Actual proof that I still exist: National Journal‘s Hotline came knocking the other day, with lighthearted questions for their Friday Feature Q&A. The what? The hunh? National Journal is a D.C. publication that is so essential to the Beltway power/media structure that it costs, like, hundreds (thousands?) of dollars to subscribe. Otherwise I would link you to the feature. But now that it’s been out a f ew days, I’m just going to “borrow” it, with a friendly shout-out to the writer, Amanda Munoz-Temple, who I guess bangs these things out every week! Enjoy…
Hank Stuever is an award-winning pop culture writer for the Washington Post‘s Style section, where he … [bio, blahblah, Hank snipped] … today he’s our Friday Feature!
Where’s your hometown? And what was it like growing up there?
Oklahoma City. Windy.
What were you like in high school?
If there was another 15-year-old boy in Oklahoma City who asked for a subscription to the Village Voice for Christmas 1983, I never met him.
What’s your most embarrassing on-the-job moment? (Or as embarrassing as you’d like to reveal?)
In my first job, I used to have to go sit in my car in the parking lot and have a short cry once in a while. I didn’t think anybody knew I did that, but apparently most of the newsroom knew. Sorta Holly Hunter.
What is the most memorable critique/commentary received from a superior?
Once I was trying to save a beautiful (I thought) section of a very long story from getting cut. I told the editor to tell me a good reason why she wanted to cut it. “It’s aggravating,” she finally said. That was a revelation that has stuck with me – when prose gets aggravating.
What is your guilty pleasure song of the moment?
“Booty Bounce” by Dev. (Really awful wonderful.) [Here's the video.]
What’s your favorite TV program, current and past?
This question is an icebreaker for most people and a job hazard for me, but officially I’m loving “Shameless,” starring William H. Macy on Showtime and “In the Bedroom,” a sex-therapy show on OWN. Growing up, I got spanked punished [UPDATE: The facts are in dispute, as usual in this family. See comment from "Mother" below.] for trying to get my family to hurry up at dinner at a Pizza Hut so we could get home in time for “The Bionic Woman.” I loved her.
If your life was turned into a movie, which current movie would it be and who would play you?
My workplace is feeling very “Black Swan” these days, and I hope I’m not the Natalie Portman of it.
If you could have one super power to aid you in your job, what would it be?
The magic golden lasso of truth.
If you could take a road trip with any pop culture personality, who would it be and where will you be going?
Tina Fey said she loves nothing more than pushing a cart through a big, exurban Target while sipping a 44-oz. fountain soda. If she’d have me along, that would be a dream.
If you could have an endless supply of any food, what would you get?
And nothing else? (An endless supply?) Although tempted to answer Chinese or New Mexico-style Mexican food, I think my lower intestine is going to vote for variety packs of breakfast cereal.
In one sentence, your best advice to young, fresh out-of-college journalists.
Read all the time and keep up with everything.
Finish this sentence: Today I …
Watched gobs of British television.
• • •
Now that we’ve been properly reintroduced, I’m sorry to have abandoned the blog for so many weeks.
I kept meaning to come back and tell you (if you’re there) of some fun adventures that came with the Tinsel paperback release:
Harwelden Mansion, Book Smart Tulsa, Dec. 14, 2010. (Photo: Adam Wisneski)
>A great big lecture (given, not received!) at Washington College in lovely Chestertown, Md.!
>A wonderful trip to Oklahoma to read for Book Smart Tulsa’s Christmas event, captured very beautifully in the photo above by Adam Wisneski, a very talented multi-platform journalist at the Tulsa World. I met a lot of interesting people in those 36 hours in Tulsa, a town I never spent enough time in when I was growing up in Oklahoma City — blame it on the cultural 405/918 divide. When the weather gets nicer, I’d like to go back and really explore. (By the way, the crowd in Adam’s picture goes on several more rows past the first row you see here. In my imaginative memory, it of course goes on many more rows than that!)
>And don’t forget the Loyola alumni Christmas party in D.C., at which the newish dean of the college of the music held a roomful of people hostage with an endless, rambling speech about nothing, which went on for 25 minutes. I set the crowd free by doing about five minutes worth of Tinsel.
And now I’ve set myself free, too.
Here, at last, we come to the book’s final stage:
The giving tree eventually gets pulped and life goes on. February is here and I promise to do a little better at keeping this blog alive — returning soon with some long overdue thoughts from the One-Man Book Club!
I found this picture online of Bea and Helen's book club, 1952. They look like some smart readers.
Courtesy of the marketing elves at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Mariner Books, here is a useful (I think) Readers’ Discussion Guide.
If your book club is reading Tinsel, please know that I’m always open to answering your questions by e-mail. If you live in the D.C. area, I’m also happy to come visit your group for a discussion, as long as it won’t inhibit frank talk about the book. (Trust me, I can take criticism!) If you live farther away and want to try something via Skype, I’m open to that, too.
Here’s the guide. For more images of the people written about in Tinsel and Christmas in Frisco, click here. Enjoy!
Tinsel by Hank Stuever
Reading Group Guide
• How did reading Tinsel cause you to reevaluate how you celebrate the holidays (if at all)? Which topics or characters did you relate to most, in both positive and negative ways? Will you make any changes this holiday season because of the book?
Another Black Friday at Target
• In the past few years, how has the state of the economy changed how you celebrate Christmas? Have you exchanged fewer (or more) gifts? Have you decorated more or less?
• In the Prologue, Stuever writes, “I wanted this story to be about Christmas but also everything else: our weird economy, our modern sense of home, our oft-broken hearts, and our notions of God” (page 5). Do you think he achieved this? What is this book about really?
