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I’ve seen a number of movies the last couple of years that end with one of the main characters sitting at a table, behind a huge pile of brand new hardback books, while a line of eager young men and alluring young women wait for a personally signed copy of their very own. It seems that the book signing has become a movie payoff moment, like birth, marriage, death, and loss of virginity. 

In truth, most writers claim they hate book signings, book readings, and book tours. Personally, I get a kick out of them. I wrote every day for twenty years before I met another writer. I don’t even recall talking to a reader. So, it’s fun once every couple of years to meet people who are interested in the same things I’m interested in.

Now, I have the Jackson Hole Writers Conference (send a Message if you might want to come. It’s an inspirational hoot) but before that, all I had was the occasional book tour. I lived in a hovel, back then, and I still carry my food stamp card at all times to keep myself humble, so sleeping in high-end hotels and eating without regard to costs made me feel like a kid playing dress-up. There was the fear of my mom bursting into a reading and shouting, “Tim, you are a fraud.”

Mostly they’re entertaining but even when the worst that can possibly go wrong goes wrong — no one shows up, the store has no books, someone hoists their unpublished memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional family on you — the traveling author goes back to the hotel room to watch pay per view over a mini-bar cocktail party. 

Book tours come in two sorts, with variations. The categories are air and car. When Honey Don’t came out I flew fourteen times in sixteen days, media escorts in each city, no entourage, no groupies. As a contrast, after Sorrow Floats was published I spent eight weeks driving around America, passing out t-shirts and reading the same chapter over and over. I gained twenty pounds.

I’ve learned better now. Garrison Keillor says the worst thing that can happen at a reading is for someone to read. I’ve watched the old pros — Chris Moore comes to mind — and most of them have worked up an act. They read less than three minutes out of thirty. I’ve heard Chuck Palahniuk sometimes throws body parts at the audience.

I used to think the media escort was purely an ego massage provided by the publishers to make us writers feel pampered, until I got one. A good media escort will help an author hit fifteen bookstores in an afternoon. These are called drive-by signings. You sign stock and tell the booksellers you can’t live without them. I do love people who sell books.

If you go on tour, I would advise against behaving like a jerk. The media escorts gossip. First, they tell you they aren’t supposed to talk about other writers, then, with a minimum of prodding, they dish the dirt — the women who meet up with extracurricular boyfriends, the men who drink themselves into a coma and refuse to leave the escort’s car. Jeffrey Archer is a legend for his bad behavior. He insists every escort address him as Lord Archer. Next most arrogant, rude, and demanding are the editors from the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Think about that.

While it’s cool to meet fans who know my books better than I do and think I’m okay, every tour has at least one moment of crushing humiliation. Try driving 1,800 miles to Davis Kidd in Nashville and arriving to find out the events guy is off today, no one has ever heard of you, and no one can locate any of your books. I went to a Barnes and Noble in Kansas City and shyly said to the pretty girl at the information desk, “I’m Tim Sandlin. I’m supposed to be here tonight.” She disappeared for ten minutes and came back and handed me a job application.

I had a huge crowd, by my standards, at the old Hungry Mind in St. Paul. Halfway through the reading a bus pulled up and everyone but my wife and one other guy got up and left. Turned out they were an English as a Second Language group learning about American culture by attending my reading. (If you’ve read my books, you may find that appalling.) the bus came and they left. 

George Singleton ended a book tour in jail. He badmouthed George Bush on a Mississippi radio station and they busted his ass. The actual charge was being drunk and saying fuck on the air, but he claims he was arrested for trashing Bush in Mississippi.

Wherever two or more writers come together, they inevitably trade book tour horror stories. The worst (or best, depending on your attitude) story I’ve heard was told by Nancy Pearl. She’s the model for the librarian action figure, you may have seen. Has a TV show in Seattle where she interviews writers. She told me about a Canadian writer named Ian McSomethingoranother (this would be a better anecdote if I could remember his name). Anyway, no one showed up for Ian’s reading, which is okay when you’re not in your own hometown. Better than one or two coming because then you have to go through the motions while shoppers look at you with pity in their eyes. 

