He swaggered toward me, his eyes barely visible through swollen pink rims, his sleeves rolled up to reveal a withered tattoo. He'd driven for a week solid, from Kelowna to Toronto via Los Angeles and Amarillo. He'd managed only an hour of sleep since pulling up to the truck stop.
"Your book?" he grunted and picked up a copy of The Line Painter from the table. I nodded and told him the plot in 28 words, as I've learned to do. He gave me the once over and asked, "True story?" I explained it was fiction and started to describe how my experience is just a starting point for my writing. After a minute he twitched, bored, and interrupted with his verdict. "Better if it was."
I've heard that a book is published somewhere in the world every 30 seconds. My first novel joined the fray on April 7. A bookstore owner shrugged, a festival dithered, a magazine said maybe. Since the story is set partly in a Husky Truck Stop in Hearst, Ont., I wondered if the truck stops would have me?
They said yes. In fact, they welcomed me.
Last month, I held book signings at five truck stops in Southern Ontario. When I arrived at the Pickering Husky Truck Stop, the manager was helpful: "Maybe you should go somewhere where there are more people?"
I said no and insisted I wanted to sign books there. He pronounced each syllable of his reply slowly and clearly: "There are only truckers here." I think he felt sorry for me.
What I was unsuccessful in explaining to the manager, and a few others along the way, was that the truck stops gave me a chance to talk about the themes in my novel. The story is about a woman who takes off on a road trip across Canada. Her car breaks down outside of Hearst on Highway 11. The line painter who is repainting the lines on the highway that night, stops to help. It's the story of their relationship. I wanted to counter the myth about road trips and life on the road, that if you drive far enough away you can outrun your problems. It's not the case for the characters in my novel, nor did it seem to be for most of the truckers I met.
At the truck stop in St. Catharines, the manager pointed me to a table, to the left of the rack of potato chips and to the right of the Lotto machine. I set up, propping my book on a stand, and sat down. Needing something to do with my hands, I got a cup of coffee in the hope that drinking the communal brew might make me seem more accessible. I sat back down and waited, feeling uneasy. A few truckers were eating by themselves. One turned his head slightly, just enough to clock me. Nothing.
Being ignored is the fear of every first-time novelist, or it's mine anyway. It's a real possibility. Soon after my novel was published, I realized there was little more I could do. It's up to the book and the readers, not me. This isn't to say I haven't been busy. I've talked, interviewed, blogged: all the things a writer is supposed to do. My publisher, HarperCollins, has pushed, marketed and publicized with incredible conviction. But what makes a book sell? Most people buy a novel because a friend recommends it. There are exceptions, but not many. How much influence do I have over what your friends read?
In the Husky Truck Stop outside of Kingston, I sat for about an hour before a trucker came over. He bought a book for "the wife," Bertha, which I inscribed. He was from New Brunswick and drove during the week, getting home for the weekends. This is considered an easy schedule. His eye contact was intense, and I found myself unrolling the rim of my paper coffee cup, just to break the stare. He watched for a minute, then stabbed a rough finger in the direction of the cup, "You drink that stuff?"
I met other truckers during my book tour, such as Gary, who wandered around the Mississauga Husky Truck Stop wearing slippers. I noticed him shuffling
up to the pinball machine. He explained he has to wear steel-toe boots when dropping off a load at a warehouse. They are torture on his bunions. Al, who drives with his dog, Spike, in his cab, told me he was looking forward to the Styx concert at the casino on Friday. We talked about music and I couldn't convince him that downloading songs can be legal. A man named George said he regretted the years he partied. He's had to work harder late in life. "There are days my knees are so sore," he said, looking down. Luke taught me the difference between a truck driver, or "steering-wheel holder," as he calls them, and a trucker. A truck driver is a hired gun. Being a trucker is about a lifestyle, the life of a gypsy.
Over the course of the five signings, I sold 22 books. Many, like Bertha's, were gifts for loved ones at home. Some truckers bought the book for themselves. George and Luke, revealing their kindness, told me that a signed first edition might be worth something one day.
Of all the things I've done to promote my book, sitting in truck stops was one of the most productive. Not, perhaps, from a sales point of view, but for the experience of watching, listening and talking. It's like fuel for a writer. And please, if your friend Bertha from New Brunswick recommends The Line Painter, I hope you'll take her word for it.