• What has been your best Christmas ever, and your worst Christmas ever? What made each so good or so bad?
• On page 7, Caroll “wonders if maybe this is how memories are made now. Maybe the shopping is the memory itself.” Discuss what it is you like or dislike so much about Christmas. Is it the shopping, the decorating, the parties, the gifts, or the people that can make or break a Christmas season? When you remember Christmases past, what are the memories that stand out?
• Why do you think Stuever chose to write about Frisco, Texas? How is Frisco emblematic of the American experience? Thinking about Stuever as a character in the book, what were his personal reasons for choosing Frisco? How does he feel about Christmas and how does that feeling change over the course of the book?
Tammie ... and friends
• “The still-intact Victorian conventions of Christmas have Father worrying about money and security, and Mother saddled with making everything look and feel right—whether she has the holiday spirit or not” (page 23). Discuss the traditional gender roles associated with the holidays and how they play out in your own family. Why do you think these delineations have persevered over the years?
• Every year Tammie helps at least one family during the holidays, which is attributed to her Christian nature (page 30). How do you balance that with the extreme materialism she also participates in when she decorates others’ homes? Later in the book, Stuever talks about listening to the KLTY Christmas Wish radio segments with Tammie and notes that the “powerful currency in the anecdotal” at Christmastime often prompts our charitable natures (page 132). Do you think we give so much at Christmas in part to make up for how much we consume? Why or why not?
• “Is it possible, Bridgette wonders, that there’s some bottomless need here that people have? For Christmas lights?” (page 46). Why are Christmas lights so popular? Why do they make us feel so good? What is behind the inevitable competition to do more, be brighter, go bigger than our neighbors?
Jeff and Bridgette's house
• What is your Christmas baggage, so to speak? Talk about how your family has affected your feelings about the holiday.
• “Choruses of angels are not harking and heralding for me. I prefer dark, slightly twisted Christmases” (page 109). Stuever seems to suggest there are two types of people when it comes to Christmas—you either love it or you hate it. Why does Stuever fall into the darker camp? Which type are you?
• “The angst over Santa’s existence comes not from the children, I think, so much as the grownups . . . Once you know
Caroll and Marissa
there is no Santa, then there’s no stopping the awful truth about everything else” (page 181). When did you learn the truth about Santa? What about your kids (if you have them)? Would you take Stuever’s advice and use the idea that once you know about Santa you get to become Santa? How else can we ease the pain of learning the truth?
• On page 187 Tammie has her epiphany that Christmas is “not about the stuff.” So she forgoes expensive Christmas presents and takes her family on vacation so she can experience a “total moment” with them. What was the family’s total moment and was it worth it? Have you ever made a decision similar to Tammie’s?
• Shopping for Monkey Bread with Bridgette (page 241) reminds Stuever of his own Christmas tradition. “I was happy and did not know it until now” (page 243). Why did it take so long for Stuever to realize there was a part of the holiday he enjoyed? What do you do every Christmas Eve? What one item reminds you most of it?
The paperback edition of Tinsel shipped in early October and isinstoresnow — usually you can find it in the “cultural studies,” “sociology/culture” or “American culture” shelves, with all the books about pot, tattoos, prisons, the real-estate bust, shopaholism, and meatpacking and other biofood nightmares, which is as good a home as any for it.
Maybe, as December slithers closer, some savvy bookstores will put it out on the holiday display table between Glenn Beck’s The Christmas Sweater (ralph), all those Melody Carlson books (hurl), and the perennially best-selling David Sedaris stacks of Holidays on Ice (snore).
As you can see, there’s a new cover, and a new attitoooood:
The marketing this time is more direct: CHRISTMAS BOOK!! CHRISTMAS BOOK!! WOOP-WOOP!!
Cover blurb: “LAUGH-OUT-LOUD FUNNY” claims USA Today.
Well, yes. I think the full sentence in the USA Today thing was something more like “Laugh-out-loud funny, and oddly depressing,” which is a whole lot more true, in’t it?
I’ve enjoyed working with editor Meagan Stacey at Mariner Books (Houghton’s paperback division) as she settled on the new cover and the right “blurbs” from reviews to put on the front, back, and inside front pages. (The back cover of the paperback has what was obviously my favorite blurby blurb: “Cultural anthropology at its most exuberant!” – The New Yorker. If that’s not a stamp of elitist approval, then what is?)
I like the new cover. I think it’s smart and simple and takes advantage of some hard truths about catchy design and what happens to books when they’re on a shelf or a table and the customer’s eye is darting here and there.
I liked the hardcover version, too. I mostly just like getting the chance to do it again.
* * *
As for “laugh-out-loud funny,” I’m glad that people find a lot in Tinsel to laugh at, because I meant for it to be that kind of book. I also meant for it to be a “cry quietly” book.
But while we’re on the subject, let me tell you a not-so-secret secret about book writers. We know when people have read (I mean, finished) our books. It’s always some peculiar cue that we privately register whenever someone’s talking to us about our latest book. With appreciative smiles plastered on our faces, we can nevertheless tell: you didn’t read it. Even our close friends and relatives — we can tell by what they say about the book.
When people tell me how funny Tinsel is, and nothing else, then I know they didn’t get past about page 35. (And that’s okay!)
Here is a picture someone sent me last November or December, when I was in such a dither about the book’s release. The person who sent it to me said that her sister took the picture while waiting for a flight in the Denver airport.
