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Sat 31
Mar
2007

Travel Diary: Day #7 (Chicago, Austin)

Writing I love my breakfasts. But when I’m at home, I don’t usually get to them until late—11 or 12, if I’m writing. (Some writers drink. Some do drugs. I find creativity via coffee on an empty stomach.) And I eat cereal. Or oatmeal/porridge. Milk should always be somehow involved with breakfast, I feel. The hearty, American-style breakfast of egg and bacon and sausage and hash browns is a little too much for me, especially early. If you ask me, there’s something a little immoral about cooking anything before noon but toast.

This is why I’m having a little difficulty with the hordes of people in line for pizza at 8am at the airport. And “breakfast tacos!” You can’t just put the word “breakfast” in front of something as if that makes it okay! No! There are no breakfast pot roasts, are there? Breakfast buffalo burgers? Breakfast prime rib steak?

It’s raining in Austin. But that’s okay, because I have to stay in and do my washing. Originally, my plan was to have the hotel dryclean some clothes for me. But I’m never long enough in one place for this. So I fill up the bathtub, toss in some soap, and wash a load of shirts and underpants, old-school. Then I wring them out, arrange them on hangers, and distribute them around my hotel room. It really adds something to my luxurious hotel room; a certain third world ambiance.

I call home, and we get the webcam thing happening. Jen puts Fin on her lap, and Fin sees my picture and smiles. I sing nursery rhymes to her through the phone and she grins and claps and says, “More?” when I finish. It’s wonderful. Being able to see them, even in jerky low-resolution, makes me feel much closer to home.

On a geeky note, I’m very pleased with my laptop computer. It’s the first time I’ve left home with a Linux-powered machine (it’s running Ubuntu), and thought I might hit problems trying to hook up with the internet services of various hotels. But nope: everything’s worked perfectly.

Today’s amusing email:

im doing a book report on your book “Jennifer Government” and i need some books that contain information about you as an author. my stupid english teacher insists that i find at least 3 books that contain information about you as an author, even though it seems to be impossible.

i also need to know if you are “respected” as an author in the writing community because it is part of my paper.

please please help me

That’s a good question, whether I am respected. Who knows what those bitchy other authors say about me behind my back?

I wonder if authors ever go on tours together. That would be cool. All this travelling would be more fun if there was somebody else. I should go with Paul Neilan, because I’m recommending his book at every stop. It feels good to recommend Paul’s book here, because back home, every time I tell someone how great it is, I have to add, “But you can’t buy it here.” This makes them disappointed and angry. But it’s not my fault no-one’s published it in Australia. I don’t control the world. But here, at readings I can say, “And it’s available in the US!” Then we all look at the bookstore person, who says, “I don’t think we have that.”

At tonight’s reading, a girl named Jessica asks whether Chuck Palahniuk and I hang out together. She says that she read online that he’s a fan of my work, and I hyperventilate for a few seconds before realizing that she’s confusing Chuck with the webmaster of chuckpalahniuk.net, Dennis. So I guess Chuck won’t be calling up any time soon and asking if I want to come over and shoot some pool, or, you know, murder some puppies or something. Whatever, Chuck. I’d be up for it.

Jessica has an adorable accent and says “y’all.” It’s so strange to hear actual “y’all”s. I kind of assumed they were just in movies and Jerry Springer. For some more local flavor, a guy—I want to say Mike, but my notes aren’t clear, sorry—gives me a “Fightin’ Texas Aggies” T-shirt, from Texas A&M University. He helpfully advises me not to wear it in Austin, though, because it may prompt locals to beat me up. I’m glad he mentioned that. I hope it doesn’t cause any problem with airport security tomorrow.

Fri 30
Mar
2007

Travel Diary: Day #6 (Madison, Chicago)

Writing What happens to the soap? Every day I check into a new hotel and unwrap at least one small, packaged, and apparently pristine bar of soap. I use a tiny amount before I leave. What happens to the rest? I can’t believe they’re throwing all that out. I haven’t seen any big soap collection trucks backing up to hotels, and that’s what they’d need to haul away all the leftovers. They must collect the used bars, mold them into new ones somehow, and repackage them. So when I’m in the shower, I’m actually rubbing myself with soap that has passed over hundreds, maybe even thousands, of bodies before mine. Maybe the way to look at hotel soap is as a hundred million invisible skin particles from everyone who stayed there before you, compressed into a sweet-smelling bar.

