Our guest blogger today is Andrew Evans. His book, The Black Penguin, was just released in paperback. It was awarded honorable mentions by both the Society of American Travel Writers and the American Library Association’s GLBTQ Roundtable in their book award competitions. It is published in the University of Wisconsin Press series Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiographies. Follow his travel adventures on Twitter at @wheresandrew
Writing such an intensely personal book as The Black Penguin has resulted in a bit of a neurotic roller coaster for me, given that every review feels like a myopic critique of my life. But, I’ve also seen in the responses to the book that I am not alone and that others have struggled and triumphed, too.
As a writer, I am one part thick, scaly dinosaur skin and two parts oversensitive mush. The paradox results from constant rejection versus daily attempts to corral my subconscious onto the page. This weird duality works, I hope, to produce above-average stories while keeping my confidence in check. But I, and I think most authors, continue to question our work long after publication.
After a book leaves your brain, your fingertips, and your control, you watch its progress. Like a tomato plant, it either takes over the backyard or becomes infested with beetles, withers, and dies. Either way, the book stops being yours and has a life of its own. There may be reviews and Amazon stars, awards, and the distant echo of social media. An author’s ego can be fed sumptuously, as when I saw my name displayed in the window of a famous bookshop, or crushed, as when I saw all the empty chairs for my reading.
For me, the real blessings of a book tour are the face-to-face meetings with readers.
It’s surprising how many feel that I wrote the book specifically for them. So far, very few readers I’ve met on tour are gay Mormons like me. I have met Muslim women who struggle between faith, family, and love, and elderly gay clergy, interracial couples with racist in-laws, or just people who feel that they don’t belong. Meeting them all has reminded me that what may seem to be a very individual and personal story can reflect a universal emotional experience.
As a travel writer, I discovered that the book tour highlighted the amazing diversity of my own country. Every night I caught a new glimpse of American urban life, from the debonair professionals of New York City, to the queer theorists who flocked at the Harvard Bookstore, to Powell’s in Portland, where a man with two pit bulls and no legs thrust a handful of homegrown cannabis into my hands.
I was also reminded how impossible it is to categorize my book, which reflects the struggles I faced in writing it. I have found my book shelved under Travel, Memoir, Autobiography, LGBTQ, and even Religion. Indeed, it is this intersection of genres that interests me.
I have been especially touched by the diverse book clubs that have selected The Black Penguin for their monthly reading. From Maryland to California, I’ve received letters from book club members (all mostly women) who have read and discussed my book. One club has been meeting monthly for more than twenty years! Perhaps my greatest compliment came from a book club of high school English teachers, who let me know that they felt my book was well written. Sigh. Thank you; I had to rewrite it so many times! Accolades from the front lines of American literature are reassuring, especially after reading an online review that summed up my gut-spilling memoir in two words: “mildly interesting.”
I have moved on to writing my next book, but I am thrilled to see The Black Penguin in paperback and reaching readers across the world. I never expected this book to be “huge,” but I feel it is a huge success when someone texts me a picture of a tattered copy of my book, which they found in a rented beach house, or in a school library, or in a distant youth hostel. Seeing the book travel across the globe is the greatest compliment of all, and I send my sincerest gratitude to all my readers, wherever they are.
has completed more than forty assignments for National Geographic, reporting from all seven continents. He is the author of the Bradt travel guides Iceland and Ukraine and lives in Washington, DC.