I have no idea who this woman is, but she’s reading Tinsel, and from the way she’s holding it (it acts as a helpful visor from the sunlight), it feels like she’s not very far in yet, perhaps halfway. I hope she kept going.
I want to tell you what this sort of picture means to a not-famous author. It means everything, basically. (And it’s a big reason why I hate the Kindle and iPad revolution, which removes the serendipitous encounters we unknowingly spark when people can see the covers of the books we’re reading.)
I know when people have really read Tinsel, because when they have, they talk about everything besides the humor in it. One of the real joys of the last year has been the stream of e-mail (a lot in January, tapering off lately to five or six a month, sometimes more) that I’ve received from readers who have a lot of thoughts spurred by finishing Tinsel. They write to me about stuff deep in the book, like the “fake” children on the Angel Trees; poor Caroll losing her infant grandson after so much hope and prayer and effort; the American economy unraveling; Tammie’s thoughts about living in a bubble. The final third of Tinsel is not so “laugh-out-loud funny,” but it does have its funny moments, right?
That doesn’t make a lot of sense to marketers and the sales staff — either it’s a funny book or it isn’t. Either it’s about Christmas or it isn’t. Either it’s happy or it’s sad.
But what about life? Isn’t life often hilarious and tragic and always somewhere in between those two extremes? If you’re really getting the book, you’ll also get the melancholy undercurrent. (After all, I worship at the feet of Gene Weingarten.)
Some Christmas books, on the other hand, have no ambivalence whatsoever about what they mean to be. Here’s how I should have gone:
“Resentment is like drinking poison, and then waiting for the other person to die.”
– Carrie Fisher
Since I clipped it out years ago (I think from the New York Times Magazine sometime in the late ’90s), I’ve had this picture either on a refrigerator or a bulletin board or somewhere at the ready. As you can see, it’s a UPI news photo called “Miss Teenage America, 1972.” I love what this photo says about elation and defeat; one door opens, another closes. It’s really just a Janus. (Wouldn’t it be great if one of these young women was actually named Janis?) I know it sounds odd, but more than anything, this picture makes me think of the writing process.
It’s been six months since Tinsel was released. The original purpose of this blog was to get out everything I had to say about the book (the making-of, the selling-of, the anything-of), but for the last several months, it’s mostly been a way to write about anything-but-the-book.
Putting out a book is at once thrilling and gratifying and it is also, for all but a very few authors, a letdown. We feel like jerks trying to describe why it’s a letdown, when we should feel grateful and, best of all, finished.
There are stages of letting it go. I suppose the same is true for creating and then releasing any commercial creative effort, such as a film or a record album. I’ve had very little to say to anyone (except poor Michael) about the book since the end of December, and that’s on purpose. I didn’t want to impulsively blog something here that sounded too whiny (or resentful), which would negate the good things that happened for the book. All book authors (except Tori Spelling and Malcolm Gladwell and a few others) have to grieve a little bit. Some of us, to borrow a concept from our Jewish friends, have to sit shiva for our books.
I think I’m done sitting shiva for mine.
Or, just about.
• • •
There is no better catharsis than cleaning. In late January of this year, I started going after the piles of disarray in my home office, as a way of putting the book behind me.
I boxed up only the most essential research files and kept my original notebooks, numbered 1-14. (As a courtesy to my future biographers, I saved some marked-up drafts of various stages of the manuscript and put them in order in another box. So, Harry Ransom Center, you know where to find me when the time comes. I’ll wait.)
I threw out three Hefty bags of now-unnecessary web searches, photocopies, newspaper clippings, Black Friday sales circulars from 2006-2008, church directories, mall maps, and many holiday trinkets. There was a stack of photocopies from psychiatry and psychology academic journals, where I’d found references to Christmas, strange and fascinating stuff, which wound up not being in the book at all. (Christmas and schizophrenics: academics agree, do NOT have Santa Claus pay a visit to that wing.) I took the few dozen or so books that weren’t cited in the endnotes to the donation center; I took all the Christmas movie DVDs to the used-DVD place. Basically, if it didn’t have something to do with the people and events depicted in Tinsel, who will always be with me in some way, then I tossed it.
Finally, I took down the bulletin board.
Through three-plus years, I was helped, guided and especially taunted by the bulletin board. My work on what became Tinsel really began when I bought a big bulletin board at a Container Store in Texas, shortly after arriving there to start work on the book in 2006. It hung in the room I rented in Frisco — you can see it in the fuzzy picture at left.
I took this Polaroid sometime around (or maybe just after) Christmas ’06, when I’d already done a significant amount of searching, gathering, reporting, and then narrowing down the decisions about what the hell I was writing. All along, this board was where I’d started randomly tacking up 3×5 cards with thoughts, names, contacts, potential storylines, random facts, headlines, and anything else. Of course, I was keeping track of that sort of stuff on my computer — in Word files and also in Stickies. But I’m a bulletin board sort of guy.
Like everything else, there are software programs out there (Scrivener is one) designed to separate writers from their old-fashioned, paper-centric ways — just like they’ve tried to wean us from newspapers, clippings, actual printed books, Filofaxes, card catalogs.
These programs are obsessed with outlining, organizing. My dirty little secret as a writer is that I mostly pretend to outline. It’s like I’m creating an art collage about some work that I intend to do, but when it comes down to the actual writing, the part of my brain that writes scoffs at the part of my brain that organizes and plans. Once I’m lost, that’s when I look up at the map in front of me. There’s a pretty interesting discussion going on over at Gangrey lately about writers who outline and writers who don’t. I think it’s possible to be both. (I love this comment from Charlie Pierce: “I’m outlining less than I used to do. You know why? Cocaine. [The first part of that is true, BTW.]“)
No matter where the writing takes me, I just don’t feel like I’m working on anything good unless I can tack the plan up on the wall. Whether I follow it or not is another matter.
