Sunday, June 04, 2006

Dateline: San Diego, June 2 -- The Best Day Yet

I’ve reached the point on tour where – and it comes every time, right around now – I stand at the bank of elevators in the lobby of a hotel unable to remember my room number. 1607? 511? 816? 907? I had to go back to the front desk and ask them. Not good.

Today was the best day yet, despite my inability to remember my room number (wrote it on my room card-key with a Sharpie). San Diego, which is one of my favorite cities. The weather is perfect. Back home in Boston, it’s pouring rain. I’m enjoying it here.

For some reason, San Diego isn’t a regular stop on most author tours, and I don’t know why. Maybe publishers haven’t gotten the word. It’s a lot smaller than San Francisco, less going on, and as a result people tend to turn out for author events in much larger numbers than in S.F.

I came here back in November, to talk to several Northern Trust literary societies, and met with such an enthusiastic reception that I decided I had to come back. Glad I did.

Back to school.
Anyway, today I did an event that most of my writer friends would consider sheer lunacy. And it was the best thing I’ve done this whole tour. Book tours are about bookstore events, stock signings, media interviews. If you have any free time, you fit in another interview. Or maybe catch a quick, restorative nap.

But in the middle of the day I took a break from my tour and paid a visit to Montgomery High School in San Diego and talked to a class of 16 kids.

Montgomery H.S. is three miles from the Mexican border. It’s 75% Hispanic, and just about all of its students are from low-income families. It’s also surrounded by high chain-link fences – a little like a minimum-security prison, frankly.

I’d met some of these kids when the Northern Trust Bank brought me over to California in November to speak to their literary societies. Northern Trust, which is quite civic-minded, always invites a group of high school students to the lunches to meet the featured author. At my San Diego appearance I met a small group of students from Montgomery High School along with their teacher, Kathleen Obrist, and the school’s librarian, Marsha Litwiller.

These kids were amazing. Hispanic -- in one case, Filipino -- and “underprivileged,” meaning not rich, these students were extraordinarily bright and motivated and privileged to have this fantastic, inspirational teacher, Kathy Obrist, the likes of whom you rarely see. When I decided to return to San Diego, I asked Kathy if she’d like me to talk at her high school. Kathy said yes.

All the kids I talked to had read Killer Instinct and had even spent two weeks of their lunch hours to talk about the book. So the questions I got were extremely thoughtful. The last time I talked to a high school class was two years ago, at my own alma mater in Latham, New York – Shaker High School. But Shaker is a fairly well-to-do public school. Montgomery isn’t. All the more remarkable the way these kids are being educated. If only Kathy Obrist could be cloned and placed in every public high school in the country.

I told them about my struggles to make it as a writer, the many obstacles in the way of anyone trying to write, the way people tried to talk me out of it. And I found myself turning into some kind of evangelist – urging them to be stubborn, the ignore the naysayers, to give themselves a chance, to realize that they don’t have to do the same job as their parents if they don’t want to, that there are careers out there like writing (or acting or painting or whatever else) that don’t have a formal entry system, or mentors.

One of the students asked me how much money I made. I was a little embarrassed, of course (though there are countries, such as Russia, where people talk freely about how much their income is), but I couldn’t blame her for asking – it’s something I’d want to know. I told them that I made a lot of money, but that sure wasn’t the reason I was a writer. If I wanted to make serious money, I’d be in venture capital. For me, selling a lot of copies of my books means a lot of people are reading them, and that’s what I’m happiest about.

The real reason I took time out of my tour to talk to these great kids was because I wish I’d had the opportunity to meet a writer when I was in high school. I had no idea how that whole business worked. It would have been so much easier for me if I’d met someone who actually did it for a living. And I was raised in an intellectual, middle-class family. For these kids to actually meet a professional writer has to have been unusual -- and, I hope, in some small way inspirational.

I’m glad I took the time to do this. If these kids were at all moved, it doesn’t compare to the way I felt afterward.

Best signing so far: Warwick’s, in La Jolla, is one of the great independents. I’ve done a number of outstanding indie bookstores, including Third Place Books and Book Passage, but this place was packed. The events coordinator, Amy Pickell, is famous for running the best events. She always gets the word out. Plus, San Diegoans really turn out at book signings. Great, thoughtful, deep questions – I felt like I was back in Boston. (That’s a compliment, folks.)

One of the people in the audience was a friend of mine named Ron Gillies, who invited me to talk to everyone in the plasma division of NEC when he was the General Manager and Senior V.P. there. I’m grateful to everyone in the corporate world who’s willing to spend time talking to me, but Ron really went out of his way, and Killer Instinct was that much better because of it. I got all kinds of great details from his people – lots of anecdotes. Went out to dinner afterward with Ron and his wife and a number of other friends of theirs.

I wouldn’t have met this guy if it weren’t for my research. Another reason I like that part of my job so much.



Blogger ratmammy said...

Joe, it was so good finally meeting you at Warwicks! It was quite a wonderful experience, and Charlie also had a great time. Because Charlie wasn't sure he was going to come with me, i had a "spare" date lined up, my office spouse Gary, but Charlie insisted he would go ("I'm your husband!") so I am so glad Charlie went. We hope to see you again next year if you make it to SD again. And now I have discovered a great Bookstore...Marie the Ratmammy

11:00 AM  
Anonymous Liz Easterly said...

I stumbled here via the Crime Fiction blog, and just wanted to say it's enjoyable reading!

3:31 PM  

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