Friday, October 21, 2011

Notes From a Chad Harbach Reading

I can't make this sound any other way but disparaging, but if you look at Chad Harbach's author photo on The Art of Fielding, he looks, well, nerdy; and even a bit smug — like a dude who was always joshin' the jocks in high school and therefore was constantly having to buy new pairs of tighty-whiteys to replace the ones destroyed by Atomic Wedgies.   

In real life, though, he's neither nerdy nor smug. I don't know why I'm always surprised that successful novelists are actually cool in person, but Harbach is another in a long line of novelists I've met who is as good an entertainer as he is writer. Harbach was comfortable enough cracking jokes as answer to one question but then answering seriously and insightfully to others, including the inevitable question about his "writing process." Anyway, it was a great event, and I was thrilled to get to meet him.

Here are a few other notes from the reading:

1. The event took place at  Boswell Book Company, an indie bookstore in Milwaukee (Harbach is from Racine, about 30 miles south of Milwaukee). The place was packed, and for the first time at any reading I've ever attended, there were more men than women there. Harbach opened by joking that he'd hoped no one would show up tonight because everyone would've been occupied rooting on the Brewers in Game 2 of the World Series. Sadly, that didn't happen.

2. I asked Harbach what he thought of the article Keith Gessen wrote partially about him titled How A Book Is Born. He said he didn't read it until it was finished — that Gessen, who is a friend of his, had sort of awkwardly asked Harbach if it was okay to write about him, and that was it. There was no formal interview or anything — since the two were living together in New York at the time, Harbach said Gessen pretty much had all the material he needed. (If you haven't checked out that piece, definitely do. It's really enlightening!)

3. An attendee asked Harbach what he thought about all the hype and attention his novel has gotten. Whether Harbach's answer was a (very well orchestrated, 'cause he has to have been asked that question before) act or not, I don’t know, but it was the only time of the night he seemed uncomfortable. He stuttered, started to answer, stopped, looked down at the podium for a beat, then composed a smile and just said “It’s really, really nice.” And that was it.

4. Several of the sweet people of Wisconsin may need to take a gander at Spoilers: A User's Manual, as not one, but two, of the audience questions blatantly gave away key plot points — one all but revealed what happens at the end! Unbelievable!

5. When Harbach was signing my book, I asked him if he'd really chosen Little, Brown because of the opportunity to work with David Foster Wallace's editor, Michael Pietsch. (He actually took less money to publish Little, Brown, as reported in How A Book Is Born.) He kind of smiled and said that Pietsch editing his book was certainly one factor, maybe the dominant one, but he also knew what Little, Brown, as a publishing house as a whole, could offer him in other areas (publicity, marketing!). Makes sense — and a very diplomatic answer.

6. You should’ve seen Mr. Harbach’s socks. To be honest, I rarely notice another man’s hosiery, but Harbach was wearing these what must’ve been flannel, multi-primary-colored things that were far and away the brightest thing in the room. I tried to subtly get a photo of them without appearing to be a foot-fetishy creeper, but sadly, it didn’t turn out. I only mention it as another example of Harbach’s somewhat quirky personality.

Here are some other photos from the event that did turn out. My apologies for my substandard photography skills.


  1. Reading this just made me nervous for the Eugenides reading on Sunday. I'm going to be a stammering mess.

    Glad you enjoyed the event! I was hoping you were going to post something :)

  2. Sounds like you had fun! I'm going to a reading by Stephen Mitchell from his new translation of The Iliad in early November. I'm stoked. I always enjoy going to readings/signings with authors that I've read. It makes me appreciate their books even more. Have a nice weekend! Cheers! Chris