I am no longer wearing semi-creased clothing, and the cleansing products I am using are no longer Aveda or Gilchrist and Soames, or whatever other sweet-smelling brands I poured from tiny bottles in hotel bathrooms over the week I was on book tour.  I have returned to civilian life now, and all its uncreased clothes and Brand X products in jug-sized bottles, which is both a relief and a letdown.

First, let me say that the tour was a terrific experience.  I met readers; I saw the dramatic inside of the amazing Seattle Central Public Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas; I also saw the rooms where Margaret Mitchell lived; I swapped books on a radio interview show with the brilliant and iconic and very funny Jacques d’Amboise; and I think I actually got a chance to explain what I was trying to do in my new novel The Uncoupling.  By the end of the tour, I finally had the whole thing down pat.

Now I’m actually ready to be interviewed.  Please, someone interview me again.  Oh wait, the tour is over.

Every writer I know prefers writing to being published, but the latter is a kind of art too.  Explaining yourself takes real skill; I think that once you can fully and boldly describe your book to someone else, then you really do understand it.  Once you can turn your book into a sort of bouillon cube––an intense nugget of language, sensation, knowledge and direction––then you are left with a sense of what you’re trying to do.  Perhaps, during the writing process, writers should go off on pretend book tours; they would be like playing house, except you would leave your family, stay in hotels, and during the day you would be interviewed by strangers (shills), and at night, other shills would gather to hear you read from the unfinished work.  By the end of the whole experience, you would be once again creased, overtaxed, Aveda-smelling, and fully aware of what you were really trying to say and do in that novel of yours. If youth is wasted on the young, perhaps book tours are to some degree wasted on the writer who’s finished her book.  But I think the readers–those strangers who appear on a weeknight and agreeably sit on folding chairs in the bright light of a bookstore, just to hear you–feel happy to meet a writer they like whose work has been recently thrust out into the world.  They want you the way you are: struggling to figure out what the book was at the beginning, and what it is now.  They don’t want the slick version.  (You can save that for the paperback tour.)

So I am home, and I am done, and I am uncreased, and the reading copy of my novel, which went with me to seven cities, sits here on the table beside me, closed for now.

This morning I am heading home from Seattle, having completed my book tour mission, which I chose to accept.  All the people who met me at the various readings and interviews had no idea that they were seeing a slightly unclean version of me, since my little black reading jacket held up remarkably well and gave the illusion of cleanness all the way from Atlanta to Washington State.  But truly, a writer on, say, day three of her book tour is just a few steps up from someone who lives in her car.  I decided to go for the rumpled but brainy look, figuring that if it works for Cynthia Ozick, it can work for me too.

This black reading jacket is indestructible, absorbing Pinot Noir stains (reception in Portland after reading at Powell’s) and ink stains (someone’s leaky pen after a reading in California) alike, and serving as a kind of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat garment (you see that I take every opportunity to put in a reference to Donny Osmond, the inexplicable crush of my formative years) for me as a writer.  When I wear it, I feel strangely calm.  Regardless of the crowd size, be it big or small, I am happy to read to them from my novel.  Honestly, one night I decided to switch things around and wear something sort of nubby and beige; I made it as far as the hotel elevators when I suddenly freaked, turned around, ran back to the hotel room, and changed into the black reading jacket.  Things went well.

I have no faith in, or interest in, the talismanic.  But I do think that the black reading jacket is to the writer (or at least this writer) what the little black dress is to any character on “Sex and the City.”  When I wear it I am protected from the fact that, as people sometimes say, Americans don’t read fiction as much as they used to.  When I wear it I feel that they do.  When I wear it I am certain that fiction rules.  In this jacket I live in a kind of Fictionlandia, where everyone either wears their own black reading jacket, or holds a ragged copy of a beloved novel, and goes running after their favorite writer to have her sign it, even with a leaky pen.

Okay, home now.

