I write books for a living, which by definition is isolating. My latest, a biography of “Low Blow” Joe McCarthy, meant spending three years in my basement study with one of the most reviled figures in American history as my sole companion. Is it any wonder I was beyond eager to hit the road on the 10-city tour my publisher had planned, with the chance to present my findings up close and personal to (hopefully packed) auditoriums?
The pandemic sent me right back down the basement stairs. First the release date was delayed from May to July. Then all those trips were canceled, a sure sign the world was in deep trouble. I, a Luddite most comfortable with hunt-and-peck, had to master Zoom, SquadCast, and other remote meeting platforms. I’ve adjusted, doing a talk or two a day to audiences ranging from 40 to 400 — which is twice as many presentations, with twice as many people, as for any of my seven earlier books. But it’s half as much fun. Forlorn, indeed.
Thank God for Cotuit.
Recently, the Cape Cod village where I live and work came out of its COVID cocoon and brought me and McCarthy with it. Instead of the 18 strapping college baseball players who should have been at center stage at the Cotuit Kettleers’ ballpark, it was a single scrawny author standing between the grandstand and the ball field. Bleacher seats that are packed most mid-summers with cheering fans had 79 carefully counted bookish listeners, wearing masks, of course, sitting atop the giant Day-Glo Post-it notes that kept them not just a measured six feet but a full row from their neighbors. Touchless hand sanitizer dispensers were at each entrance. Handrails had been wiped down with disinfectant. Those who couldn’t fit into the bleachers set up lawn chairs behind the dugout. There was no popcorn or ice cream, but there was a representative of our local bookseller, Titcomb’s, ensconced behind a Plexiglas screen to keep her safe from errant aerosols.
That was a long stretch from the bash the library and historical society had planned for my book release at Freedom Hall, with the potential for hundreds of guests, and — dare I say it — shaking hands, standing shoulder to shoulder, maybe even hugging old friends. To me, however, it was the most embracing live talk I’ve done in two decades of making such appearances, reminding me how isolating our brave new virtual world is, and how nothing can replace flesh and blood.
We know by now how unfulfilling it is for professional athletes to play in empty arenas, and how comical it is when fan noise is streamed in. Ditto for musicians performing online, without fans swaying to the sound. Or actors staging a theatrical production with no theatergoers.
I’m here to say it’s the same for authors. In-person talks let you watch the eyes of attendees, seeing when they tune out and drawing energy from those moments when you break through. I could schmooze before the Cotuit program with a former senator, Paul Kirk, who graciously introduced me. I saw and heard my questioners in a way that’s not possible on Zoom, irrespective of whether I’m on speaker view, gallery view, or the more typical no-view-at-all of any faces but mine and my host’s. I knew that everyone in those bleachers had gone to the trouble of reserving in advance, and then given up a perfect beach day. That’s a world of commitment beyond clicking on a link to join an online talk, then clicking off if they get bored, hungry, or were merely talk-surfing.
There also are these commercial facts of life: Live listeners are more inclined to buy books, if only to avoid the embarrassment of your seeing them walk out without one, and a book signing means more in real time than when I promise after virtual talks to mail signature plates.
Every writer I know complains about the drudgery of book tours, or at least they used to. This lockdown makes me realize the upsides of taking planes, trains, and taxis to reach my destinations. When I arrive, the accents, the neighborhood, and even the food tell me I am somewhere distinctive. My tour this summer was supposed to include Milwaukee, when the Democrats were meeting in McCarthy’s home state, and Charlotte with the Republicans. Our ongoing Era of the Virus ensures that neither I nor they will make it there.
But what happened in Cotuit was about more than a book tour. It was the village itself deciding — after canceling everything from its July 4th parade to its Kettleers games, house tours, and traditional strawberry festival — that it was time to cautiously poke its collective head out of the bunker. The reaction to that careful commingling is hard to gauge in a metropolis, and easier in a community with a year-round population of just 2,600. Two of our most cherished institutions, the library and historical society, used my talk to bring people together for a joint fund-raiser (not as successful as we’d have liked, but there’s still time) and a craved communal hello (a home run).
As a longtime health journalist I know how essential safety rules are, and why the ones in Massachusetts were tightened two days after our ballpark event. But as one masked and distanced guest after another said, “It’s great to be with people.” Former senator Kirk had a blast, too, saying it felt like “a surreal ‘Halloween at the ballpark’ – not one attendee without a mask, broad-brimmed hat, or baseball cap.” No matter, he added, that you “could hardly distinguish genders, let alone personal identity.”
And it wasn’t just Cotuit that took a baby step back into the world of communal living. The next night the Cape Playhouse in Dennis launched its weekly Mass Roots series with me, JFK Library director Alan Price, and former JFK Hyannis museum chairman Dick Neitz. We talked about the Kennedys, McCarthy, and the fun they had on Cape Cod. We laughed and lingered with our audience. Seating was on the lawn, in chairs situated inside white circles painted on the grass six feet apart and 25 feet from the stage.
My brush with humanity behind me, and with new virus protocols ahead, it’s back to my lonely basement.