The SECRET LIFE OF WALTER: WITTY
A mystery writer, quite a novel character, embarks on a do-it- yourself tour to promote his latest, Masquerade. It’s no time to be humble or serious.
by Jean Heller, February 2, 1999
© St. Petersburg Times – St. Petersburg, Fla.
Snowflakes splatter the windshield in nearly white-out driving conditions, and ice builds along the window frame beyond the reach of overmatched wipers. Slush with the skid characteristics of bat guano coats the chewed up pavement of Interstate 15 where a 19-year-old Winnebago lumbers up an incline, its carburetor gasping for air.
“Poor beast,” the driver laments. “She’s not set up for performance at this altitude. She’ll do 0 to 60 in a day and a half.”
He is Walter Satterthwait, self-proclaimed International Lunch Whore and author of a dozen acclaimed mystery novels, now turned reluctant itinerant pitchman on behalf of his own books.
It is one of the cruel truths of the publishing business that the advertising and promotion bucks flow to the Stephen Kings and Tom Clancys of the world, whose names alone would sell a gazillion copies if not even a single dollar were spent to help. The rest, like Walter Satterthwait, do their own book hype or go without.
“I feel like I have to do it,” he says. “And if I have to do it, I might as well have some fun.”
Satterthwait, whose driver’s license and Winnebago registration say he is a resident of Indian Rocks Beach, bought the motor home from a Pinellas County man for $8,000 last fall. He said it was 30 feet long. Then he called back with a correction.
“I want you to get this right because you know how guys are about length,” he said. “It’s 33 feet long.”
He had the Winnebago overhauled and turned it over to an exterior decorator.
When he got it back, emblazoned along the side was a 5-foot-high copy of the cover of his latest book and its title, Masquerade. The book’s bar code filled the 3-foot wheel cover in the rear.
His wife, Caroline Gordon, redid the interior in black and gold with fake leopard-skin accents. Friends added a pair of red fuzzy rear-view-mirror dice that light up when plugged into the cigarette lighter.
Thus decked out, Walter Satterthwait launched the Masque-Mobile, a.k.a., the Walter-bago, on a six-month journey across our fair nation to help boost book sales.
“I’m not a big believer in writers promoting themselves,” he says. “But I decided blatant self-promotion is okay if it’s low-key, tasteful and elegant.”
To ensure the tasteful and elegant part, the 52-year-old author makes his promotional appearances in black denim pants, cowboy boots and a gray sweat shirt that reads: “Graduate, Famous Writers’ School.” He’ll throw a white silk scarf around his neck, too, if you ask nicely.
Satterthwait is, in short, his own event.
None of this schtick is on his mind as the motor home crawls away from Salt Lake City, which is rapidly becoming paralyzed by the season’s first big storm.
If the weather weren’t enough, Satterthwait – in the ultimate act of masochism – has chosen the stressful beginning of the book tour as a time to quit smoking. He is into his fourth week and has made a serious dent in the world’s supply of Nicorette gum.
“What if I get addicted to the gum?” he asks. “No, never mind. I don’t want to talk about anything to do with smoking. It makes it harder to quit. I know. I’ve quit hundreds of times.”
Farther south, two hours later, the snow gives way to 50 mph crosswinds pounding out of the Mineral Mountains. They jostle the Winnebago until the duct tape holding the glove compartment shut comes loose.
“Just stick it back on,” Satterthwait says. “Greatest invention in the world, duct tape. I made three trips across the country on a motorcycle. Without duct tape, I never could have done it. Only trouble with duct tape is you can’t use it on ducts.”
What in the world possessed Satterthwait to make this trip?
“I had written a short story, a mystery, about a guy driving around in an RV, and he picks up a hitchhiker and stuff happens,” he says. “And I thought, why not try it? It gives me a chance to get my books better known, see friends, see the country, hang out and learn new skills, like driving a 12,000-pound house.”
Satterthwait doesn’t really want new skills. He is sufficiently absorbed by the one he already has, writing award-winning mysteries that sell big in France and Germany but not well enough in the United States to lift him into the ranks of James Lee Burke, Dick Francis or Elmore Leonard, where he thinks he belongs.
The Masque-Mobile tour could change all that, although gearing up for it has cost Satterthwait a lot of money. He has paid all the expenses himself, using funds from the publisher who bought the German rights to Masquerade. His American publisher, St. Martin’s Press, is solidly behind the promotion effort but says the economics of the book-publishing business make it difficult for the house to offer its author financial help with it.
“We’re in a Catch-22 situation,” says Reagan Arthur, Satterthwait’s editor. “The profit margin on a book is so small, if we advertise and promote and it doesn’t sell, the profit disappears. On the other hand, if we don’t spend the money, an author who deserves to might never rise to the level of a James Lee Burke.
