Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Tour So Far...

I've been back from my Alberta sojourn for a week but I am only now getting a chance to catch a breath. After nearly missing my first reading in Calgary, I gave myself plenty of time to drive to Banff, where I was giving a talk on the Saturday to the Creative Nonfiction Collective's annual conference. It was a lively affair in general and my workshop (titled "Who's Afraid of the Nonfiction Novel?") generated plenty of debate. I made the mistake of slipping out to the bathroom during the annual general meeting, however, and when I returned, I'd been nominated vice president! Gotta work on bladder control...

My next stop, on Sunday afternoon, was a reading and talk at Cafe Books, a gorgeous little shop on Canmore's main strip. Joy, the owner, had organized a sumptuous spread of food and drinks and set up an eye-catching display of my books. One of the wonderful things about publishing a book is meeting so many people, like Joy, who love everything about books (despite the grim economics that shadow every part of the industry) and who love helping authors. I gave another reading, signed a few copies, and then enjoyed pizza and wine at the home of a real adventurer rather than a weekend poseur like myself: author, photographer and arctic explorer Jerry Kobalenko.

Back in Calgary, the next morning I had a seven-minute spot on Breakfast TV, my first live on-air televised interview of the book. All very surreal for someone with a face and the fashion sense made for radio or blogging. I think the interview went well (all I know was that at least I didn't barf from nerves), although at one point I did blurt out (in response to a discussion of "flow experiences") "And SEX!!!" a little too enthusiastically.

After my TV escapade, I raced south on Highway 22 (a gorgeous drive through the Alberta foothills) to Fernie, BC, where I stayed with good friends and did another reading at Polar Peek Books. Keith, the producer of a local writers conference, had whipped up an enthusiastic crowd for me and the reading went fantastically: the best yet. We nearly sold out the 15 copies that Laura, the hospitable owner of Polar Peek, had ordered, and I left the store in high spirits. (Note to self: two pints of beer before a reading isn't necessarily bad prep.) As I told the audience, in my Literary Atlas of Canada, Fernie is a capital city.

The weather started deteriorating the next morning, and I worried that my rented Yaris wouldn't get me to the airport in time or that my plane would be grounded again. With relief, I arrived back in Victoria, and the next night I had my official hometown launch at the UVic bookstore. Again, the staff had set out a wonderful spread, and it was great to see so many familiar faces: friends, colleagues, students, neighbours, my own family (my parents came from Ottawa, my father-in-law from Toronto) and even members of the extended Arseneault clan. It was a special night...although the bookstore still has plenty of copies to go around, for anyone who couldn't be there! Get a copy and I'll be happy to sign it any time...

Friday, April 11, 2008

Snow Day in Cowtown

The Fatal Tide World Tour (aka, As Far As I Can Travel Before My Visa Card Implodes) began inauspiciously yesterday morning. I'd been booked to do a 7pm reading—my first for my book—in Calgary at the McNally Robinson bookstore (sadly, due to close in July), so I had checked through security at Victoria at 8 am to catch my 9:05 am flight. All was well... until a Westjet employee announced that flights to Calgary and Edmonton had been canceled due to a freak snowstorm. We trundled back through security, collected our baggage, and chaos ensued as several ill-formed lines tried to muscle their way to the Westjet counter to get rebooked.

When it was my turn, I learned the earliest they could get me to Calgary—assuming the snow stopped—was 8 pm. Uh oh. I pleaded my case: first-time author, book launch, yadda yadda. All they could do was suggest that I try Air Canada. The AC rep had a seat for me that (the weather gods willing) could get me to Calgary for 6:00 pm. That was tight, but my only option—even at $160 extra.

Bruce, my buddy in Calgary, confirmed that a blizzard had blown through town but seemed to be clearing. He was hopeful when I was nearly despondent. He promised to let the bookstore know I might be late. I asked him, if it was necessary, to read something to the restless hordes as my "opening act". (I was half-joking, but Bruce did turn up with one of his articles in tow just in case: semper paratus.)

