Wednesday, April 01, 2009


Day 12-15
Detroit, Milwaukee and Dayton
26 - 29 March 2009

Finally, a smooth departure, and a smooth arrival in Detroit. For the first time in my life my luggage beats me to the arrival hall (and this without immigration and customs!).

I am picked up by my escort, Shirley, and taken straight to lunch with the fiction team at Border’s head quarters. Detroit is the home of Borders. The troubled chain has just had a change of chief executive and hopefully will now return to some of the ideas of the original founders: knowledgeable staff and good service. Ideas that somehow vanished in the process of expansion. The state of Michigan is the worst hit by the economy , being the home of GM among other industries in dire straits, and the pain has spread throughout society.

Ann Arbor, where my evening event takes place is a university town, though, and still vibrant and full of activity. My hotel, The Bell Tower Hotel, sits near the midst of the vast university campus area. And just a few blocks’ walk away from the flag ship Borders shop that’s the venue for my 7pm event.

It is interesting to note the difference between the events at independent stores and chain stores. Here, nothing seems to be prepared. The friendly young staff members scramble to get me a microphone and a glass of water while guests are already seated. Nobody in particular seems to be in charge and nobody knows who I am. At the independent stores I feel that I am being hand-sold, just as my books are.
But as the hour passes two of the young male staff sit down and listen and afterwards they are full of questions. Couldn’t someone have given them a brief beforehand?

No lonely room service dinner tonight, as I have friends in Ann Arbor who take me out for dinner.
In the morning, my departure is an hour later than the day before (it’s getting better by the day – except for tomorrow, I notice when I check the itinerary) and there are no problems at the check in.
I have a better than usual breakfast at Detroit Airport and read the New York Times. On the front page is an article about Powells book store in Portland, Oregon. The successful independent store will not go ahead with a planned expansions. Although the banks are keen to fund the $35m project, a 5% downturn in sales has made the owners cautious. Caution rather than a real pinch seems to be a main concern here at the moment.

A few days after my visit to Seattle there was another article in The New York Times (what a treat to have a decent daily paper!) that caught my eye. Just a day or so before my arrival one the two daily papers in Seattle folded to become just an internet presence and the article discussed the effects of our increased reliance on the internet for our news.

Today, some 60% of Americans live in areas where there was a landslide result at the latest election – one way or the other. In the 60’s only about 30% did. It means that today most people here are likely to be surrounded by likeminded people. Their political opinions and their beliefs are not likely to be challenged. If, in addition to this, if the internet and TV channels with a clear political leaning becomes their only source of news, their ideas, opinions and prejudices are like to become ever stronger.

When at home in New Zealand I use The New York Times’ service that allows me a certain number of headlines from sections of my choice. But those are the sections I already know that are likely to carry articles that I will be interested, op-ed articles by journalists I like and whose opinions I generally sympathise with.

Just like shopping on the internet is likely to lead me along a very predictable path, unless I turn to other sources for product information and suggestions. With the kind of service that e.g. Amazon offers: ‘since you liked this book, you might like this one’ I are unlikely to ever land on anything unexpected or challenging. Browsing in unknown territories can be very rewarding. It has happened that I have read an article in the sports section when I read a paper paper – on the internet, never. Perhaps we need to find ways of making our everyday life a little more risky, a little more challenging and less polarized.

Milwaukee. Mary was my escort during my first tour, too. Unlike me, she looks exactly the same when I spot her at the baggage claim. We go straight to a radio interview. It’s a local station and the twice a day show is called ‘The Lake Effect’. The interviewer, Mitch Teich, is a published author, too. In spite of looking to be about thirty he is remarkably well read and well travelled. Also, his father’s family is Polish Jewish and he seems genuinely moved by my book. Which I somehow feel he knows more about than I do. His questions are wonderful, but hard. We keep talking long after the fifteen minute recording is over.

In the afternoon Mary takes me to sign stock at stores around town. There is plenty everywhere. Last time I saw nothing of the city, but today there is time to drive along the scenic lake front and I try and take a picture of the stunning art museum designed by Santiago Calatrava. Mary tells me you get the best perspective from the lake, so I give up trying to fit it all into one picture. The sun is out and the lake stretches forever.
Milwaukee is a very pretty city with lots of water running through it. There is Lake Michigan, but also the Milwaukee River, both with plenty of parkland along the shores and planned walkways where you can walk for miles without obstructions. Auckland City Council should make a study trip here.

The evening event is very moving. Originally planned to be at the same independent store as last time, Harry Schwartz’, it’s been shifted to the Milwaukee Public Library.
Two of the four Schwartz stores have recently closed and the other two have been sold, one to a former employee, Daniel Gold. This one will reopen as Boswell Books on 1 April. I wish Daniel and his staff loads of luck. I somehow feel they may just succeed, in spite of the economic climate. All trends have exceptions, and sometimes risks pay off. May this one be one of those!

