Reading on the Road
I never meant to cram a month’s worth of book promotion into seven days. It just happened — an unforeseen consequence of good luck, good will, and good publicists. I was so busy last week my kids actually noticed and mentioned how little time I’d been spending in my pumpkin shell.
I told them, “Look, I took a seventeen year mat-leave. You’ve got nothing to complain about.”
Sure, it was a maternity leave full of freelance work and “will-you-just-let-me-finish-this” but I was here, in the house with them, for almost all of it.
The week started early Monday (because, that’s when it always starts) when I went into my closest — the room in the house most like a radio booth — and did a telephone interview with a talk-radio station in Edmonton. It was a “top-line” interview meant to promote an appearance I’d be making in the city the next day. It went well until the very last question.
“So,” Mr. Radio asked, “who’s taking care of the kids while you’re [in Edmonton]?”
Instead of musing, “You know, when my husband gets interviewed by the media, on the courthouse steps, no one ever asks him who’s looking after his kids,” I laughed it off.
“That’s their problem,” I told the interviewer. “The oldest is seventeen so it’s Lord of the Flies over here when I’m gone.”
So far, no visit from Child and Family Services.
By bedtime that evening, I was gone. I was at my sister’s house in Edmonton, getting ready for another “top-line” interview on the most terrifying of all media: television. I haven’t watched television for years and I was scheduled to appear on a morning news show I’d never seen before. What I remembered from TV was mostly how it’s been used to make “real” people look foolish and grasping.
In the morning, I got dressed while it was still dark — high black boots, skinny black pants, white top, black jacket. Looking in my sister’s mirror, I finally saw it: I had subconsciously dressed myself to look like the black and white magpies on the cover of my book.
After a breakfast of Diet Coke with the coolest girl in Yellowbird Elementary School, I was on the freeway. I got to the studio early enough to meet the other author being interviewed that morning. In the green room was a man my age wearing a raspberry-coloured suit with a peach handkerchief tucked into the breast-pocket. This was self-proclaimed over-dresser and Edmonton literary institution, Todd Babiak. I thought I might run into him here.
“Don’t get nervous and start making fun of him,” one of my little sisters had warned me. “That’s what I’d do.”
This was good advice. It turns out Babiak isn’t a TV watcher either and we sat in the green room puzzling at the monitor on the wall as the program wound its way toward our segments. He nodded at the anchor-lady on the screen. “She’s actually read my book,” he said because, in a top-line interview, this is remarkable.
Left alone in the green room, I watched Babiak’s interview. Of course, his raspberry suit had to be acknowledged on-air, just like my five kids at home had to be acknowledged on the radio on Monday morning. The boys — they’re my raspberry suit.
Walking the hallway to the studio, I asked the producer with the pixie-cut hairdo, “There aren’t going to be any questions about who’s taking care of my kids, are there?”
She smirked. “Any what?”
I told her about the radio station and we all scoffed together. The anchorman who interviewed me was sweet in a clean-cut-captain-of-the-football-team kind of way.
I spent the rest of the day in the city, visiting family, calming the frick down before I went to a reading in a bookstore downtown. The guests at this reading included some old friends I hadn’t seen in this century. One of them reintroduced herself in case I’d forgotten her — which I certainly had not. A wonderful thing about a book tour is the way it’s also a time machine.
After two days of massaging social media, the time came for another reading. This one was closer to home, in the city my husband commutes to for work. The Red Deer venue was warm and cozy and the time machine coughed out a long lost aunt and cousin. There was a question from a woman — a fellow artist — who earnestly and innocently wanted to know how I “do it” with so many kids in my life.
I shrugged, “By being a crap mother, I guess.” This might be my new pat-answer. Put it right in the press kit.
Get your kicks on Route 63
The last event of the week was the most ambitious one of all. The person stepping out of the time machine this time would be me. The machine took the form of my black pickup truck — the kind they issue everyone crossing into Alberta’s borders. I picked up my sister (the third sister in this story) and we went north, to Fort McMurray.
I’m no carpet-bagger, no oilsand opportunist. For five years during the early 2000s, the city was my hometown. I bought my first house, repaid my student loan, met bears, planted trees, and had two magnificent babies in the city. An entire chapter of my novel is set in the Wood Buffalo region. To get there, we drove for five hours — me boring the heck out of my sister with all my “Wow, this is so different.” I alternated between, “I can’t believe all this is here” and “I can’t believe all that is gone.” No matter what the Old Man says, the region is not Hiroshima. It’s not a wasteland. But it’s not like it used to be either.
In seven years, the city’s service industry hasn’t changed. We arrived at 2:45 pm but we couldn’t get into our hotel room to change our clothes. It was still a mess. I’d be appearing in public looking like I’d spent the day in a pickup truck. We hadn’t had a meal all day and we went to a fast food restaurant with milk and grease smeared all over the sky-blue tabletops. This was familiar too. The restaurant couldn’t hire enough staff to have anyone to clear the tables. Customers go there knowing they’ll have to do it themselves.
At the event — a launch party for the latest edition of NorthWord: A Literary Journal of Canada’s North — I was invited to read first. I chose the chapter set in the neighbourhood where I now stood reading. And when I got to the part about the trees along the highway — the ones that now exist only in my imagination — I choked into the microphone. Maybe it’d sound noble and Neil Young would pat me on the head if I tried to say I was having a fit of environmental conscience. It wasn’t that. It wasn’t the trees. It was me. There was some kind of awful longing rising in my throat with the words I read. The whole time machine idea — it’s wrong. This place that I love had moved on without me. I was abandoned. And I hadn’t even known it.
Part of the NorthWord event was in impromptu poetry contest. The theme was contrast. I jotted some lines and signed my sister’s name to them. The poem was about the dirty tabletop at the restaurant. It was silly and pretentious right down to the lines I wrote in German. The judges got the joke and it won a prize in the contest. But my sister was too embarrassed to let them announce it. Fair enough.
When we were finally let into the hotel, we put on pajamas, got into one of the beds, put our heads together, and watched YouTube on my sister’s tablet — a sisters’ sleepover, just like old times, only not at all like old times. Neither of us had wi-fi or a credit card or an ex-husband or a book to tour when we were little girls.
Still, those German words — the refrain from our winning poem — they were these: