Nineteen African-American authors gather in the lobby of the Marriott Indiana North at 8:00 a.m. Everyone’s talking about the press coverage of their tour. Someone says, "Naleighna, you’re quoted!" and the author of Every Woman Needs a Wife lets out a squeal.
Welcome to day two of the Soul Expressions bus tour.
First stop: Wal-Mart Store #5025 - Fort Wayne, Ind. - 11 a.m.. After a two-hour drive, the bus pulls up to the Wal-Mart in Indiana’s second-largest city. The store’s staff has set up a long table, festooned with a yellow tablecloth, sunflower garlands and pitchers of water. A crowd grows, and some fans greet the authors with screams. They’re meeting their favorite writers and it’s a big moment for them. "It’s not often this happens for us," says one store employee. He’s thrilled with the turnout, and grins happily as customers load up on books and free tote bags. One woman, a bus driver, rushes up to the tables. She pulled her bus off the route to come and see what all the fuss was about.
Talking to Crush author Crystal Hubbard, it’s clear the customers aren’t the only ones in awe of such established authors as Francis Ray, Brenda Jackson and Donna Hill. "To quote The Devil Wears Prada," she says, "’A million girls would kill for this gig.’ The only thing that would make this better is if Harper Lee, Madeleine L’Engle and James Baldwin were on this bus, too."
We get back on the bus, and Subway sandwiches for lunch are on everyone’s seat. As usual, the organizers--an incredibly efficient group of women from Levy Home Entertainment--have kept their authors happy. We have a long drive to our next stop, so after lunch, Devar, who is the "wrangler" helping out with the tour (and the only man on the bus besides author Earl Sewell) suggests popping a movie in to the bus’s DVD player. He wants 300, the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, but there’s not enough testosterone on the bus for that to happen. Dreamgirls wins. The bus cruises through the Indiana countryside, passing farms and silos, and the authors--even Earl--lip synch their way through the film. Bonnie DeShong’s rendition of And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going brings the house down.
Second stop: Wal-Mart Store #2680 - South Bend, Ind. - 3:30 p.m.. Amid Notre Dame "Fighting Irish" merchandise, the authors take their places at the table. A fills the area for the next hour. As with most of the author visits on this tour, the customers are for the most part African-American, although there’s a notable exception at this stop: a white woman happens by, and picks up one--and in some cases, two--copies of every author’s book. She explains that her daughter is a teacher and is always looking for new material for her students.
Before we head to our final stop of the day, one of the tour organizers, Pam Nelson, announces, "Ladies--and Earl: We are going to stop at Starbucks!" Blueberries and cream frappucinos give the authors the lift they need to make it through the afternoon.
Third Stop: Wal-Mart Store #1487 - Michigan City, Ind. - 6:00 p.m.. Though this Wal-Mart is bustling, the turnout for Soul Expressions seems low. Some authors aren’t deterred; they’re calling out to customers, asking if they’ve read their latest books. Others, though, seem either relieved to have a break from the mayhem--or are just too tired to make the hard sell. There’s a mix of authors on the tour, some of them coming from self-published backgrounds and therefore having experience with pushing their work, and others having been helped by major publishing houses throughout their entire careers.
We pull in to Rodini’s restaurant in Michigan City at 8:00 p.m.. Three hardworking waitresses tend to our large party, which is seated at one long table with Earl at the head. Before long, the laughter over mishaps at readings and the events of the day have everyone roaring. The cozy atmosphere and huge portions seem to put everyone in a jovial mood, and authors who never met before Wednesday are swapping favorite secret-weapon scrabble words with each other and commiserating about the changes in African-American publishing over the past ten years.
At 10:30 p.m., we board the bus for Chicago. Most of the authors fall asleep. As they wake, Chicago’s skyline looms.