By Calvin Trillin
December 08, 1980 12:00 PM

As a magazine writer whose “U.S. Journal” appears regularly in The New Yorker, Calvin Trillin has poked imaginatively into everything “from community controversies to murder stories to an investigation of Buffalo fried chicken wings.” As an author of books, be has been equally peripatetic if less successful. Trillin’s half-dozen hardcovers since 1964 have included a serious but feeble-selling study of integration, a barely noticed collection of short stories (“all of which bad the same plot,” be cheerfully confesses) and a book of humorous essays about food which, be says, “sold like poison hot-cakes.” In 1978, determined to boost sales of a gourmet whimsey titled Alice, Let’s Eat, Trillin bade farewell to his wife and two preteenage daughters and set out on a cross-country publicity tour of TV talk shows, bookstores and newspaper interviews. Sales, be reports, were “respectable,” So when his funny new novel Floater bit the racks last month, Trillin, 45 this week, packed up again. Along the way he paused briefly to jot down the difficulties faced by an author turned huckster.

I think most writers start on a book promotional tour with the attitude a farmer in a drought area might have when he hires a troupe of rain dancers: There’s no proof that it works, but what could it hurt?

Some writers, of course, are horrified at the concentrated travel involved in a book tour, but I travel so much as a reporter that a tour seems like nothing more than an extension of my regular routine—a traveling salesman asked to take on some extra territory for a while. Since 1967 I’ve traveled somewhere every three weeks for a New Yorker piece; when I’m asked where I live, I’m sometimes tempted to say, “I live in O’Hare Airport, in Chicago. I go to New York regularly to visit my wife and my family, but O’Hare’s home.” People in Chicago are always saying that more planes take off and land at O’Hare than at any other airport in the world; what they don’t tell you is that more land than take off. When I went through O’Hare for Floater, I thought I recognized some people in the waiting room who were sitting there the month before when I changed planes to go to Shreveport.

There are days on a book tour so frenetic that any writer can feel like a congressional candidate whose schedulers have overestimated his desire to be elected. First the talk show on local television. Then a radio interview. Then another radio interview. Then an interview at the newspaper. Then another radio interview. You begin to wonder if there could be room enough on the dial for all of those radio stations. There’s obviously not room enough in the city for all of their studios: Every one of them is in a different suburb. After spending eight or 10 hours like this, what any writer dreads even more than a trip to O’Hare is walking into a bookstore to find virtually no copies of the book for sale. After some experimentation, I finally found a way to protect myself from that disheartening experience: I avoid bookstores. My method for dealing with being scheduled to appear at a store to sign books is simple: I feign illness.

When I first went on the Tonight show to talk about Alice, Let’s Eat, I happened to be having lunch down the street from the biggest bookstore in Hollywood, and I made the mistake of stopping in to browse. There were two copies of Alice, Let’s Eat. This was a couple of months after it was published, and I had forgotten my own rule: The average book has a shelf life somewhere between milk and yogurt.

On this tour I was on the Tonight show with Dolly Parton, but I’m more accustomed to being on the local early morning talk show with the publicity chairman of the Jaycees’ annual charity auto parts auction, or the home economist who is going to show all of us how to keep our holiday turkey moist by wrapping it in old copies of the Saturday Evening Post. I still haven’t been on a talk show with an animal act—the one I always imagined following is called The Marley Sisters & Their Trained Doberman Pinschers—but on this tour I was on with a man who played the saw. He was a first-rate saw player. It occurred to me that the people who choose guests for talk shows can be more confident about a saw player than about a touring writer—who, after all, may stare numbly at the camera and ask what city he’s in.

Talk shows are particularly reluctant to have writers on to talk about a novel rather than a book of nonfiction. Somebody who has written a nonfiction book can discuss the subject rather than the book—China or teenage tax cheats or how to achieve happiness by concentrating on your own appendix. Although Floater is a novel, some of the curse is taken off by the fact that it has a subject—newsmagazines. A floater is a sort of utility infielder at a newsmagazine, becoming an instant expert in anything from sports to religion, depending on which writer is on vacation. I tried to make the novel too silly to be taken as realistic, but apparently I didn’t succeed. Since I was a newsmagazine floater myself many years ago, I can talk about my own experiences—the certainty, for instance, that I would be assigned to write the medicine section only on weeks when it had scheduled nothing but stories about intestines. Unfortunately, discussing that particular experience still makes me feel queasy.

Some writers shudder at the thought of talking in front of a camera on any subject. I’ve been a lot more relaxed about it ever since one of the essential truths of talk shows began to dawn on me: The host doesn’t mind if you don’t answer his question. It’s not the same as being asked a question by, say, Morley Safer on 60 Minutes. Safer’s trying to get information; if you don’t answer his question, he’ll ask it again. A talk-show host is in the entertainment business. If he asks you the plot of your novel and you—knowing that the bare plot of your novel sounds boring beyond belief—tell a funny story about your travels, he will be quite pleased. After bouncing around on a book tour for a few days, of course, writers are tempted to do the opposite: The host asks you if anything funny happened on your travels, and you recite the plot of your novel.

The one interviewer who manages to carry off a discussion of a novel as a novel is Studs Terkel. Writers who stumble into Chicago, exhausted and depressed and convinced that nobody has read so much as their book jacket, are brought back to life by a radio interview with Studs. Suddenly the characters sound like people. The plot, as Studs describes it, actually seems to make sense. Foundations that try to buck up writers with travel grants or stipends that end up in the pockets of psychoanalysts could save a lot of money by simply arranging for a deserving writer to be interviewed by Studs. It wouldn’t even be necessary to broadcast the tape.