Books, On the Run

Now we are home

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We’re home. No one was mugged. No one was shot. No one was renditioned to Abu Ghraib. No one was ill. I was the only one who was injured. It happened in Phoenix. I snapped the tendon in the top joint of the third finger of my left hand. For the sake of amusing short hand I could say that I sat on it, but that’s not what happened, so stop sniggering. I was reaching behind me and pressed my hand down awkwardly. I heard the snap and when I brought my hand around, the finger was at a peculiar angle.

I taped it up rather than engage with the American medical system and lose my house. It turns out the injury is colloquially known as baseball finger, so a true American injury, although my fingers and baseballs are strangers. It’s now in a brace and will be there for eight weeks. It’s not in the least painful; just inconvenient.

How did it all go? Modesty forbids declaring it brilliant, so let’s just say it was sensationally good. People came to our events. They were generous, they asked thoughtful questions, they laughed in the right places, mostly. They were intrigued when we spoke about the now well-established convention at events in Australia of acknowledging the traditional owners of the country on which we sat. The idea that a bookshop in Pasadena, sitting among neon and concrete, might actually have beneath it land once walked on by First Nation people, seemed to require a daring imaginative leap.

How did it all go? Modesty forbids declaring it brilliant, so let’s just say it was sensationally good.

We hired a car in Phoenix – a big, brutish Toyota Sequoia. Jock did the driving because years of surfing have blunted his capacity to be terrified. I did the navigating, which is like being told where to turn by someone with a permanently malfunctioning sense of direction. And when I say it’s ‘like’ that, I mean it is that. I only failed once. On the highway between Los Angeles and Santa Cruz the exit we were supposed to take disappeared behind us as I silently pointed towards its retreating curve – with one of my good fingers. Emma and Sulari helpfully said, ‘Use your words, Bob, Use your words.’ I obliged, and used some words.

Prior to this navigational fiasco, we’d left the highway and pulled into a petrol station. American gas stations sell a lot more than petrol. Among a wide selection of alcoholic beverages you could pick up a $300 bottle of single malt from Islay.

Next to the petrol station there was an antique store, or mall, as it styled itself. It was attached to a liquor store which carried almost as wide a range of single malts as the petrol station. Perhaps things got busy on the weekends but on a Wednesday its remoteness, coupled with the absence of people, gave it a Bate’s Motel air. The window promised skulls, knives and swords, oddities, dinosaur poop and Nascar. Inside the store we met a woman named Elenor. She was dead. In a glass cabinet. For sale. To be properly accurate, it was Elenor’s spine and pelvis that were for sale. So that’s all right then. Apparently. The label was almost chatty:

Sex: Female. Elenor Montgomery.
Born: 1898. Died: 1974. (had 2 kids)
Cause of Death: Heart condition
Degeneration T-2, T-3
Elenor and case: $2650.00. All items sold as-is.

Clearly Elenor was picked up at a medical school sell-off, but 1974 wasn’t that long ago, and even if Elenor had left her body to science, I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the final resting place she’d imagined. Yet here she is, on sale next to a stuffed bobcat, instant coffee and a book called Lil’ Buckaroos. A tribute to the young cowboy in all of us. Who is the person driving away from this spot with petrol station whiskey and human remains? Who is this person voting for? Just asking.

I think I redeemed myself navigationally in San Francisco where the traffic was gridlocked, in the dark and in the rain, and where the GPS lost its nerve and shat itself. We managed to make it across the bridge into Berkeley, where the roads narrowed, grew steep and where fog descended. We made it to our event on time. It went very well; thank you for asking.

What did we achieve? Four went out and four came home. Given that that doesn’t always happen, I’m counting it. We met many readers, writers, booksellers and publishers. We talked and talked, and not just about our books (although, you know, they did crack a mention), but about other Australian crime writers of both fiction and non-fiction. People took notes and jotted down names. We suggested that they might care to trawl the long and short lists of the Ned Kelly Awards and the Davitt Awards.

It’s too early to tell what the tour might have accomplished. The fact that the Australia Council gave us a grant astonished our audiences, and the fact that we represented four different publishers left them thinking we’d come straight from Narnia. It was incumbent upon us to offer a corrective, which we gently administered.

This tour was the first of its kind. There needs to be a second and a third. An Australian presence at Bouchercon, and at other large conventions, should be an inevitability rather than a curiosity.

This tour was the first of its kind. There needs to be a second and a third. An Australian presence at Bouchercon, and at other large conventions, should be an inevitability rather than a curiosity. It requires the cooperation of publishers and writers. It can be done. We proved that. Can it be done again?

Four of our fellow writers need to start plotting and planning, and it does require planning. The Australia Council, should a grant be awarded, offers financial assistance, but where you appear, and when, and where you stay, that, I’m afraid, is left to you. We were away for 21 days, 19 of them on the ground. In that time we managed, separately and together, 26 engagements, some small, some large, some in bookshops, some in bars, some in private homes and of course Bouchercon.

We had two days off in Santa Cruz, although we had been scheduled to appear at a bookshop there. It was cancelled at the last minute due to the owner’s illness. Just to keep the adrenaline going, Jock went surfing and I left the manuscript of my new novel (I write in longhand) in a café. There’s nothing quite like the sickening sensation attached to this discovery. It’s almost worth it, almost, for the relief engendered by its recovery.

Would I travel again with my three companions, Jock Serong, Emma Viskic and Sulari Gentill? Yes I would; in a heartbeat.

This is the final piece in the Crime Writers on the Run series. For the rest of the installments, click here.

One response to “Now we are home

  1. An excellent and entertaining blog. We couldn’t ask for more erudite, eloquent and engaging ambassadors for Australia, than yourself, Sulari, Emma and Jock. Make it a yearly event, Robert!

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