But the bookstore owner wouldn’t let Ian leave. She hustled around the store, begging customers to listen to the reading and finally one old guy who looked like he’d come into the store to get warm agreed to sit on the first row. 

Ian started the reading. His audience leaned forward, fell out of his chair and died. Repercussions were about what you would expect.

Don’t do it.

A couple of years ago USA Today ran one of those Top Ten lists that they love so much. It was the Top Ten Most Beloved People in America. I didn’t make the list. But a couple months later they ran the Top Ten Most Hated People in America (I didn’t make that list either), and it doesn’t take special insight to predict the same people were on both lists. Six of them, as I recall now. 

That’s when I came to certain realizations about the opinions of people who know me through my work but I don’t know them. Anyone in that position is both loved and hated for the wrong reasons and there’s nothing much you can do about it. Even Tom Hanks has his detractors and I met a guy lately who thinks Dick Cheney has a nice personality. 

This came to mind because the famous mystery novelist Sue Grafton once threatened to kill me. I don’t think she was serious — I didn’t start locking my doors or anything — but she definitely wasn’t kidding. This is a woman who spends a lot of time thinking about how it would feel to knock someone off. She tends to do it by creating thinly veiled fictional characters out of people she doesn’t care for and then whacking them. 

But the bottom line here is that Sue is a gracious, perfectly nice woman and she doesn’t like me. She’s not the only one. I can name several nice folks that I like who don’t like me a bit. And I wonder about that.

I understand the many wonderful people in the world who think my writing stinks. Lord knows, I don’t judge folks by whether they can stand my books or not. A writer would be a total dingbat if he, or she, turned against people simply for not connecting with the writing (although loving my work does help make a good first impression). I’m not that lost in vapid-land. 

And you don’t turn 35 living in a tent and washing dishes in an Italian restaurant if you care deeply about public opinion, so I’m not going to turn into the cloy king, but I’d like to come up with a stance to take on the issue of being hated by nice people. Anyone with ideas is welcome to throw them out there.

Announcements: 1) Those of you interested in writing or me or my writing can go to an interview at Roses and Thorns and learn everything you want to know about my attitude toward writing novels and then some. http://roseandthornreviews.blogspot.com/2008/04/tim-sandlin-author-interview-by.html

2) The Jackson Hole Writers Conference comes around June 25 to 28 — four days of inspiration and fun. Three writing critiques, seven New York Times best selling authors, seven agents and editors, workshops, and dancing cowboys and cowgirls — if you’ve never been to a writers conference, this is the one for you. If you have been, it’s the one for you also. You can hang around people who are interested in the same things you are interested in (how often does that happen outside the internet?) and, between sessions, wander through the Teton Mountains. Check it out right here.

3) I’m writing a scene in GroVont IV where Lydia goes to the Lompoc Minimum Security Federal Prison in Lompoc, California, to visit Hank. I would love to meet anyone who has served time in Lompoc, or visited a loved one in Lompoc, or knows of anyone who has ever been in Lompoc or any other minimum security federal pen. Surely, with 5,000-whatever of you out there, one of my fans has been in prison. Let me know. You too can make the Acknowledgments page.

Sex and Sunsets

The need has come to explain myself to someone. First: I hear voices in running water. This communion-with-nature deal started out as mystic and romantic charm, like being on the edge of a great secret. I’d be hiking along the willow flats or aspen groves next to your typical Wyoming bubbling stream: Moss-covered stones, Lonicera waving in the sun, air that tastes of lemon on the back of the throat- and a murmur would float over the water’s surface. It sounded as if several young people were singing a message, or an underwater anthem. As I stood motionless, the voices grew louder and sounded like a psalm or a chant- Gregorian.., if the creek was wide enough.

Enraptured as hell by the whole experience, I would sit at the water’s edge for hours, knowing that if I was calm enough, and pure enough, the words would come together and some message of great importance would be revealed.

That was four years ago, when I was still married.