• • •
Bulletin Board, Part II:
I packed up the car, left Frisco, and drove back to Washington in the spring of 2007. When I got home, I bought the same exact board at our Container Store, and reassembled my mess of notes and themes and characters.
Once I’d noodled around on a few thousand words of what I thought would be the beginning of the book (I was wrong), I started trying to outline the book or to at least get a handle on the essential plan. This picture was taken around the end of April 2007, right before I went back to Frisco for the first of many more reporting trips:
This is my desk at home. The walls are “palm leaf” green. The shade on the bowling-pin lamp is made from a photo of the Harvey Girls. The computer seen here is my old Mac Powerbook G4 (2003-2007, RIP). [By the way, I am a true believer in backing up data. Every few days I burned a new disc of all my book files, drafts, and research. Every couple weeks I backed up the entire hard drive.]
You can’t really see close enough in this picture, but the left side of the board was an arrangement of the book’s characters — people and details, exact spellings of names of extended family members, friends, etc. In the middle left, near the center, is where I have (er, had) some guiding reminders of the themes I wanted to recur through the book. Above that, up top, is the rectangular, ceramic ornament Tammie Parnell gave me on Christmas Eve, 2006 (p. 253-54 in the book) that reads BELIEVE IN THE MAGIC.
The middle of the board is a color-coded, outline-in-progress of the first 1/3 of the book — or what I had talked myself into believing was the first 1/3 of the book. In the lower center, on 8×11 paper, is my original plan for 24 total chapters. (Oh, how it changed.) To the right of the board, most of those pictures are of me with various mall Santas. In the lower middle left of the board is a newspaper ad for the Dallas Morning News Charities drive that featured Denise Matise (p. 173-77 in the book). In the upper center-right is Miss Teenage America, reminding me that happiness is most often wrapped up in someone’s sadness. And the other way around.
Below the Miss Teenage America picture is a notecard I wrote one day in Frisco, which says: SURRENDER TO IT. On my desk, to the right of the Mac, you can see many of my notebooks, propped up in front of the files.
What’s not in the frame are more boxes, more files, piles, notes — all the shit that, if nothing else, helps a writer feel busy. Often, I printed out whatever I managed to write that day (400 words? A thousand? Two thousand? Two sentences?) so that I could mark it up that night, over a cocktail. I’d tack those pages up on the bulletin board, where they’d be waiting for me the next day.
• • •
I will now NOT write about the transcribing I had to do of all the taped interviews from the first seven months of Frisco, most of which I neglected to transcribe in a timely fashion. That’s really how I spent most of April-May-June 2007. The memory is just too awful to think about.
• • •
I wish I had some more interim shots of the bulletin board from 2007 and 2008.
Like maybe from the late summer and early fall of 2007, after I’d written 125,000 words of a rough manuscript that I nicknamed “El Stinko.” At that point, I still two Christmases to go, and about eight or nine more trips to Frisco, so I didn’t even have an ending or an epilogue. (The book was published at 95,000 words — so clearly, I went down some dusty, winding, dead-end roads in that first draft.)
In a fit of outlining madness that summer, which may have just been a productive form of procrastination and worry, I replaced the color-coded notecards twice. Eventually I switched to printing out chapter outlines in a large font, then color-coding them with markers, and then scissoring them apart and moving them around on the board. At some point, my Mexican mask collection moved over to this wall too, to keep the Harvey Girls company, and to mock my insanity.
This picture (above) is from the fall of 2009. By this point, Tinsel was done — the galleys were out. There was a calm order to it by now. There are the character portraits by photographer Courtney Perry, lined up in a row above the proofs of the cover and jacket. The chart in the lower center shows holiday retails sales figures for the last decade. Denise’s charity-drive picture remained the whole way. In the lower left is my ever-present map of Stonebriar Centre mall. (I have several versions now — you wouldn’t believe how much a mall evolves and changes in three years, until you write a book where the mall is a central setting.) My black MacBook (b. 2007) is still going strong, and has received its own version of a Tinsel file de-cluttering.
• • •
And this …
… pretty much says it all these days. This was taken in March 2010.
A finished book is a strange sort of absence. Clearly something else wants to happen on this bulletin board, but what?
I’m content to wait. For the first time in my adult life, I don’t really feel any deep yearning for something I can’t quite get. I’m not trying to finish a book, or sell a book; I’m not trying to fall in love (got that covered); I’m not trying to get out of debt; I’m not trying to land a job; I’m not trying to find stories to write. (With the TV critic thing I’ve got now, I now have more subjects and material to write about than I can ever do.)
But, like those Marines in the jungle always say in bad war or alien movies: It’s a little tooquiet. One half of my brain is looking for a new book to write. The other half is saying Don’t you even dare …
For the last six weeks, I have been a lot of places and talked and talked a lot about Tinsel. One of my favorite questions that I got along the way goes something like this:
What do hope this book will do? What did you want it to be?
I can answer that. My ambitions for this book are really not very high. In my wildest dreams, Tinsel winds up cited as a footnote in someone’s dissertation 50 or 100 years or more from now (if there are still dissertations; if there are still footnotes), as a document that shows how people lived in the early 21st century. There is simply no in-depth reportage about the lives of everyday Americans in the exurban-consumer era and how they expressed themselves at the biggest cultural/commercial/quasi-spiritual moment of the year. There is now.
