Monday, February 1, 2010

Writers, Live and In Person!

About five years ago, I attended an Elizabeth Kostova reading/signing at an indie bookstore in Milwaukee. Riding a wave of Dan Brown-inspired hysteria, Kostova's historical thriller, The Historian, for which she'd received a much-publicized seven-figure advance, was poised to be the next big literary thing.

During the Q&A, I asked her what she thought of all the comparisons to The Da Vinci Code. She paused for a second, glanced at the ceiling, and then answered that she was flattered by any comparison to a book that has sold as well as Dan Brown's, but at the end of the day, her book was pretty different so she wasn't sure the comparisons were completely accurate. Later, when I made it up to her table to have my book signed, she recognized me and said "Hey, good question." I smiled and said "Thanks, good answer." She smiled too — both of us recognizing the real subtext to her answer was that she hated The Da Vinci Code comparisons and was dying to say that, but couldn't. She had to be diplomatic.

Such personal interaction is one of the many reasons why novelist readings/signings are so awesome!  You just can't get the same level of insight by reading reviews or watching the newfangled "book trailers" that seem to be gaining popularity. I absolutely love the author signing/readings, and since I'm headed to a Joshua Ferris (The Unnamed) reading/signing tonight, I figured I'd spend a post telling you about some of my favorites.

Jonathan Safran Foer — Dude is just awesome; very articulate and very funny. I mentioned in a previous post how the event was the literary equivalent of an 'NSYNC concert, but the best part about the signing was when he explained the most difficult "piece of writing" he'd ever done: Naming his first child. That damn near brought the house down.

Zadie Smith — I posted before about how much I loved her answer to the question about whether critics create art, but what struck me most about Smith is that for someone with such an awe-inspiring intellect, she was incredibly down-to-earth and normal and COOL. She explained that there seems to be a perception about writers that they lead some kind of charmed celebrity life, but really, with only a few exceptions, her day-to-day life is very tame. She and her husband do their daily work (her husband is a poet) and then convene at night to "order a pizza for dinner and watch a movie." Also, she seemed genuinely happy to be there talking to us, quite the contrast to many writers on these book tours who are only doing it to fulfill a contract requirement from their publisher. (By the way, just a teaser: On Thursday I'll post a review of Smith's collection of essays titled Changing My Mind....AND, that book will be the prize for my first ever blog giveaway.)

Richard Russo — I got to meet Russo at a reading/signing at my alma mater, Marquette University. At an alums-only, pre-reading reception, he talked about how different screenwriting is from novel-writing and how difficult it was to adapt his own novel Empire Falls for an HBO mini-series. He also talked about his friendship with Paul Newman, who plays Sully in the movie-ization of his novel Nobody's Fool. If you haven't read and/or seen the movie Nobody's Fool, do yourself a favor, and get on that as soon as humanly possible! 

Ken Follett — I got to see Follett on his book tour for World Without End, the sequel to the much ballyhooed Pillars of the Earth. It was fascinating to hear Follett talk about the sea change in mindset it took for him to move from his thriller-writing comfort zone to researching and writing massive historical novels. 

Jeff Shaara — I caught Mr. Shaara on his tour for his World War I novel, To The Last Man. Shaara wrote the first and third novels of the Civil War trilogy his father Michael began with The Killer Angels — often regarded as one of the greatest historical novels of all time. It was interesting hearing him talk about how he tried to match his father's style, after he'd passed away, to complete the trilogy.

Jon Fasman — I'm guessing not many of you have heard of Mr. Fasman, or his novel The Geographer's Library. Apparently, that was also the case at the time of the reading/signing. There were only FIVE people in attendance. I felt so terrible for the guy, but less so after reading the book, which wasn't particularly enjoyable.

What are some of your favorite author reading/signings?  What about the novelist made them memorable?


  1. Oh to live in an area where authors dare to go! Only in my dreams. Years and years ago I met Jean Auel the author of the Clan of the Cave Bear series. By time I met her at a book signing the last of the series was out. The third book was criticized for the excessive sex. I tried not to judge or laugh but when I saw how big Auel was, all I could think was "she wrote all those sex scenes?". I was young and naive. Turns out she was a very sweet lady who took the time to talk to me as I was a huge fan of the first book.

