By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
We live for the road.
There's nothing that a writer wants more when he's in the middle of a book. It shimmers there before us, like some blacktop highway mirage. The time when the writing is finished, all the writing and rewriting, the endless revisions and the copy editing, and the editor's notes. When the book appears at last, a tangible, irrevocable thing between hard covers, and the publisher sends us out to meet the public, our fans, and read to them from what we've done. A 10-city—no, 15-city, 18-city—tour. Giving out autographs, flying to places we've never seen before, staying in first-class hotels with an expense account. Being driven door-to-door by helpful media escorts who grab our bags, make sure we're fed, whisk us from one bookstore to another.
Then comes the Friday night in Winnetka, Illinois, when you pull up to a street where the only light is coming from the bookstore, and you realize this won't be good. There's one customer inside, and the reading is canceled, but you talk him into buying a book anyway. There's the night in Memphis, Tennessee, when no one shows up, an evening spent signing stock with the store staff. There's the afternoon in a small, depressed Arkansas town when, after the helpful media escort has driven you past mile after mesmerizing mile of ripe white cotton, you're greeted by the depressed owner of the local, depressed bookstore, who tells you that the promised crowd and the television film crew have all been canceled, preempted by a big football game. Three middle-aged women walk in, escorting their senile grandmother, who they've brought back to town after an absence of 70 years to see what she remembers, which is nothing. The bookstore owner flips a thumb at you: "Why don't you do your little show for them?" And you do, dear reader, you do.
We hate the road.
For the likes of Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, for the writers of certain detective fictions, romances, teenage-vampire series, pet horoscopes, Star Wars novelizations, dog-buddy stories, celebrity memoirs, novels that have recipes in them, and other peculiar genres, the book tour is indeed a triumphal, rock-star road trip, complete with lines out the door and readers dressed up in costumes. For the rest of us, for those of us who just write, the book tour can be a lonely, disorienting experience, one that will tempt you to do any manner of ill-advised things.
This is the story of how one writer lost his way altogether on the road: the funny, farcical, occasionally scary tale of a novelist who became an object of vituperation from any number of people he never met; castigated on book blogs around the Internet as the "whiny," "favorite son" of the literary establishment, a "hysterical," "young MFA grad"; and—much less hysterically—even made the target of a Webstalker promising physical harm to his family.
It's difficult to fathom if you know the subject. The last thing Darin Strauss resembles is an Internet pugilist. A scruffy, soft-spoken, 38-year-old writer with an absentminded smile and a sneaky sense of humor, he looks a little bit like a graying Jake Gyllenhaal. A faculty member at NYU, where he teaches writing to both graduate and undergraduate students, Strauss has published three novels that have garnered good reviews and good sales—good enough, at least, to afford him a two-story home in Windsor Terrace with his wife, the Newsweek writer Susannah Meadows, and their young twin sons. It's the sort of publishing success that is much rarer than it may seem, something that Strauss himself is the first to acknowledge: "I feel bad complaining about anything."
Yet beneath the success lies a more uneasy story, the sort that many writers have—a lifetime of feeling like an outsider, even a fraud. Despite growing up in Roslyn, Long Island, Strauss was one of only a handful of Jews in his school—a status that once provoked "what was, seriously, a 15-on-15-boy fight" in his grammar-school yard. Thanks to his family's history of spectacular rises and crashes in the real estate and construction industries, "people at school thought we had a lot of money," with Darin growing up in a big house with a pool that, in fact, his parents could barely hang on to, and which they lost after he went to college. Then, at 18, real tragedy struck. Strauss was driving some friends to play miniature golf one sunny, spring Saturday morning, when a girl he knew in high school suddenly swerved her bike in front of his car, for reasons that were never determined. She bounced off the windshield, and was killed instantly.
It was an accident that Strauss recently talked about on This American Life, and one that he writes about with excruciating honesty in a forthcoming issue of GQ—right down to his recollection of how, while still dazed minutes after the accident, he played up to a couple of pretty, rubbernecking girls who happened by: ". . . knowing the girls were still watching, I dropped to my knees and covered my head with my hands, fingers between the ears and temples, like a man who just won the U.S. Open. This movie-ishly emotional reaction, acted out for girls I'd never see again, is one more stomach-turning fact of that afternoon."