When meeting writers whom you admire it can be difficult to adequately explain in the few seconds they scribble their signatures (or the swirls they pass off as their signatures) how much their work has meant to you. Actually, let me rephrase that: it can be difficult to express how much their work has meant to you without sounding like an overeager, clichéd stalker. If you are like me and become tongue-tied and embarrassed, you almost always sound like a high-pitched chipmunk and either talk too much or walk away from the exchange having only uttered Thank you and maybe your name, if personalization is your thing (not everyone likes personalized autographs. You may use this as a discussion topic at your next cocktail party).
I have the autographs of five published writers—two poets and three novelists. Each encounter falls on the general spectrum of awkwardness, with some being very awkward and others only slightly awkward. What I have found from personal experience is that almost all of the discomfort is on the part of the fan; our reading experiences can be so emotional, so personal, that we feel connected to the writer, who is in fact a total stranger. She or he is a regular person with an extraordinary talent who in all likelihood is beyond flattered to have a legion of fans, but is also simply doing their job when attending book signings and regaling listeners with readings from their body of work.
I have fallen into the trap of making grand assumptions when meeting my favorite writers. I have fantasized about becoming friends or pen pals with these people. When I met Sharon Olds, my favorite contemporary poet and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, I was a college student serendipitously in the midst of writing about her work in two separate classes; perhaps this was a cosmic sign that Sharon Olds was meant to be my mentor, my poetic fairy godmother? I did mention the coincidence, and although she was lovely and gracious, she did not offer to be my mentor.
I had equally high expectations when meeting David Levithan, a fantastic YA author, at the Brooklyn Book Festival. He had been moderating a panel discussion about censorship in YA writing. I thought that perhaps we could bond over my library employment; like him, I was fighting the good fight for books! I was a worker bee helping to bring books to the people, to encourage power through words and knowledge! So much passion and excitement all boiled down into a thirty second exchange. I told him that I worked in a library and I must have made some kind of connection to his work, other than the obvious you write books and I work in a place that has lots and lots of books. Then again, maybe I didn’t. This is the thing about meeting famous people: things happen in a blur and you are never as cool as you think you are. Regardless, I do remember that David Levithan had a wonderful smile and a friendly demeanor. And I know that his autographing style is awesome because he signed my copy of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist “To Jessica, May all your playlists be infinite.” *+
Sometimes, encounters with your favorite writers are low on the spectrum of awkwardness but sky high in terms of the surreal. This was true when I met Paul Muldoon, another Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose name also happened to appear on my syllabus that semester. He was personable and even talkative as he signed my copy of his Collected Poems. When he asked if I attended Hofstra (the site of this particular event), I explained that I was a former student currently attending NYU for English Lit. and that I would be studying his work in my Northern Irish Poetry class. He was intrigued and asked for the name of my professor. His eyes lit up with recognition when I told him. Oh, I know so-and-so from Oxford. Please tell her I said ‘hello.’ Why yes, Paul Muldoon, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, I will pass along your regards.
Over the years, I have learned how to fine tune my expectations without completely losing the fervor of fandom. Earlier this year, I dragged a friend with me to a NYC bookstore when I discovered that Rainbow Rowell would be part of a discussion and book signing. I just had to tell her how much Eleanor & Park, as well as another novel of hers called Fangirl had meant to me. This time I was smart; I knew that between my nerves and the general sense of briskness associated with book signings, I would never be able to get it all out. I decided to write her a note. I edited down my initial draft, which clocked in at about three handwritten college-ruled loose leaf pages, and jotted everything down in a little card. I included my email address, in the off chance that she felt moved by my words and decided to write me back. She seemed genuinely surprised and flattered, and put it near her phone so she wouldn’t forget to take it with her later to read. It was thrilling when, a month and a half later, I received an email from her. It was very short. She told me that she had read my letter and appreciated it very much. She didn’t ask to be my best friend or writing partner, but it was exciting none the less.
My most recent author run-in was just last week. A few of my coworkers and I flocked to Hofstra (yes, again) to see Jeffrey Eugenides. I’ve read all three of his novels, and brought not just my own copy of Middlesex, but also a copy for a friend who could not attend and a coworker’s first edition of The Virgin Suicides since he couldn’t make it either. This time, there would be no chitchat, no attempts at currying favor. I listened to Jeffrey Eugenides, who was charming and articulate, before hightailing it to the tables that lined the back of the room and were stacked with paperback copies of his books; I was first on line. I sheepishly asked if it was okay that I had brought copies for friends. He happily signed all three books. It was short and sweet and devoid of any major awkwardness.
Have you had the chance to meet any of your favorite writers? Maybe you were lucky enough to meet some of the fantastic authors that visited the LPL. Did you feel like you were able to convey your appreciation for their work? I know that my librarian friends must have dozens of anecdotes related to this topic. I would love to know if everyone is just as awkward as I am when meeting the people whose words and characters bring comfort and enjoyment to our lives.
*I still swoon when I think about the beauty of this autograph.
+I’m all about personalization! Invite me to your cocktail party and we can debate this!