I had an eight-hour wait in Victoria International Airport. Not as bad as it sounds (except for the Starbucks sandwich), as I was able to write the hour-and-a-half conference paper I have to deliver (on the nonfiction novel) this Saturday in Banff. Still, my heart sank when—an hour before take-off—I glanced up and saw that my new AC flight had been delayed 25 minutes.

Getting to the bookstore in time was now impossible. Getting there not so late as to be embarrassing was barely within the realm of possibility...assuming there were no more delays. The plane arrived on time, the AC crew (god luv 'em) did a NASCAR fast turnaround, and we were in the air by 5:15 pm Calgary time. I settled into my seat, turned on a little trancey Sufi music on my iPod to calm down, and then, just before she passed out from exhaustion, the woman beside me announced, "I heard it's snowing in Calgary again."


In the end, the afternoon flurries passed and the plane touched down at 6:40pm. I sprinted through the airport, decided to forget about my luggage (I could return for it later), grabbed a rental car and sped toward downtown Calgary—where I'd never been before. Thankfully, the Flames were playing that night, so the streets were barren and I made good time. At 7:15 pm, Bruce was standing outside McNally Robinson to catch my car keys and find a parking spot. I dashed up the stairs (of what's a gorgeous and soon to be much-missed bookstore) to greet my adoring crowd of... well, four. (Five once Bruce returned.) All except one were friends that I had guilted into attending. And the last attendee was a friend of one these friends. So much for the power of an advertisement (two weeks in a row!) in the Globe Books section.

Still, I was ecstatic to have made it against the odds. I gave a brief reading. I think it went well. (Who knows: it was a blur.) I sold and signed four books. I signed six more for the folks at McNally Robinson (the world's coolest bookstore! buy all your books there!) Then a bunch of us went out to a James Joyce Pub for a Guinness in the neutron-bomb quiet of downtown Calgary.

Of course, if my reading tour continues this way I'll bankrupt myself long before I get further east than Manitoba. If my Cowtown experience were one of those MasterCard commercials, here's how it would read:

Extra cost to make sure I got to Calgary on time: $160

Number of books sold: 4

Total revenue on sales: $120

My take on those sales: $18

(Not entirely true: I only get royalties once I sell the first 5,000 books, for which I got paid my advance. So actually I made nothing.)

Economics of my book tour so far: idiotic

Good karma from not missing the first reading for my first book: priceless

(P.S., Thanks to Bruce, Ken, Nic, Janice and Emilie, as well as Tyson and Thomas at McNally—you guys made my night! As the old saying goes: a man will always remember his first book reading...)

Friday, April 4, 2008

Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned From Reality TV

Okay, not quite.

But I thought this story from CBC Manitoba proved that not all reality TV makes you stupider (just most of it):
"Snowmobiler credits Survivorman for his own survival".

I met Les Stroud, the solo star of Survivorman, when I was working at explore magazine in Toronto and he was just setting out as a reality-TV producer. He's an interesting guy with a great sense of humour, which frees his show from the paleolithic macho chest-beating of other prime-time survivalists. Here's what I wrote about him in my book, for a background chapter on the rise of reality TV:
At least one reality-TV show tried to out-Survivor the popular series. By the time Burnett’s show went supernova, Les Stroud, a music-video producer from Toronto turned survival guru, had won several awards for his first film, Snowshoes and Solitude, an intimate video diary of his year living alone with his wife in the boreal forest of northern Ontario. He figured the hour was right for his own reality-TV concoction. Stranded first appeared on the Discovery Channel in 2001, and Stroud later appeared as Survivorman in Canada and the United States. In each series, he ventured into exotic wilderness locations to live off the land for a week and tell the story of his travails. He separated his methods from those of other reality shows by doing all the filmwork himself. Viewers no longer had to suspend their disbelief and ignore the fact that the on-screen survivors were being monitored round the clock by Big Brother-like teams of cameramen and boom-mike operators. In Survivorman, Stroud had to wrest nourishment and shelter from desert canyons, tropical jungles, or blackfly-infested bogs while simultaneously worrying about light readings, battery charges, and picture compositions. Watching a savvy outdoorsman like Les Stroud struggle to light a fire, catch a fish, or find anything remotely palatable to eat destroyed the delusion of many urban viewers that getting by in the wild was as easy as they might imagine.
I saw the rough cuts from his first season but have since only caught the occasional episode of Stroud's show while staying at motels. I've always enjoyed it—his approach is about as "real" as reality TV gets... at least within the current "ethics" of the contemporary entertainment biz.