Then came the winter Julie boxed up her vitamins, the cook-book collection and two drawers full of Danskins, and moved across town. Less than two weeks passed before my shower distinctly said, “What dire offense from amorous causes springs,” I didn’t know at the time, but that’s the first line of a poem called ‘The Rape of the Lock” by a man named Alexander Pope. (Rape is the recurring theme in much of my plumbing’s poetry.)

The morning after my shower first spoke, the flushing toilet said, “Eat fish today.”

Of course, I didn’t eat fish that day. People who let auditory hallucinations boss them around wind up driving wooden stakes through the hearts of random strangers. Or tying up their mother and splitting her in half lengthwise with a chain saw. A lawn sprinkler in Cheyenne once gave me that suggestion.

At times I shout rude comebacks at the voices- “Fuck you too, buddy.” – or I stick fingers in the water while they’re speaking. Nothing fazes the jerks. They laugh and trill and go merrily about the business of driving me further from reality.

To read more Sex and Sunsets by Tim Sandlin, visit Amazon.com

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Jackson Hole has the youngest old-timers of any valley in the West. Anyone over 22 who has been here at least three years considers himself qualified to tell a newcomer, “It’s nice enough now, but you should have been here before people like you came and ruined it.” After the subject of billionaires displacing millionaires and wrecking paradise, an old-timers’ second favorite subject is how much worse the weather used to be. To hear them talk, each winter was colder and the snow deeper all the way back to 1911. Before that, exaggerations set in and memories can’t be trusted.

Roger Ramsey was telling me the coldest winter he ever lived through was 1978-79, when it hit 64 below zero on New Year’s Eve and spit bounced. Tires squared, key holes jammed solid, anti-freeze froze, the electricity went out, and several hundred people piled together in a heap in the lobby of the Wort Hotel.

“I’ve been in sixty below temperature and 60 below wind chill,” Roger said, “and trust me, sixty below temperature is colder. Wind chill doesn’t mean squat unless you’re outside naked.”

What I remember about 1979 was the 155 degree difference between New Year’s and the Fourth of July. People who live in states where weather is not the central element of life can’t relate to a 155 degree jump.

Because of a childish prank up Crystal Creek involving a paint-ball gun, a sow grizzly, and the Vice President, Roger Ramsey was recently given a choice between jail and 100 hours of community service. His service entailed going up to Pioneer Homestead where the real old-timers live, and taping oral histories for the Living West in Memory Program which is an NPR show in which myths and legends of the mountains are set straight. We found Caleb Johnstone, T.R. Whitlock, and Betsy Rae McAlester nodding out at a table in the Homestead courtyard, each facing two one-dollar bills, a Delaware Punch, and one of those bruise-colored peanut and sugar patties that are shaped like a hockey puck and have the shelf life of a belt buckle. Roger says old guys eat them for the preservatives.

Roger set up his Radio Shack voice-activated microphone and, as usual, conversation sprang up on ‘How Cold Was It?’

Caleb Johnstone ran his finger bones over a head so bald you could see the separate skull plates, and told us about November of 1951. Here’s what he said:

“They was a flock of sandhill cranes bedded down the night in Christian Pond there and the temperature dropped from forty above to forty below in two hours flat. Froze ever one of those bird legs solid as rebar in concrete. Next morning they was they pitifulest bunch of birds I ever saw. But then, right while I watched, this big old crane seemed to be the boss bird commenced to flapping his wings and all the other cranes flapped their wings and pretty soon the ice broke free from the banks and that flock rose into the sky, carrying the top 18 inches of Christian Pond with them. Looked like a municipal ice rink floating in the air above Jackson as they crossed town and headed south.

“I heard that ice didn’t melt free till the flock was passing over the Odessa, Texas, stockyards where it crashed down in one huge slab. The Texans never knew where it come from, but they had such a mess of pounded meat under ice that they went out and invented the chicken fried steak.”

T.R. Whitlock stared at Caleb with one eye so cataracted it looked like a glowing Ping Pong ball. He said, “Fall of 1951 wasn’t near as cold as late March 1942.”

