There’s one sure sign that your book tour has hit the absolute bottom of the bird cage. No, it’s not when you find yourself reading to an audience that consists of one security guard and two yawning store clerks. It’s not even when you show up at a bookstore and learn that copies of your book have not yet arrived from your publisher. (This happened to me, many years ago, in Memphis.)
No, you know your book tour has hit bottom when you get turned away from the cheapest motel in town.
This happened to me recently in Ann Arbor, Mich., where I had taped an interview on the local NPR station before giving a well-attended reading at Nicola’s Books, one of the country’s great independent stores. After I finished reading pages and spinning songs from my novel, Motor City Burning, I fielded questions and signed a tall stack of books. Delighted by the turnout, the events coordinator, Lynn Riehl, offered to buy me a beer. My father taught me never to pass up a free drink.
After two beers, I said goodnight to Lynn and headed for the Motel 6 a few miles away. I love Motel 6’s for the simple reasons that they tend to be cheap and clean and, above all, they never have that atrocious motel art on the walls—you know, paintings of gauzy bouquets, or beach sunsets, or a deer and her fawn lapping the waters of a burbling brook. Plus, there are those down-homey “We’ll leave the light on for you” radio spots by Tom Bodett.
When I walked up to the front desk at the Motel 6 in Ann Arbor, feeling rinsed out from the night’s performance and the 3,000 miles of driving and dozens of readings that had preceded it, the clerk informed me that she had exactly one room left.
“Why so crowded?” I asked, thinking that the University of Michigan was still on summer break and the crowd at my reading, while respectable, couldn’t have filled a Motel 6.
“There’s a stock car race down the road in Brooklyn this weekend,” she explained, taking my credit card and driver’s license.
The first alarm came when she started frowning at her computer screen. Then she called over a co-worker, who also frowned at the computer screen.
I heard one of them mutter three killing little words: “Do Not Rent.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Morris,” the clerk said, sliding my credit card and driver’s license back across the counter. “The computer says we can’t rent you a room.”
Stunned, trying to remember if I had ever trashed a Motel 6, I managed to blurt out, “Does it say why?”
“No,” she said, gazing sadly at the computer screen. “It just says ‘Do Not Rent.’ Were you ever involved in a police action at a Motel 6?”
“Not that I can remember,” I said, going for a light tone, which I immediately realized was a mistake. “I mean no, absolutely not. It’s probably been 10 years since I’ve stayed at a Motel 6, and I’ve never had any problems.” Dammit, I wanted to tell her, I’m a novelist not a rock star. “This must be some computer glitch,” I went on. “Ladies, I’m tired. Can’t we just—”
“I’m sorry. The computer says I cannot rent you a room.”
There’s no arguing with a computer in America. This one, in a nearly Biblical flourish, had turned me away at the inn. Defeated—no, crushed—I wandered off into the night in search of a vacant barn, or a motel room that hadn’t yet been booked by the invading horde of beer-swilling NASCAR fans. An hour later, nearly delirious with fatigue, I found one—the only room left at the Days Inn. It was the honeymoon suite, replete with a mauve in-room Jacuzzi surrounded by mirrors, for $140 a night. Though it’s tough for a party of one to celebrate a honeymoon, I jumped at the room.
But when I hit the road the next morning for Traverse City, I couldn’t get that nightmare at Motel 6 out of my head. Why had they turned me away? Do they discriminate against all mid-list novelists? Was it because I’m obviously not cut from NASCAR cloth? Was it a computer glitch—or something more sinister?
Tormented by these questions, I called the corporate headquarters number the desk clerk had given me. A spokesman named Ryan Hawkins told me I would have to contact the Motel 6 in Ann Arbor to find out why I was turned away there. I got Donnie Kemplin, an assistant manager in Ann Arbor, on the phone. “It could have been a misunderstanding about your name, maybe,” he said, not sounding too sure of himself. I pressed him to check the records, see if someone named William Morris had ever pulled a Guns ‘n’ Roses in one of his rooms. After a while Kemplin came back on the line and said, “There was someone with your name here on April 25, 2013. He was guilty of misconduct.” I told Kemplin I was in New York City, more than 600 miles away, on the night of April 25, 2013. Kemplin said he was sorry, I would have to call back when the manager was on duty if I wanted to know more.
Eventually I got the manager, Jacob Depew, on the phone, who gave me the number of the Motel 6 “Hospitality Press Line,” where a man named Jeremy (“We don’t give out last names”) transferred me to “Guest Relations,” where a man named Fred Mack picked up the phone. I’ve gotten less elaborate runarounds from the Pentagon.
“There was a guest with your name who was accused of aggravated misconduct,” said Mack, after checking his computer. “The ladies at the desk were supposed to compare your driver’s license number and date of birth with the offending party. They didn’t do everything they were supposed to do. I apologize for that.”
“What kind of aggravated misconduct?” I asked, trying to put myself in Axl Rose’s shoes. Did the other William Morris set the bed on fire? Drive his car into the swimming pool? Deliver an Elvisoidal shotgun blast to the TV set?
“I’m afraid I can’t release that,” Mack said, though he did tell me that the other William Morris was not on a blacklist at every Motel 6, just the one in Ann Arbor.
This was a relief, maybe. While it meant that the other William Morris is free to commit acts of aggravated misconduct at Motel 6’s from Kalamazoo to Weeki Wachee, at least I had not been discriminated against because I’m a mid-list novelist or because I think stock car racing is the sport of morons. It turned out to be much simpler than that. It was pilot error and mistaken identity—coupled with some people’s tendency to slavishly obey any command issued by a computer.
But as my book tour has rolled on, I haven’t even tried to book a room at another Motel 6. Maybe they’re leaving the light on for me, as Tom Bodett promised, but once you’ve soaked your road-weary novelist bones in a mauve, mirrored Days Inn Jacuzzi, it’s hard to go back to a room that doesn’t even have any art on the walls. Especially when your namesake might be in the next room, breaking bad and sullying your good name.