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Dateline: Orlando, June 8 — My M. C. Escher Moment

Every year there’s a big trade show for the “display industry” – plasma and LCD TVs and monitors, video equipment, huge screens you see in football stadiums and ballparks, and all the related stuff – called InfoComm. This year it was in Orlando, Florida, and the NEC Corporation invited me to do a book signing and talk there. The last stop of my book tour.

This was inherently weird, of course. A pivotal scene in Killer Instinct is set at a huge trade show, which I call “TechComm.” Now I was talking there. It was like that M. C. Escher drawing of a hand drawing a hand – surreal.

I arrived at the show half an hour before my scheduled appearance and saw a huge line at the NEC booth. When I asked what that line was for, they said it was for me.

I signed and signed until all 250 books were gone and my hand started cramping. A couple of techie-looking guys came up to my signing table, not in the line, and started looking at the piles of books.

“What’s this?” Guy One said to the other, picking up a copy of Killer Instinct.

“I think it’s a book,” Guy Two said.

“A book?” Guy One turned it over and over.

I looked up from signing. “Yeah, a book,” I said to Guy One. “Dead Tree Technology. Old Media.”

Guy One nodded. Turned the book over again and said, “Where’s the On button?”

Upcoming media appearances

If you live near Asheville, N.C., listen for me on the Ken and Tammy Show on WOXL-96.5, Tuesday morning right around 9:00.

[cliche.]

Something disturbing is happening in hotel rooms across America. The bars of soap you used to see — with faux-British brand names like “Crabbe & Whitford,” or whatever — have been replaced by spare white boxes with spare black lettering (inevitably Helvetica) saying something like clarity or refresh or rejuvenate. One word, lower-case, usually followed by a period.

Does anyone remember when the only soap in most hotel rooms was Cashmere Bouquet?

An airport story

Stopped at the newsstand near my boarding gate at the San Diego Airport to pick up a newspaper. They didn’t have any copies of Killer Instinct on sale (or none left, maybe?), but they had some copies of Company Man in paperback. I saw a guy reach for a copy, pull it down and look at it. I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “I’ll sign that for you if you want – I wrote it.”

He stared at me. “What do you mean, you’re Joseph . . .Finder?” (As usual, he pronounced it wrong. I wonder how long it took before people learned how to pronounce “Crichton.”)

I said, “Right.”

He said, “No way. I don’t believe you.”

I said, “Really, I am.”

“You’re telling me you’re Joseph Finder? I don’t believe it.”

I pulled out my driver’s license.

“Oh, my God,” he said. “You really are Joseph Finder.” He started telling people around him. One by one, people started grabbing copies off the shelf and asking me to sign their books too, until they were all gone.

“Now you’ve actually got to buy the book,” I said. “Don’t put it back or anything.”

The Green Room

Just about every TV show I do, they show me to the “green room” to chill before I go on the air.

Not once, never, have I actually seen a green room that’s green. So what I wonder is, why do they call it a “green room”? Seriously. A quick Google search tells me the term has been used in the theater since 1701, but none of my usual word-origin websites has a good explanation. Someone told me not long ago – and this is a theory I haven’t read on the web – that it comes from around Shakespeare’s time, when actors would hang out before their scenes in what was sarcastically called “the green room” – outdoors, of course, in a copse of trees in the forest.

Does anyone know the real derivation?

Mike Piazza

A piece in the San Diego Union-Tribune about the Padres beating the Pittsburgh Pirates, 7-0. PNC Park was, according to the paper, a swamp. The conditions in the ballpark were the worst any of the Padres players had ever seen. The article quoted the catcher Mike Piazza: “It was unbelievable, really. The infield looked like the Everglades. I didn’t want to hit a grounder for fear that I’d ruin the habitat of some endangered species.”

Who said baseball players aren’t funny?

The solo genius

Whenever I talk to a group of businesspeople, I talk about the role of the individual in the corporation in coming up with creative, innovative solutions. I just stopped at a Starbucks to get a Frappuccino, and I remembered that the Frappuccino was invented by one clever employee at a Starbucks. It wasn’t a corporate invention. It was one woman’s idea (I think it was a woman), and it caught on, and after a while Starbucks’ headquarters heard about it and decided to adopt the recipe companywide. By now it’s got to be one of Starbucks’ biggest revenue-generators.

I made a note to myself about this on a Post-it pad. And then remembered that the Post-it pad was also invented by one creative guy at the 3-M company.

What’s with the $6 water?

Is anyone else as weirded out as I am by that single small bottle of Evian water (750 ml, which by my calculation is 25.5 lousy ounces) you find in so many hotel rooms selling for six dollars?

Dateline: San Diego, June 2 — The Best Day Yet

I’ve reached the point on tour where – and it comes every time, right around now – I stand at the bank of elevators in the lobby of a hotel unable to remember my room number. 1607? 511? 816? 907? I had to go back to the front desk and ask them. Not good.