Caleb came back with the pithiest retort he could think up. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah,” T.R. said. “That was the spring Molly Van Dyke brought a little bottle of sorghum molasses to the Moran School to pour over biscuits during big recess. To stop the molasses from firming, she kept it under her armpit all morning, but come recess Budder T. Olaf got to teasing her and he threw the molasses bottle and it broke it on the bicycle rack that used to be a hitching post.”

“Does this story got a point?” Caleb asked.

T.R. blinked his Ping Pong ball eye. “After we went back indoors for elocution exercises a grizzly bear that’d just woke up from winter-sleep came out of the woods and took to licking the molasses off that bicycle rack. First we knew of it, that bear busted through the double front door with the rack and my little sister’s ruby red Flexible Flyer bicycle stuck on its face.

“It ran up and down the room, knocking over desks and chairs and the living terrarium with the hibernating snakes and the live iguana. Some of the girls let loose in their pants and what with the doors open that froze the floor slick and the bear fell and slid into the blackboard. Miss Hankfield grasped her Wonder Bread ruler .”

“I remember that ruler,” Caleb said. “It had Wonder Bread Builds Strong Bodies Twelve Ways on one side and on the other they’d written one way per inch.”

“Who’s telling the story?” T.R. said.

Caleb said, “Don’t tell it if you can’t do it right.”

“Mrs. Hankfield reached across the bicycle rack and cracked that bear on the nose. It ran clear out the back end of the coat closet and into Pacific Creek. Carried a good number of jackets with it, but lucky for us my sister’s bicycle fell off. We got away with a flat tire on the front.”

I couldn’t help myself. “So, what happened to the bear?” I asked.

“Nobody knows,” T.R. said. “There was stories going around of a bear with a wide set of iron teeth terrorizing the DuNoir that spring, and in late June a cabin maid at Lake Hotel found the bicycle rack out by the dude corrals. It had a pink tongue stuck to it.”

Roger Ramsey turned a whiter shade of pale.

“That’s not the end of the story though. A year later Molly Van Dyke marred Budder T. Olaf and for forty-three years she made him pay for that molasses, every night and every day, till the good Lord finally said Enough and called Budder T. home.”

Betsy Rae spit something green on Roger’s Nike. “Cold is one way to judge a winter,” she said, “but I prefer snow as a gauge of harsh.” Betsy Rae claims to be 112 and there are those who believe her. She is considerable older than Caleb or T.R. That much is true. More than eighty years of working outdoors in Wyoming has turned her skin the color and texture of a snapping turtle.

“Nineteen and twenty-two,” she began. “The tallest building in Jackson was the four-story, two-hole outhouse behind the Clubhouse there on Center Street.”

She spit again but this time Roger was ready for her. She said, “The men of our town were too lazy good-for-nothing to shovel snow so they’d just let it drift over the first floor, then open the door to the second and so on until mid-April when the snow started back down and so did the men.”

She poked Roger with a scaly fingernail. “That Christmas, your great-granddaddy Jug Ramsey — who wasn’t no more account than you are — rode his mule Frankie in from the upper Gros Ventre. Jug left Frankie out back in a howling snowstorm and went inside where he got caught up in an all-night domino tournament. Whiskey was involved. And a crib girl from Elk.

“The next morning snow had piled up neck high to a Mormon bishop, as they measured it back then, and Jug couldn’t find his mule. He looked for two days until he became convinced Frankie had died and been buried in a drift. Everyone said Frankie would turn up in the spring, so Jug headed home up the Gros Ventre before the next storm.

“What Jug and no one else knew was Frankie had somehow taken shelter in the first floor of the outhouse. Snow piled up so deep that winter four floors wasn’t enough. They ended up cutting two holes in the roof and stretching a canvas tarp for privacy. When spring finally did come the snow melted down floor by floor until folks noticed an odor worse than usual.

