Notes From Ann: On a Low Limb — Heading Out on a Book Tour

photo by Heidi Ross

Okay, friends, I’ll admit it, I’m on a low limb. (“On a low limb,” a fabulous colloquialism cribbed from my Mississippi mother-in-law, Jo VanDevender). Today is pub day for my new book This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and while you might think that publishing a new book would be cause for joyous celebration, the whole business makes me queasy.

First off, there’s book tour. I leave tomorrow, and I won’t be home for good until Doris Kearns Goodwin arrives for her Salon@615 event at Montgomery Bell Academy on December 12th. As the title of my new book suggests, my marriage is a happy one, and I’d really rather not spend the next five weeks in airports. (If you ever wonder where I am, you can look at my schedule on I’m also going to miss a lot of great authors who are coming to town, most notably my beloved former teacher Russell Banks. Please go see Russell and tell him how sorry I am not to be there. I’m also going to miss Sparky.

I will be cheerful and brave on the road. I will give the appearance of having a good time. But for the time being I’m sad and trying to pack. I feel like I’m being sent off to boarding school.

There is one good part though.

The last time I was out on hardback book tour was two and a half years ago. I had just met Karen Hayes and we had this crazy idea about opening a bookstore together. Because of that, I decided to test my skills as a bookseller. I found a terrific out of print novel by Jeanette Haien called The All of It, had it put back into print, and took it with me on tour. In bookstores all across the country I told people why they should read it, and the people snapped it up. The All of It even landed on a few paperback bestseller lists. Now THAT was fun. It gets a little awkward trying to sell my own book night after night, but selling somebody else’s book? I love that. We still keep a stack of The All of It by the cash register at Parnassus. It’s our best selling title of all time, and if you haven’t read it, well, get over to the store immediately.

So when I was planning the tour for This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage I knew I wanted to bring another book along. How Geoffrey Wolff’s classic A Day at the Beach ever went out of print is a mystery to me. It’s a spectacular book. I’ve made sure there will be a stack of Geoffrey’s book at every store I go to. And since I still have a lot to do to get ready to leave, I thought I would finish out this book report by running the introduction I wrote for the book as a means of enticement.

Happy two year anniversary, Parnassus! Thank you to our brilliant staff and loyal customers for your love and unfailing support. We are so grateful.

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The Introduction to A Day At The Beach

A Day At the BeachWrite what you know is a piece of literary advice that is regularly dispensed to would-be writers, but what we writers so often lack is an interesting life from which to draw. The teacher would be better off dismissing the class before it ever got started. “Get out there and lead fascinating lives, dangerous, meaningful, beautiful lives,” he should tell us. “Give yourself time to digest those experiences, and then come back and write what you know.”

But that might not work either, because people who know how to live often don’t have a clue how to write. They’re too busy hoisting a sail or carving a ski slope to learn how to string two good sentences together. It’s the rare writer who has lived both the life of the mind and a life of adventure, and who doesn’t take himself too seriously doing either. Geoffrey Wolff is that writer. His brilliant essay collection and memoir, A Day at the Beach, is a marvel of the first person: a restless mind recounting, examining, and riffing on what it knows. Like the storytellers in the market in Marrakesh, from his opening essay, “Apprentice,” he’s an entertainer, ready to compete with snake charmers and fire-eaters for your attention, and also to make you think about how and why your attention has been held. He’s both performer and critic, often an amused self-critic. He turns over the incidents of his life–amateur theatricals in Istanbul, say, or trying to drop anchor in the rain while another sailboat’s pipe-smoking skipper offers advice–to expose the humor and the pathos in them, and occasionally the lesson, too.

Interesting lives, of course, should best be started young, as Wolff demonstrates in “The Great Santa.” While childhoods of either nerve-wracking poverty or lonesome wealth can be moving, the childhood that swings violently between these two poles is the most interesting: extravagant gifts followed by no gifts at all, dismal boarding houses followed by picturesque country houses, everything wagered and won and lost and lost and lost. If you’re lucky enough to have avoided the stability and complacency brought on by regular meals and consistent love, you might have some great material, but don’t rest your laurels. That alone will not be enough to sustain a lifetime of work. The best possible advice for young writers might be to follow Wolff’s example and go to Turkey to teach literature, dabble in hashish, rub shoulders with so many spies that you will be accused of being one yourself, head for Cambridge on a prestigious fellowship, wreck your motorcycle, drink too much, love too well, become a newspaperman and a devoted husband and father, have your chest cracked open, climb the Matterhorn (or try), and then sail a little boat up the eastern seaboard, battered by storms and boarded by Coast Guard agents looking for drugs. In short, take a page from these pages and live so large that you write your life across the night sky in stars.

And such beautiful stars. Geoffrey Wolff is a writer who can make reading feel like driving a sports car too fast over a winding Alpine road, in part because reading has been that thrilling for him. “I was skeptical of all faiths, save bookishness,” Wolff writes, of his youth; “I was bone-idle, except around books. Around books I worked like a Turk, reading with a pencil in my hand, reading three or four things at a clip. I had read headlong and helter-skelter since I plowed as a kid through Albert Payson Terhune simultaneously with the Hardy Boys. To read compulsively and to write about reading were my only appetites (of too many appetites) sanctioned as virtues rather than condemned as vices.” The writing is the all-consuming bonfire onto which the wealth of experience is tossed. Life itself stokes the flames of the writing, makes the words whistle and crack, and draws the reader closer to this warm, bright place.

Oh, A Day at the Beach! I’ve been in love with this book since I first read it, and as is the case with all books that I love, I gave my copy away as soon as I finished. So I bought another copy and gave that one away too, and then I did it again. There were so many people who needed to read this book, and I could always get another one. And I could, and I did, until they got harder to come by. A Day at the Beach went out of print.

Shelf life applies to books as it does to cartons of milk, but sometimes it shouldn’t. Books arrive in the store and are given a certain amount of time in which they’re entitled to their piece of real estate. If not enough copies sell, the book eventually falls out of print. I understand this. So many books are written, and not all of them can stick around, but that doesn’t mean mistakes aren’t made. I picture a horde of books surging forever forward, pushing the ones in front off a cliff. When there are so many books, and so much pushing, it stands to reason that a bunch of mediocrities could bump off something that is truly great.

Books of essays are an especially tough sell, but then books of essays are rarely brilliant. They may contain hints of brilliance, two or three or four essays might be very good or even terrific, but the rest is often padding: op-ed pieces and well-written letters and book reviews. The final product does not sing. So how is it that a book like Geoffrey Wolff’s, one that offers up a life fully lived and writing sharp enough to cut your fingers on, with an eye for absurdity and a refusal to let one’s self off the hook for anything–how does a book like that get pushed off while lesser books clog the shelves?

Who knows? Let’s just call this a wrong that has been righted. A Day at the Beach is back, and, in the parlance of Broadway, better than ever. While the original collection was perfect, everybody likes a little something extra, and to that end Geoffrey added the heart-stopping essay “Heavy Lifting.” If you were lucky enough to read this book this first time around, you now have a compelling reason to read it again. Here we are reminded that daring lives, brilliant writing, and expansive thinking can sometimes come together. Cherish it.

– Ann Patchett

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ISBN-13: 9780062236678
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Harper, 11/2013

A Day at the Beach (Paperback)


ISBN-13: 9780804170093
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Vintage, 11/2013


ISBN-13: 9781416547860
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Simon & Schuster, 11/2013


ISBN-13: 9780061857652
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Ecco Press, 11/2013