When I was in Tucson, AZ, at the very start of what I have been calling my Big, Bad-ass Southern Book Tour, a musician friend who had grown up in Austin broke down the southern part of the country to me. "Arizona is the west, really just an extended version of California. Texas is Texas; it's its own thing. And once you get past that, then you're in the south."
Leave it to a Northerner to think Arizona is the south, right?
I've been driving since the beginning of January in support of the paperback version of The Kept Man, my second book of fiction. (It came out a year ago in hardcover.) I'm at the halfway point now. I'll be reading at a bookstore in the French Quarter in New Orleans during the first Mardi Gras parade, and then a half-dozen more cities after that, before I make my way back to Brooklyn. Every stop along the way has had its own purpose and charm, and I have no regrets except that I have apparently picked the coldest winter in years to make my grand sweep.
I chose to tour the South for a few reasons. I was curious about this part of the county I knew little about. I'm a real road warrior – I've driven cross country about a dozen times, sometimes on book tours, sometimes just for fun – but I'm usually an I-90 girl. America's heartland. The Pacific northwest. Cool and green. But lately I'd been wondering: what kind of landscape was I missing?
And there were professional reasons, as well. I figured if I didn't come down here and introduce myself to people, no one would ever know who I was. I wrote a book about an artist in a coma in Brooklyn, New York, and I wasn't sure if people would connect to it. Of course I hope that it has something to say to just about everyone, so I thought it was worth a shot. If I don't believe in my own work, who will?
Plus, I wanted to visit some of the legendary bookstores that I have been hearing about for so long. I wanted to see what people were reading and talking about and thinking about, and how we could meet in the middle. Because, ultimately, I think of myself not just as a New York writer, but an American writer. But I've got a ways to go and a lot to learn to get there.
So halfway through my tour, what have I learned? I've learned that Southerners are fiercely protective of their authenticity and culture. I've learned that people love to talk politics, feverishly so, and that it's ok to hold your tongue on occasion. And I've learned that people are open to a little saucy language, as long as it's not at the dinner table. With apologies to everywhere I've visited – I've determined West Texas just might be the most beautiful place on the earth. And finally, I've learned to always take a bite of the sweet potato pie if someone's offering. Because I will never taste anything so good ever again. Until the next tour.
Jami Attenberg is the author of two books of fiction, Instant Love and The Kept Man. She has written for Jane, Nylon, Salon, New York, Nerve and many other publications, and her essays have been collection in various anthologies, including the forthcoming Love is a Four-letter Word: True Stories of Breakups, Bad Relationships, and Broken Hearts. Her third book, The Melting Season, will be published by Riverhead Books sometime in 2010. Visit her at whatever-whenever.net or watch her tour diaries at http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=nycjami&view=videos.