Bryson's America: The day I learnt the truth about room service

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The Independent Culture
TEN YEARS ago I got a call from an American publisher telling me that they had just bought one of my books and were going to send me on a three-week, 16-city publicity tour.

"We're going to make you a media star," he said brightly.

"But I've never been on TV," I protested in mild panic.

"Oh, it's easy. You'll love it," he said, with the blithe assurance of someone who doesn't have to do it himself.

"No, I'll be terrible," I insisted, "I have no personality."

"Don't worry, we'll give you a personality. We're going to fly you to New York for a course of media training."

My heart sank. All this had a bad feeling about it. For the first time since I accidentally set fire to a neighbour's garage in 1961, I began to think about the possibility of plastic surgery and a new life in Central America.

So I flew to New York and, as it turned out, the media training was less of an ordeal than I had feared. I was put in the hands of a kindly, patient man named Bill Parkhurst, who sat with me for two days in a windowless studio somewhere in Manhattan and put me through an endless series of mock interviews.

He would say things like: "OK, now we're going to do a three-minute interview with a guy who hasn't looked at your book until 10 seconds ago and doesn't know whether it's a cookery book or a book on prison reform. Also, this guy is a tad stupid and will interrupt you frequently. OK, let's go."

He would click his stopwatch and we would do a three-minute interview. Then we would do it again. And again. And so it went for two days. By the afternoon of the second day I was having to push my tongue back in my mouth with my fingers. "Now you know what you'll feel like by the second day of your tour," Parkhurst observed cheerfully.

"What's it like after 21 days?" I asked. Parkhurst smiled. "You'll love it."

Amazingly, he was nearly right. Book tours are really kind of fun. You get to stay in nice hotels, you are driven everywhere in big silver cars, you are treated as if you are much more important than you are, you can eat steak three times a day at someone else's expense, and you get to talk endlessly about yourself for weeks at a stretch. Is this a dream come true or what?

It was an entirely new world for me. As you will recall if you have been committing these columns to memory, when I was growing up my father always took us to the cheapest motels imaginable - the sort of places that made the Bates Motel in Psycho look sophisticated and well-appointed - so this was a gratifyingly novel experience. I had never before stayed in a really fancy hotel, never ordered from room service, never called on the services of a concierge or valet, never tipped a doorman. (Still haven't, come to that!)

The great revelation was room service. I grew up thinking that ordering from the room service menu was the pinnacle of graciousness - something that happened in Cary Grant movies, but not in the world I knew - so when a publicity person suggested I make free use of it, I jumped at the chance. In doing so I discovered something you doubtless knew already: room service is terrible.

I ordered room service meals at least a dozen times in hotels all over the United States, and it was always dire. The food would take hours to arrive and it was invariably cold and leathery. I was always fascinated by how much effort went into the presentation - the white tablecloth, the vase with a rose in it, the ostentatious removal of a domed silver lid from each plate - and how little went into keeping the food warm and tasty.

At the Huntington Hotel in San Francisco, I particularly remember, the waiter whipped away a silver lid to reveal a bowl of white goo.

"What's that?" I asked

"Vanilla ice-cream, I believe, sir," he replied.

"But it's melted," I said.

"Yes, it has," he agreed. "Enjoy," he added with a bow, pocketing my tip and withdrawing.

Of course, it's not all lounging around in swanky hotel rooms, watching TV and eating melted ice-cream. You also have to give interviews - lots and lots of them, more than you can imagine, often from before dawn till after midnight - and do a positively ludicrous amount of travelling in between.

Because there are so many authors out there flogging books - as many as 200 at busy periods, I was told - and only so many radio and TV programmes to appear on, you tend to be dispatched to wherever there is an available slot.

In one five-day period, I flew from San Francisco to Atlanta to Chicago to Boston and back to San Francisco. I once flew from Denver to Colorado Springs in order to do a 30-second interview which - I swear - went like this: Interviewer: "Our guest today is Bill Bryson. So you've got a new book out, have you, Bill?"

Me: "That's right."

Interviewer: "Well, that's wonderful. Thanks so much for coming. Our guest tomorrow is Dr Milton Greenberg, who has written a book about bedwetting called Tears at Bedtime".

In three weeks I gave more than 250 interviews of one type or another and never once met anyone who had read my book or had the faintest idea who I was. At one radio station the interviewer covered the microphone with his hand just before we went on and said, "Now tell me, are you the guy who was abducted by aliens, or are you the travel writer?"

The whole point, as Bill Parkhurst taught me, is to sell yourself shamelessly, and believe me, you soon learn to do it.

I suppose all this is on my mind because by the time you read this I shall be in the middle of a three-week promotional tour in Britain. Now, I don't want you to think I am sucking up, but touring in Britain is a dream compared with America. Distances are shorter, which helps a lot, and you find on the whole that the interviewers have read the book, or at least read a book. Bookshop managers and staff are invariably dedicated and kindly, and the reading public are, without exception, intelligent, discerning, enormously good-looking and generous in their purchasing habits. Why, I have even known people to throw down a Sunday newspaper and say, "I think I'll go out and buy that book of old Bill's right now. I might even buy several copies as Christmas presents."

It's a crazy way to make a living, but it's one of those things you've got to do. I just thank God it hasn't affected my sincerity.

`Notes from a Big Country' (Doubleday, pounds 16.99)

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