A sure sign you’re in Austin –








– when you’re sitting in your car in the Howard Johnson parking lot, trying to find a Willie Nelson CD, and you finally find it in an MC5 case.

 On Wednesday, September 7, I drove to Austin, where I was scheduled to open my tour at BookPeople, a store known for its vibrant reading series and its great support of authors. As I drove south on I-35, I passed signs warning of fire and smoke on the road. I luckily saw neither, though I almost ended up on a huge ramp headed for Houston. Thankfully my trusty phone GPS lead me to the HoJo where I was staying. There I waited at the counter for ten minutes to check in as a pyramid schemer chatted up the desk clerk, saying, “I promise, if anything happens, I’ll take care of you. I’ll get you a gift card or something.” Got in my room and it smelled like burnt root beer, but it was cold! and it had an iron unlike any iron I’d used in a hotel room before. Fifty pounds, at least, and multiple steam options.



Upon my arrival at BookPeople, I met with fiction writer and Outreach Coordinator at American Short Fiction Liz Wycoff, who studied in the MFA Program at Oregon State with the amazing Marjorie Sandor (who I know from the PLU Rainier Writing Program) and we talked about people in town being happy that the temps had dropped into the nineties. Nineties. Then we went to Whole Foods and hung out and talked about PhD in Creative Writing Programs, Charles Baxter and Lorrie Moore, and short story cycles that we love.

Back at BookPeople, I went upstairs to find a large display with copies of Hustle, and felt uber-grateful to Michael McCarthy and Mandy Brooks for working so hard to arrange the event. Then I met Thomas, who was setting up the reading and would later give me a great introduction.



Just before the reading, I met Adeena Reitberger and Cindy St. John – both graduates of the creative writing program at Western Michigan University – and an old friend Bryce Benton, who I studied with at the University of North Texas. Quickly we realized it had been nearly a decade since we’d seen each other. Yeah, book tour!

Bryce is BookKids






Following Thomas’s introduction, I read for twenty minutes










and took questions regarding the use of music in my writing process, incorporating life stories into fiction, and how long it took to write the book. Afterward I signed books and met a woman named Brenda, and we talked about her take on the second-to-last chapter of the book, telling me things I’d never considered. I love when that happens!

After the reading, Bryce and I went with his friend Natalie, who plays in the band MC Sweet Tea and her Headband, to The Beast on 6th St. For those who don’t know, 6th is known for its bars, and it plays a small part in Hustle. There we were given free cigarettes (which I later gave away in Denton), Shiner Bock, and Mexican food. These signs were up all over the place:










so I can’t show the pictures of me kicking ass at Apples to Apples or losing my ass at Jenga, or the really nice patio outside where people talked about being happy that temperatures had now dropped into the eighties. Eighties! Thanks to Bryce and Natalie! It was a very fun night.


The next morning I left my hotel and headed for the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, known for its amazing archive. There they had an exhibit on banned books, with many newspaper articles from the 1920s focused on the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and the trial surrounding Ulysses, as well as many first editions of books that have been banned. Also, smuggled copies of Ulysses.


Actual Cover, Actual Size

 Afterward, I went to the second floor, where I viewed archives of two of my favorite writers: Jack Kerouac and David Foster Wallace. I started with Jack, looking over the journal that he kept while writing On the Road, where he speaks about his desire to break away from his first novel, The Town and the City, his word count for each day, and his arguments with other writers. He wrote about fearing Burroughs and how Burroughs feared him. Then I took a lot of time with Wallace’s materials, looking through his interview questions for a talk with Roger Federer (where David makes notes to himself on how to proceed with the interview), handwritten first drafts of Infinite Jest (where his centimeter-sized letters are written in ink, with interjections – typically modifiers – in another color of pen or in pencil), and his research materials for The Pale King, mainly his notes from the accounting class he was auditing, and one quiz where he asks the prof to grade the exam – just, he says, so he can know how he did. He wrote a note saying that he wouldn’t ask for this very often, and jotted in a smiley face. She responded by writing: “No Problem. Perfect 10. Good Job!” I was of course a bit sad, looking over David’s papers, actually handling the notebook pages and the legal pads he worked on. But I tried to think of how I could someday teach to my students what I had learned from his file, and all I learned myself.

The final crazy thing was this: I asked the desk clerk, Pat, how much it would cost to have copies made of the Kerouac journal. Seventy cents per page.  “However,” a different receptionist said, “if you have a camera on your phone, it’s free. Just take pictures.” I said, “You’re kidding.” She handed me a pink card, saying I was allowed to take photos, and told me to turn off anything on the phone that might make a beeping sound.

So I’m now carrying Jack’s journal on my phone. As I stood at the desk, snapping pictures, I felt kind of strange, imagining Kerouac on my left and Wallace on my right, and the absolutely different reactions they would have.

I left the archive feeling as I always do when leaving archives: exhilarated, empty, overwhelmed, sad but happy, like a thief who has the power of invisibility and has just completed a job in broad daylight. And I left town, playing the Willie Nelson CD I’d found. Stopping once to snap this photo along the way, because it felt very Texas: