Nicole's West Coast Book Tour: San Francisco / Seattle / Portland / Spokane

Dan and I have only been married a little over a year, but we've been together for over eleven, and lived together for over nine. My twelve-day West Coast book tour constituted the longest time we've been apart. Since we didn't make the trip together we weren't sure if it should go on the blog, but because blogging is great procrastination from fiction writing, here it goes. 

My short story collection, Speed Dreaming, came out in March and my publisher, Little A, was generous enough to send me on a four-stop tour to promote it. First up was San Francisco. I flew in on a Sunday--I always have to travel at the least the day before I have to do something like read in front of an audience because I have to medicate heavily to fly. I wear a Scopolamine patch, which prevents me from puking my way across the country, but makes me feel really miserable for about a day afterward. I took advantage of my extra afternoon in the Bay Area to have a low-key visit with a dear writer-friend and her family (including twin toddlers!) out on the Peninsula. It was beautiful and sunny there; although I wish they still lived here in New York, I couldn't really blame them for sticking to the West Coast when I saw their new digs. 

I stayed in the Tenderloin, which retains plenty of grit in spite of the tech revolution. I mean, there were more Twitter t-shirts than I cared to see, but even fully bundled up as I was when I ventured out of the hotel the next morning--you know, those San Francisco summers--I got more shouts and comments from men on the street than I do in a typical month here in NYC.

Still feeling queasy, I didn't dare do anything but walk to my breakfast destination, Craftsman and Wolves. When I first read about it, I told my Bay Area friend Debbi that it looked both "utterly ridiculous and kind of amazing" and she commented that most of San Francisco can be described that way. Unfortunately the muffin containing a soft-boiled egg did not come in a vegetarian version, but I did enjoy a strangely spicy morning bun and a Thai curry scone, as well as a delicious latte. I would definitely recommended a visit! 

I tried to visit Creativity Explored, which is similar to Creative Growth, an art center for people with developmental disabilities that we talk about a lot at the American Folk Art Museum, but it was closed for installation. So, I just took a very long walk, winding through the Mission, the Castro, the Haight, and more. Debbi picked me up and took me over to Trouble Coffee (listen to the This American Life story about it, if you haven't already! or read about it here) and we had some coffee, coconuts and cinnamon toast before taking a very chilly walk on the beach. Then we headed over to the Sutro Baths, the ruins of a complex of swimming pools on the cliffs of San Francisco. We had a really beautiful hike and then knocked the sand out of our shoes to meet some friends for a pre-reading dinner at Burma Superstar. I'd always wanted to go there, but have to say that I am a bit spoiled by the Burmese festival held here in Queens. 

My reading was at Green Apple Books on the Park, with the local writer Lucy Corin. Lucy read from her wonderful book One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses. She carefully picked sections to read that aligned with the story I was going to read, which was great. After we both read, we discussed things like story structure and animal symbolism before opening up the conversation to questions from the audience. It was a small but engaged crowd and I had a nice time. 

In the morning, I hustled over to Cowgirl Creamery in the Ferry Building for an egg sandwich before hopping a plane to Seattle. 

My mother met me at the airport in Seattle. The idea for her to join me on part of the book tour was born when my father thought that they'd be in San Francisco the same week I was reading there for his work, but then he realized his conference was actually in Bethesda, not San Francisco. My mother decided Seattle sounded better than Maryland, especially since she'd never been there, so she flew out. We took the train into the city--Seattle, like all civilized cities but New York, makes it easy to travel from the airport to where you need to go. For dinner, we headed to Maneki, a Japanese restaurant that has been operating for over one hundred years. It is atmospheric, affordable, and very delicious. We had miso cod collars, burdock and carrot salad, and much more. 

We hit the Pike Place Market the next morning, and grabbed coffee and some tayberries for breakfast. Then we headed over to the Chihuly Museum, which was neat, although neither my mother nor I really liked what we saw. Chihuly's glass forms aren't art but they aren't really design either--they walk a strange line! We saw the Space Needle and then headed over to Sitka and Spruce for lunch. I'd been before and really love this restaurant--my mother liked it but didn't find it as memorable as I did. We had salted grapefruit soda, and I had a grilled bread with cod brandade, chard broth, picked mushrooms, etc. 

I read at a series curated by Mia Lipman called Lit Fix. It took place at a bar called The Rendezvous. Also reading were Sonya Lee, Dan Gemeinhart, and David K. Wheeler; the band Man with Gun played, too. I thought the other readers were incredible. A few friends and folks from Little A were there in the audience, Mia was an excellent host and the crowd was great. It was a fun night. 