Feeling more connected to humanity, I head down for some breakfast. There’s a TV running FOX News, and on screen people are agreeing that the only way to deal with Iran’s seizure of British soldiers is to “make them feel some pain.” Anything less, like diplomacy, would cause the UK to become “a laughing stock.” It’s amazing how similar all this is to the last time I was here, and the time before that, and that. The names of the countries change (Iraq, Iran), and the precise issue everyone’s agitated about, but the solution is always the same: send in the military. And I understand that mindset. But I don’t understand how they can still be talking as if it’s February 2003.

A little later I receive the following email from David:

Dear Max,

In today’s blog entry (March 28, 2007) you mention that Finlay crossed her arms for the first time earlier in the day, and express wishes that you could have a picture of this occurrence. I cannot provide you with an actual photograph of this important milestone in your daughter’s life, but I can offer this artist’s rendering of the occasion. I hope that it will convey the situation to you just as well as an actual photograph would have.

Now I don’t really want to encourage people to Photoshop pictures of my daughter. But that completely cracks me up, so I have to share it.

At Madison airport, the woman at check-in is surprised that my final destination is Chicago. I figure out why on the plane: I’ve just about finished buckling up my belt when we commence our descent. I spent more time going through security than actually travelling anywhere.

Chicago is a great city. I’ve been here twice before, once in January and once in July, and I love how completely different it looked each time. And I still think that having a beach right in the heart of the city is one of the best ideas ever. Of course, I’m going to see practically nothing of the place this time except through the window of my taxi. I keep getting great tips for incredible places that I absolutely must visit, but never get to use them. This is not much of a way to sight-see, catching a plane every day.

My reading is at Barbara’s Bookstore, and it’s an especially chatty, interactive crowd, which is awesome. I like that I’ve done enough of these now to be able to relax and have fun—in the early days, it was all a little too nerve-wracking to do that.

In the long line of wonderful people who want me to deface their books, I meet Joe, who rode 11.86 miles on his bike to be at the reading. I know people who drove for many hours to make one of my readings (I believe the record is 6.5 hours), but Joe posits that nobody has ever cycled further than him. So there you have it, people. The bar has been set.

Thu 29
Mar
2007

Travel Diary: Day #5 (Milwaukee, Madison)

Writing “I smell worms,” says Mary.

Mary is my media escort for the day. We’ve just stepped out of her car at FOX-6, ahead of my first TV interview in eight years, and Mary can smell worms.

“Ewww,” she says. I look down and see that what I initially took for sticks strewn across the sidewalk are indeed long worms: dozens of them, hundreds. We have to pick our way carefully toward the studio doors, and wipe our shoes of any collateral damage when we get there. On the one hand, it seems a little disgusting to be leaving a bunch of worms on the doorstep of FOX. On the other, it feels a little appropriate.

I still can’t actually smell them, though. That’s got to be some kind of super power: the ability to smell worms.

I’m nervous. I try a few calming techniques—thinking about it being over already, telling myself nobody cares, remembering that it’s only FOX, not a real TV network—but they have limited effect. “Dress cute,” Mary advised me on the phone earlier. I don’t think I packed cute.

I’m taken into the studio and miked up. Seen from behind, the set looks like something cobbled together by high school students for a play. Everything is scuffed, small, and fake. Except the presenters: interviewing me is Kim Murphy, and she’s lovely. She takes a couple of minutes to chat to me off-air beforehand, helping me settle in and feel more comfortable. And then, without warning, she’s reading from the auto-cue. It’s go time!

And here’s me on FOX.

I think I do okay, considering what a TV noob I am. I look pretty tired. But I don’t stammer or freak out or stare too obviously at the cameras. That’s a plus.

