Driving Ambition

The Ottawa Citizen



October 19, 2003
James Macgowan

We take you now to one of New York State’s Department of Motor Vehicles examination centers, where writer Amanda Stern, 33, sits staring in disbelief after yet another failed driving test. Egads. What’s a writer about to go on tour to do?

Readers will recall that Stern, a Brooklyn-based writer who recently completed her first novel, The Long Haul, hatched an unusual plan a couple months back of conducting her book tour via car, sharing the driving load with a fully-licensed driver she would choose from a list of applicants. Those interested in accompanying the diminutive writer had to fill out an application form on her website (amandastern.com) answering such penetrating questions as “Do you suffer from small bladder syndrome and if so, are you averse to wearing a diaper?” and “Do you have a hair maintenance routine that lasts more than ten minutes and involves more than two products?”

Though she didn’t have a license at the time she came up with the plan, she was confident she would get it after several driving lessons. Alas, she has now taken it twice, and both times she’s ended up in tears. When we caught up with her this week, she was still in mourning over the last examination, which she took Oct. 9.

“I’m in a constant state of mobile humiliation,” she says, via phone from her Brooklyn apartment. “It’s awful.”

The real problem, she surmises, is that she never does well on tests, any kind of tests. And given that there is so much riding on this test, she panics even more than usual.

“I’ve only driven with one person, and that’s my driving instructor. And then he gets out of the car and this fat, hard, stoic inspector gets in and she’s not very nice to me – ever.”

On the first try, Stern says she did everything right, until she came to a sanitation truck somewhere on Staten Island and was deemed not to have gone around it fast enough. “Because I used caution, she thought I put her life in danger, so she failed me. And then, of course, I burst out crying. But not in front of her,” she adds, defiantly.

On the second attempt, she was parallel parking and almost hit a parked car. That one she gladly takes responsibility for. “I turned the wheel the wrong way.”

What all this means is that her book tour, which goes to 22 cities in 24 days beginning Oct. 29, may have to take a slightly different form: Instead of having a stranger accompany her, it may well end up being her boyfriend of two years instead. (Also coming is a filmmaker from France, whom she met when the two were travelling with the Cirque du Soleil. He’ll be making a documentary of the trip.) Her boyfriend, you understand, is not her first choice, but it may be her only choice, pending the result of her third and final exam Wednesday.

“I kind of want this to be my thing,” she says, adding that she has no problem with him being a full-time chauffer if it came to that. (Stern says she wouldn’t feel comfortable having a stranger do all the driving.)

At any rate, no matter what happens, and Stern is nothing if not confident about the outcome of Wednesday’s test — “You know I’m going to fail it. Someone does NOT want me to drive” — all you good Canadian folk who 24applied, and there were several of you determined to take this thing on, are out of luck. She has chosen a woman from Michigan, who has just written a biography of Jack Karouac. “She wants to, literally, be on the road,” Stern explains. “So it means something to her, whereas with a lot of the other people – I’m not sure what they’d be getting out of it.”

Her Canadian responses, she says, were great, which she expected, given that they were, you know, from Canada (she loves us, she really loves us!). However, it seems a lot of them wanted to know about expenses and what she would be paying for and would she share the cost of the plane ticket to New York?

“I have no money,” she says. “I have literally no money. And it’s such a grass-roots type of book tour. I mean, we’re going to be sleeping on floors of booksellers and friends. They were applying for it as if it were a job and I would be paying them to come with me.”

Lost in all this is how the book is doing. The San Francisco Chronicle recently gave it a positive review, and, according to readers on Amazon.com, it’s a thumping good read. Then again, there is one from a Brooklyn N.Y. reader who calls it a “MUST READ”, claims to have already read it twice, and will likely see the film four times, if there is a film, which there isn’t.

“Yeah, that’s totally me,” she confesses. “Don’t out me though.”

Too late.