My mother and I had a late dinner at Green Leaf Vietnamese Restaurant. It wasn't quite as magical as the time that Dan and I went to the other location, but they turn out better Vietnamese food in Seattle than any of the restaurants in New York can dream of by far. 

For our last day in Seattle, we grabbed coffee and pastries from the lovely and delicious The London Plane. It was in an older section of town that my mom loved for its interesting architecture and ivy-draped alleys. We went on a sort of hokey, sort of informative tour with Bill Speidel's Underground Tour, a lot of which had to do with the history of toilets in Seattle, then took the ferry out to Bainbridge Island. The trip was gorgeous, with the city views on one side and mountain views on the other. We walked around a bit, ate some lunch, and headed back. Later, we visited Hiram M. Chittenden Locks and saw some boats travel between the lower salt water of the Puget Sound and the higher fresh water of Lake Washington (or was it the opposite?). We would really recommend this--it was super cool to see. We also got to see a salmon ladder, and through some underground viewing windows, some salmon traveling along it. 

We ate at a place called Ray's Boathouse that I read was supposed to be quintessential Seattle. It was expensive and sort of had a nice view, but wasn't super special and the waiter got nearly all of our order wrong. From there we walked over to Parfait, an ice cream parlor in Ballard. The ice cream tasted good but the texture was grainy. We'd expected to walk around and explore the Ballard neighborhood but most things were closed, and my mom was exhausted by the extreme amounts of mostly-uphill walking I was forcing her to do so we went back to the hotel. I can't remember the chronology, but at some point we also saw the Olympic Sculpture Park, which was marred by the huge party they were setting up for, visited the Japanese Gardens, which my mother wasn't super impressed by, and went shopping at a great shop where she bought me two new dresses and a blazer. 

Friday morning, we took the Amtrak Coast Starlight from Seattle to Portland. The Supreme Court had just ruled on marriage equality and we passed the Starbucks headquarters flying a rainbow flag, which unfortunately I wasn't fast enough to photograph. We saw mountains, the Puget Sound, and a lot of pretty country. For some reason, because of the extreme heat in the area, the train had to go at slower speeds, so it took longer than expected to arrive in Portland. We had a very quick turnaround, including a jog over to the huge lot of food trucks where my mom ate some delicious Georgian food and I had a Middle Eastern eggplant and egg sandwich, before heading out to Dig a Pony, a spacious bar with delicious drinks, to meet up with some friends, my fellow reader for the night Caitlin Delohery, and her friend Heather Brown who'd graciously hooked me up with a reading at the beautiful Mother Foucault's Bookshop. With only one small exception, every single person I know in Portland (who was in town) came out to the reading. Caitlin, who'd been a grad school classmate, read a story that connected really nicely with the story I read, and we had a nice time answering audience questions after the reading. 

My college friend, Mike, whom I hadn't seen in twelve years, took us out to a cider bar called Portland Cider Company for a nightcap. We got to order a flight of ciders to taste--one flavored with chilies, one with passion fruit, one with lavender and black currant, etc. It was a really neat place, although aesthetically it left a little to be desired. 

In the morning, we hit the Portland Farmers Market, which makes all other food look like a pale imitation of itself. We wandered from booth to booth in a daze, marveling at the cherries, wild assortment of berries, fresh garlic, and greens the likes of which the East Coast has never seen. We bought marionberries and cherries for breakfast, along with an incredibly delicious plate of fresh vegetables cooked up with eggs and fried fresh tortillas. Other than the readings, it was the highlight of the trip. I would almost move to Portland so I could exclusively eat food from here. 

My mother's friend met us there and took us over to the Saturday Market, which was a lot of hippies and goofy knickknacks, but was fun to check out. Then she drove us up to the International Test Rose Garden, which was the other highlight of the trip. It was absolutely beautiful, even though the roses were probably a day or two past their prime. After that, we checked out a cool home goods store called Canoe, had lunch at Pine State Biscuits, drank strong cappuccinos at Heart and finally had dinner at Smallwares. The food there was delicious, and included things like fried bay shrimp and lemons, zucchini pancakes with bonito and ramp risotto. I'd thought it was in a more commercial neighborhood and planned on walking around and checking out shops and things after dinner, but it was sort of off by itself--except for a strange pinball center and custom pinata store that adjoined it, so my mom wound up heading off the airport early. 