My other idea, which is a little Cormac McCarthy and doomsday-ish, is that someone pulls a copy of Tinsel from the rubble (of the apocalypse? The post-oil riots? The inexorable rise of the oceans?) and is able to understand it and say: This is how they lived. This is how it was when they had the most of everything — the most money, the most stuff, the biggest houses, the biggest cars, the most comfort. This is how it was when they were happiest, but, strangely when they were saddest, too. This is what it felt like, back then, at Christmastime.
Treasure this time. Savor these moments of togetherness and material bliss, and if you’ve got the spiritual part figured out, then treasure that most of all. Do Christmas in whatever way works best for you and try to worry less about making it perfect for everyone else.
And thank you for being with me through this very long story. It’s been a load of work to find and write and then promote this book, but it has brought me many moments of true joy.
Christmas Eve, and it’s time to wind down. It will be a very long time before I can fully appreciate and express my thanks for all the many generous things people did to help get Tinsel out there, but I am forever grateful to you all, and I hope to get around to thanking many people individually.
I’m tired. I’m happy about the book, and a little sad, too. Over the last several weeks I have met or heard from so many people, and listened to so many of their stories about the package of joy and confusion that is American Christmas. It’s been a real pleasure to have that conversation — with readers, with reporters and hosts in the media, and from your comments here and on Facebook, and with feedback from good and bad reviews, including the 49 and counting on Amazon. I’ve read, and will re-read, each and every one with a willingness to learn as a writer. (And also to pluck blurbs for the paperback edition!)
There is something I wanted this book to be, something specific, which I’ll deal with in my very next posting (above).
Meanwhile, I have a few more links to share, if you can stand it…
• I met Terry Mattingly, a writer whose weekly column on religion is a mainstay in several hundred newspapers, at Union Station on Monday for lunch, and we wound up talking for two hours — and I could’ve gone longer, but I had to scoot over to NPR. He put his finger on things about Tinsel that I knew intuitively but not academically or theologically. He wonders if the book might fit the definition of “humanistic existentialism.” He also came up with a perfect thesis statement for the book, based on a section title and quote from one of the characters. Without endorsing the sentiment, Terry said Tinsel‘s main message goes something like this, more or less: Fake is okay here. Fake is all we’ve got in this culture. Deal with it.
• Meredith Simons at Slate would give a hearty AMEN to Terry’s thesis statement, especially the “deal with it” part, which Meredith thinks I don’t deal with so well. I respectfully disagree, but this is just the kind of intelligent take on the book that I prefer to engage with.
• If you get The Week (not since the heyday of Reader’s Digest have downstairs toilets been so well-served, and I mean that as a sincere compliment), the current issue’s “Last Word” pages in the back of the magazine feature a very tightly-edited 2,000-word excerpt from Tinsel. I can’t find it on their web site (maybe they don’t have e-rights), so check the downstairs bathroom.
• I did NPR’s Talk of the Nation show on Monday afternoon — great questions and callers. Have a listen.
• Thanks to more than a few of you, I got some great questions at The Washington Post’s live online chat on Tuesday morning.
• The New York Times’ Thursday Styles section has an article today by Hilary Stout about people who “opt out” of Christmas once in a while. I’m interviewed midway through.
• Carol Kaufmann from AARP Bulletin‘s web site and I had a nice, long interview while I was driving from the outer Houston suburbs back to Dallas one month ago (seems like much longer!). She’s very nice and asks really smart questions, but what impresses me is how deftly she condenses this blabbermouth.
• Along with Terry Mattingly’s column, it seems some of the most incisive reviews have come in at the last minute, just as Christmas is about to pop:
>> Jessica Allen has this thoughtful review in AARP Magazine (not to be confused with AARP Bulletin, especially in my house) which just went up on their web site …
>> and Jamie Malanowski has this hilarious and intelligent review entitled “I Want All For Christmas” in Washington Monthly (it’s in their Jan/Feb issue, on sale soon). He thinks I pulled back where the book most needed more knife. I go back and forth on that, but my favorite reviews are the ones that make me think, doubt, reconsider.
• Once more, Dan Savage is such a mensch. He recommends Tinsel in this week’s installment of Savage Love.
• Tinsel took “The Page 99 Test” (in which an author is directed to discuss whatever’s on page 99 of his book) and did all right! (It’s a blip from Celebration Covenant Church in Chapter 7.)
That’s it, I think, except for a lot of chatter about the book that showed up on other people’s blogs this week, which I wish I had time to link back to, or the power to resist the lure of the Google RSS alert. Thing is, I’ve got laundry and TV reviews to do. Christmas isn’t at my throat this year, but everything else is — and then, Friday morning, vacation at last.
What a week, what a week. I think I’ve done just about everything I can do for Tinsel. (Can you think of anything else I could have done? Short of breaking into Oprah’s house and threatening her at gunpoint?) I’m ready (almost ready) to let go, and come to an end, at last, of a project that took four years to do. But first, a very long blog post. We must beat the horse to make certain it is dead.
On Monday, I took the train to New York and back to read at the Half King bar in Chelsea, and was glad I did. (It cost me $175 to go, but I tried to drink it back at the bar. Maybe all my readings should have been in bars?) I got there early to have drinks and dinner with Amazing Andrea Schulz, the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt editor in chief who helped me so much with the final drafts of the manuscript. We were busily sending pages back and forth this time last year; how time flies. Andrea has given me so much time and attention, even now, when I should be the last thing on her mind. I hope I get to keep talking and laughing with her, occasionally, even if there’s no new project on the immediate horizon.