Today was the best day yet, despite my inability to remember my room number (wrote it on my room card-key with a Sharpie). San Diego, which is one of my favorite cities. The weather is perfect. Back home in Boston, it’s pouring rain. I’m enjoying it here.

For some reason, San Diego isn’t a regular stop on most author tours, and I don’t know why. Maybe publishers haven’t gotten the word. It’s a lot smaller than San Francisco, less going on, and as a result people tend to turn out for author events in much larger numbers than in S.F.

I came here back in November, to talk to several Northern Trust literary societies, and met with such an enthusiastic reception that I decided I had to come back. Glad I did.

Back to school.
Anyway, today I did an event that most of my writer friends would consider sheer lunacy. And it was the best thing I’ve done this whole tour. Book tours are about bookstore events, stock signings, media interviews. If you have any free time, you fit in another interview. Or maybe catch a quick, restorative nap.

But in the middle of the day I took a break from my tour and paid a visit to Montgomery High School in San Diego and talked to a class of 16 kids.

Montgomery H.S. is three miles from the Mexican border. It’s 75% Hispanic, and just about all of its students are from low-income families. It’s also surrounded by high chain-link fences – a little like a minimum-security prison, frankly.

I’d met some of these kids when the Northern Trust Bank brought me over to California in November to speak to their literary societies. Northern Trust, which is quite civic-minded, always invites a group of high school students to the lunches to meet the featured author. At my San Diego appearance I met a small group of students from Montgomery High School along with their teacher, Kathleen Obrist, and the school’s librarian, Marsha Litwiller.

These kids were amazing. Hispanic — in one case, Filipino — and “underprivileged,” meaning not rich, these students were extraordinarily bright and motivated and privileged to have this fantastic, inspirational teacher, Kathy Obrist, the likes of whom you rarely see. When I decided to return to San Diego, I asked Kathy if she’d like me to talk at her high school. Kathy said yes.

All the kids I talked to had read Killer Instinct and had even spent two weeks of their lunch hours to talk about the book. So the questions I got were extremely thoughtful. The last time I talked to a high school class was two years ago, at my own alma mater in Latham, New York – Shaker High School. But Shaker is a fairly well-to-do public school. Montgomery isn’t. All the more remarkable the way these kids are being educated. If only Kathy Obrist could be cloned and placed in every public high school in the country.

I told them about my struggles to make it as a writer, the many obstacles in the way of anyone trying to write, the way people tried to talk me out of it. And I found myself turning into some kind of evangelist – urging them to be stubborn, the ignore the naysayers, to give themselves a chance, to realize that they don’t have to do the same job as their parents if they don’t want to, that there are careers out there like writing (or acting or painting or whatever else) that don’t have a formal entry system, or mentors.

One of the students asked me how much money I made. I was a little embarrassed, of course (though there are countries, such as Russia, where people talk freely about how much their income is), but I couldn’t blame her for asking – it’s something I’d want to know. I told them that I made a lot of money, but that sure wasn’t the reason I was a writer. If I wanted to make serious money, I’d be in venture capital. For me, selling a lot of copies of my books means a lot of people are reading them, and that’s what I’m happiest about.

The real reason I took time out of my tour to talk to these great kids was because I wish I’d had the opportunity to meet a writer when I was in high school. I had no idea how that whole business worked. It would have been so much easier for me if I’d met someone who actually did it for a living. And I was raised in an intellectual, middle-class family. For these kids to actually meet a professional writer has to have been unusual — and, I hope, in some small way inspirational.

I’m glad I took the time to do this. If these kids were at all moved, it doesn’t compare to the way I felt afterward.

Best signing so far: Warwick’s, in La Jolla, is one of the great independents. I’ve done a number of outstanding indie bookstores, including Third Place Books and Book Passage, but this place was packed. The events coordinator, Amy Pickell, is famous for running the best events. She always gets the word out. Plus, San Diegoans really turn out at book signings. Great, thoughtful, deep questions – I felt like I was back in Boston. (That’s a compliment, folks.)

One of the people in the audience was a friend of mine named Ron Gillies, who invited me to talk to everyone in the plasma division of NEC when he was the General Manager and Senior V.P. there. I’m grateful to everyone in the corporate world who’s willing to spend time talking to me, but Ron really went out of his way, and Killer Instinct was that much better because of it. I got all kinds of great details from his people – lots of anecdotes. Went out to dinner afterward with Ron and his wife and a number of other friends of theirs.

I wouldn’t have met this guy if it weren’t for my research. Another reason I like that part of my job so much.

