Thursday, June 4, 2009

Blues Festival, Piacenza, Italy

Here I am at the Leaning Sign of Piacenza.

In a way, it was like going to summer camp: You travel away from home. At first you're a little scared. People welcome you. You make new friends. You see the world from a different point of view. You learn new skills. You come back a better person.

One thing I learned was how to make people want to read my book. It came to me during my first radio interview when the host, a man named Luca, asked me to explain the title. Here is what I said:

In the USA, each state has a different license plate. In the state of Idaho, every car, every truck, every motorcycle has a license plate with a message at the bottom saying “Famous Potatoes.” I always thought it was a funny idea: something so common, so ordinary, so down-to-earth as a potato could be famous. In my novel I write about people who are like potatoes - they’re the little people - the carpenter, the waitress, the truck driver, the prostitute - they live a hard life. They’re invisible. They have to be hard to survive. But if you dig them up, if you warm them, you can make them soft and sometimes you can make them sweet. That’s what I’m searching for in my writing: that softness, that sweetness in people who are living hard lives.

It seemed like a good answer, so I repeated it for the rest of my tour to about a dozen audiences. And each time after I spoke, people would go over to the book sale table and buy copies of Le Famose Patate. I wish I'd figured this out 30 years ago, when the book was first published.

Here are some more things I would say to the audience:

Another meaning of the title is that a potato lives underground, and in the USA, when you are hiding from the police, when you are living outside the law, it is said that you are living “underground.” The hero of Famous Potatoes is in a bar in St. Louis, Missouri on the Mississippi River when he gets in an argument with a stranger. During the argument the man is stabbed, and he dies. Everybody runs out of the bar and disappears along the river. It turns out that the dead man is a policeman. Our hero didn’t do it, but he can’t prove it, so he runs away - he lives underground - like a potato.

Another meaning of underground became apparent after the book was published. It was called an “underground novel” because it was popular among people who don’t respond to book reviews or advertising, people who passed it hand to hand and spread the news by word of mouth.

I sometimes feel like a potato myself. I’m a little writer. I’ve never been able to make a living from my books and have always worked with my hands.

Then, if somebody asked if the book was true, if it was based on my actual life, I would add:

People assume that everything in the novel is true, and I guess I should take it as a compliment that the writing was so believable. But not all of of the disasters and humiliations that happen to the hero are true, so it’s a little unnerving when a stranger comes up to me with sadness in her eyes, and she gives me a big hug, and she says “I’m so sorry about your testicles.”

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