. I read every sentence as if something depended on it. I forgot about Dennis and Sarah and the two women in the back. I almost forgot about David Sedaris. And, lo and behold, when I finished reading, Don and Hope bought seven books.

"You were wonderful," Hope said at the signing table.

"Thank you."

"We had never heard of you until just now," she added. "But we're so glad we staysaned."

"I'm glad you stayed, too," I said.

"Oh, you don't know how much," said Sarah.

Tony Earley has written, among other works, the novel Jim the Boy and a collection of essays, Somehow Form a Family.

Copyright © 2002 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.