Dateline: San Francisco, June 1

Who’s profiting more from America’s post-9/11 terrorist scare, I wonder – General Electric (manufacturer of a bunch of high-tech airport security machines, including the EntryScan, which looks like a futuristic time machine), or RubberMaid, which makes all those gray plastic trays onto which you now have to put your laptop, your suit jacket, and your shoes)?

How cool is it to run into a fellow author when you’re on book tour? Especially when that author is my friend Barry Eisler, author of the widely praised John Rain thriller series. I dropped by M is for Mystery, the great mystery bookstore in San Mateo, California, owned by one of the legends of the book business, Ed Kaufman, to do a stock signing. As it happened, one of my Silicon Valley sources (and a friend, Roger McNamee, was there to meet me with a bag full of books to be signed. And then Barry Eisler came by as well. He lives 15 minutes away, and he was there to sign copies of his new book, The Last Assassin, just before setting off on a 30-city tour (And I complain about 10 cities?) A couple of other people dropped by to meet me, and they all ended up meeting Barry as well – and buying his new book too. I told Barry I’m going to follow him around on his tour and horn in on his signings.

But I was kidding.

Thirty cities? No thanks.

Airport bookstores all seem to work differently. I don’t quite get them. At the San Francisco Airport, waiting to board my flight to San Diego, I spotted a nice stack of Killer Instinct at Compass Books, one of the most impressive airport bookshops I’ve seen outside of Europe. I offered to sign them. The clerk was thrilled, then she rounded up loads of paperback copies of Company Man as well. Then I saw Killer Instinct in the bestseller rack at the CNBC News shop not far away, and I asked the clerk if she’d like me to sign them. She looked at me as if I were offering to rip the covers off or something. When I explained, she shook her head violently. “I’d have to get permission for that,” she said.

Old friends
I know I’ve complained a lot about book tour, but there are also some cool aspects –including meeting up with old friends I haven’t seen in years. When I walked into Book Passage in Corte Madera for my Thursday evening signing, a woman came up to me whom I haven’t seen in years. Her name is Patty Hoyt (I’m not sure if that’s still her last name, actually), and I’ve known her since we were in third grade together in Loudonville, New York. Patty has an identical twin, Angie, and I was always getting them mixed up.

I saw her and said, “Angie!”

“Patty, actually,” she said.

Oops.

Book Passage in Corte Madera is one of the most famous independent bookstores in the country, and I’d always heard that it’s one of the very best for author signings. Now I know why. Sure, it was a very well run, very well publicized signing, and man, do they have the routine down. Tim, one of the events people, a guy with a radio announcer’s voice, runs author events like a field marshal. And the winner of the 42” plasma TV turned out to be one of Book Passage’s most regular customers. All great. But the best thing is the gift they give every writer who does an event there: a box of elegant correspondence cards with his or her name embossed on them. I won’t need to buy stationery again for a while.

I plan to return to Book Passage again next year — by which point I hope to have used up all the stationery.

The Perfect Signing Pen…

does not yet exist.

The classic, of course, is the Sharpie. They’re great for signing your name, but they’re too thick for writing anything more than a few words — legibly, anyway. They also tend to bleed through the thinner paper that publishers have been using in recent years. Sharpie makes an Ultra Fine, but that’s way too thin and scratchy.

Even my favorite general-use writing pen (and yes, I’m a pen-obsessive),the Uni-Ball Vision Elite, isn’t right. Not bold enough.

At the beginning of this tour I found the perfect signing pen, given to me by someone at a Barnes & Noble – a model sold by OfficeMax and marketed under their house brand – but when I went to OfficeMax to buy more, I found that they’d stopped making them.

So the question is, how do I convince the Sharpie people (Sanford, owned by Newell Rubbermaid) to make the classic Sharpie in a somewhat thinner point? Call it the Sharpie Autograph. I’ll bet I could get it into the hands of every bestselling novelist in the country. Come on, folks!

Who or what is “Lodgenet”?

–- and how, for God’s sake, have they managed to capture every single TV set in every single hotel room in the country? Does it have anything to do with the One World Alliance?

A phrase you don’t want to hear in a hamburger place (though I did)

E. coli.”

Dateline: Seattle, May 31

Seattle. One day – but the perfect Book Tour day. Scheduled almost to the minute, lots of bookstores, great media.

Well, actually, it didn’t start perfectly. I shaved too quickly and somehow cut my nose (don’t ask). Apparently the nose is, as my brother the doctor would say, “intensely vascular, and it bleeds like stink.” Whatever that means. I carry a styptic pencil along with me, but that did no good. The blood began running down my face and into the hotel sink as if I’d decapitated myself. It took a good ten minutes and a box of Kleenex before the bleeding stopped. All the while, I kept thinking: This is not going to look good on TV this afternoon.

