- Roy Gumpel
This June, when the nation was riveted by the escape of two convicts from a maximum security prison in the Adirondacks, Phoenicia author Jenny Milchman was astounded: her third novel, As Night Falls, (Ballantine, 2015) has the same storyline, right down to the physical size of the pair and their plan to cross uncharted woods into Canada.The high-stakes manhunt grabbed headlines for weeks, coming to a grim close just two days before As Night Falls's June 30 launch date. Milchman's editor fired off a deadpan, "Thanks for the wonderful publicity stunt, Jenny."
The award-winning author of North Country thrillers Cover of Snow (Ballantine, 2013) and Ruin Falls (Ballantine, 2014) is mystified by the coincidence. Though it appears ripped from the headlines, her adrenaline-pumping new novel was written, printed, and packed into shipping cartons long before the real-life story emerged.
"Where do stories come from? What do we tap into?" Milchman asks, sipping a cup of vanilla-scented London Fog tea at Woodstock eatery Joshua's. She'll address the same questions again in a couple of hours at an event called "A Conversation Among Creatives" at The Golden Notebook Bookstore.
Jenny Milchman is good at author events. Very, very good.
By anyone's lights, she's had plenty of practice. Between January 2013, when Cover of Snow was released, and this fall, she and her family will have logged more than 70,000 miles in what Shelf Awareness has dubbed "the world's longest book tour."
This crisscross-country ultramarathon, with 450 events for three different books, was inspired by the road trips she loved as a child and fueled by a burning determination to connect with booksellers and readers. Cheerfully parrying questions of sanity on her website—one fellow author declared "I would rather eat rats"—Milchman calls touring "just about the sheerest fun I ever experienced. Drive up to a bookstore, be welcomed by someone who has devoted his or her life to books, have a delicious latte, then walk into a room and talk to one person or three hundred about the stories that compel us. What could be better than that?"
This satisfied glow was a long time coming. As Milchman told a rapt Golden Notebook audience, "It took me 11 years to get published. Eight novels, 3 agents, 15 almost-offers." When Ballantine made an offer on novel number eight, she was so elated she drove to her kids' elementary school at lunchtime, taking them both out to share the big news.
They would soon share much more. The World's Longest Book Tour is a family affair, with Milchman's husband Josh telecommuting to his IT business in the front of the SUV and their daughter and son, now 12 and 9, getting "car-schooled" in back. In fact, their first road trip inspired her next book: When a motel upgraded their weary group to a suite, Milchman went to tuck in the kids and realized that their sleeper sofa was against a wall, right next to the exit door. Her brain went into "What if?" overdrive, and Ruin Falls was born.
Milchman was a precocious reader. She remembers her father handing her books by Charlotte Brontë and Andre Gide when she was eight. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, she says, "I was a shamefully big reader. Other kids didn't understand why I wouldn't come outside and play." As a teen, she devoured Jack London stories, Victorian novels, and chillers by authors like Stephen King and Ira Levin.
She discovered the Adirondacks at girl scout camp; many years later, she and Josh would attempt a backcountry canoe honeymoon—during black fly season. Milchman shudders. "I'm getting itchy just talking about it."
She attended Bard College, eventually transferring to Barnard and graduating with a double major in English and psychology. The latter was "not my own thought. My parents sat me down and said, 'So what's the plan, Jenny?' I had a really good plan," she says wryly. "I was going to be a poet and live in a cabin I'd built myself." Her parents pointed out that she'd never picked up a hammer, urging the young poet to choose a fallback career.
"I was never supposed to be a poet," Milchman says now. "If you want to write, you should write the kind of book you curl up with at night. Which was not poetry, and not the Victorians, much as I loved them." Suspense was what made her heart beat.
But she set writing aside for several years while working at a community mental health center in blue-collar western New Jersey. Her specialty was working with children, and she handled some cases that "sunk deep claws into me," including a "little five-year-old cherub of a child—her mom brought her in—who had killed the family pet." This inspired her first suspense novel, "180,000 unpublishable words" which nonetheless got good responses from some of the many agents she queried. Cutting 60,000 words from the manuscript, Milchman found her first agent in 2000. But getting published eluded her, time after time.
"When the rejection got too degrading, I'd start another book," she explains. "The books were the fun part. The stories, and my husband, were what kept me going." Still, she worried about the effect her frustration might have on her children. "Is the message 'Don't give up on your passion,' or is the message 'The publishing industry sucks and will beat you down?'" she says. When Cover of Snow finally sold, "It felt surreal. I didn't believe it at first."
She was determined to celebrate—and to ensure that her debut book would reach readers. Enter the book tour.
"On the first one, my publisher thought I was crazy," she admits. In a blog for Writers Unboxed, Milchman wrote, "Do you know how many empty rooms you'll walk into? was the general sentiment. And sure, there were some. But thanks to the stellar, engaged, and creative booksellers of this country, plus my kick-butt independent publicists, I also walked into a fair number of rooms filled with dozens—occasionally hundreds—of readers. And when my debut went into its sixth printing in hardcover, my publisher offered to help set up the tour for my second novel. With a third book about to come out, they have taken on part of the cost as well. I think when one of the world's biggest media conglomerates says, 'This turned out to be a good idea,' you know you're onto something."
She's certainly found a way to stand out in the crowd. As the publishing industry continues to spin like a tilting roulette wheel, many authors have found inventive ways to take the helm of their own careers: blogs, social media, YouTube chats, book trailers, author events via Skype. But Milchman is doing it old-school, making in-person appearances at brick-and-mortar stores where books are hand-sold and readers gather to listen and buy autographed copies. It's the literary equivalent of a garage band hitting the road in a bus—she's given each tour a name that would look right at home on a roadie's t-shirt: Let It Snow Tour 2013, Over the Falls Tour 2014, and the current Bring on the Night Tour. As of this writing, she's in Wisconsin, en route to a two-event day. She sounds so delighted it seems churlish to ask if anyone's tired of driving.
Milchman started networking before she was published, founding Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day in 2010. That year, the December event was celebrated by 80 bookstores; now more than 700 participate. She's also vice president of author programming for International Thriller Writers, and loves giving authors advice about touring. Her near-evangelical fervor for making connections among writers and book-lovers appears to come straight from the heart. In print and in person, she talks about the heightened importance of face-to-face interactions in an increasingly digital age.
Her author events have the vibe of a creative revival meeting. She rarely reads from her books, but talks about their characters and evolution. She's fascinated by the Adirondacks and Catskills, with their stunning beauty, harsh weather, and idiosyncratic inhabitants. "There's a culture clash between the oldtimers and newcomers—they used to be known as 'summer people,' but now they're year-round people." These class rifts permeate As Night Falls, as the two convicts invade a mansion whose luxury features—state-of-the-art soundproofing, floating staircase, and wine cellar—become plot points. So do the complex dynamics of its inhabitants: a resourceful psychologist, her adventure-guide husband, their newly rebellious 15-year-old daughter, and a quirky rescue dog.
Even as she describes her book, Milchman shares the spotlight with her audience, inviting them into the conversation with questions about creativity, inspiration, and obstacles. She listens as well as she speaks, effortlessly picking up threads and weaving observations from audience members into the discourse. Her warmth is both practiced and genuine: she gives good Jenny Milchman.
She's also a virtuoso of gratitude: at seven pages, the Acknowledgments in As Night Falls run longer than some of its chapters. She's met many new friends on the road; Facebook friends become real friends. "Rather than sitting alone with our devices, we're in close conversation. And magic happens," Milchman asserts. "If we listen too closely to people who say it's not likely or not possible, we're never going to get anywhere."