I'm to meet Christopher Hitchens in the morning for an author escort job in L.A. as he tours for his megaseller, God Is Not Great. Having worked with some of the finest writers in our business—Wendy Wasserstein, Jonathan Franzen, Jeff Eugenides and Octavia Butler have all been passengers in my car—I should be feeling confident. But Hitchens's reputation as a brilliant, alcohol-brined demigod precedes him, and my nerves are shot.
His publisher has him booked at the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood, one of the chicest places in town. When my first book came out last year, my publisher gave me $1,500 for a six-city tour. Hotels were out of the question, so I camped out with friends everywhere I went. I appreciated the comfort in that, the loving companionship that welcomed me on the road, and as I enter the Mondrian the sweet memories of my tour make me smile.
I meet Hitchens in the lobby at 10 a.m. He greets me warmly, and our voices intersect jovially as we introduce ourselves at the same time. I start to calm down, my nerves ebbing as we make our way to my car.
I'm a smoker. In my many years as a freelance author escort, I'd never once driven a fellow addict, and on the rare occasion that I asked if I might smoke in the car, I always met with disdain. Imagine my pleasure, then, when I spot the pack of Rothman's in Hitchens's pocket. I light up a cigarette faster than you can say “atheist.” Cracking the car windows, we happily smoke while I listen to him talk about his political metamorphosis after 9/11. My brilliant, Oxford-educated charge, a rock star of literary journalism, is the sort of man who never loses an argument. Wisely, I keep my mouth shut.
Later, en route to Pasadena for Hitchens's NPR interview, I give him my standard résumé spiel, assuring him of my publishing pedigree—36 years and counting in this industry of ours—so he'll know I speak his language and understand the angst of book tours. Hitchens smiles; I can tell he likes me. A thought suddenly comes to mind: why wouldn't he like me? I'm a wise, intelligent published author—just like he is.
The NPR interview is stunning on all counts, and funny enough to make me fall over laughing time and again. By the time we get back in my car, I'm assured of the man's genius. I congratulate Hitchens on the fabulous success of his book. “Thank you so much,” he says modestly. “It's surprised all of us, really. The book's in its ninth printing. Can't seem to keep it in stock—a quarter-million copies in print now!” Having just received my first royalty check, I'm delighted about a sell-through of 7,000 copies of my book.
Over the next two days, I am astonished, and then frightened, by the huge crowds that come to hear Hitchens at each event. His following is at once both adoring and rabid; each person has his or her own agenda about the provocative ideas in his book. Johnny Walker Black leads the way. Voices are raised, laughter explodes, and Hitchens's sagacity is evident at every turn.
My book tour attracted groups of 20 to 40 people where gentle, intimate discussions commenced. Whereas Hitchens has groupies, I have folks who share a love of the culture of books. Yet for all our differences, he and I each have our place in the world; we are equivalents. To touch one soul, to make one mind think in a new way is the point, I think, of both Hitchens's work and mine. We thrive in the same industry, where stature is best measured by acknowledging our mutual contributions and needs for one another.
Before saying our good-byes, I give Hitchens a copy of my book, knowing he could as easily become a fan of mine as I am of his. When I get in my car alone the next morning, there is the smell of Scotch. Hitchens endures, as do I.