What I Did on My Summer Vacation

My last post here was about Anthony Bourdain and it bums me out every time I see it, so I think it’s time to tell some new stories. Let’s catch up.

So what happened in the last couple of years? As the man said, I went outside and was gone for some time.

Shortly after moving to California, I got a job, which is a seismic event in the course of my freelance existence. I even remember accidentally getting it, kind of. I was browsing the web when I hit a Facebook advertisement for an Events Manager at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park.

Kepler’s is a funky joint with a fascinating history. The Grateful Dead are said to have held court in the back of the place when it was in its original location, and Joan Baez was known to play the stage as well. When the market crashed some years ago and the financial doom at hand threatened to shutter the place, the public outcry was so loud that the place literally wasn’t allowed to close, by its customers and by the community at large.

I had already been to Kepler’s a few times—even applied for a job as a bookseller that I was woefully unqualified for, despite several gigs in shipping and receiving at university—but the events manager opportunity was intriguing, for a few reasons.

First, I had already worked in a couple of bookstores, and knew I enjoyed the vibe of the joints. Secondly, I’ve been reviewing books and interviewing writers for some years now, so my base knowledge of the publishing industry and the book market is pretty sound by this point. I know half the publicists in New York, have interviewed a handful of authors on the bestseller list at any given moment, and I’d spent the past four years leading an events team at Denver Comic Con, let alone years of managing guest experiences, committees and retreats at various gigs around the country. I was bizarrely, uniquely qualified for this job.

And then I got the job. (For those of you playing at home, this is not normal for me).

It was one hell of an interesting gig.

My first day was a blustery day in January. We hosted T.J. Stiles, a renowned historian I had already interviewed a couple of times for Kirkus Reviews. In the course of the next week, we would host bestselling novelist Elizabeth Strout, the noted hip-hop activist Jeff Chang with one of my favorite novelists, Adam Mansbach. We had a crazy crowd of 400+ people for Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, who graciously presented her late husband Paul’s heartbreaking memoir When Breath Becomes Air.

I met a former CIA agent in Barry Eisler, my second after interviewing Valerie Plame, and I’m sure not the only two former spooks I’ve met. My dear friend Dr. Mike Martin was impressed when Dr. James Doty showed up with Dr. Philip Zimbardo—that’s “Uncle Phil” to you—who famously masterminded the Stanford Prison Experiment. Rabia Chaudry talked about the case of Adnan Syed, famously chronicled in the podcast Serial.

Booker Prize winner Yann Martel sat in the audience and signed all the books in the store before talking about his latest bestseller The High Mountains of Portugal. I sat in the green room with Augusten Burroughs to talk about celebrities and their various ailments. Dan Lyons came to talk about working in Silicon Valley and the perils of a candy wall, among other things. I traded quips with Dave Barry, and saw a genuine prize-winning bestselling author—not to be named—have the biggest, babyish meltdown I’ve ever seen in another human being.

Somewhere in there was a trip to New York, which was deeply weird. To meet face-to-face with publicists that I’ve been working with for over a decade was a little strange. There was a journey back to Black 47’s old stomping grounds at Paddy O’Reilly’s, and a deeply moving experience seeing the play Blackbird on Broadway starring Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels.

Finally, there were a few triumphs. It was an education to host Walter Mosley after having interviewed him a bunch of times, only to go completely unrecognized when we finally met in person. Walter was, as Walter is, the charming, funny and brilliant raconteur that continues to delivery both the fantastic traditional mysteries at which he excels, and the offbeat experiments that I’ve been assigned to tackle from time to time.

 

We managed to get Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the creators of my favorite podcast Welcome to Night Vale, to come sign their new script books and hang out with Mallory Ortberg. In fact, I interviewed these guys again in advance of the publication of It Devours! and in the case of Joseph, his upcoming novel based on the podcast Alice Isn’t Dead.

My last event was hosting Peter S. Beagle, the legendary author of The Last Unicorn, which was exactly the trip you would imagine it to be.

But I did get to come back for one more show, as it turns out.

My favorite author in this whole wide world is the infamously cantankerous Warren Ellis, which is a strange thing to realize late in life. Over that summer, Warren tweeted to ask if anyone remembered that he had a book, Normal, coming out that Fall.

Having had a glass or two, I tweeted back that yes, yes I did know that he had a book coming out, given that I had just flown to New York to, among other duties, lobby his publisher, Farrar Strauss Giroux, that the author should come tour the U.S. and sign books in our bookstore, thank you very much. To my surprise, Warren responded that this was not a particularly wise move and that a phone call surely would have sufficed.

And then…

A day or two later, I got a call from a publicist in New York City who asked if Warren Ellis could come to Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, California, and sign copies of Normal.

And so he did. We limited the signing to 150 guests, no comics, and the events staff went out and bought a hell of a lot of Irish whiskey. “A Drop of Whiskey with Warren Ellis,” came to pass, just as I had imagined but never hoped to realize. Many thanks to Robin Sloan, author of Sourdough and Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore for hosting the conversation.

And that is the story of how I played a tiny part in getting Warren Ellis to fly 5,000 miles to drink whiskey with us in Silicon Valley.

I think it was probably my best moment there, and my last. Even the Kepler’s Books team has evolved again, now that the events program has migrated to a new non-profit organization, the Kepler’s Literary Foundation, which continues to do good works and plan great events at the bookstore and beyond. People say this all the time, but in this case it’s true: it was an honor to serve.

Life moves on. I finally got to see Cat Stevens that year, and was regaled by Bryan Cranston for a couple of hours about his role in Breaking Bad and his approach to acting. I interviewed Cory Doctorow about his great new novel Walkaway, thankfully after moving away from Silicon Valley because Cory’s ideas scare the bejesus out of me. I talked with Joseph Kanon about his latest spy novel Defectors, and in about a month I’ll have an interview out with Hank Green about his debut novel An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.

And so it goes. How have you been?

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