Pack light, I whisper to myself as I stand in my closet, staring at the clothes rack. A mantra for a five-week book tour. A life in carry-on luggage. Four countries, 20 events. All those season changes, all those topographies. Pack light, even though what I'm about to do is heavy, standing in front of rooms of people, presenting my wares, my brain, my book, my self.
I try to channel Ferrante, the invisible novel goddess, but I suspect she's tougher than I am. I think about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, how fantastic her clothes are, her grasp of bold color inspiring, but I'm a recovering punk, a New Yorker, and I'll skew black and gray till death. Then I try to slip inside the mind of Patti Smith, who wears the same clothes over and over till they're threadbare, and then she just has some fabulous designer friend make her some more. But I'm no rock star; I'm a novelist. I want to look presentable for the people. I want them to think I'm an OK person. Look at that nice woman up there. Let's buy a book from her.
So I take eight dresses with me. Also one pair of jeans, a sweater, and a T-shirt and some leggings, for all the yoga I'm going to do, ha-ha-ha. I make a deal with myself that the first thing I will do upon entering every hotel room is unpack my dresses. I invent a ritual for safety. Then I pack them in the suitcase and pray for loose folds, clean lines, and literary accomplishment.
My last book was about a morbidly obese woman, and I lost track of how many people greeted me on that tour with, "Oh, but you're not fat at all." I am sorry to report that this fucked with my head a little bit. I wrote a great book, but people only noticed my appearance. Over and over. It takes a toll. Yes, I am not fat, but I am not thin either, is what I thought to myself. A hazy kind of fee paid for success.
On the festival circuit this time around, I notice other authors' attire, all the women looking gorgeous at the cocktail parties. The boys have it easy, I think for the millionth time in my life. They can get away with murder: a button-down and jeans, call it a day. They're presumed brilliant. Meanwhile, every day I check into another hotel, hang the dresses, brush them straight with my hand. I post another picture of myself in a hotel room on Instagram before I leave for the night. This is me, this is where I am, this is what I am wearing. Here is how I look.
A true story: on my first book tour, ten years ago, a male bookstore owner hugged me too long after an event at his shop. "I could tell you were special by your picture," he said. I wondered if he'd even read my book.
It certainly doesn't matter what I look like when I'm in the act of writing. All I'm concerned with is transferring the contents of my head as delicately as possible to the page in front of me, as if I were conducting the most fragile of surgeries, a heart transplant, perhaps. And no one cares what their surgeon looks like. In fact, we want them to wear a mask.
One night, early on in the tour, in a tight dress made of purple wool, I don't make it home, not to my home anyway. I have an excellent time, but I find myself not wanting to wear the dress again. My dresses are about me and my tour and being independent and strong and focused on getting to the other side of this adventure. I don't need anyone else's fingerprints on me, however invisibly. I pack it in the bottom of my bag. So now I'm down to seven.