2 Pitchapaloozas in 24 hours. 3,000 miles apart. They said it couldn’t be done. They were wrong.
It all started on a beautiful Virginia Saturday afternoon at the James River Writers Conference, in the shockingly excellent city of Richmond. JRWC came into our lives as the result of brutal failure. Two years ago I set up a DC area mini-tour for an infamous book I put together. My girl Shawna Kenney (whose memoir I Was a Teenage Dominatrix–which is about when she was a teenage dominatrix) was just optioned by Vince Vaughn) booked us into Poets & Busboys in Washington (packed to the rafters!), Atomic Books in Baltimore (filled to the gills!), and Chop Suey in Richmond. When Shawna and I walked into Chop Suey, there were exactly 0 customers in the store. There were
about 15 folding chairs. None of them had audience asses in them. Just as we were ready to call it a day, in walked a couple of brave souls who looked like they actually wanted to be there. One of them was a colleague and dear friend of Shawna Kenney named Valley Haggard. A ridiculously intimate show like that can actually be liberating, because let’s face it, since there are only four people, it really doesn’t matter, and you can just let loose. So I actually had an ecstatic rhapsodic performing experiences. This is one of the reasons I do it. Afterwards, Shawna and I went out with Valley Haggard. First of all, is that not the greatest name ever? Valley Haggard. Born to be an author. Or a country singer. Second of all, she was so smart, and funny, and generous, and goofy. At a certain point she told me she was part of a writing group: The James River Writers. I told her about Pitchapalooza and BOOM! Next thing you knew, we were on a beautiful Virginia Saturday afternoon about to unleash Pitchapalooza on Richmond. Beautiful old buildings, a rabid writing community, and the sheer NICENESS of the people make it a go-to destination. And I am not being paid by the Richmond Visitors Bureau to say that. Although if they did want to pay me, I would certainly take their money. One of the cool things about doing a writer’s festival is that you get to actually hang out with lots of pretty spectacular authors and writers. Plus, I did about a dozen seven-minute consultations.
It’s shocking how fast get to know someone in seven minutes. So it was fun to see all these people that we had connoitered with, filling the auditorium. By the time we started it was pretty much full, 150 writers and those who love them waiting in breathless anticipation. We had a very funny and savvy panelist, Michelle Brower, from the Folio Literary Management. As we do at every Pitchapalooza, we heard many crackerjack pitches. A middle-age dragon (Michelle said that a menopausal dragon would be hysterical, and in doing so brought the house down). I Do, I Did, I Don’t, a novel about a society where marriages have to be renewed every 10 years. Dystopian apocalypses, literary opusi, zombies, werewolves, vampires and hard-boiled dicks. But our winner was a cut above. He’s a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, where he worked very closely with trained military dogs. Dogs of war. His novel, Boots on the Ground, Paws on the Ground, about soldiers battling in life and death circumstances, and their relationships with these brave, loyal, and extraordinary canines brought Arielle to tears. In 1 minute. Plus, his man’s-man lantern jaw, buff hulking hunky humble manner, and his AWESOME story made him an absolute crowd favorite. Hurt Locker meets Rin Tin Tin, it just seemed to have bestseller written all over it. And it was just one of many pitches that screamed: BOOK!
As soon as Pitchapalooza Richmond was done, and I had said heartfelt thanks to my new Richmond peeps, I whipped back to the hotel, grabbed my baggage, got the kind of hug only a four-year-old can give from Olive, kissed Arielle a fond adieu, and was whisked away to the airport. It was a mad blast to have Olive with us, but we had decided she would go back with Arielle on the train, while I would fly solo to San Francisco, and do Pitchapalooza in San Francisco all by myself.
Having been awakened that morning at 7 AM by Olive begging me to play Biting Piggy (a game we made up about a month ago), I stumbled, mumbled, bumbled and numbled my way off the plane at 1 AM (4 AM EST!), feeling like someone had inserted nozzles into my ear holes and blown cotton candy into my skull. Red-rimmed pupils, baggage under my eyes bigger than the suitcase I was lugging, guts rumbling from too much bad trail mix and caffeine, I shuffled through the disorientating post-midnight fluorescence of SFO. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve heard too many zombie pitches lately, but being in an airport in the wee, wee hours will totally make you believe in zombies. As I threw myself into bed at 2 AM (5 AM EST!) I felt the sting of a tickle catch in my throat. A cough barked out of me. Followed by another cough. Then another. I could actually feel a flu bug attacking my larynx. HACK! HACK! HACK! Knowing that the thing I needed most in the world was a good deep night’s sleep, I tossed and coughed through a miserable night’s stupor. In my fevered dreams, zombies were pitching me books about werewolves, vampires, hard-boiled dicks, and yes, zombies. All while eating chunks of my flesh. It’s so depressing when you get out of bed in the morning, and you’re more exhausted than when you got in the night before.