After the interview, Mary drives me to Madison. We stop along the way to drop into bookstores and sign stock. This can go either way: sometimes the person behind the desk is excited to meet me; sometimes I am clearly about the fifth author to stop by that day, and the novelty has well and truly worn off. Usually at chain stores it’s the latter, but at a Barnes & Noble on the way out of Madison, I get my best reception ever. By the time I leave, it seems as if half the store’s staff have been called over to meet me. It’s like I’m famous.

Mary is kind enough to suggest I catch a nap on the way, and also kind enough to not tell me if I snore in my sleep, or mutter, or jerk my legs around. Apparently I can do that.

Last time I was in Madison, January 2004, a huge blizzard was blowing. I fought my way to the store to find that endless rows of seats had been set up, and nobody was in them. I think I ended up reading to about six people, who were (of course) mostly sitting right up the back. That was tough. If I get more than six people tonight, I’ll be happy.

But it’s a good night for a book reading, I’m told: not so cold that you can’t bear going out, but not warm enough to want to do anything more exciting. I can’t see how many people are here until I actually step in front of them, but then it’s a pleasant surprise: there are lots. The store guy tells me later that he counted 55, which makes it my most well-attended reading so far. So all is forgiven, Madison. Thank you.

I can start to see differences in audiences. Tonight, I suspect that many more people have read the book than usual. Four people down the front are all reading along with me from their copy, which is kind of funny; I’m used to one or two people doing it, but not a whole block of them. It feels a little like taking English class.

There’s a long line of people to sign for afterward, and then I’m done. That’s four down! I’m halfway through this tour already.

Wed 28
Mar
2007

Travel Diary: Day #4 (Denver, Milwaukee)

Writing It’s here. The scratchiness in the throat. The sweating. There are a million multiplying bio-agents in my head and they’re all manufacturing phlegm.

I get up in the middle of the night to gargle antiseptic mouthwash and discover that this stuff is much stronger than back home. I think it actually dissolves my teeth a little. But I’m prepared to take a little friendly fire. This throat needs to be liberated.

The key to getting out of a hotel room on time is to corral all your gear into one small area and not let it escape. It tries, of course. When you’re not looking, your shoes sneak under the desk and your wallet climbs onto the bedside table. Then when you’re chasing them down, your underpants run giggling into the bathroom. You have to be vigilant.

My dilemma this morning is that I have no dollar bills with which to tip the guy who will inevitably try to lift my bag into the back of the taxi. I’m not sure which is weedier: not saying anything or launching into a big sad story about how I don’t have anything smaller than a twenty because I lost my credit card temporarily and blah blah blah. But luckily I manage to get out to the curb on my own, and then the cab driver lunges for my bag before the doorman can reach it. That’s good: I can tip him with my credit card. Crisis averted.

I check-in but am not assigned a seat, instead being told to see someone at the gate. In retrospect, I should have realized right away that this meant a problem. But I’m still a little naive about flying and assume that if you book a ticket, they’ll let you on the plane. This silly notion is beaten out of me at the gate, where a woman explains that the plane can only take 49 passengers instead of the booked 50 because of weight issues. “And you’re number 50,” she says. This strikes me as a little unfair. I mean, I know I’m not a teenager any more, but there have to be plenty of passengers with more significant weight issues than me. Surely in this situation it should be surivival of the thinnest?

The solution, apparently, is to get a passenger to voluntarily give up their seat. So I stand by the desk while she makes a series of attractive offers to anyone willing to do so. Nobody bites. Finally, when everybody’s on board but me, she shrugs and just prints me off a boarding pass. I’m reminded of the movie French Kiss, where Kevin Kline says: “The pilot says there is a crack in the engine, but not to worry, he take off anyway.”

“Head through to Door E,” she says. “E,” I say, nodding. “No, E,” she says. This is the sort of discussion that could go on a while, so rather than educate her about Australian accents, I just nod. Door E is down a stairwell eerily reminiscent of my old high school, complete with chewing gum stuck to the rail. Then I am told to wander out on the tarmac for my plane. “It’s the gray one,” an assistant says helpfully.

I walk outside and there are about 18 gray airplanes in a row preparing to take off. I choose the closest one and climb aboard. It feels like catching a bus. “Is this Milwaukee? Are we going to Milwaukee?”