Andrea brought me a hilarious little Christmas bag filled with “lumps of coal” (chocolate, actually) and some sobering but expected (and almost encouraging, certainly not discouraging) news about sales. But more on that some other day in the future.
As Andrea and I talked and I was getting antsy about reading to strangers in a strange bar, the room filled up with familiar faces: Jenny Strasburg, Rob Landry, Ray Schroth, David Carr, Rebecca Dana, Adriane Quinlan, David Segal, Robert Lanham, and others. And my sister, Ann South, and her husband Glenn, who took three trains to get there, and once again have been true Tinsel champs. If I keep typing about this I’ll get verhklempt. It was wonderful to see everyone and I barely had time to make it worth their while. Being on book tour has been a little like being on a neverending wedding reception — never enough time to talk to all your friends who actually show up!
My luck with good and decent friends continued Tuesday afternoon, in D.C., reading at the monthly book salon at Dezenhall Resources, thanks to my friend, the book writer and public relations guru Eric Dezenhall. You know what Eric does (among the many things Eric does)? Invites an author once a month to speak to a select gathering of his staff, business associates, friends, whoever. And get this: Everyone gets a copy of the book, thanks to Eric. I mean, who does that anymore? There’s always good food (Buca di Beppo!) and good questions. It made me feel okay about the book’s central appeal once more — people love to talk about the suburbs, the economy, and the holidays. Thanks to Eric and his trusty assistant, Malinda Waughthal.
Next, day it was off to L.A., with a layover in Houston.
(I was going to write an entire blog item calling BS on the world’s gripes about airlines and air travel in the post 9-11 era, which I am so sick of hearing. In the past month I have flown about 15,000 miles on American, Alaska, United, and Continental, with checked-on bags, through several connecting cities, across the country and back and then across and back again, and I have not been late, delayed, poked, prodded, or missed a single piece of luggage. Not once. And so what if I had? I would have survived. I still find it all to be an absurd miracle — flight. Getting from Dallas to Seattle in four hours. Think of the Donner Party, for Christ’s sake. People can run half-marathons but they are such babies in airports, expecting the worst, and getting the worst. It’s no big deal, so long as you get to the airport the way I do: I expect to die. Every single time, I figure I am partaking in my last few hours of life. Anything better than that is a bonus.)
Got to L.A., early of course, just in time to sit in traffic in a cab. Spent the night at the Palomar hotel, courtesy of CBS, so that I could do this on Thursday.
Awright, already, I’ll tell you all about it. Bascially, I spent 16 hours in my hotel room being nervous and trying to decide some things, such as what to wear, and whether or not to shave off my entirely unsexy two-week facescruff. (Did it! I did the whole exfoliating, steamy shower, carefully against-the-grain, Kiehl’s shave balm thing.)
I took a walk around supersunny L.A. on Thursday morning. Later, the producer, Lisa, called to go over everything we had already talked about, but to really go over a few more times all the far too many potential subjects that might come up during a five-to-seven minute segment; which is an act of futility, because Craig Ferguson hardly ever follows any set of questions or plan. But it does wonders for calming down the jumpy author-guest, I must say. My basic approach to doing this show is that anything besides throwing up on Craig’s desk (or tripping on the two steps up to the guest’s chair, or forgetting that you don’t stand up until they’ve gone to commercial) is SUCCESS.
Come to think of it, this is the same exact approach I have to airports and flying — if you aren’t killed, everything else is a plus.
Howard the very pleasant Town Car driver came and got me about 3:30 and took me to Television City, over by The Grove. (I’ve been here a couple times before — once to do a profile of Craig Ferguson, in fact, in 2005; another time to profile Bob Barker and watch a taping of The Price is Right, in 2007.) An assistant met me at the door and away we went into the bowels of CBS. Yes, I got a dressing room with my name on it. Yes, I met Sigourney Weaver and told her how much Ripley means to me. (“I do that a lot,” Weaver said. “I ask myself: What Would Ripley Do?”) I saw Betty White walk by, wearing a Santa suit for a sketch they were taping for a later show. She waved hello. A nice man named Trent did my makeup and hair. The producer above Lisa came in and shook my hand and looked at me and asked that I change my tie; I was originally wearing a Hickey-Freeman red plaid tie. Apparently there’s some sort of strangeness going on with discouraging guests from bringing up Scotland or things Scottish — even though Craig talks about it all the time, you’re not supposed to. I honestly hadn’t thought “Scotland” when I picked the red plaid, and true, it might be a rival clan or something. Lucky for all: I brought four ties. And a sweater. And a different jacket. Or no jacket. Oh, the ways I could’ve gone!
Craig was extremely nice (he remembered, or claimed to, my Post story about him) and jouncy and frantic and I tried to keep up. If I have any advice for anyone who has to do a late-night talk show (or any show where you have to come out, wave, macho-hug the host, make your way to a chair, sit and be smart and jovial) it would be this: Don’t try to be funny. Just riff right along with whatever’s happening. Keep eye contact. Pretend it’s not happening. Smile. Laugh. Really pretend it’s not happening. Say thanks. Wave. Sit still through the applause until the host gets up. You’re done!
And boy, are you done. You will then be lead through a phalanx of show staffers all wearing headsets who say you did grreeeeat, rillly grreeat. You will want to get out of there as soon as possible, and they will want you to leave very quick-like as well, but do say thank you to everyone and do have Trent wipe all your makeup off. This was a busy night at the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson — on Thursday they usually shoot both Thursday and Friday’s shows, so they were getting ready to do it all over again, with Paris Hilton (she arrived with all sorts of entourage) and chef Jose Andres. They were also shooting comedy bits for shows that will air this week. There’s a guy on the set whose job is to make sure Craig changes into the right tie, depending on what night they’re shooting at the moment. It’s all a big in-joke to the audience, who are supposed to pretend right along with Craig that it’s Tuesday, not Thursday.