Of course, network execs would be happy to feed their American gladiators and Big Brother contestants to real lions if they could get away with it... and get good Nielsen ratings.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

We're #573,271!

Well, now that my book is officially out in the world. I can begin to—as all authors apparently do in the Online Age—obsessively monitor my (or .ca in my case) ranking. And we're hot out of the gates, racing up the bestseller lists to #573,271. Eckhart Tolle, we've got you in our sights!

(I use the first person plural not as a grandeur-deluded royal we but as the more schizophrenic authorial pronoun: My Book & I. I've spent so much time along mulling
over the manuscript over the lasts five years that it has become welded to my identity, much like the carbuncular second head that grows atop Richard E. Grant's shoulder in How To Get Ahead in Advertising.)

Seriously, though, I got the first "review" of my book yesterday. I put the word in quotes because it appears in a magazine, and one that I've written for in the past, so it was always bound to be a soft-touch description of the book rather than a hard-hitting analysis. (If the reviewer truly hated the book, the editors would have likely just not run the review.) Still, it appears in the April issue of Canadian Geographic (read by over a million Canucks, according to recent industry stats), and so I am thrilled with the coverage and promotion. It runs as follows:
David Leach presents a vivid look at what happens when adventure races turn deadly. Sharp and descriptive writing plunges the reader into the icy waters of the Bay of Fundy on June 1, 2002, when crashing waves and stormy winds claimed the life of René Arseneault, a 22-year-old amateur athlete from Rothesay, N.B. Drawing on dozens of interviews and years of painstaking research, Leach provides a nail-biting account of the fateful day and explores the science of hypothermia in minute detail. Along the way, he asks tough questions about what drives people to compete in extreme sports, whether true adventure can be bought and sold and how much responsibility organizers of adventure races should bear when nature triumphs over humans.

—Geoff Dembicki, Canadian Geographic, April 2008
I'm hoping that the review will be the push that helps me—or rather, us—climb the rungs on and get over the #570,000 mark.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

First Reactions

I got my first reaction to the book last night. While an advanced copy arrived by courier last Thursday, I hadn't even realized the book was available to the general public yet, either via online sellers or at bookstores. Of course, over the past few months, I've gotten feedback from people who read—either as hired professionals or knowledgeable friends—earlier versions of the manuscript. But the email I received last night came from the first person to crack open an actual copy of the finished book and read it cover to cover and tell me what he thought—i.e., a genuine, honest-to-goodness, paid-out-of-his-pocket book reader.

It wasn't a critic but rather one of the participants of the race that forms the central subject of Fatal Tide. This is what he had to say:

Well done & thank you.

Why well done?

Your ability to deliver the story with every emotion I can think of. Having been in the race & so involved, it was easy to be captivated by your story telling. The science behind hypothermia was very interesting & the research was outstanding. Your accounts of the people involved had me consumed from the beginning.

Why Thank you?

You have given an honest account of the events on that day & the trials & tribulations of the aftermath to the athletes & theirs families.

My wife & I were so interested in the book that I read the complete contents to her out loud …….it was a first for us …..& we both laughed & cried.

So…..thank you & well done
It might not have the same effect on book sales as a positive notice in the Globe & Mail or a mention on the CBC, but it's this kind of reaction—especially from the people I wrote about—that matters most to me in the end. The people swept up by the events of the tragic Fundy Multisport Race and its aftermath entrusted me with their stories, so it feels good to hear that, for at least one person who was there that day, my version of that narrative, woven together from all their various threads, rings true.