Carol Grossmeyer, the owner of Harry Schwartz, and several of the staff members that helped hand sell 2,500 copies of my first book are here and we are all teary eyed. I miss one though, Nancy Quinn, who personally came behind ‘Astrid & Veronika’ in an exceptional way, and who has also reviewed ‘Sonata for Miriam’ for Publisher’s Weekly. She leaves me a letter telling me she just wasn’t up to be with us this evening. Both she and her husband have lost their jobs and fear for their future.
This might be the largest audience of this tour, possibly with the exception of the first event in Los Angeles. It’s a very special evening.

I am staying at the Pfitzer Hotel, one of those places that exude an atmosphere of former glory. A grand entrance lobby with high ceilings with dusty crystal chandeliers, wide corridors with soft carpets and ornate gilded doors. And bad plumbing. As I come back from the event I sit down in the piano bar and have a late meal and a glass of wine. There is just a handful of people there, which is a shame as the pianist, Dr Jeffrey Hollander, is exceptional. He even plays Chopin’s Berceuse on request. Few pianists would venture to do that. It transpires that he is a professor of music with a long an interesting career. His music is wonderful.

Another early morning. Up at 5.15am to catch my flight to Dayton, Ohio. I have never been to Ohio, and I have a feeling I will not know much more about the state after this brief visit. No problems at the airport. Another airport breakfast, not too bad this time. Spring is more advanced in Dayton, with green lawns a touch of pale green around the bare branches of the trees. I am put up at the Merriot, a standard conference hotel packed with noisy university students on some weekend project.

My event is at Books & Co., a large independent bookstore in town. It’s Saturday, 2pm and it rains a little. The audience is small, but high quality. A group of three people have travelled from Columbus to be here. Great questions and lots of interest. Sometimes, these small events feel more worthwhile than the bigger ones - I get to talk to all guests.
My escort drops me off at my hotel after stock signings at two Barnes & Nobles stores. I spend the evening catching up on personal hygiene and watching a movie. The last few days I have felt as if I am carrying a latent cold and an early night feels just right.
My flight to Newark the following morning is at the decent hour of 10.50am.
At the airport I notice my book on the Bestseller shelf of the bookstore, shoulder to shoulder with Philip Roth’s latest novel. Yay!

New York. Rain. And a free afternoon. A friend takes me to dinner with other friends of hers in Brooklyn. It’s nice to have a genuine social evening. And a good night’s sleep.
In the morning I’m invited to breakfast at the residence of the Swedish Consul General together with my publisher at Penguin US, Kathryn Court and her marketing team. The residence at 600 Park Avenue is spectacular and the Consul General, Ulf Hjertonson and his wife Karin genuinely interested in the arts and very supportive. It feels as if I am becoming more and more Swedish as this tour progresses…
We go straight to Penguin’s head office after breakfast for a podcast recording. Then lunch with Kathryn Court, followed by a radio interview at Multicultural Broadcasting. I recognize the cramped office the moment we enter the door, and also my interviewer, Gene Heinemeyer. Like last time, he is very well prepared and the half hour in the studio goes quickly. His program ‘Gateways’ has good reach, I am told.
I catch a cab afterward and take myself to the Jewish Museum in 92nd street. I have about two hours – totally inadequate time – and try and cover as much as I can. Before I leave I give a copy of my book to the staff in the gift store.

Back to Penguin to meet Maureen, Shannon, Gabrielle and Alexis from the marketing team and walk over to the New Public Library in Jersey Street. The audience includes other familiar faces: my agent Kathleen Anderson and her assistant Adriann Ranta, whom I haven’t met before in spite of having had extensive dealings with on e-mail and phone. Funny how you sometimes make up a very clear and very specific image of a person that proves to be totally wrong. This is such a one, and I am pleased to now have the correct face to the name.
Both my brain and my throat feel as if they are drying up by now and I deliver a slightly shorter version of my speech. As always, the audience seems genuinely moved by the reading and the playing of the adagio from the Sonata for Miriam by Alexander Ekroth-Baginski. I wish it was commercially available.
Dinner with Penguin concludes a VERY long day. And I realise I have taken NO pictures in New York. Too much happening, I think.

When I get back to my hotel I check my e-mail and discover that Sonata for Miriam goes on sale in Denmark next morning. A first review is glowing and my publisher, Forlaget Aronsen, also forward a few blogs that rave about the book. Their website front page features Sonata for Miriam: Sometimes miracles happen in the most unexpected places…
Oh, and I found this article in Tulsa World:

Boston tomorrow. I go to bed hoping for a good night’s sleep and renewed energy to take me through the last two days of the tour.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So sorry you had such a disappointing experience in Ann Arbor. Perhaps Border's is trying to function like so many of us are in these times - trying to do too big of a job with too few people, resulting in a reduction of quality of service or product.
Your presentation seemed unaffected by what the Border's staff didn't have to offer you. It was engaging, informative and opened exciting new doors for me. Thank you for soldiering in under less than ideal circumstances.
Hope to see you again in Ann Arbor in the future.