Over the next two days, I checked out the Portland Art Museum (I loved the ancient Chinese art), the Oregon Historical Society (would rather read a book..), all the awesome shops on Division Street--my favorite stretch in Portland this trip--as well as many other neighborhoods. I ate ice cream at Salt and Straw twice, which didn't disappoint--my favorite flavor was the balsamic strawberry and black pepper--and had a donut from Blue Star Donuts, which I'd had really high expectations for and thought weren't that good. Both Donut Plant and Dough in NYC destroy them, in my opinion. I saw a $5 movie at a cool theater, called the Living Rooms Theater, where you could order full meals and drinks (although I didn't). It wasn't quite as cool as the McMenimens theaters, which are refurbished historical buildings, but it was a good way to escape the brutal heat. I had a sparkling coffee shrub--the most Portland drink ever, at Barista, sustainable sushi at Bamboo with Mike, the same old friend who took us to the cider bar, and his wife, and a delicious smoked salmon and pickled rhubarb salad at Gruner with another wonderful old friend I hadn't seen in way too long. At various other times, I also had coffee at Spella, Public Domain and The Albina Press. At Spella, all the baristas as well as the 50-60 something customers discussed the various routes the Portland naked bike ride has taken over the years. I like Portland, but listening to that, I knew I could never live there.

I took an easy train ride out to the airport (again--civilized city...) and took a 45-minute long flight in a tiny, bouncy plane up to Spokane, which is located in a part of the country I learned is known as the "Inland Empire." So romantic! I missed the biggest temperature spikes that week, but it was about 100 degrees the whole time I was there and it was just melting. I took a walk in the beautiful Centennial Park that was long and ill-advised enough that I sustained heat rash on my ankles. I bought tickets for a "sky-ride" and "historic train ride" on what turned out to be glorified children's attractions--I wouldn't recommend either. But, despite the heat, it was really cool to walk over the bridges criss-crossing the Spokane River and see some of the structures left over from an international expo in the '70s. The only totem pole I saw was leftover from the Canadian pavilion, which was a little disappointing but also made me question what I was expecting. I ate dinner in a repurposed steam plant at a restaurant called Stacks. It was the steampunkiest steampunk place I've ever seen. In a Scopolamine haze, I went to bed around 8pm. 

The next morning, I walked way too far to a diner called Frank's in an old train car. It was very charming but unairconditioned and the famous hashbrowns were practically raw. I ate as much as I felt I had to not to look rude and hauled it out of there and over to the farmer's market. I wasn't expecting something quite as utopian as what I saw in Portland, but the market was surprisingly tiny and sparse. A very sweet old hippie couple explained that the heat had put them three weeks ahead of their picking schedule and was cooking their berries on the plants. I bought some slightly desiccated blueberries--they'd taken down the name of my book in their little journal, after all--and then checked out a garden, the Moore-Turner Heritage Garden, the couple recommended. It was pretty, but not pretty enough to have climbed the hill I climbed in the blistering heat to get there. Then I headed over to the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture. It was in a historic neighborhood of beautiful mansions called Browne's Addition. The museum was small and tried to be somewhat encyclopedic in its current exhibition, displaying one of every kind of artwork or artifact to represent every cultural touchstone or moment in the area. I would have liked something a bit more focused and in depth, but I'm also a little bitter that they didn't let me in for free with my museum ID, which is one of the few small privileges we museum employees are supposed to enjoy. 

Shawn Vestal, who shares an editor with me, was kind enough to agree to read with me at Auntie's Bookstore in Spokane. His book, Godforsaken Idaho, was one of the story collections presented to me before I signed my book contract to convince me that my publisher does a beautiful job, and convince me it did. If you haven't already, please read it! Shawn put together a dinner at Sante, which adjoined the bookstore, with my agent Julie Stevenson and her friend Laura who drove over from where they were staying in Missoula for the occasion, as well as wonderful local writers Sharma Shields (read her novel, The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac--so good!) and Sam Mills, whose book I'm sure you'll be reading soon. 

Jess Lucht, from Auntie's, was incredibly gracious and sweet about my visit. The crowd was actually a crowd, full of wonderful readers and Spokane community members. Shawn read a new story, "Tantrum"--you can read it here--and I read a story that also had a 3-year old at its center. We asked each other a few questions and took audience questions and then signed books. Small cities may be where it's at in terms of really fantastic readings!

We had a drink at Durkin's Liquor Bar and then it was over! I flew home via Salt Lake City, where my flight was overtaken with a group of outrageously obnoxious teenagers headed on a "service trip" to the Dominican Republic. They sang "Barbara Ann" and whistled through the flight, and as the plane was landing, an adult chaperon and some of the kids jumped up to see New York out the opposite windows, prompting more panic in the voices of the flight attendants than I'd ever care to hear again. 

Thanks so much to Little A for the tour--I hope that it translates into a wider audience for my book! (You know, this book.)