Monday, April 16, 2012

On the Road Again: Dispatches from a Traveling Writer

Philip White

Since the March 6 release of my book about Winston Churchill’s unlikely journey to Fulton, Missouri in March 1946–Our Supreme Task–I’ve been busier than usual on the lecture circuit, not to mention with newspaper, radio and (gulp!) TV interviews. Now we’re not talking a J.K. Rowling schedule here (or indeed royalties), but a fine publicist + the continued fascination in all things Churchill + the local history angle = a few new and formative experiences. And a few terrifying ones.

The first stop was the Big Apple, where I’d never set foot before Saturday, March 3. Fortunately a lifelong friend has lived there for seven years, and proved an informed and gracious host. Within five hours of landing at La Guardia, he’d whisked me to the Met, put up with my sensory overload at Strand Book Store–where I could have happily squandered a year’s wages–and taken me back in time at the Café Sabarsky, with its wood paneling, grand piano and the best chocolat chaud this side of Vienna. Over the next two days, we consumed more spicy, rich Indian food and its buddy, Kingsfisher lager, than I had in the previous two months, and burned it off by traversing Brooklyn, the Garment District and the East Village.

Then the heat was really on. Any time you have to set three alarms it’s gotta be early, and the 4:15 a.m. EST wakeup call on Tuesday, March 6 (the day after the anniversary of Churchill’s "Iron Curtain" speech, which I explore in my book) was certainly that. The chilly morning air and a vacuumed down double espresso shocked the sleep out of me, and my publicist and I walked from the edge of a still-dormant Times Square to the Fox & Friends studio on 6th Avenue, where the following occurred:

5 mins in "green room," which is not green, but is a room.

2 mins in makeup (hey, don’t judge, they made me do it).

2 mins Ron Burgundy vocal warmup. OK, I made that up.

2 more minutes in green room. See on the wall-mounted TV that Iran’s going to let UN nuclear inspectors into one facility, one time.

Taken to studio by friendly production assistant.

9 minutes in studio. First two: sit there staring at the cameras, lights etc that create a hypnotic effect. Remembering how early it is and wishing I had another doppio
in hand.

Next 3: Gretchen Carlson walks over, and is very chipper for such an unholy hour. Asks if I saw the news about the UN inspectors. Confirm I have. Tells me they’re going to ask me about that first. Holy crap. Need more time! Nope, gotta run with it (I had at least known about them wanting me to view Netanyahu and Obama’s tête-à-tête and speeches through the lens of Churchill’s "Iron Curtain" metaphor). Breathe. Get heart rate down. Countdown timer is running. And here . . . we . . . go.

Next 4: Answer questions. Tell Carlson that Iran is bringing down a digital iron curtain. Done.

And that was my first national TV experience.

After returning to Kansas City by air later that day, I had just 24 hours until the next port of call: another television interview at the KCTV 5 studio, just a 20-minute drive north of home. This time my good lady wife came with me, and the questions focused on the local side of the story: "How on earth did the president of Westminster College bring Churchill to his tiny town?" and so on. Then, after free-basing my new on-the-move "meal" of a Clif Builder Bar–the mint chocolate flavor only, the others are nasty–and the afore-mentioned java, it was on to the Kansas City Public Library. There, under the auspices of Mr. Crosby Kemper, who fittingly sponsors the current lecture series at Westminster College, I spoke to more than 150 people, only a handful of whom I’d paid to be here. Not to jinx the possibility, but the cameras of a certain book-focused TV station recorded my waffling, which my wife told me afterward went on for an hour and five minutes. Yikes. You’ll be glad to know I’ve since cut the speech down to a more palatable 35 minutes.

The best part of the evening was meeting a gentleman by the name of Art Whorton, who is now in his nineties. 66 years ago, he bluffed his way past Secret Service agents and into the gym where Churchill spoke in Fulton by putting his military ID on the brim of his fedora, slinging his camera around his neck and joining a line of press photographers. I told his story in my book via an account in the Fulton Sun-Gazette and didn’t even know Art was still around. What a treat to meet him and his family (see pic below).

Since that day, I’ve done four radio interviews, two newspaper ones, and delivered the abbreviated address five times. Through the experience, I’ve learned a few things about myself. First, I can actually drive in a downtown area, if not well, then at least without dying. Second, it helps to have the complete speech on the podium, and to never, ever, EVER rely on technology (curse you, embedded PowerPoint video!). Third, it’s nice to confirm that there are still flourishing independent bookstores–Main Street Books and Left Bank Books in St. Louis and The Book Shelf in Winona, MN., to name just three–that provide bibliophiles with years of the owners’ knowledge and passion.

And finally, there is nothing more gratifying than interacting with people who are genuinely interested in my work. Beyond the ego thing, I appreciate that thousands of hours of research, interviews, writing, editing and more than 3,500 miles mean something to at least a few people outside my home. To me, if not my bank balance, that’s more important than advances, Amazon rankings or Nielson Bookscan reports.


Gabriel Loiacono said...

Thanks for this blog post! That was a lot of fun to read, as someone who has to date been interviewed only by his campus newspaper. I hope the road show comes to Wisconsin!

Spicer said...

Great blog Phil, when are you going to be flying back across the pond to do some stuff over here?

Dan Allosso said...

Congrats, Philip! Sounds like a lot of fun (except the flying).

Philip White said...

Thanks, all, for your comments.

Gabriel - don't have any plans to come to Wisconsin yet, but if someone can get an event together I'd love to visit.

Mr. Spicer - not sure yet, old friend. Nothing on the calendar yet.

Dan - Thank you, kind sir. I like the flying part as its the one time I get to read for several hours without distraction. Now all I need is a patron, so I can combine that with unhindered research and writing!