“I’ll never forget the sight if I live to be 115. Frankie was packed in there so tight they had to peel off all four walls. People came in from miles to see that donkey, and the Police Gazette even sent out a photographer. The men never used that outhouse again. The next year they not only built an indoor water closet but they let responsible women join the club.”

Like a fool, I asked, “Did the Gazette run the story?”

Betsy Rae nodded. “You betcha. Right on the front page, they had a picture of Frankie looking for all the world like an eight-foot Fudgesicle with hooves instead of a stick, and the headline there read: Jackson Men Can’t Tell Ass from Hole in Ground.

Silently, Caleb and T.R. pushed their dollar bills across the table to Betsy Rae. Roger turned off the tape recorder and said, “I’d rather go to jail.”

Angels and Assholes

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I know you are all on virtual tenterhooks about the state of my colon, so here is the report:

As I was lying on the skinny hospital bed on wheels, slowly rising out of the anesthesia, my brain in blackest smog, the curtain parted and in floated the angel of the Lord. I knew who it was, right off. Imagine Merle Oberon in 1939, in Wuthering Heights. Radiant vestments, tasteful wings, a glowing golden aura bleeding into pumpkin colored spires — what you would expect if you were a shepherd guarding your flocks by night, but something of a surprise in a Wyoming recovery room.

The angel saith (in a New Orleans accent): “Your doctor messed up. He ripped you a new anal cavity.”

I was stunned, poleaxed from whatever they’d used to knock me cold, so I kept my mouth shut. Besides, I’m kind of shy around angels when the backside of my gown isn’t tied shut.

“Lucky for you, though,” saith the angel. “God has decided to present you with a new asshole. For Christmas.”

The angel reached into the depths between her breasts and pulled out a black, lacquer box with a golden clasp in the shape of a map of Oklahoma. A key appeared, as if from heaven, and she opened the box to show me a royal blue Velveteen lining in which were set five brand new anuses. Anii. Whatever angels call bottoms.

“Which would you chooseth?” saith the angel.

I know what you guys are thinking: You’re thinking I was hallucinating from the drugs and the thrill of having a tiny camera and flashlight snaked up my butt. (I have full color, glossy photos of the dark chamber as a souvenir.) However, I am fairly certain that the angel was real. She had on flip flops. Hallucinated angels never wear flip flops.

The new anuses were nice, if you like that sort of thing, but the sizes were weird — frightening small or absurdly large. One was screwed so tight it had to be meant for a Republican. Another had that star shape, like the Vonnegut backside in Breakfast of Champions.

“Are these the only choices?” I asked.

“Of course not,” saith the angel. “God has created an infinite number of assholes in this world. Just look at Face Book.”

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Four winters ago, toward the end of my Hollywood period, my wife Carol, Leila, and I house-sat for the woman who directed Skipped Parts: the movie. She and her husband had this monster truck of a house that the Welch family of Welches Grape Juice and Jelly built under the Griffith Observatory there in Griffith Park. The Welches planted grapevines all over the mountain that is now an upscale L.A. neighborhood. The house had six marble staircases, a veritable nightmare for a couple with a two-year-old daughter. More than once I called Carol on the cell phone because I couldn’t find her, even though I knew she was somewhere in the house.

Tamra, the director, who is wonderful in every way, is married to a nice guy named Michael Diamond who is in a band called the Beastie Boys. They had some interesting friends, coming in and out of the house. On their son’s birthday, Michael, whose friends call him Mickey D., played disc jockey all afternoon while the kids yelled and ran through the garden and down by the pool. I wasn’t familiar with any of the songs he played. They were all on vinyl record albums.

Normally, it would be bad form for a house-sitter to mention this stuff, but they have since moved, so I think it’s okay now. I enjoyed the winter, in spite of the constant struggle to keep Leila from tumbling down steps. They had a screening room where we watched eight-foot tall Telly Tubbies dance and fall down backwards. Imagine that.

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But this blog is not about house-sitting; it’s about fan mail. You see, street kids in L.A. stand on the corners of major intersections selling these things called Star Maps. Tourists buy them and drive around Hollywood, looking for the houses where their favorite movie stars live. So far as I know, the Star Map addresses are wrong. For instance, they gave the address where we were staying as belonging to Brad Pitt. This was back when he was still with Jennifer Aniston, so far as anyone knew.

