ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN (Monday): The trip started at 4 a.m. That's what time you have to get up in order to be on a 6 a.m. flight. Slept on the couch (with the dog) to better let my wife sleep. Car service to the airport, security, plane, Detroit.
It takes a day, I've discovered, to get used to being up at 4 a.m., so much of Monday was spent sleeping in the hotel. That's what they're for. Got some grading done (student scripts, end of term) and then headed out to Ann Arbor (thank you, inventor of GPS!) to see our old pal Robin Agnew at Aunt Agatha's.
Let's establish a few ground rules, here: Assume that at every store along the way, the booksellers were lovely people and the readers I met were interested and engaging, and just as lovely. Because all that is completely true.
What I've decided to do here is a little "behind-the-scenes" look at a (truncated, admittedly) book tour. Because I'd never done one before, I found the whole experience really interesting. These are random observations, possibly driven by sleep deprivation.
For example: You can tell a lot about a city from its airport. Which one has a Fox News Store (what?) and which one has an MSNBC Store (what?). What the food stands offer (hint: tacos). How overworked the TSA screeners look (some are surlier than others). By the way, TSA pre-check is the greatest innovation to air travel since the jet engine.
But the streets of Ann Arbor are easy to navigate (by car--on foot I was completely lost most of the time). Aunt Agatha's--which I mention in passing listed THE QUESTION OF THE MISSING HEAD as one of the Top 5 Mysteries of 2014--is adorable and the cupcakes I didn't eat looked delicious. The coldest city in temperature on the tour, but the group was warm and welcoming.
HOUSTON, TX (Tuesday): When you get up at 4 every morning and fly at 6, you tend to get to your destination--particularly one in a more western time zone) pretty early. So I'd wondered what would happen if one of the hotels I'd booked would not let me check in early. In Houston, I found out.
And I have to say, it was the best thing that could have happened.
Because I had more than three hours to kill in a town I don't know at all, with no place to stay and no access to my luggage, I scanned the inevitable rack of brochures at the hotel for something to do in Houston, and sure enough, the one that I should have planned for ahead of time leapt out at me.
A tour of the Johnson Space Center, home of "Houston, we have a problem."
For a man of my age, who remembers when every kid wanted to be an astronaut, this was heaven. Gemini capsules. Saturn 5 rockets. The actual control room from the 1960s space flights. The shuttle Galileo from the U.S.S. Enterprise.
Moonrocks you can touch.
Best inconvenience I can imagine. I'd love to be kept out of a hotel for hours again if I can have that kind of a day in return. And I got to see my pal Shirley Wetzel at Murder by the Book that night and have a barbecue dinner with her.
SCOTTSDALE, AZ (Wednesday): Renting a car is the last unheralded bargain in America. I rented four in the course of a week, each from a different service, and no two cars were the same make, let alone the same model. The car in Houston (a Kia Soul) was the most hilarious, while the Phoenix car, a Mazda 3, was probably the easiest to drive (in Detroit I got a Ford Focus because in Detroit, you get an American car). But renting is an odd thing, like staying in a hotel--all the while you're aware that this isn't yours. You're a little bit more careful.
Met my former next-door neighbors for lunch; they'd moved to Arizona in June to start enjoying retirement and avoiding snow shoveling. Good to see John and Sheri again.
Arizona is beautiful and weird. It's quiet, has gorgeous scenery, and the red lights last a half an hour at a time. You can catch up on your knitting at a red light in Arizona. I don't knit, but it seemed like a good idea there for a while.
Flying by now has become part of the morning commute. It's as routine as brushing my teeth. You get up ridiculously early, pack up your stuff, return the rental car, and get on a plane. I can sleep on planes, especially when I've been up since 4, so that helps.
The Poisoned Pen is a bookstore I've always wanted to see and it did not disappoint. Quite beautiful, with every mystery book imaginable and more. David Hunenberg, who ran the event, didn't so much interview the author (that's me) as initiate conversation, a subtle distinction but an important one. We talked about a lot of things related to writing that I wasn't expecting to discuss when I got there. A pleasure. (You can read more about it here.)
LONG BEACH, CA (Thursday): And here's where things start getting complicated. The intended destination for today, the only day during the trip with no bookstore event scheduled, was San Francisco, where I'd do a little sightseeing and meet face-to-face for the first time my invaluable web guru Sue Trowbridge. But the jet stream had other plans.
San Francisco was deluged with a rainstorm bringing incredibly high winds and record amounts of rain to the city. I'd already cancelled my hotel in anticipation of the storm after Sue emailed with dire forecasts. So I was going to sleep in on Thursday. Instead, United Airlines called at 6 to tell me my flight--which I had no intention of boarding--had been cancelled. No kidding, United Airlines. If you'd listened to me when I called the day before, I might have gotten a decent night's sleep.
Certainly the best accommodations of the trip came in Long Beach, as I stayed with two very dear friends from back in the day and their son, who was not an imposing six-foot man with a beard the last time I'd seen him. Always a delight to catch up, and thanks, Jenny, Alan and A.J., for sharing your home with me for two days.
But pineapple on pizza is still a violation of the laws of physics.
HUNTINGTON BEACH, CA (Friday): The storm that ate San Francisco hit the Los Angeles area overnight, and people in Southern California are just not equipped for this strange wet substance that falls from the sky. So my tour of the Paramount Studios, the only such tour in town I'd never taken before, was something of a question mark until I actually managed to navigate into the Melrose Avenue parking lot.
Since Paramount is the studio where my personal heroes, the Marx Brothers, shot three of their best movies, this was a sort of Mecca for me, even if the tour guide (a lovely girl from New Jersey, of all places) didn't know which sound stage they might have used. Hedging against the rain, which was pretty steady when I first arrived, I bought an umbrella in the studio gift shop, and the sky immediately cleared. Not another drop fell while I was on the studio lot.
Since there were still almost four hours to kill after the tour, I headed to the Santa Monica pier for lunch, got lost along the way, realized I didn't have time for more than a quick bite, and then GPS-ed to Mystery Ink just in time for the 4:30 p.m. event. Had quite a lively talk with Debbie Mitsch and the audience. I even bought a copy of my own book because my hosts' son wanted to read it and I didn't have one with me. So I added to my own sales numbers.
SAN DIEGO, CA (Saturday): The drive from Long Beach to San Diego takes about 90 minutes and it's nice and scenic. In fact, there are stops along the way where the nice people at the Highway Authority have left you an area to look out over the scenery (see left).
The trip to Mysterious Galaxy's new improved location was a pleasure indeed. San Diego is a lovely city, understandable to a New Jerseyan because it lives in the shadow of its flashier, more behemoth-like neighbor. A shame my lovely wife wasn't here to share.
Maryelizabeth Hart and the amazing staff at the store were celebrating their holiday party, so there were 12 or 13 authors there, and one of them was me. I bought a dystopian YA book (there's another kind) called Now That You're Here from a very nice author named Amy K. Nichols because it seemed interesting and the main character's name is the same as my daughter's (although spelled differently). My daughter loves dystopian YA novels. Sold.
After that, a visit to my favorite San Diego restaurant, Croce's, owned by Ingrid Croce (widow of the late Jim, one of my favorite singer-songwriters, and mother of A.J., one of my current favorites). The food is excellent and the new location is lovely. And the music there is always good.
Then another 4 a.m. wake up call (I use "I'm Alive" by Michael Franti) and a quick ride to the airport, followed by a not-so-quick flight to Newark and the friendly faces of my wife and son.
If youre reading this at 4 a.m. Monday, please feel free to leave a comment (even if you're reading it any other time). Just don't expect me to answer right away.
I won't be up.