Rubbing Elbows with the Authors
Years ago I saw a game show in which a husband was asked whether he thought his wife would rather be given a seat in a restaurant that a had a fabulous nature view from a panoramic window, or one from which she would be able to see movie stars enter the room. I knew, even as a child, that I would prefer the panoramic view. But give me the options of a wonderful outside view and the chance to see authors, and the choice becomes much more difficult.
I love meeting authors. Afterwards, reading their work becomes that much more enjoyable. I can hear their voices and understand subtleties that I would perhaps not have appreciated otherwise.
The “top shelf” books in my living room feature those that I have some sort of “bragging rights” to. Some are simply a signed copy of the book that I purchased without actually having met the author, but others are books that I have my own stories about. I have either met the author personally, have an acknowledgement in the book, or have a personal note from the author tucked inside.
It is much easier to meet an author (even a bestselling one) than it is to meet any other kind of celebrity. I have met bestselling authors David Sedaris, Michael Pollan, Barbara Ehrenreich and Junot Diaz, and have been to readings by several others, including Terry McMillan and Sarah Vowell.
David Sedaris is known among his fans for giving out “prizes” when one of his books is purchased. These are often “freebies” that he picked up at hotels. My husband, James, and I met him when he was reading a draft of Me Talk Pretty One Day at Harvard about ten years ago. He was sitting in the lobby before his engagement. Surprisingly, there was no line, and we walked right to the table to talk to him. When we told him we liked to bake he gave us coffee-cake mix from his stash of prizes and inscribed our book “with pleasure at meeting bakers”.
A few years ago, Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz received critical acclaim, and a Pulitzer Prize, for his book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. When I discovered that he was a professor at nearby MIT, I simply sent him an e-mail. It was not hard to find the address at all. I invited him to come to the campus where I teach and received a prompt and personal reply. We arranged a time for him to come to campus with the cooperation of the College’s Office of College and Community Partnerships and Professor Diaz’s publicist. I had the additional thrill of being able to introduce him when he came to speak.
I met Michael Pollan at my campus as well. He was invited to speak as part of the College President’s regular Distinguished Speaker Series. The President had a reception for him prior to the main event where I was able to talk to Pollan and tell him something he didn’t know about his book The Botany of Desire: that it is one it has been challenged in schools for its reference to marijuana.
Our College president also invited Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, to campus as part of the Speaker Series. Since her book was selected as the One Book One Community read for my town, and I am member of the One Book steering committee, I was able to meet her personally after she spoke. The Committee had its picture taken with her as well. I keep the photo inside my copy of the book.
Of course not all authors can be bestsellers. Wherever you live there are probably some local authors you can meet. Since I have lived in several different places, I had the opportunity to meet authors in Baltimore, Maryland; Tucson, Arizona; the Rio Grande Valley (Texas); and in New England.
I worked in a bookstore when I lived in Baltimore and local authors occasionally stopped in to place their books on consignment. The one I remember best was Thaddeus Logan, who wrote a memoir called Hey, Cabbie. He came in occasionally to do book signings and drop off more of his books. I attended Library School in Tucson, where I got job as a researcher for author, Tom Miller. If you read the acknowledgements page of Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba, you will find my name. I also worked at the IBM site library in Tucson with Catherine Wells, author of The Earth is All that Lasts. I bought a copy of her book, which she graciously signed for me. The McAllen Memorial Library in Texas, where I worked as a reference librarian, collected works from local authors. My favorite was Jan Seale. She often stopped in to chat. Knowing her made reading her collection of short stories, Airlift, truly entertaining. Most recently I had the great fun of meeting Dean Cycon, owner of Dean’s Beans and author of Javatrekker. Because James uses the book as a textbook for one of his classes we were invited by the Orange, Massachusetts Public Library to lead a book discussion and meet Dean. He was genuinely pleased to meet us, and we enjoyed drinking fair-trade coffee with him and having our copy of the book signed.
You don’t need to get a job in a library, bookstore, or college to find out about author events. Here are some ways you can start you own author chronicles:
Join the Friends group at your public library and you will most likely receive a regular newsletter about upcoming events. Some independent bookstores and colleges and universities have mailing lists as well. Ask.
Go to conferences. Authors are often selling their books, and you can get a signed copy.
Because writers like to, well, write, getting a personal response to correspondence from one is much more likely than it is with a movie star or sports celebrity. You can write to authors through their publishers who will forward your letters. It is also usually pretty easy to find them online to send e-mail. Tell them something specific you liked about their book. Douglas Cox is not a famous author, but when James and I found out he wrote a book called Paloma, which is our daughter’s name, we bought a copy and sent him a letter. We received a handwritten response, which is kept with the book. James also has a personal, handwritten, response from Robert Persig, author of the classic work Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Become an author yourself. The only way to become a good writer is to write. Start with journals, blogs, or a letter to the editor. Join a writer’s group to help you hone your craft and find out what venues for publishing are available to you.
Support authors by buying their books. If you cannot afford to purchase one yourself, ask your public library to buy one. Michael Pollan pointed out the sad truth that it really does not take selling many books to become a “bestseller”; people don’t really read much, so it is the rare author who is actually rich.
Next time you finish reading a book, take a minute to write a note to the author. You will likely soon have a story of your own to tell.