The answer is maybe, because while we’re in the air, a thick fog rolls over Wisconsin. The pilot tells us we might end up in Chicago. I’ve never been diverted before, so this seems quite interesting, albeit something of a problem in that a bunch of people are expecting me to be at a Milwaukee bookstore in a few hours’ time. But that wouldn’t be my problem, exactly. One of the wonderful things about being on book tour is that other people are responsible for figuring out where you are supposed to go and how to get you there. It’s kind of like they assume you are a complete moron, unable to do anything for yourself, and once you learn to go with that, it’s very pleasant.

Our pilot, who has a deep Southern accent and clearly isn’t the sort of guy to let little things like excess weight regulations stop him from flying his plane his way, decides to take a stab at a Milwaukee touchdown even though he can’t see anything. The ground materializes out of fog about eight seconds before we make contact, but it’s a pretty smooth landing. He talks the talk, our guy, and he backs it up.

Milwaukee is cold. Not as cold as the last time I was here, in January 2004, when everything was under a two-foot blanket of snow. That was awesome. But still cold; colder than it looked when I did a quick search on US temperatures before I left home and tried to convert fahrenheit to celsius in my head. Since I’m kind of sick, I don’t think I’ll be doing any sightseeing on foot today.

I have a media escort here, Mike, whose job it is to assume I’m a complete moron for the day. Mike is a great guy, very easy to talk to, and he plays tour guide as we drive around and I drop into book stores to sign stock. “The only bad thing about Milwaukee is the crime,” Mike says. “Crime is worse than it should be. But where you’re staying, downtown, that’s safe. Well… relatively safe.”

I find the bookstores a little depressing, especially the big Barnes & Noble store. There are so many new books; endless shelves of them. And every hardback has a carefully crafted eye-catching cover and amazing quotes from allegedly rave reviews and is written by a good-looking celebrity. I wonder how it’s possible for a small, good book to fight its way out of this circus. I’m glad I don’t have to see this very often: the pointy, business end of publishing. I love writing books; I don’t want to have to think too much about selling them.

My reading is at Harry W. Schwartz in Bay View. It’s a new store, and I think the unfamiliar location is probably why people keep trickling in at a steady rate throughout the reading. Either that or because I initially posted the wrong address on this web site. I’ve been changing the parts of Company I read from stop to stop, but think I’ve got a good selection now. Then we have a particularly good Q&A session, with lots of great questions. Afterward, I sign books, including about a dozen hardbacks for a guy who has laminated the covers. He’s a collector, so I ask him how that works: how does he decide how long to hold on to an author’s books, and when it’s time to cash in? I’m particularly interested in his opinion about when I’m going to peak, or if I already have. But he says he’s the kind of collector who can’t bear to sell his books. “I have 16,000 hardbacks,” he says. “My wife doesn’t especially like that.”

Back at my hotel, I have a fax from Martin at Vintage saying I have a TV interview in the morning on FOX 6. Wow. I’ve only ever done one TV interview before, a show called “Jersey’s Talking” with Lee Leonard on my first ever book tour in 1999, and I’m sure I was completely terrible. I will try to do better tomorrow.

Finally I call home and hear that earlier today Finlay crossed her arms for the first time. Crossed her arms! That sounds hilarious. I need a picture of that.

Tue 27
Mar
2007

Travel Diary: Day #3 (Los Angeles, Denver)

Writing I wake at 7am and don’t feel like heaving. This is a big improvement over this stage of my last book tour. I’m pretty pleased with how I’ve adapted to the 17-hour time difference so far. The only issue I have is with my appetite: it’s coming up on 24 hours since my last meal and I’m not hungry yet. That’s just not right.

I pack up my stuff and leave my hotel, pausing only to try to check my reflection in the TV. Honestly, this thing is the size of a surfboard; I keep thinking it’s a mirror. I also swipe a hotel pen, because back home I’m running low, having by now lost most of the pens I stole from hotels on my 2006 tour.

