Outside my third-floor hotel window is a live oak tree hung heavy with the gray streamers of Spanish moss, hanging down two to four feet long. And during breakfast this morning, I was looking out the restaurant window at traffic rising up onto the Ravenel Bridge that surges into the sky like a mountain over the Cooper River in Charleston, South Carolina. My description, however, makes it sound more exotic than it really is to stay at a Days Inn and have breakfast at the attached Huddle House. When I looked at the menu this morning, I thought, “My God, you could be turned down for health insurance just for walking in the door here.”
I’m in Charleston to promote The Illusion of Being Here, though maybe I should write “promote” with the quotation marks indicating “well, sort of”. Because the novel takes place largely in Charleston, it seemed obvious to me that I should try to promote it here—the Charlestonians, admittedly, may have very different ideas about that. Another book set in Charleston…yawn! I don’t know. But here I am, to visit independent bookstores and give a copy of the book to the owner of the store.
I located one independent store in Charleston, three in outlying areas, and one in Columbia (the capital of South Carolina). I delivered books to three stores yesterday on the drive over, and today I spent pretty much the entire day driving out to two stores on the islands, quite a distance from Charleston, and through some heavy damn traffic at times, including a half hour sitting for a high-school home coming parade to go by. So now I’ve delivered my little book to five stores in South Carolina: Ed’s Editions (Columbia), Here Be Books (Summerville), Blue Bicycle Books (downtown Charleston), Edisto Bookstore (Edisto Island), and Indigo Books (Johns Island).
When you go into a bookstore to give someone a copy of a novel you’ve written, here is what does not happen: (1) their eyes do not light up, (2) they do not reach eagerly to receive it, and (3) they do not say “Oh, wow, another book!” If you’re lucky they say “thank you” and “good luck” (that did happen) as they lay the book on top of some of the other 100,000 books already in the store.
Well, OK. It’s a first novel by a completely unknown writer, so what could I expect? But I know this, too: if it takes years of great effort, sometimes with absolutely nothing to show for it, with frustration, with believing in spite of all rational evidence, and with publishing multiple books before I get a real audience—alright, then, that’s how I’ll do it. Because I can.
But you want to hear about the islands near Charleston, right? If you haven’t been to the eastern shore of America, at least in the south, you might be surprised. When you come to water, there is no ocean. There are great expanses of grassy marshes. To get to the ocean, you have to go to the far side of the islands that line the coast, beyond the marshes. The first place I went today was to Edisto Island, quite a long drive from Charleston. All of the houses at Edisto Beach, except for the stupid ones, are up on stilts, so that all the real houses begin on the second floor. This is to allow for hurricanes.
At Edisto Beach I had a fried oyster po-boy sandwich in a restaurant that had a small rowboat named “Miss Rosie” hanging by chains from the ceiling in the middle of the room. All around the walls were large paintings of local scenes, mostly beach/boat stuff. I also went to the beach and watched a few waves. I would like to sit in a chair in the evening as the sun went down, to listen to the shoom shoom shoom as the ocean tried to wash away the land, but to stand there in the sunlight, that’s not so appealing.
After lunch I drove across Johns Island toward Kiawah Island, and what a remarkable drive that turned out to be (after the home coming parade finally got out of the way). The road was lined almost the entire way with enormous live oaks, branching so broadly they put the road into shadow, with mottled late afternoon sunlight sparkling down through the leaves. The trees were also hung heavy with streamers of pale gray Spanish moss. The effect was like driving through a narrow temple that ran for miles and miles, a structure colored dark brown, light gray, green, and gold, a tunnel stretching out dappled with light into the far distance.
I’ll also mention that when I arrived in Charleston yesterday, I went into the downtown proper for dinner, where I ended up at a “communal” table in the restaurant. With a communal table, you sit with whoever also couldn’t get a real table. At first I was not thrilled about it, but then I had the very good and unexpected fortune (isn’t good fortune always unexpected?) to get into conversation with an interesting woman from Atlanta, and we also learned that we had lived in the same small town in Pennsylvania. Teeny tiny world, huh?
Yes, teeny tiny world. Maybe I’ll even run into you. Maybe you’ll tell me you read The Illusion of Being Here, that someone in an independent bookstore recommended it to you.