Last night in Capitola, California, the lights went out in the middle of a radio show interview/reading I was taping from a bookstore.  I was reminded of my 10th-grade production of “Born Yesterday,” when a huge oil painting on the wall of the set fell down in the middle of one of my big speeches.  (Cast against type, I had been given the Judy Holliday role.  Usually, I had the Thelma Ritter parts.)  For years, I thought about how, in the dumb-blonde accent I had cultivated after watching the movie version several times, I should’ve said something like, “Jeez, these walls sure are cheap!”  But instead I just flushed deeply, felt like fainting, glanced helplessly into the wings where my drama teacher stood cringing, and kept going.

Last night I didn’t feel like fainting or anything, but I did keep going, because the host, a seasoned, articulate radio person, essentially shrugged and kept up the (now untaped) interview.  The audience stayed in their seats.  Had they tried to leave, they might have tripped.  As the last of the light faded from the Northern California sky, I and another writer, Alta Ifland, spoke about our work.  I wanted to quote a line from her collection of stories, but was unable to read it from the book in the darkness.  An audience member helpfully approached me with a mini-flashlight.  No one else seemed particularly fazed; they are used to far more extreme moments out there.  We finished up the interview, which by now had a seance-like atmosphere, and I managed to summon up the spirits of my grandmother, my drama teacher, Judy Holliday and Virginia Woolf, who all said, “Way to go.”  Or maybe that was just the bracing Northern California air going to my head.

Am feeling happy  because of a very good review of my novel in the New York Times Book Review today, though I am still slightly apprehensive as to whether the electricity here in Portland at Powell’s, where I am reading shortly, will prove reliable.  Stay tuned.

Last night I spoke to an intimate crowd at Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta.  Okay, by which I mean not a jumbo crowd.  But, hey, I bet they were probably very intimate people, anyway. In fact, they were the nicest crowd you could imagine.  And a few of them stayed around a long time and we talked about writing in all its various forms, and whether MFA programs “work,” and which contemporary writers we love, and things like that.  Plus, I got to get a tour of Margaret Mitchell’s apartment, which was great fun.  It was a pretty small, dim place.  Guess whether she lived there before or after publishing “Gone with the Wind.”

I am a Margaret too, though long ago I threw it over in favor of Meg.  This was partly because I wanted to be a writer and had grandiose fantasies along those lines, and I figured that the field was already crowded (Mitchell; Drabble; Atwood); and partly because, whenever I took a standardized test as a kid, I could not fit my entire name in all the bubbles, letter for letter.  MARGARET R WOLITZER became MARGARET R WOLITZE

I also saw the actual movie-set front door from Tara, and I lightly brushed my hand along the same metal that Vivien Leigh once touched.  (This is why my publisher sent me here: so I could touch things that Vivien Leigh touched.)  Book tours are strange animals:  you don’t know who you’ll meet, how many you’ll meet, or what they will think of you.  I think the trick is to try not to take your own pulse; instead, it’s better during a book tour to think of yourself as one of the business travelers who populate the hotels you stay in and the airports you walk through.

With that in mind, I have decided that while I am between events–eating a chopped Cobb salad in a hotel room or standing in a brass-lined hotel elevator, say, or wheeling my bag of standard black-jacket reading outfit and novels (my own new one, and other people’s)–I will not worry about my reputation, my reviews or my book sales.  I will not!  Je refuse!  Instead, I will simply be my own alter-ego, a business traveler named Margaret R. Wolitzer.   I work for Kempco, in marketing, and this week I am traveling around the country to meet with the new regional managers.  I hope our meetings go well.

I recently noticed that my books started to become more successful, or perhaps just somewhat better, after they began with the word “The.”  Here are the names of some of my earlier novels:

Sleepwalking

Hidden Pictures

This Is Your Life

Surrender, Dorothy

And here are the names of my most recent three:

The Wife

The Position

The Ten-Year Nap

And now, my new novel, which is coming out next week, is called The Uncoupling.

None of this was intentional; but what is it about the power of “The?”  I came of age as a fiction writer who was very interested in lyricism, the sound of sentences, the weight of words.  All of these still interest me, but I suspect I used to let myself linger a bit more when I was younger, exploring sentences and scenes in a way that made me feel I was going to live forever, and write forever.  Then I got a little older, and I began to focus on the idea of imperative.  Imperative is the thing that drives you through the book, the thing that takes you from here to there.  It’s the reason for the novel to exist.  When I start to read a book these days, I ask the writer, “Why are you telling me this?”  And if I don’t know the answer after a while, then I might well put the book down.