  2. I am suffering from an extreme case of jealousy!! Zadie Smith (goddess) AND Elizabeth Kostova AND Jonathon Safron Foer and more.... I think I might go and sulk now ;)

  3. @SariJ - Great story! I'm sure the devil-on-my-shoulder would've thought the same thing you did. Thanks for the comment.

    @Kathmeista - Sorry, didn't mean to rub it in. :) I'm guessing from the dearth of comments on this post that I rather underestimated others' accessibility to author readings/signings - and, therefore, this post came off like I'm crowing. I even lost a follower this morning - maybe someone who was truly angry. Ha...

  4. Back in my bookseller days,I worked at a good number of author signings,one of which was Richard Russo for a book of short stories(The Whore's Child)-he was a nice guy,indeed and I got the chance to talk to him for a moment about Richard Yates(an author who Russo wrote an intro to a collection of short stories for).

    Also met Chang-Rae Lee(Gesture Life),Frank McCourt and Mary Higgins Clark. MHC did a couple of signings for our store and her daughter Carol teamed up with her later on. Real classy ladies,the both of them.

    Outside of that,thanks to my blog,I was able to meet Min Jin Lee(Free Food for Millionaires)at BEA,along with Kim Sunee whose foodie memoir Trail of Crumbs was about to be released in hardcover. Min Jin was charming and I hope we cross paths again one day.

  5. Good idea for a post! I've been to the National Book Festival in D.C. multiple times, but the signing lines are usually so long, I don't usually personally interact with the authors who are there. Once though, I stood in line to get Reading Lolita in Tehran signed by Azar Nafisi. At the time I was in my early twenties, and she said something to the person sitting next to her that it was great to see young people reading her book.

    Also, I met Laura Moriarty who wrote the wonderful Center of Everything. She was promoting her second book, The Rest of Her Life, at an ALA conference and giving away free ARCs. As a result of the free books, I'm not sure how many people in the signing line had actually read her first book. I say this because she seemed really surprised and pleased when I told her how much I loved Center of Everything and that it was my top ten of those I had read the previous year. She asked what the other books were and I completely blanked out except for one other title on the list.

    I think there have been other interactions, but those are the first two that popped into my head.

  6. @lady t - I'm jealous of the Min Jin Lee meeting - I'd have so many questions for her about what her characters were thinking in that novel! Just bad decision after bad decision - but it made it fun!

    @Christy - Ah, good idea about book conventions. I've never been to one, but always wanted to as a fabulous place to meet authors - even with the long lines. I bet Fafisi was fascinating - her book sure was!

    Thanks for the comments!

  7. Wow, you've gotten to meet a lot of awesome writers! The only author I've met at a book signing is Anne Rice, right after Blood Canticle came out. I was really excited but didn't really get a chance to talk to her because there were SO many people waiting. I just spouted out the typical "I just love your books!" that I'm sure she's never heard before. :)

    On a plane this weekend I met James E. Shaw, whose first novel just came out (Girl Sinner, Lady Saint), and he was really nice. We chatted a while about writing and he gave me oodles of advice.

  8. I wish more authors did signing in my area (Greensboro/High Point NC) because not enough even come to NC at all. I don't think our local bookstores are helping any either.

  9. @fictionfanatic - I know! I always struggle with what to say - it's hard to strike a balance between something gushing and silly (which I've definitely done more often than not) and something reasonably intelligent. Last night, at the Ferris signing, I definitely bumbled into the former category - he was signing my books and did this thing where he traced his pen and then signed inside the tracing. And instead of asking him about his brilliant novels, I stuttered out "So, is there a story behind the pen-tracing?" Smooth one, GZ.

    @Rebecca - Sorry to hear! I'm actually surprised by how sparsely attended the ones here in Chicago are - I can't figure out why people WOULDN'T wan to come to these...

  10. Who would stop following this blog?! Their loss, not yours! :) I say good on you - if I had the opportunity to go to these things I would AND I would write about them. It was a really interesting and fun post, IMHO.

  11. Wow, it's wonderful that you have gotten to meet so many different authors. Unfortunately, not too many authors come here to Israel. But one of my favorite things about being a book blogger is that it gives me the opportunity to approach authors that I admire and connect with them, something I would never otherwise get to do. Plus, I'm sure I sound more intelligent in my emails then I would if I approached them in real life :)

  12. @Simcha - I hear you on not sounding intelligent (or being star-struck, more accurately) in meeting authors. See my comment above about my idiotic question for Joshua Ferris. :) Thanks for the new follow and for the comment!