I board my flight to Denver and settle in to my seat. The woman to my left dabs at her nose, and with dawning horror I realize: she has a cold. Over the next 90 minutes, she sneezes, hacks, coughs, and wipes, while I try to breathe through a pillow. I wish the check-in screen had mentioned that during seat selection. I would definitely have chosen the “non-virus bearing” area of the airplane. In fact, when choosing my seat I’d ideally like to see little pictures of who’s going to be seated where. That would be interesting. I would choose to sit near small but tired-looking people.

But for now, I am stuck leaning to the right, away from Cold Woman and her contagens. Then the passenger on that side, also a woman, unexpectedly tells me: “You have lovely eyes.” I don’t know quite what to say to this. But I suspect I may have been leaning too far.

This is my first visit to Denver, and I like what I see: it’s quite charming, the kind of size that’s big enough to be interesting but not so crowded that you can’t stroll down the sidewalk without elbowing somebody, or being mugged. It’s definitely spacious. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much ground-level car parking. I imagine that if you tell a Denver resident that in other cities they have entire buildings for parking cars, one level above the other, their eyes would widen in shock.

I check in to my new hotel and go searching for food, since it’s now a day and a half since I’ve eaten and my body has decided it’s ready for something now. In fact, in between ordering a burger and it arriving, I become ravenous. Then, eight bites in, I’m not hungry at all. I’m getting a bit exasperated with my appetite. It needs to figure out what the hell it’s doing, and get with the timezone.

My reading is at Tattered Cover, which is a completely cool bookstore in a converted theater. It’s 25 or so people, very warm and friendly, and I think it goes great. While signing books, I notice a guy still in the seats, feeding a baby, and start to get misty-eyed for home. Then the baby starts barking like a dog. It’s coughing, but seriously, in the most eerily dog-like way. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. As a parent, I completely understand that kids do odd things. But people in line could very well be under the impression that this guy is feeding a bottle of milk to a swaddled-up pooch.

Beth, the organizer at Tattered Cover, has a surprise for me: an Advance Reader Copy of Syrup. This is the first incarnation of my first novel ever printed, back in 1999, and I managed to lose every one of my copies many years ago. Since then I’ve been trying desperately to get my hands on one. And suddenly I’m being given one! Well, when I say “given,” I mean that Beth asks me to sign it for her, and then I tell her this sad story about not having any of my own left, and she caves in and hands it over.

On the way back to my hotel I stop off at a drugstore to load up on bio-weapons with which to fight off any viruses I acquired on the plane. There I discover that I have somehow lost my credit card. This is my second worst fear on tour, right after running out of dollar bills and having to endure the silent contempt of doormen, and I panic, because if I have no cash I can’t even pay for a cab to the airport tomorrow morning. I finally locate my card in my other pants, back at the hotel, but only after spending my last dollar bill at the drugstore. Oh-oh. Tomorrow morning could be tough.

Mon 26
Mar
2007

Travel Diary: Day #2 (Los Angeles)

Writing Wow, I probably shouldn’t write blogs at 3AM. When I began typing up yesterday’s post, I intended to describe the rest of my day, which involved meeting NationStates admins for dinner and enjoying some ice cream that was like sex in a bowl, only creamier. But it was the middle of the night (I’d woken and couldn’t find sleep again), and after typing for a while, I started to feel like the only person on the planet. Then thinking about Fin saying “Neena, neena” tipped me over the edge, and it all abruptly ended in a very melancholic place.

On Sunday, however, I am reminded that I am actually incredibly privileged to be here, because today is my first reading. And before that, I get to do the LA thing: take meetings with movie people. First it’s the Syrup producers, to discuss the next draft, then Steve Pink, who’s writing the Company screenplay. Steve throws questions at me like, “Okay, my problem with Eve is this: in the third act does she redeem herself with Jones or should I have her sink deeper?” And I have absolutely no idea. I can’t even remember the book properly any more; I get confused between what’s in the final draft and what I threw out several years ago. I wish I could give Steve the kind of great story insights that only the original author can provide, but I’ve got nothing.