Lead-headed, wheezing and sneezing, I coughed my way out the door. Luckily it was a rare robin-egg-blue sky day in Baghdad-by-the Bay, and a brisk but toasty breeze blowing lifted my spirits. Once I got to North Beach, I found, to my surprise and delight, that the massive annual street fair was raging. Columbus Avenue shut down, tables four deep set up on sidewalks outside restaurants, revelers and tourists and looky-loos cramjampacked in one of my favorite neighborhoods in the world, where Old Italian cannoli/espresso/gelato culture rubs elbows (and many other body parts) with drunken scruffy post-Beat writer types who scribble away in notebooks.
The fair was madness, in the best sense of the word. A WWII-type float with Andrews Sisters-look-alikes singing Roll Out the Barrel; a high-stepping marching band from Oakland rocking their synchronized syncopation; Chinese slow-motion tai chi masters; kilted-up bag piping bad boys; American flag flying, Harley hog-riders; wild west cowboys on a high-stepping horses, and cowgirls decked out in sparkly costumes that looked like a cross between Dale Evans and Liberace. It made me so happy to be alive.
I made my way to the Vesuvio’s, where I was going to be doing a reading for Litquake, the seismographic orgy of books that blows up San Francisco every October. For those of you who don’t know, Vesuvio’s is right across the alley from City Lights Bookstore, the beating heart and pulsating brain of San Francisco literati for 50 years. Everyone from Dylan Thomas to Lenny Bruce to Jack Kerouac have gotten polluted, plastered and plonkied while waxing poetic at Vesuvio’s. I felt a great wave of history as I walked in, an overpowering sense of honor, humility, and gratitude to be reading at this shrine where so many great writers have drunk until they passed out. The readers performed from the second floor balcony, looking down as if from Mount Olympus on the pulsating, hooch-fueled throng, shoehorned in wall-to-wall, cheek-by-jowl, the body heat wafting upwards, a crackling electromagneticity rocketing around the room, and ricocheting off those hallowed walls, which have seen so much literary history made over the years. I was up first, and my adrenal glands were spitting fire, my central nervous system all jacked up, while my heart felt like a hare being chased by the hounds. The din of the crowd was so loud it sounded like someone had turned the volume up to 11. I was worried that they wouldn’t shut up and listen to me. I underestimated the power of MC extraordinaire Mr. Alan Black, master of the pregnant pause and the growling punchline, a man who made his bones running shows at the Edinburgh Castle, where the Tenderloin sits like a festering sore on the bum of San Francisco. Like a lion tamer who uses a Scottish brogue and slashing wit as his whip and chair to control a room full of wild beasts, he subdued the crowd in 1.2 seconds. I love that feeling of a tightly packed mass of humanity waiting silently for the performer to try and conjure magic out of thin air. I took a deep breath, relished the moment, and plunged in. It was such a joy riding those words in that crowd through my story. Ridiculously gratifying.
Sadly I had to bolt as soon as I was finished, so I missed the show, and as I strolled back down Columbus Avenue toward the Pyramid Building, the adrenaline speed wore off and I was struck dumb by a numbing wave of exhaustipation. I had quite forgotten how depleted and drained my battery was, and I worried I’d have to call AAA to jumpstart me before Pitchapalooza Litquake, which was set to start in 20 min. Caffeine! my brain screamed. I collapsed into Starbucks. I coughed. I hacked. I wheezed. I drank. I made it to Market Street, rejuvenated, just in time to find the organizers starting to seriously worry that I wasn’t going to show up. It was my great good fortune to have two publishing stalwarts, Sam Barry and Kathi Kamen Goldmark (Write That Book Already!) as my copilots. They arrived like the cavalry providing reinforcement for my battle weary troops. And we were off! A meta-post-modern novel about a writer battling his own book. A rich girl getting back at her bad dad. A juicy, gossipy guide to the London Olympics. An Australian graphic novel about fast food workers who are actually crime fighters: fries and spies! Dystopian apocalypses, literary opusi, zombies, werewolves, vampires and hard-boiled dicks. But again, the winner was a cut above: a hysterically told tale set in Liverpool, where soccer is a combination of religious obsession and drunken life-and-death spectacle, and a woman finds she can predict the outcome of matches before they happen. Madcap antics ensue.
Suddenly it was over. I staggered in a stupor out onto Market Street, wrung out like a ragged rag, but wildly satisfied. That night I collapsed into bed moaning and groaning, wracked by hacking spasms. Slept for 12 hours. Next night I slept 12 more. When I awoke, the bug, the tickle, the hack and cough were miraculously gone. I’m on the plane going back to my Jersey hearth and home. Happily anticipating the kind of kiss only a four-year-old can give from Olive, and snuggling into my own bed with my lovely and talented wife.
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