Later, I asked Tamra and neither Brad Pitt nor Jennifer Aniston had ever lived there. Neither had ever visited the house or lived nearby, but this didn’t stop a daily dribble of cars from driving by the front gate while tourists craned their necks and sometimes even touched our mailbox. Once or twice a week, an airplane or helicopter swooped over the pool and some pushy type leaned out to take my daughter’s photograph.

Once we got past the fear of a nutcase fame-chaser climbing over the fence, we weren’t bothered by the gawkers. Heck, we probably would have had tourists anyway, if they’d known it was a Beastie Boy house.

But the thing was — the mail. Brad and Jennifer got a lot of mail. Someone must have posted the address on the internet. It tapered off later, but the first few weeks brought ten or twenty letters a day. I guess if I’d known where Brad lived I could have boxed up his mail and taken it to him. It would have made a nice icebreaker with Jennifer. But I didn’t know and I don’t think they wanted the mail anyway, so I did what any other normal American would do with a pile of unsolicited mail addressed to Brad Pitt — I opened it.

Not all of it, of course. I had better things to do, like watching eight-foot tall Telly Tubbies jump out of holes in artificial turf. But I opened enough to get the general drift.

I used to receive fan mail myself. Nothing like Brad and Jennifer, mind you, but enough to establish a pattern. Very few were scary. Most of the writers said they enjoyed my books and I should keep writing. Sometimes, guys who’d recently lost girlfriends would get drunk and write these two a.m. twelve-page rave-ons, putting down all the pain they would never dump on their friends. A surprising number of girls wrote to tell me how their boyfriends were in bed.

“I don’t much like him and I would break up with him but he’s so good at . . . ” and then they would describe a procedure I’m not sure is physically possible.

A number of letters started out, “I always wanted to write Such-and-So but then he died, so I decided I should write you before you die.” My not dying years ago seems to have gratified many readers.

Very rarely, someone would say, “I’ve had such an interesting life, everyone tells me I should be a writer. How about if I tell you my story and you type it up and we’ll split the money.” These letters tended to come from guys in prison. My theory is Sex and Sunsets was one of the few hardbacks with Sex in the title, so it sold well in prison libraries. Whatever the cause, I used to be the swamp where prison mail went to die.

Nowdays, I don’t get much post office reader mail. It comes in over MySpace or the Timsandlin.com guest book. I enjoy hearing from readers, although the occasional angry person can be trying. I got a message the other day from a man who said he would have been a best-selling author if he lowered himself to writing sex scenes, the way I do. Humorous fiction brings out the hate in people.

But enough about me, let’s get back to Brad Pitt: Before I grew bored and quit reading his mail, I probably opened twenty letters and not one followed the drift that I get in my mail. No one said, “I like your work,” or “Congratulations, Brad!” or even “I wanted to write you before you died…” Every letter to Brad wanted something from him.

They wanted him to read their script. They wanted him to get them a job as a producer. They wanted him to introduce them to Jennifer Lopez. A lot of them started out, “You’ve had luck and I’ve never had luck and I deserve to be as famous as you, therefore you owe me . . .” So on. So forth. A bunch came at once demanding that he stop smoking on screen. It must have been a campaign because those all hit in one week, then stopped. Any number of the letter writers simply wanted money. Postal spare-change artists.

So, here are the morals to my story: First, don’t write Brad Pitt, asking him to do something for you- The address is wrong. Second, don’t write the federal government and tell them I opened Brad’s mail. I will deny it. Third, don’t write me, asking me to stop smoking on screen. I don’t smoke and I’m not on anyone’s screen. Fourth, don’t go looking for any Beastie Boys over by Griffith Park. They moved. Fifth, don’t send me a CD and ask me to forward it to Mickey D. I don’t know him that well. I was his house-sitter, for Chrissake.

I can’t think of a sixth.

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