Hello from my messy, end-of-holidays desk!
The summer has been full on. For the first two weeks of July I had a whirlwind DIY Book Tour for “A House Called Askival” around four cities in north America and it was an amazing time. Here’s the tale:
First stop, beautiful Boston, where I enjoyed a couple of hours wandering around historic Harvard Square with an old school chum and managed to shoe-horn TWO cafés into the tour. Then I swanned into the bustling independent Harvard Bookstore to sign their little stack of books and have a natter with the owner, Jeff Mayerson.
Later that afternoon a lovely group gathered at the home of Dawn Kotapish, a fellow writer who was a childhood friend in Kathmandu, though we hadn’t met in 40 years. Everyone brought contributions to a gorgeous High Tea Reception, complete with Indian sweets and ‘Scottish Blend’ tea. I gave a reading, fielded questions and flogged a few books, while enjoying catching up with several special friends from Woodstock, the international school in India where we spent our miss-spent youth in the 80s. Dawn (in the black tee) was the consummate hostess, meeting me at the airport, welcoming me to stay, swapping writing tales and not holding a grudge that I had apparently stolen her kindergarten love interest! Pheww.
The next day I flew on to Chicago where I stayed a night with more Woodstock folk, Cate Whitcomb and Jack Hinz, whose elegant 1920s apartment looked right over Lake Michigan. I was planning to swim but was put off by wild wind and waves and dire warnings of wicked currents. My first gig that night was at the feminist bookstore Women & Children First, where the shop assistant had never heard of me or my visit. Splendid. A bit of digging around, however, revealed my books on a shelf with a little “Author Meet & Greet” sign and the date and time. She then obligingly displayed one at the front counter and parked me at a table where I sat for a while feeling lonely.
Enter Mary Babcock, a short, dishevelled, white-haired woman still sporting the ID card from her nursing shift and striding into the place like a motherly military coup. A friend of a friend who’d got the event news via Facebook, she plonked down beside me, chattered cheerfully and bought three books. To top it off, she insisted on being my driver for the rest of the night. (Angels do exist. Believe, believe.) The next gig was a wonderful bookstore called The Book Cellar, where they purvey both books and wine in equal abundance – a marvellous concept – and have a very convivial café.
I was there for Desi Lit, a book group who read and discuss south Asian literature and who just happened to have their monthly meeting the night I was in town. Though already committed to reading something else that month, they had invited me to come and said they might consider ‘Askival’ for a future read. I duly read ‘Noor’ by Soraya Khan, an intriguing exploration of the East/West Pakistan war of 1971, and joined the discussion, with Mary and her friend Helen pitching in too. The Book Cellar had a goodly stack of books for me to sign, sold two that night and gave me a free glass of wine, so definitely a thumbs up!
The following evening Cate and Jack drove me right across town to the home of another kind Woodstock couple, Bruce and Sue Davis, who laid on a sumptuous BBQ for about 25 people. It was a joy to meet folks ranging from a recent Woodstock student to a man who graduated in 1947, a former neighbour of friends in Scotland and a colleague of my parents who has known me since I was a baby. We ate out in the beautiful garden and retired indoors over coffee and brownies for the reading and chat. Much to the party’s mingled delight and horror, Bruce produced a small box of beetles that he had gathered on the Mussoorie hillside as a kid in the 60s. (If you’ve read ‘Askival’ you will know why.)
The next day saw me winging my way to St Paul, the small, elegant city beside Minneapolis on the Mississippi River and the capital of Minnesota. There I was hosted by dear friend and former Woodstock teacher, Kathy Hoffmann, who had helped set up an event for me at SubText Books. About a dozen folk turned up for the reading and Q&A and were rewarded by Kathy’s supply of samosas, pop and chocolate shortbread. Wonderfully, two women I knew from working in Nepal in the 90s just happened to be in the city that night and were able to come.
The Incomparable Kathy Hoffmann
The next few days were all spent at the Friends of Woodstock reunion on the campus of St Thomas’ University. That was an extraordinary gathering of about 250 people spanning 70 years of life at the school, including a big group from my era who kicked off with a Pedal Pub ride into a fine ale house. There was much enthusiasm for the book and about 60 folk attended my session, proving a highly articulate audience, very conversant with all the book’s ideas and themes. (This is no surprise as it is set in the hill station where we all went to school and explores so many of the experiences we shared.)
After the reunion I enjoyed a few days of down time at Kathy’s place discovering Brot sausage and apple pie with cheese (!) and being treated to The Music Man at the Guthrie Theatre. Then I flew to Toronto where I stayed with Saloma Smith, a former colleague of my parents in Pakistan who had taken me out running when I was 13. She was both gracious host and tour guide, taking me to Niagara Falls one day and up to her childhood Mennonite farm country the next, where people still use horse and buggy and maintain traditions going back hundreds of years. I got a fragrant, smoky ‘summer sausage’ and some maple syrup to take home.
Then it was Friday night and a gathering at McCormick Park in the city where a community organisation Aangen, led by my school buddy Gurbeen, run a café from a shipping container. They laid on Indian khana and arranged the picnic tables under the whispering pines where we had readings, Q&A, chat and chai. Once again, I loved seeing old friends and was honoured by everyone’s support. Saturday was my last day and I was due to finish with an Author Meet & Greet at the big classy downtown store, Indigo Bay & Bloor.
Alas, I got a message from the manager that morning that her order of 30 books had not arrived! No event? Fear not, I had some copies left, so humphed them into town on the metro. It was a fascinating afternoon, talking with lots of friendly people. (North Americans are much more willing to chat to strangers than Brits!) There were two highlights: one was the surprise visit of friends from Scotland who just happened to be on holiday in Toronto that day, and the other was a visit from Arun Mukherjee, a professor of English Literature at York University, Toronto, who had kindly read a draft years ago and given me feedback, but never met me. What a great conversation we had!
My last gig done, I re-packed my bags for the umpteenth time and gladly got on the plane for home and family. It was a jam-packed two weeks, full of wonderful gatherings, stimulating conversations, unforgettable experiences and lots of incredibly kind people. Thank you all!
So now, autumn term is about to start, which means two days a week at the high school library for me and a long-overdue return to the writing desk. I am thrilled to have a commission to write another play for BBC Radio 4, which will be broadcast in February. More news on that closer to the time. I’m also still working on the second novel, set here in the Highlands of Scotland, and just wishing I could clone myself so that one of me could simply retreat to a shed and write full time! But that is a luxury few writers can afford (and I might occasionally miss my family…)
Next week I’m doing my annual pilgrimage to the Edinburgh Festival, a highlight of my year. I have just joined the committee for the Society of Authors in Scotland, so will be at their AGM and lunch. Besides that I’ll have meetings with a funding adviser from Creative Scotland, my publisher, my radio producer and, hopefully, a fellow writer and expert on promoting Reading for Pleasure (with my librarian hat on). Also going to meet up with some friends and rellies, catch a play at the Traverse Theatre, a talk at the Book Festival and maybe get some sleep! (All in two days…) I’ll be posting highlights on Facebook – Merryn Glover Appleby – if you’d like to see the pics.
Thanks for being alongside,