I’ll admit that my hardcover tour disappointed me a little. I’ve been very lucky that Spiegel & Grau have stood behind my book and in front of it and at its lovely spine right from the beginning — but the events my publisher scheduled were all bookstores I could have ridden my bike to. It took me a while to see beyond my grand ideas to the wisdom of their promotional strategy. A first-time author didn’t need exotic locales but name recognition. They secured media attention so that eventually (on my paperback tour now) people may actually show up when a woman from New Hampshire stands to read in Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and New York.
Unlike some authors who struggle for the nerve to read before an audience, I’m something of a ham. As the eldest of seven siblings, I’ve read aloud to others for as long as I can remember and can still recite vast swathes of the Dr. Seuss canon from memory.
My more proximate preparation for the first book tour involved reading advice from experts like Karen Hodges Miller and Carleen Brice, and especially from Randy Susan Meyers, who recently published What to Do Before Your Book Launch with M.J. Rose, partially based on a course Meyers first taught to a handful writers (including me) at Grub Street.
Armed with all this preparation, I was sure I was ready. The actual tour taught me that I still had a lot to learn.
Never trust the GPS: Yes, I got lost. On my way to a reading three towns over. Embarrassing. I would have given my mother’s dowry for a printed map.
Think outside the bookstore: My memoir is about having been a nun for twenty years with Mother Teresa. Some of my best events have been at yoga studios, a feminist art museum, public libraries, private homes, community colleges, women’s universities, and Humanist events. Catholic Churches mostly seem scared of me (they seem to emphasize that I left, rather than that I served for twenty years), but Unitarians love me.
Reading together with others can be especially interesting: Lou Ureneck wrote about building a cabin in the woods. Kristen Ringman wrote about a fantastical part-human, part-seal, deaf woman. We had great fun together, and gathered a more diverse crowd than any one of us would have on our own.
Be respectful to people who are hostile to your message: Mostly, audiences have been very supportive. Occasionally, people were offended by what I had to say. Once an organized crew of more than a dozen packed Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont, determined to take every opportunity imaginable to tear me down.
Northshire is one of my favorite places on earth. I’d once lived near by, had taught Italian in the nearest big town, and had begun to write my book in the neighborhood. I hadn’t expected any trouble, but about two minutes into the reading, my throat dried up. My hands grew clammy. I continued to read.
I’d chosen an early section of the book, where Mother Teresa gives me my religious habit and cuts my hair. It’s a passage full of youthful idealism, with mild foreshadowing of troubles to come. When I opened for questions, several hands shot up immediately.
“Why are you spewing hatred into the world?” a man in the front called out. I responded that I’d set out to write a truthful book, and that I wondered what he’d found particularly hateful. I asked the rest of the crowd if they considered what I’d read hateful and many of them shook their heads no.
Questions continued, unrelenting: “Did you ever once pray before the Blessed Sacrament before you abandoned your holy vows?” “Don’t you agree that Mother Teresa is a saint and that God had never called you?” It was obvious that these people hadn’t read my book and probably didn’t intend to. They were there to defend the honor of Mother Teresa and the Catholic Church, and in their eyes the best way to do that was by demolishing me.
I was pretty shaken, but remained civil, answering each question as though it were asked sincerely. If I had it to do over, I think I would have called them out. I might have said, “Where are you all from? What have you heard about my book?”
Whenever possible, have friends in the audience: Despite my meekness, the attackers at Northshire that night heard an earful—from one of my Italian students, a seventy-year old practicing Catholic who stood up at the end and said, “I think you should know that when Mary took us to Italy — 25 of us, her students, it was a wonderful trip — she made sure to take us to the sisters for Mass on Sunday. Those sisters were glad to see her. Glad, I tell you.” Never had an older women with a commanding voice given me this much relief.
Listen to what’s behind the questions: When I read at New England College, the entire basketball team showed up, a dozen tall young men who listened attentively, some at the edge of their seats. During Q&A one of them asked in an African accent I couldn’t quite place, “Did Mother Teresa ever condemn you to hell for the things you did?” I responded that while Mother Teresa didn’t approve of all my choices, it wasn’t her style to threaten anyone with hellfire. I could sense that he wasn’t satisfied with my answer, but he didn’t say more, and I didn’t press him.
Afterwards, when I was signing books, he told me, “My grandmother in the Sudan, before I left home to come here, she told me not to eat pork, not to go to movies. She told me that if I become American I am going to hell.” I saw the pain in the young man’s eyes. He said, “I don’t think she is right, but I love my grandmother.”
I realized that earlier I’d missed an opportunity. I should have known better than to take his question literally. I could have talked about how sad I was to have disappointed Mother Teresa, and how right it felt to act according to my beliefs instead of hers, even though I loved and respected her, how I didn’t know if she would ever understand. I told all that to him in our private conversation, but I sensed that it would have meant more to him if I’d been able to say it publicly, in front of his teammates.
Pay close attention when you sign, because people whisper their secrets to authors: At my very first reading, a woman whispered in my ear, “I was a sister. No one in town here knows. Thank you for telling your story.” At another a man looked me in the eye and said, “My mother had been a nun. I never understood her until I read your book.” Priceless moments.
Give away the pen: If, after you sign her book, someone says, “That’s my pen,” don’t argue. Give it to her. Perhaps three months later she will write you a letter saying how she treasures your pen. Perhaps she will enclose a bright crystal to hang in your window. Lovely.
Booksellers are the best: They love books. They know people who read. They tell people to come meet you. Sometimes, after you’ve read, they tell you, “Look around the shop. Take whatever you’d like.” Heaven.
Mary Johnson's memoir about her twenty years as a nun, which pubs today, is An Unquenchable Thirst. Johnson is also Creative Director of Retreats for A Room of Her Own Foundation, which works with women writers and is a proud She Writes partner. For more information, visit www.maryjohnson.co and www.aroho.org.