Describe your ideal book signing. Is it in a large chain bookstore, or a smaller independent one? Is there a café? Do they have food and drinks that tie in with your book? What is the audience like?
Bookstores with cafes are the worst—blenders whirring, milk being steamed nosily, lots of mindless chatter and the clattering of plates and forks and spoons in the background. Libraries are marvelous. Some of the most wonderful occasions for reading, showing images, talking stories, and signing books have been in libraries. My hometown library event was unforgettable.
The best audience, no matter how small, is composed of people who are really listening. Looking up to see someone letting the tears come as I read or speak about the pain of loss for immigrants, or listening as people come to me and tell me a story from their own life as they tell me who to sign for—it answers the long lonely nights of writing when you have to hold your future reader in your head in order to keep going.
Small bookstores can be wonderful. When they have to run around to fetch more chairs it feels great. My biggest events were out west. In California at a famous garden, Filoli, 130 people showed up as I honored the two Italian gardeners, Maska and Mario Pellegrini, who had died before the book came out. Four generations of their family came, friends, neighbors, other immigrants, friends of mine from various parts of my life. Someone baked and donated all the biscotti; another family donated the Italian wine. It was amazing. Then on Bainbridge Island, a hundred people squeezed into the independent bookstore, Harbor Books, including many Japanese Americans who thanked me for telling Akio Suyematsu’s story, including the family’s internment at Manzanar—they laughed, asking me how I got him to talk to me; when they interviewed him all he’d talk about was strawberries.
For me, the best readings close with the members of audience telling stories. I invite them to, and it changes everything. At Filoli, people regaled each other with stories—there was laughter, clapping, crying, and a few moments of eloquent political exhortation reaching back to the story of Sacco and Vanzetti that opens my book. I’ve had my share of disappointments: two people, four; events planned a year in advance that end up competing with some huge local event. Everyone has such stories. It teaches you not to take it personally.
Tell us a bit about your current project. What’s it about? When is it coming out? Is it drastically different from your last work, or continuing a similar theme? What do you want prospective readers to know?
The current project doesn’t have a name yet. It comes out of a chapter my editor asked me to drop from the first book. It’s a lost piece of American immigrant history, the story of the man who decided he would devote his life and his fortune to rescuing all the Jews from Czarist Russia in the late 19th century told through the story of two young lovers caught in the vortex of historical events, whose lives in America he made possible. The lovers are the grandparents of one of my best friends. It’s a story of persecution, flight, exile, and love, interwoven with the story of one of the richest, boldest businessmen in Europe, whose scheme affected the lives of millions.