Started with two radio interviews, including a terrific interview on Seattle’s NPR station with John Moe, who asked some really interesting, provocative questions. You can listen to it here. Stopped by Seattle Mystery Bookstore, saw JB Dickey and Bill Farley, and signed a bunch of copies. Some interesting talk about the bookselling business. (I love getting the inside dope from people who really know it.) Anyone who wants to buy signed copies can get them there.

Did a terrific TV interview on KOMO-TV’s afternoon news program, though it was a format I was totally unused to: the anchorwoman, Kathi Goertzen and I stood next to each other in the newsroom and talked. Suddenly I became very aware of my hands. A very good interview, and far more in-depth than the usual three-minute TV spot. A lot of people watch that show – and lots of them turned up for my evening signing at Third Place Books outside of Seattle.

What a great bookstore that is. I’ve never seen anything like it – it’s huge, extremely well stocked and well displayed, and it’s sort of open to, and adjacent to, a food court. This creates a kind of giant café area, a destination in its own right, from which people can migrate over to the bookstore. Wendy Manning, the events manager, put on a fantastic event. She really got the word out. A big crowd.

Interestingly, many of them were people who’d never read my books before but were intrigued, wanted to hear more – and most of them bought copies of Paranoia and Company Man as well as Killer Instinct. The audience was truly engaged, asked lots of great questions about everything from how I name my characters to was Ashley Judd as beautiful in person as she is on the screen. When I announced the winner of the NEC TV – and she gasped – everyone broke out in loud applause. I also got to spend a little time with Jeff Ayers, a writer and librarian who wrote an excellent piece about me for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

I’m coming back to Third Place Books next year. At least if I have anything to do with it. And I hope I do.

A lot of press stuff on the new book has come out this week. An amazing piece in Time magazine this week, for one, by Andrea Sachs. It’s headlined “Chapters for the CEO Set: Novelist Joseph Finder has carved out a market niche: the corporate thriller.” Wonderfully written piece, done with humor and a light touch. She quotes Malcolm Gladwell saying, “Joseph Finder is doing for the business thriller what John le Carre did for the spy thriller – moving it from the level of simple genre to something more complex and ultimately satisfying.” Wow. Plus a very cool photograph of me taken my one of the legendary photographers Time regularly calls upon, Asia Kepka. She’d scouted out a location on the Boston waterfront and found a bizarre structure: a boat ramp with a ribbed ceiling of blue tarpaulin that made an arresting background image. Very cool-looking.

A great review in the Boston Globe by David Montgomery that was so enthusiastic, and so articulate (Montgomery is a regular mystery reviewer and one of the best . . . clearly) that St. Martin’s ran an unusually long excerpt from it in their New York Times ad today (Thursday). If I may quote (I may – this is my blog, dammit): “Superb . . . fascinating . . . Heart-pounding suspense . . . The most successful writers are often the ones who either anticipate the trends or create trends on their own . . . that’s what Tom Clancy did with military thrillers . . . what Dan Brown did with the religious thriller. Joseph Finder has firmly established himself as the master of the corporate thriller, doing for the country’s boardrooms and executive suites what John Grisham did for its courtrooms.”

I blush as I type those words.

I also am beginning to realize that I’m not easily going to be able to shake that “corporate thriller” label I so detest.

A great review also came in from Fortune Magazine. I had no idea they were going to review the book, and I’m delighted they did.

But I leave the best for last. I had about an hour between the TV appearance and when I had to leave for Third Place Books, so I went back to the hotel room to grab a desperately needed nap. I was just drifting off when my cell phone rang. Snatched it up, fumbled with it, heard a voice saying, “You’re number 13.”

I said, “Who’s this?” And what did this mean?

“Keith.” My editor.

“I’m number – oh. Oh, my God!” I woke up fast. He was telling me that Killer Instinct had just hit the printed New York Times bestseller list, for the week of June 11. Amazing, actually, given how many of the big chain bookstores were out of the book last week. And given the mega-bestsellers who have books out right now – Cornwell, Patterson, Sandford, Mary Higgins Clark. Plus my friends Harlan Coben and Lee Child, both of whom have been at the book-a-year thing far longer than I and have built up deservedly huge followings. Alexander McCall Smith, who apparently writes 15 novels a year. Bad Twin, which seems to be some bogus “Lost” spin-off. And Dan Brown, of course.

Within a few minutes, my BlackBerry started buzzing – congratulations from a bunch of people at St. Martin’s, and a number of friends in the publishing industry, including my beloved first editor (at Viking, for The Moscow Club), Pam Dorman.

I e-mailed my brother the editor to tell him the news. Among the books Killer Instinct led was Suite Francaise, two novellas about life in Nazi-occupied France, by Irene Nemirovsky, a woman who perished at Auschwitz. As I marveled at this, my brother replied — I trust him for the blackest of humor — “Well, she didn’t tour.”

A good day.


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