“We don’t always say no, but we have to make choices. What Walter is doing is terrific. He’s such a personality, and the book is so good, this might work for him. I hope it does.”
To break out, Satterthwait must develop new readers. His Salt Lake City book signing was attended almost exclusively by those who already knew and liked his work.
But at a two-day book fair in Las Vegas, more than 50 people who had never read him walked away with copies of his books.
It is impossible to compartmentalize Satterthwait’s work, except to say there is a deadly mystery at the heart of each book, wrapped in laugh-out-loud humor. Miss Lizzie chronicles an aging Lizzie Borden as she teams with a young neighbor girl, Amanda, to solve, of all things, an ax murder. Wilde West follows the travels of Oscar Wilde through the American West with a serial killer in his entourage.
Satterthwait wrote his five-novel Joshua Croft series based on a modern private investigator in the Southwest. Though many of his fans have begged for another Croft book, Satterthwait says he thinks he’s through with the PI.
His latest series, Escapade and Masquerade, follows the adventures of Pinkerton agents Phil Beaumont and Jane Turner through 1920s Europe. Both books include heavily researched real-life characters: Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.
“The next Phil and Jane novel will be in Germany, before World War II,” he says. “I have to get a copy of Mein Kampf and read it. I looked for it in a used-book store when I was in Albuquerque. They usually have about four copies. But the owner said they sold out for Christmas. Can you imagine? ‘Here’s a copy of Mein Kampf. Merry Christmas.’ “
Setting a book in Germany should only help Satterthwait’s usual strong sales there.
“The Germans are paying for this tour, every penny,” Satterthwait says. “I don’t know why they do it, especially because of all the nasty things I’ve said about Germans all my life. I take at least some of it back.”
The tangerine-colored business card Satterthwait hands out on his journey calls it the Terrible Trailer Trash Tour, though the author hastens to clarify that he is the trailer trash, not his readers. He also carries a card identifying himself as an International Lunch Whore, an exclusive club of one. He earned his membership, he says, when he successfully proved, contrary to modern convention, that there really is such a thing as a free lunch.
Back in 1977, when he sold his first book, he began eating with his agent and with editors, who always picked up the checks. When he started selling foreign rights, free lunching became an international activity.
He had to go to Greece to rent a house in 1994. Instead of flying, he took a train to Paris and had a free lunch with his French publisher, then went to Milan for a free lunch with his Italian publisher.
“When I added up the transportation and hotel costs, I figured out those two free lunches cost me $1,275,” he says. “But when it comes to free lunches, money is no object.”
Satterthwait, who never graduated from college, supported himself for two decades tending bar and managing clubs while trying to catch on as a writer. He would move overseas, to places like Africa or a Greek island, where he could live on a few thousand dollars a year while he researched and wrote books. When he ran out of money, he would get back behind a bar.
“I always wanted to be a writer,” he says, “from the first time I figured out that writers are cool people who get to hang out with beautiful women and don’t have to own alarm clocks.”
Now that he’s a writer, he wants to be a famous writer and make a lot more money. He has no life or health insurance because he hasn’t had a steady income to pay the premiums. The Walter-bago is his only home, and will be for as long as the duct tape holds up.
And how would he sum up his cross-country quest for new fans?
“Quixotic,” he says. “Definitely tilting at windmills. That’s a good way to put it. But it’s also tax-deductible.”
Excerpts from MASQUERADE
by Walter Satterthwait
I sat down on the sofa, a large piece of upholstered furniture decorated with an elaborate blue floral print. She sat down in a matching chair and leaned toward me, her spine straight, her knees together and turned gracefully to the side. I noticed that she had very good legs. She noticed that I noticed this, and I noticed that she noticed that, and both of us pretended that we hadn’t noticed a thing.
She smiled. “Tea?”
I heard the gun crack three or four times, maybe more, and I heard the ping and wail as slugs ricocheted off the pavement, and I heard someone scream, a woman, high-pitched and terrified, and then I heard the roar of the engine as the car raced away. I was still rolling but I hadn’t felt the hard fast punch of a slug, and I decided that I was
probably alive and that I might as well get up from the sidewalk.
He and the floozy were talking to Miss Stein when Mr. Hemingway, attempting to demonstrate the correct way to perform some intricate bullfighting movement, a toreador or a corridor or something, brushed his arm against the table again, with more force this time. The table swayed for an instant, then swung away from the wall and hurtled to the floor. Statuary rolled helter-skelter across the carpet – Mr. Picasso, I saw, was struck in the ankle by a bust of Hadrian.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.