The bungled tale of Kurt Vonnegut’s asshole — Book tour stop #2: Portland, January 28

Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon holds a place in my heart — and not just because it’s one of the coolest and most extensive bookstores in the world. Powell’s is where I went to my first ever book signing back in the summer of 1992, when satirist Kurt Vonnegut came to promote a book called Fates Worse than Death.

I’d first discovered Kurt Vonnegut as a high school student, and his funny, unconventional narrative style had inspired me. Cat’s Cradle and the classic Slaughterhouse Five were the first Vonnegut books I read, but the book that really captured my imagination as a teenager was Breakfast of Champions. This extremely random road-novel includes irreverent drawings by the author, including, at one point, Vonnegut’s rendition of an asshole (which looks like an asterisk: *). To my seventeen year-old sensibilities, this was hands-down the funniest thing I’d ever seen in the pages of a book. So, a few years later at Powell’s Books in Portland, while waiting in an incredibly long line to see Vonnegut in person, I decided that I would endear myself to the author by asking him to draw me a picture of an asshole, just like in Breakfast of Champions. I suppose I thought this request would be like an inside joke — proof to Vonnegut that I really knew his work. After signing hundreds of other people’s books, I reasoned, Vonnegut would be pleased to meet such a clever and well-versed fan.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Vonnegut has been signing his name with that distinctive asshole-asterisk for years. On top of this, he had been autographing books for over two hours by the time I got to him. When, in a flourish, I got to the front of the line and asked him to draw me the asshole picture, he just gave me a weary look and drew a really big asterisk over his name. While standing in line, I’d imagined that he’d be so tickled by my request that he might even share a little inside advice to me as an aspiring author. In reality, he just sighed and looked up at the next person in line: end of story. Obviously, he no longer took pleasure in drawing pictures of assholes. To this day, I’m a bit embarrassed by my rather insipid request.

Nevertheless, I was proud and inspired this evening to have the opportunity to sign copies of my own book at the legendary Powell’s bookstore. Because my book tour seems to have been shadowed by Calvin Trillin’s book tour, I didn’t read at the famous “City of Books” branch on Burnside, but at the funkier Powell’s outlet on Hawthorne in southeast Portland. For the second night in a row, the crowd that came out to hear me was surprisingly large — about 100 people. The reading space at the Hawthorne store is not very big, so some people actually had to stand in the book aisles (where they couldn’t see me) while I did my presentation. My plan was to relax the crowd from the get-go by telling them my sad story about wanting Kurt Vonnegut to draw me an asshole.

Unfortunately, for the second night in a row, I dropped the ball.

Looking back, I think I need to figure out something to do with myself while the minutes are ticking away before I take the podium. For some reason, it felt stupid to just kind of stand in front of the audience and not do anything (and kind of cliquish to hang around and chat with my friends in the wings), so I went over to the travel section of the store to look at books and think about my presentation while I waited for things to start. The problem with this is that it did nothing to relax me; I just got more and more jittery. When I was finally introduced by the event coordinator, I stepped up to the podium and my mind went completely blank: Suddenly, I couldn’t remember any details of the Vonnegut-asshole anecdote. Instead of conjuring up the details of that ill-fated book signing 11 years ago, all I could think was that I was standing in front of 100 people, forgetting my anecdote. To read (or even write) this detail now makes it sound absurd, but that’s how stage fright works: Your mind goes blank, and you can focus on nothing save the fact that your mind is blank.

Fortunately, for the second night in a row, my slideshow saved me. After skipping the Vonnegut bit and doing a nervous reading of chapter one (at least I remembered the name of it this time), it was the slideshow — with the mullet-boy intro shot and the various travel tales that ensued — that relaxed people and got them laughing. By the time the lights came up, the atmosphere had become informal, and lots of people were asking questions.

I’ve come to realize now that creating this informal atmosphere is exactly how I work best. Back when I was planning my book tour shtick, I was worried that people would judge me on their own fantasies of what a travel writer should look and act like. I had joked with my friends that — to truly play the part — I needed a scar, an Indiana Jones whip, or at least a good suntan. I thought maybe I’d be summarily tested on my ability to swing on vines or wrestle crocodiles (when in reality a travel writer spends a disproportionate amount of time scribbling notes and, in solitude, putting sentences together; even my NPR radio essays were done with a rigged microphone in a Bangkok shirt-closet). Thankfully, however, the last two nights have shown that travel audiences tend to be easygoing — that being myself is more important than projecting an image of myself. Once again, I encouraged everyone to help answer each other’s questions, and people seemed to appreciate the open-ended nature of our discussion.

Since there were only 15 copies of Vagabonding in stock when the event began, we sold out almost immediately, but I was happy to see that people got in line to say hello, even if they didn’t have a book. I ended up signing a lot of the promotional mimeographs that Jen Leo had made for me earlier in the day. Lots of old friends and college classmates were in the audience, and it was nice to do some catching up. Unfortunately, being the center of attention requires that you spread your time around, and I thus I was forced to have a series of hurried, two-minute conversations with people I hadn’t seen in years. One person I wish I could have talked with some more was Gina Ochsner, whose debut book of short stories, The Necessary Grace to Fall, won a Flannery O’Conner Award last year. Gina and I took a writing seminar together over ten years ago at George Fox (a tiny Quaker college not really known for its writing program), and it would have been fun to reminisce some more about our geeky days as college-student hacks.

For the second night in a row, I took the book-signing stragglers out for drinks — though the late nights and whiskey aren’t improving my lingering sore throat and increasingly raspy voice. Steve Wilson of Motionsickness interviewed me at the Bridgeport Brewpub, then a smaller group of college friends took me next door for the now-traditional bourbon shots.

I can only guess how this all will leave me for tomorrow’s TV appearance.

Next: Breaking my own rules of vagabonding — Book tour stop #3: San Francisco

Previous: What was the name of my book again? — Book tour stop #1: Seattle

Posted by | Comments (4)  | April 23, 2003
Category: Book Release and Tour Diary

4 Responses to “The bungled tale of Kurt Vonnegut’s asshole — Book tour stop #2: Portland, January 28”

  1. Greg Says:

    Back in January I told my wife, “Hey, let’s go see this guy Potts who’s coming to Powell’s. He wrote that story about The Beach I showed you.” That was about 10 minutes before your presentation started. Needless to say we got there a bit late so we made up the back row on the opposite side of the store from you. I was amazed by the size of the crowd. Good sign for travelers I’d say. There are more than a few of us out there it seems.

    I’ll make you a deal: next time you book a bigger room at Powell’s and we’ll show up a bit earlier!


  2. Rolf Says:

    Sounds like a deal, Greg! Hopefully Powell’s will offer up the City of Books location next time I’m in town. Whatever the case, it was indeed a good sign that so many travelers showed up — even amidst in the alarmist, pre-war, “foreign-places-are-scary” media atmosphere that prevailed at the time. I take this to mean that people are still dreaming of travel, and still want to head overseas to see the world for themselves rather than have it spoon-fed to them by TV news-channels.

  3. Duane Hoover Says:

    My experience was the same as yours, except I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting the author. I think I may have read, Sirens of Titan, first, but I read, Breakfast of Champions, at about that same age and laughed for months.

    Now, you can buy the asshole in blue, yellow or green for a mere $450. Hurry supplies are limited. Offer ends at midnight.