While being completely useless to Steve, I have breakfast, or lunch, or something. My body is still suspicious about what time it really is, and doesn’t want to commit to full-blooded meals: it wants to eat lots of small things, spaced about an hour apart. I order a bowl of oatmeal and an orange juice, which unexpectedly shatters my previous record for most overpriced book tour meal: it’s $53, excluding tip. Even the waitress is a little embarrassed, and this is Beverly Hills. It may be difficult to explain this one to my publisher.

In the afternoon I have my event at Book Soup. It’s at an odd time, 4pm on a Sunday, which I’m expecting will mean a smaller crowd than last time. On previous tours this would have worried me, since I’m still emotionally scarred from the experience of reading to empty rows of seats on earlier book tours. It’s pretty hard work to stand at a microphone when the only six people in the audience have all chosen to sit at the very back of the 90 seats the bookstore laid out. (Ah, Madison.) But now I think a small crowd would be fine. More personal and fun, even. I had such amazing turnouts on the hardback tour a year ago; I think it’s made me less paranoid that a small crowd means a freefalling career and crawling back to Hewlett-Packard to beg for my old job back.

Twenty or thirty people show up, which is about perfect for the space, and that’s when I realize I have to stop wallowing in homesickness. Because how amazing is it to have people actually bother to come see you and talk about how much they like your books? Most writers would kill for something like this. I get to do it for the next eight days, plus eat bowls of $53 oatmeal.

The reading has a great, casual feel; I talk a little about the origins of the book, read a few sections, then answer questions. It finally occurs to me why the publisher was a little reluctant to send me to the same city I visited on the hardback tour: I need to come up with something original for anyone who was here a year ago. So one of the things I do is read a couple of pages from the new book I’m working on, which I’m calling The Exceptionals. This is actually a little nerve-wracking, because it’s still pretty raw and almost nobody’s seen it yet. But it seems to go down very well, and a few people tell me afterward how much they liked it. So I might do that at my other readings, too. I just have to hope my editor doesn’t find out and want to know why the hell other people get to hear about it before him.

After the reading, I meet Dennis Widmyer, who runs the Chuck Palahniuk web site The Cult (and who read an early draft of Company for me, several years back). I’ve lost track of the number of people who have told me at book signings that they first heard about me at that site, so I probably owe Dennis half my royalties or something. Instead I buy him a hot chocolate. Really, it is a very nice hot chocolate.

And then back to my hotel. I’ve noticed that this tour seems to have a much easier pace than the hardback one. There’s almost no media by comparison, so I have time to do things like eat and check my email. Man, that’s pretty sweet. The last thing I do on Sunday is settle down to call Jen and Fin. It turns out that Fin has just woken from her afternoon snooze in a foul mood and is screaming the house down. Yikes. When I put the phone down on her howls, I get into bed and watch a video clip I took before I left where she’s all smiley and gorgeous. Ahhh. Bliss.

Yep. Not too bad, this trip.

Sun 25
Mar
2007

Travel Diary: Day #1 (Melbourne, Los Angeles)

Writing “Daddy!” Fin shrieks, and begins to run toward me across the airport hall floor. There are a million people around but no-one between her and me, and she runs/staggers/falls toward me with a huge grin on her face. I crouch down and she leaps into my arms. Her little fists bunch the material of my sweater, trapping it in her miniature iron grip. It’s so good to hold her again. It’s so good to smell her.

I haven’t seen my daughter since she got bored in the check-in line, about an hour ago, and Jen took her off to play near the fire engine that moves if you put in a dollar.

My quest was to avoid seat 48G. I was booked on seat 48G, but I didn’t want it: thanks to SeatGuru.com I knew it was the row behind the babies in bassinets, two rows behind the toilets, had reduced leg room, and was in the middle section. Melbourne to LA is a fifteen hour flight; you want a good seat. The only way to change it, the travel agent told me, was to turn up early at check-in.

Which I did, to find that the line is already so long that it snakes through several other dimensions. Whenever I make some progress, an airline employee wanders through the line and calls passengers on flights ahead of mine to come to the front. This continues until finally I am one of those passengers who needs to be called to the front, which occurs exactly six places before I would have gotten there anyway. By that stage, I don’t want their help. It’s like ascending Mt. Everest and then with a hundred yards to go and the summit in sight, my Sherpa offers to carry me.

