Plenty of people try to squeeze a little bit of work into their summer vacation. Maybe you answer emails poolside, or listen in on conference calls mid hot stone massage.
Jason Lee Norman took a slightly different approach: he turned his road trip into a book tour.
For two weeks in July, the 30-year-old Edmonton author and his girlfriend headed south to explore the United States and take in the start of the Green Bay Packers’ training camp. Along the way, Norman stopped off to do several in-store readings from his debut collection of short stories, the wild and addictive Americas.
Sometimes things went even better than expected, as when Norman was spontaneously invited to read a story over Milwaukee public radio. It also helped that the listeners that night were extremely receptive.
“It was almost like they were instructed beforehand,” Norman says. “As soon as I was done reading, they just came and lined up to buy books. We were not prepared for that. Everyone was just waiting patiently with their money hanging out.”
And sometimes things took a slightly more frustrating turn. In St. Paul, Minn., Norman read at Common Good Books, owned by famed Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor. Norman says Keillor was spotted in and around the premises several times leading up to his reading. But he never caught a glimpse of him.
“Garrison Keillor was hiding,” Norman insists. “He was there, but he didn’t come out. I referenced him when I was reading, and I spoke to the room as if he could hear me. But nothing happened.”
The tour was orchestrated by Norman and his girlfriend weeks ahead of time. They did all the legwork, including finding stores with openings in their calendars and contacting everyone they knew—including writers Norman had met online—hoping to create crowds as large as possible.
That might sound like an arduous task, but it’s par for the course for Norman, who’s proven more than willing to carve out his own path whenever possible. For the past year, he and local poet Kasia Gawlak have run a scrappy little reading series called Words with Friends, which has only grown larger and more eclectic with each new instalment. (Full disclosure: I was a reader, and won a dollar-store trophy full of Jolly Ranchers, at their travelling WordCrawl event in May.)
Americas is itself a testament to Norman’s pluck. He wrote the collection, which includes one short story (no longer than a page or two) for every country in the Americas, with help from an Alberta Foundation for the Arts grant. But, too impatient to slog his way through the traditional publishing system, Norman decided to fund the design and printing costs himself, and self-publish it.
“I just thought, it’ll be all under my control. I’ll get it to look exactly the way I see it in my head. Which, of course, was trying to avoid having it look like something that was self-published,” says the former mailroom worker.
The book does indeed look good. And the stories are excellent: firecracker bursts of imagination and semi-fictitious history lessons. But Norman was able to clear the final major hurdle of self-publishing when he single-handedly charmed his way into the media and onto store shelves. Norman has made appearances on three different local television stations, as well as literary blogs across the continent (plus that radio station in Milwaukee). You can buy a copy of Americas at Audrey’s, Mandolin Books, and the Northgate Indigo. He’s also put together ebook versions for your Kindle, Kobo, or iBooks.
This, of course, takes hustle—and it’s paying off. So far, Norman has sold more than 450 copies of Americas and the book is in its second printing.
He’s got plenty more in the pipeline, too, including a second leg of the book tour, this time to the West Coast. The next Words with Friends event takes place on Wednesday, Oct. 3, in its most exotic location yet: atop the High Level Bridge streetcar.
“We’ll go for a nice ride,” Norman says, “and then stop on the High Level Bridge for a spell and hopefully hear some stories about bridges, rivers, and being afraid of heights.”
Join him, won’t you?
(column originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, September 14, 2012)