I would happily do the show again and totally understand that I probably never will get asked to. Did we have a scintillating conversation about the essence and meaning of my book? No, sir, we did not. Did it go over well? Was it fun? Was it watchable? (I cannot say. Although I have the clip and have kindly embedded it for you here and for posterity’s sake, I myself have not and will not be able to watch it for many weeks or months, for reasons only Jenny Craig and a leading maxillofacial surgeon could truly understand.)
You know what part was the best, I thought? Right before I went out, watching Craig fondle my book and do a riff on book-reading in the Twitter age. That was rillly grrreat. I don’t think it moved a stone, sales-wise, but so what? You can’t beat this sort of loving attention:
So, a million thanks to the people at the Late Late Show. I got out of there a little after 6 and had Howard the Town Car driver take me immediately to Lucques, my favorite L.A. restaurant, where I met the one and only Janet Duckworth for great wine and excellent comfort food. I crashed that night on Janet’s couch, without a thought to turning on the TV and watching the show itself. Some of the best nights of sleep I’ve ever had have been on this couch — there’s something about waking up in her living room on that sumptuous sofa under a big comforter, with the windows open and the birds chirping and the cool L.A. air and light coming in. It’s a zen I’ve only ever achieved on a campout or two. Nancy Rommelmann has crashed on this couch before; she knows.
Flew back to Washington on Friday, just a couple hours ahead of this:
Michael shot this from our bedroom balcony Saturday evening, after a foot or so of snow fell on Washington, and I think you have to be one of his Facebook friends to get it to play, but chances are, you are.
What a pleasant, calming gift this storm was — at least, to those of us who live right across the street from a Safeway and within boot-stomping distance to everything we could possibly need in life. Saturday was also Michael’s birthday (he’s 36 — all grows up). Our original plan, a small dinner party, fell through (guests couldn’t get here) so we went out to dinner at Rosa Mexicano, just the two of us, and stuffed ourselves silly. My present to him this year is really to both of us: a new bed. King size this time. Mattress-testing expeditions (and trips to buy all new bedding) will commence in the new year.
Bryan Burrough: Boooo
My tranquil weekend was briefly interrupted by this rather nasty review of Tinsel in The Washington Post, by Bryan Burrough, a book writer and Vanity Fair reporter and, it turns out, what the kids today might call a douchebag.
You say: The Washington Post? But don’t you work there? Is there some sort of pent-up animosity toward you?
Not really. That’s how it goes. Our book review section remains clandestine and independent from the rest of the newsroom, in order to avoid just this very sort of fuss. I have no control over whether the book is reviewed at all, or who is assigned to review it, or if it’s a good review. I did see a Book World editor in passing last Friday who grimly volunteered that it’s “not an enthusiastic review,” and I said, oh, pish-posh, who cares, I’m just glad it’s being reviewed a’tall. But I didn’t know it would be this bad.
Look, it’s fine, but I will now type a couple paragraphs (and perhaps delete them, perhaps not) indicating that it is NOT fine. People are totally allowed to not like my book, and there’s nothing Bryan Burrough brings up here that I didn’t worry about while writing Tinsel. (Is the story boring? Is the book too predictable?). I have a stack of clips now where the reviewers really seemed to get it and enjoy it, all the balm I’ll ever need.
What does bother me is what an egotistical jerk Burrough is being here — deliberately dense, dismissive, and dinging me for being “condescending” to flyover country while making a “he’s from Oklahoma” joke at the same time. (Very Texan of him, no? Texans are the only people I know who think making fun of other people’s states of origin is perennially hilarious, while everyone else goes “hunh?”)
Like him, I also could criticize Scroogenomics and You Better Not Cry (for completely other reasons, and not nearly so brutally) but what seems to have happened here is that a writer (who doesn’t need the freelance pittance) took a shit all over three books for no reason other than to make himself chortle. That he has a decade or so as a Wall Street Journal reporter under his belt only hews to a certain theme from my 2009, wherein I find it difficult to get a point across to people who might have once worked at the WSJ.
Finally, I have to accept my whuppin’ here. I’m a critic myself, and I’m sure I’ve soured a few people’s mornings in TV-land with my reviews. What I don’t accept is the way the review was assigned. In my opinion, Christmas does not automatically link these three books. I would have preferred a standalone review, or at least a combo review by someone inclined to consider the material with less snark and a closer reading — or to admit that he has nothing constructive to add here and pass on the assignment. But that’s how it goes. Saying “bite me, Bryan Burrough,” is I guess just another way of saying: Merry Christmas!
Come back later this week. I promise to end all this on a good note! We’ll gather round, sing some carols by the fireplace, and say farewell to Tinsel!
Not to suggest that some of these exceptionally nice and smart reviews make me happier than others, and I know this just affirms the notion that the New York media elite has a disproportionate grip on a writer’s sense of self-worth, but SHUT UP AND CHECK OUT MY BOOK’S “BRIEFLY NOTED” REVIEW IN THE NEW ISSUE OF THE NEW YORKER, WOULDJA?
“Cultural anthropology at its most exuberant.”
Go on, go on… (Well, it doesn’t go on and on. It is briefly noted, you see. I’ll take it.)