The woman at check-in can’t change my seat. She says, “If you want to do that, you have to get here early.”

So it’s time for goodbyes. I kiss my beautiful wife and daughter. Fin says, “Bye-bye.” Last time, 14 months ago, she couldn’t talk. She didn’t even have teeth. Nowadays she’s smart enough to come to the bottom of the stairs, rattle the stair-gate, and yell, “Daddy! Daddy!” until I appear. I don’t even want to think about how much I’m going to miss her.

Once through security, I proceed directly to the gate, pausing only to drop into the bookstore and see if they’ve got mine. They do, but it’s on the very bottom shelf, filed under “W.” I can only presume that some unethical author has swapped their books for my prized “B” placement. Appalling. I take my books and swap them for some novel that looks exactly like The Da Vinci Code if you aren’t paying attention.

The flight itself is notable only for the fact that my seat’s entertainment system plays all dialogue at near-inaudible levels. So I can enjoy a movie for its visuals, background noise, and soundtrack, but can’t hear a word anyone is saying, unless they’re doing it off-screen. This strikes me as the kind of fault that is so bizarre someone must have carefully engineered it.

Then it’s US Customs. Ah, Customs. How we have danced, over the years. This time I notice that as a visiting alien, I am granted certain rights; in particular the right to appeal any decision by a Customs official. I know this because on the back of the Customs form, I am required to officially waive these rights. This seems a little like offering somebody ice-cream but only if they first agree to not have any ice-cream. It seems to be getting more common lately that the way I discover that I have various rights is when I’m asked to waive them.

One small thing really bugs me about LAX Customs. There are about two dozen booths, maybe half of which are occupied by officials. Above these booths are scrolling LED screens, which usually tell you something helpful, like please present these papers, or don’t drink and drive because you’ll die. (Seriously.) But on the unoccupied booths, the screens advertise themselves. They scroll messages about how many characters they can display at once (27), how vibrant their colors are, and how simple they are to operate. Not so simple to change the default messages, apparently, because it’s been this way for frickin’ years.

Customs asks me a series of questions about the purpose of my visit, including a request for me to describe the plot of all three of my novels. I’m not sure whether they guy is just curious or my entry to the United States of American really does depend on having sufficiently engaging storylines. But either way, he lets me go through. The next guy asks me about my book as well, and takes a fancy to the way I say “satire.” He says it himself, trying on my accent. On one hand, I appreciate that anyone in this Gulag has a sense of humor. On the other, it’s hard to ignore the fact that this guy can order me stripped, probed and deported if I don’t laugh at his jokes. I bet he finds his audiences mystifyingly less appreciative away from here.

At my hotel, I am pleased to discover that Los Angeles is just how I left it: all eating disorders, tiny dogs, and 70-year-old guys in baseball caps. My first job is to find one of those hole-in-the-wall stores that sells international phone cards, so I can call home without bankrupting myself. But my hotel is in Beverly Hills, and this is hard to do. If I wanted to whiten my teeth or buy diamonds, it’d be no problem. But phone cards are very thin on the ground.

I finally find a Rite-Aid (medicine and booze in the one store! What could possibly go wrong?), secure a card, and head back to my hotel for a phone interview. On the way I’m passed by a fire engine. If Fin was here, she’d say, “Neena, neena.” She likes fire engines. I wish I could teleport my girls here. I wish there was no time difference. I miss them so much already.

Thu 22
Mar
2007

Travel Diary 2: This Time It Has Chicago

Writing So I’m going to do another travel diary. That was fun last time, and what else am I going to do in my downtime, dance around my hotel room naked and get drunk from the mini-bar? I mean, apart from that?

This will mean an increase in the number of emails you’ll get from here (daily-ish instead of weekly-ish), if you’re subscribed that way. If that will bother you, you might want to change your preferences now. (Unfortunately, no, there is no “Un-hear that sentence about Max dancing naked” option.)

[ US Tour Details Here ] <— (note change of venue in Milwaukee)