“The” gives you the feeling (see? “the” feeling; not “a” feeling…) that there’s something forceful behind the enterprise.  That the writer had an idea, and she made a book out of it.  Even if it turns out not to be an idea that works, it was certainly an idea, it was something that she felt was important to begin with.  (Of course, “The” has also been used to promote or describe the worst things possible:  The Clapper.  The Plague.)  And so for me, for the time being, “The” remains my North Star, my guiding principle, my novel-writing mantra.

The End

It’s been called to my attention that an earlier novel of mine, The Wife, has been included on the Neglected Classics list of the UK newspaper “The Guardian.”  I am trying to decide if I should feel bad about this, or good. (My motto tends to be: When in doubt, choose “bad.”)  But I suppose it’s possible to turn this into something useful; for instance, I could tell people that I was chosen for The Guardian’s  “…Classics” list.  That wouldn’t be lying.  (Of course, I have also thought about thanking The MacArthur Foundation on the acknowledgements page of my next novel.  That wouldn’t lying, either, if I didn’t specify exactly what I was thanking the foundation for.)

I feel sometimes that novels are all Little Engines That Could, or Should Have, or Almost Did, or Didn’t.  Novelists are an increasingly obscure lot, as if we speak in a click-language.  And yet there’s still a whole world of novel readers out there, and once in a while a novel breaks through to another level, which is highly gratifying to the writer.  With The Wife, I didn’t quite break through to that level, but apparently to another level that I hadn’t known existed before: the level of books that mean something to certain people, who perhaps can’t understand why they don’t mean something to more people.

The writers on The Guardian list, if we all got together for a little celebration, would in some cases perhaps circle the room drinking as much free scotch as possible and muttering darkly about our state of neglect; or, in other cases, would bounce from spot to spot, feeling happily classic.   When I imagine myself at that party, I see myself as uncertain of what to do––staying neutrally by the table with the crudités and dip, feeling neither entirely classic nor entirely neglected.

I remember the moment when my mother said to me, “Meg, maybe you should start thinking about checking out some books from the adult section.”  We were standing in the “teen corner” of the Syosset Public Library, which at the time consisted of  just a few stands of shelves, and perhaps the “Hang In There, Baby!” kitten poster.  It was true that I had worked my way through all these books, going from high-school pregnancy (“My Darling, My Hamburger; “Mr. and Mrs. BoJo Jones” to mental illness (“Lisa, Bright and Dark” to drugs (“Go Ask Alice” and “Tuned Out), and now I was basically done.  But instead of starting over, I was supposed to leave this island of emotional disturbance and gallop across the industrial carpeting to… what?  Virginia Woolf?

I didn’t realize, of course, that “adult” fiction was filled with as many messed-up and marginal people as teen fiction was. ( And today, of course, in both categories, they’re all thirsty for human blood.)  Back then, good kids got themselves into bad situations, and I wanted to read about it.  My mother, seeing that I had mastered these absorbing but perhaps not too challenging books, thought I was ready for the next step.  The harder stuff.   It was as if, in her mind, one kind of reading naturally led to another, the way pot led to heroin in the books I liked. But I felt threatened when she wanted me to move on.  I wasn’t ready for the onslaught to adult life and all its unmanageable obligations and strange entanglements.  Everybody talked so much in those books!  They talked and talked about their feelings.  They stared at the sky at dusk.  In a weird way I have never moved on.  I’m sure the teen corner of the Syosset Library is now a veritable space-station of high-tech, and that the “Hang in There, Baby!” poster has been replaced by a 3-D poster of a girl cutting herself.

Though I write “adult” novels, filled with unsatisfied adults who, at least in my upcoming novel “The Uncoupling,” talk about sex the whole time while not actually having it, when I see myself in relation to books–my truest self–it’s me in a Huk-a-oo blouse in the teen corner, reading the same books I’ve read before, which are filled with dangers but feel so very safe.