Marco Polo Didn’t Go There book tour: Salina and Wichita

Rolf reads from his new book at the Salina Library launch party. Sadly, the puppet theater (background) was never used during the presentation.After just two days on the road promoting Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer, I have learned one important lesson: Sex sells.

Or, at least, sex gets people’s attention in an otherwise staid bookstore environment. This is something I discovered by accident, when I arrived in Wichita for an event at Watermark Books and realized I’d left my laptop (and standard PowerPoint presentation) back on my farm, 90 miles away.

My forgetfulness, I think, was the result of my micromanaged book tour. Having written a book called Vagabonding, which is all about the pleasures of slow and deliberate travel, embarking on a strictly scheduled book tour is kind of a contradiction. This was the case when I toured to promote Vagabonding in 2003, and it is doubly the case on this book tour, which will visit twice as many cities as I did 5 years ago.

Pico Iyer, who is one of the most perceptive travel writers of the past two decades, once noted that going on a book tour is “a journey into the fracturing of self.” Travel writers might be naturally equipped to withstand the physical journey, but the psychic journey is another matter.

Rolf performs

Iyer noted:

“You pantomime yourself in many moods at every turn, and try to sell what’s deep by being shallow; you are obliged, in some ways, to project a personality in order to advance what at some level comes from the impersonal. You move, at great speed, between radio stations, hotel
rooms and airports, and continuity (even inwardly) is what you lose. Whatever is private in you, spacious and inward-even if it is only a deeper level of the personality-is converted into something public, vocal and worldly.”

For the most part I don’t mind the “public and vocal” version of myself that emerges during book tours; in some ways, it’s a nice counterbalance to the elastic anonymity of vagabonding travel. The challenge comes in striking the right balance — of communicating something true about my own experiences while at the same time giving the audience something useful and instructive.

For my Vagabonding tour this was pretty simple, since that book has a direct application for everyone who reads it. My new book, however, is a collection stories rather than a volume of adviceor philosophy. In many ways it is a more entertaining read than Vagabonding — and for the book-tour audience to appreciate its appeal, this means I have to capture the right moments of humor and intrigue when I’m reading from its pages.

One obvious story for this task is Chapter 7, “Tantric Sex for Dilettantes,” which uses the second-person voice to capture an obsession I had with a certain woman while taking a Tantra class at an ashram in Rishikesh, India. Not only is this story strong on plot and structured like a joke, it also contains lots of great little details about, say, how to control your ejaculation using both physical and spiritual methods.

The only problem with this story is that I feared it’s sexual themes and occasional strong language might turn off library and bookstore audiences, which tend to be older and (so I presumed) more conservative than, say, your average bar reading audience. For this reason I gave “Tantric Sex” a miss at my library book-launch reading in my adopted hometown of Salina.
For the most part, that reading went well. About 20 people showed up, the library served wine and cheese, and there were enough audience questions to keep us going until closing time.

In Wichita, however, I got thrown off by the fact that I forgot my laptop (which contains a travel photo presentation to go with my talk), and I had to take a three-hour round-trip road trip back to my farm to fetch it. When I returned to Watermark Books just five minutes before my event
began, I was too flustered to care, so I opened up by reading “Tantric Sex for Dilettantes,” ejaculation references and all.

As it turned out, the 50 or so people in the Wichita crowd loved the Tantric essay — the older folks as much as anyone. My enthusiasm fed off of theirs, and it ended up being a great little event, even as we transitioned into the more practical matters of travel writing and opened things up for questions.

Thus my first lesson as my new book tour gets underway: For best effect, try a little titillation before you transition into straight information.

Two book events down, about 24 or so to go!