Author Tour Revolution: Bringing the Writer’s Story to Life

Doug Stanton

Photo by Tony Demin

As the author of two best sellers, Doug Stanton 79F belongs to the select group of writers whose work automatically gets attention and support within an industry looking for strong sales. Appearances are scheduled with national talk shows, and his publisher sends him out on extensive book tours.

It was on such a tour in 2009 for Horse Soldiers when Stanton realized that traditional model of author–audience interaction needed a reboot.

“BOOK TOURS COST roughly twenty-five hundred dollars per city,” he says. “What publishers want in return is interviews and sales.”

The sales were there for him: Horse Soldiers spent more than three months on the New York Times Best Seller List. The tour felt different, though. What had changed dramatically since the release in 2001 of In Harm’s Way, which spent nine months on the Times list, was the local media landscape. Horse Soldiers was featured on the front page of the Times Sunday Book Review; its sales were being driven by the national media exposure and the Internet.

There were far fewer opportunities for local and regional interviews, the result of declining traditional media markets. “You need both the macro and the micro media,” Stanton says. Local interviews are the key to drawing audiences to bookstores for author readings and signings.

The economic ramifications for the publishing industry, and for writers, were obvious to Stanton. “It’s ironic,” he says. “At this very time when the pipeline from publisher to author to American public is shrinking, fewer and fewer people are passing through it successfully in the old ways that used to happen.”

He also likes sharing his work with an audience, and thinks it’s important for writers to do so. He remembers the powerful experience of two readings he attended as a younger man—Peter Matthiessen reading the closing pages of At Play in the Fields of the Lord and Richard Ford reading his short story “Rock Springs.”

“I’m interested in how in the twenty-first century, in an age of so many digital platforms, we can keep the analog experience alive,” Stanton says. “Being in a room, being present with writers as they bring their own work, their own life, and their own story alive in the moment is exciting to me in the way that live theater or a great teacher can be exciting.”

If, as many would argue, the deep value of a Hampshire College education lies in preparing one to think and adapt quickly, pivoting to stay relevant, Stanton’s analysis and response provide a great example. “Learning to ask that question ‘How?’ is one of the first things I learned at Hampshire,” he says. He reverse-engineered what he had done as a writer on tour, bringing it back to the local level and trying to create a livelier cultural experience. Stanton drew on many observations, including the participatory nature he had witnessed at events involving cookbook authors and the revelatory aspects in digital interviews with writers talking about how they create their work.

Poets & Writers magazine has described the result as an “author tour revolution” and “one of the premier reading series in the country.” Stanton reinvigorated the author reading, making it an up-close and personal experience for the audience.

“Being in a room, being present with writers as they bring their own work, their own life, and their own story alive in the moment is exciting to me in the way that live theater or a great teacher can be exciting.”

He founded the National Writers Series in Traverse City, Michigan, where he grew up and where he and his family live today. Now in its fourth year, the series is billed as a year-round book festival. Traverse City is not a university town, yet thousands are drawn downtown to take part. Some of its success no doubt stems from the hometown-boy-made-good scenario, plus Stanton’s role in recruiting big-name authors, journalists, and storytellers to participate. The magic, though, appears to begin with the format he’s created.

“We wanted something electric,” Stanton says: “Conversation. I had taught in an undergraduate writing program and I love teaching. Interacting with a class can be transformative. Change is happening. Ideas are being transmitted, and you feel it. That’s what we try to do onstage. I tell the authors, all you have to do is be real and be human.

“I pick up a writer at the airport and we start talking. We talk shop. We talk about friends. We talk about books and why we admire them. We walk into a room of seven hundred people and we continue the conversation.”

His role when hosting, Stanton says, draws on skills he’s developed doing so many interviews in all kinds of places. It begins with being able to build rapport, as any journalist must. “You make a deal with yourself,” he says, “that your job is to disappear in the moment and draw out the person sitting across from you. My job onstage is to spotlight our guests.

“Conversation can often be a joust. This is different. It requires the ability to be there in the moment, but not be there. It’s tricky, and it’s kind of fascinating. A great interview is kind of hypnotic,” Stanton says. That’s true both for the conversationalists and for the audience.”

The evening concludes with a three- or four-minute reading by the visiting author. “The dissonance between the more jocular conversation and the author reading is very entertaining,” Stanton says. “The goal is to make the author come alive onstage, so the audience wants to lean in, know more, and buy the book. Readers have an intrinsic curiosity about how authors do what they do. They want to know how a book is made, how the author writes it.”

The National Writers Series is one way of giving back to his profession and to his hometown. Another project Stanton founded there is Front Street Writers, a free, first-class writing workshop for local high school students. It’s modeled on work he did as an MFA student in the Iowa Writers Workshop, and on the support he received as a high school student and aspiring author while attending  Interlochen Arts Academy.

“You have a responsibility to give back,” he says. “If you arrived at a certain point where you can stop and you see how you might do some good to create some change in your community, it’s really your job.”

In Harm's WayDoug Stanton’s skills as an interviewer have been as essential to his success as an author as they have to the reading series he established. In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors is considered the definitive account of the great World War II naval disaster. Torpedoed by a submarine in 1945 while on a secret mission, the ship sank in the Pacific. Three hundred men were killed on impact; 900 were cast into the sea. Over a period of days, sharks, hypothermia, dementia, and drowning cut that number to only 317 survivors.

Stanton’s desire to tell their story began when he met some of those World War II veterans while on an assignment for Men’s Journal, for which he was a contributing editor. “I was immediately drawn in by how they had survived this enormous disaster and how it had shaped the rest of their lives. The epic story of survival, not a story about combat, was what interested me,” he says.

Horse Soldiers Similar themes emerge in Horse Soldiers as Stanton tells the story of a small Special Forces group who entered Afghanistan after 9/11 and rode on horseback against the Taliban. “I thought of it as a story about how these twelve guys had been asked to do a job the world might never know about,” says the author. “What was it like to be alive in that moment, doing that thing?”

Stanton’s author bio notes that in the course of his own work, he “nearly drowned in Cape Horn waters, survived a mugging by jungle revolutionaries, played basketball with George Clooney, and took an acting lesson from Harrison Ford.”

As a student, at Interlochen, Hampshire, and Iowa, he concentrated on writing poetry and was for a time caretaker of the Robert Frost House. As a journalist, he has written extensively on travel, sport, entertainment, and history, as well as environmental pieces such as “What the River Dragged In” in the New York Times. His work has appeared in Esquire, Time, the Washington Post, Outside, The Daily Beast/Newsweek, and other national publications for which he has been a contributing editor.