ST. LOUIS: What you’re about to read happened days ago, and I’m just getting around to filing a blog report. I’m on a train right now to New York to do a reading tonight at the Half King bar in Chelsea. It starts at 7 p.m., if you’re anywhere nearby.
But backing up: I have to say, my stop in St. Louis might well have been my favorite. Nikki and Melissa at Pudd’nHead Books have been enormously supportive of Tinsel. They’ve been everything you’d want a bookstore to be — local, quirky, helpful and they get it. Nikki put my book on a list of her favorite books of the year and has been working on getting me to come out there since July. I’m so glad I did. Curtis Sittenfeld, newish St. Louis resident and also a Tinsel champ, came and got me Wednesday afternoon at the hotel and we went out to Pudd’nHead to say hi, shop for books and – this was really the most delightful part – gab about books we love and books we don’t. There is nothing more satisfying than two writers browsing a good store and really slagging on some overrated other writers. Whom did we agree that we despise? Oh, wouldn’t you like to know. Not to worry, neurotic literati: we did a lot of kvelling, too. We probably spent more time talking about what we lurve.
The Puddn’Head-ers, along with Curtis, put on an excellent event at COCA that night – we had cookies, egg nog and a super-smart audience of 40 or so people. I got to hang out with my friends John and Mary Pat O’Gorman at their house for a while beforehand – and get just a sample of life with their all-girl band: Lucy, Edie and Alice. At the COCA event, people had excellent questions and several had read the book already and wanted to know more, more, more. One woman needed to talk to me about her theory that I really am a “believer” and I just don’t know it. (“You believe in things,” she persuasively scolded me. “You believe, for example, in journalism ethics. …”)
Hank defends his beliefs to Inquisitor Donna, while Curtis Sittenfeld greets more fans.
Another woman brought me her homemade monkey bread, the delectable poppin’-fresh dessert that makes a cameo appearance in Chapter 15. How wonderful is that? I can’t believe someone actually made me monkey bread and I also can’t believe I forgot to get her name and e-mail so I could properly thank her. But these things move really fast when the Sharpie is out and the line is forming. While I signed copies of Tinsel, Curtis signed her 1,000-times-more-superior novels, American Wife and Prep.
Hank and Curtis, radiating holiday warmth in our black peacoats, but ready for pizza now.
After that, a gang of us adjourned to Pi, which, as I was told a few times, makes President Obama’s favorite Chicago-style pizza. (I believe it!) I am ready to move to St. Louis just to hang out forever with Curtis and her husband Matt and their daughter (whom I saw only via iPhone movies, but still). I’m sure this is not at all what they had in mind, but I hope that they had fun.
And not hours after I left did Curtis pick Tinsel as her favorite book of the year in this Salon round-up of writers’ favorite reads of 2009. I mean, gosh.
And that monkey bread? It was perfect. I ate some on the plane back to D.C. and saved the rest for Michael, as instructed. Man, I was glad to see him when I got home. I was gone 11 days this trip. What will we ever do in a few weeks, when Tinsel isn’t hogging all our time?
RESTON, Va.:Tinsel went back to the exurbs on Saturday. My friend Tamara Jones threw a sweet little get-together at her NoVa house that afternoon for old friends. Then some of us went on to the Reston Barnes & Noble for my reading at 5 p.m., smartly bribing customers with Tammy’s famous brownies. I think the combination of free sweets and my (ahem) reading style may have attracted a few new fans. Thank you, Tammy, for the good times.
REVIEWS AND MORE: They’re still coming, and they’re still pretty good, thank Baby Jesus …
• The West End Word (that would be St. Louis’s west end, cue Pet Shop Boys) had this to say here.
• And the Canadians have a look, in Maclean’s, here, and that lady who reads a book every day had this to say, over on Huffington Post.
• The less said about Steve Blow, the better, but still, what fun it is to ride in his one-horse open slay. (Har.) Especially with the Frontburner chatterers coming so swiftly to my defense. (Because frankly, I was stumped: How do you tell — or do you even bother to tell — a guy named “Steve Blow” to go fuck himself? I decided you just don’t. But, as it turns out, they’ve been doing it for years in Dallas. And when they do, he takes his football home.)
• Moving on to cheerier things, yes? Such as Debbie Gallagher of Cedar Hill, Texas, who read the book and then had something incisive to say about it.
• Also, the ol’ Life & Times section at The Maroon (my alma mater) wrote this story. Thanks to the reporter Ashley Stevens, who kept me company on the road to Bellingham, via a phone interview. Not to make myself feel superold, but this would be the equivalent of me getting assigned to interview an alum from the Class of ’70, which might not have interested me in the least. But Ashley did a great job of humoring this old ’80s-era Maroon-ie.
For those of you in Dallas or anywhere near Frisco, I do hope you’ll find time to check out Jeff and Bridgette Trykoski’s lights this year. I won’t be able to — which feels strange after spending so much time over the last three Christmases doing just that — but I very much recommend it. It’s on every night from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. until Dec. 30 or so (and not when it rains or snows). Check out Jeff’s website for the details with directions for seeing the house. Don’t forget there’s a YouTube video of what you’re in for (though this is a few years old now — much has changed!). If you do go to the Trykoski house, please remember to bring non-perishable food items for the donation box out front — Jeff and Bridgette have collected tons of food for Frisco Family Services Center food bank. No cash, please!
And as for Jeff’s much bigger project, Christmas in the Square, which features several songs in a light show that stretches from Frisco’s City Hall and across the Frisco Square retail and residence development, you can get all the info you need at the web site. I still think the best thing is to watch other people watch the lights. They get this giddy look in their eyes …