In the Driver’s Seat: An Uneasy Bride’s Cross-Country Ride with Two Strangers
by Jenn McKee
When first-time novelist Amanda Stern chose me — on the basis of a goofy online questionnaire — to be her driver on a national book tour, almost no one understood why I’d volunteer to be on the road for nearly a month, doing all the driving, unpaid, on short notice, with someone I’d never met.
My parents didn’t get it (and I didn’t even mention the “unpaid” part to them). My husband – whom I’d married only two months before the tour began – didn’t get it. Amanda herself confessed that she didn’t get it. And my closest friends, though supportive, didn’t get it. So I found myself inventing different explanations for different people, winding through complicated answers that revealed that I was as much in the dark about my motives as anyone.
When applying for the gig, I told Amanda that I’d just finished writing a study guide about Jack Kerouac, so this unusual opportunity made a strange sort of sense after months of researching “On the Road”’s iconic author. You couldn’t read the man’s best work without feeling, on a visceral level, that teeming life and adventure awaited us all, provided we had the guts to leave our comfort zones. Plus, I explained, the Beats’ world often felt so impenetrably male that I felt curious about what a feminist version of “On the Road” would be like.
I told my husband, Joe, that in the year and a half since I’d returned to Michigan — after leaving Penn State, where I’d spent three years earning a creative writing MFA and an additional year working as an adjunct lecturer – I hadn’t yet found a close-knit writing community to replace the one I’d had in graduate school. Writing was such an isolated business, I argued, particularly when you were a free-lancer, that the opportunity to talk and spend time with a working writer for a few weeks was irresistible. In Michigan, I’d become increasingly lonely and depressed, spending my days working in public libraries or our bungalow home, and I thought the tour might jump-start my creative life.
I told my parents that the timing of finishing the Kerouac book and starting the tour worked well, and that because I hoped to be on a book tour of my own someday, I could learn important lessons from the front row seat of someone else’s. The pressure wouldn’t be on me, so I could objectively evaluate what worked and what didn’t. And because publishers are sinking less and less money into marketing, I argued, selling a book falls squarely on the author’s shoulders now more than ever. Amanda’s on-the-cheap book tour might be the way of the future for authors, and if I clued in to that now, I’d be ahead of the game.
I told my strong-minded MFA girlfriends from Penn State that after working through my marriage-fears – Joe and I, though geographically separated for long stretches of time, “dated” for more than seven years before getting engaged – I nonetheless felt the need to assert my independence after the wedding. Yes, I’d kept my name. But Joe, an attorney, earned more than ten times what I did as a fledgling free-lancer. I was uneasy about the tipped financial scales that would, in all likelihood, remain tipped throughout our life together. And despite Joe’s regular insistence that it was “our money,” I feared I would always internally translate individual financial worth into individual personal worth, and thus assume gender roles I’d worked hard to reject. (That is, I might have thought, “Wow, he is the reason we live in a house and don’t have to panic when unexpected expenses come up; I guess the least I can do is to take care of every single aspect of its upkeep.”) So I told my friends that I needed to prove to myself that I was still me; that in spite of the rings, the signed ketubah, and the marriage license, I could and should still have things in my life that were solely mine.
Lastly, I told my best friend, Kim, that professionally and personally, I had no idea what lay ahead for me, and that this tour might be my last shot at adventure for a while. I was thirty-two, and for all I knew, I would soon find a steady job that would lock up my days, or perhaps decide with Joe to have a child. Either way, the likelihood that another chance would arise to circle the contiguous U. S. with a novelist seemed infinitesimally small.
Each explanation I’d concocted was true in its way, but none was wholly satisfying. Even I, the person who’d articulated them all, shoving them together into an awkward Pangea of justification, still wondered occasionally at my inexplicably strong desire to do this. But then Kim demonstrated, as she often does, why she’s my best friend. Knowing I’d already made up my mind to accept Amanda’s offer, she simply said, “Go” – like a cheerleader, like a green light, like an impatient person standing behind you in the grocery line, riding up your backside.
So I went. And it was one of the hardest, greatest times of my life.