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February 24, 2010

Enough shameful author appearances for one lifetime

This one author appearance was so remarkable for being shame-free that we had to take a picture

Prologue: Once upon a simpler time, the authors came to you. And though there was probably still queuing, you hardly noticed, because everything was about queuring then. This was elementary school, where the queues were usually single file, and you had to use bring your indoor shoes, and your indoor voices too. Your class would line up in the hall to make the trip down to the library where the author would be waiting. The most wonderful authors– Phoebe Gilman, Robert Munsch, Dennis Lee. There was nothing better than this, except perhaps Book Fairs, and Scholastic orders.

And because you were the bookish kid (it was written in ink, big block letters on your forehead), you were often chosen to stand up in front of the room to be the opening act, to make the author’s introduction. Reading from a mimeographed sheet in your helium-high pitched, impedimented speech, you lisped something about him coming all this way to see you, to read you all some of his stories. How wonderful! Stories with pictures, stories that were guaranteed to be funny because this was author an with an audience to impress, a task was usually accomplished with a joke about burping. And no literary event has ever been less pretentious, more joyful, and so absolutely for the love of story ever since.

Chapter 1 (in a series of shameful author appearances, which are enough for one lifetime): You are seventeen and you are going to meet Margaret Atwood. She is appearing at the Peterborough Public Library as part of an author’s festival, and you want her to sign your copy of The Robber Bride. Unfortunately, this event is taking place on a Saturday and you work on Saturdays. Fortunately, the library is close enough that you can pop over on your break. And so you do. Waiting in the obligatory lineup to have Margaret Atwood sign your book, and you slip her a note in your idiotic handwriting in which you’ve told her that you want to be her when you grow up, because you presume she cares. (And she does enough to mail you a postcard in response not long after, wishing you luck with your writing– points for Margaret Atwood!) . What is shameful about all of this is that at the time, you’re wearing a fuschia McDonalds uniform. Maybe you thought that it would be okay because of how Margaret Atwood once worked at Swiss Chalet and this was solidarity, but as the years go by, you start to think that it probably wasn’t…

Chapter 2: You are twenty three, and Douglas Coupland will be appearing at your local Waterstones reading from Hey Nostradamus. Because you are Canadian and he is too, you look upon this as an old friend coming to visit, and you feel much more familiar with Coupland than you would have otherwise. You count your blessings that you’re not wearing a fast food uniform as you line up for the book signing after his reading (but it must be noted that you’ve moved past McJobs and are now contemplating a vague career under the umbrella of “admin”, which will only be interrupted by a spell abroad teaching ESL in the obligatory fashion). Douglas Coupland is yet another writer who is terribly gracious, or at least well masks his scorn, as you let him know that indeed, you are Canadian, just like he is. Douglas Coupland pretends that this is remarkable, and inscribes the title page with, “To a fellow traveller”, and you feel like a person of substance for being a fellow anything.

Chapter 3: You are lining up to meet Ann-Marie MacDonald at the Lakefield Literary Festival. Though you’ve never managed to get past page 4 of Fall on Your Knees, you found her second novel The Way the Crow Flies absolutely mesmerizing. And you’re dressed properly, no longer suffering from expatriate longings, you think you’re pretty much set for a shame-free author appearance. Until you hand Ann-Marie MacDonald your copy of The Way the Crow Flies, she opens it and you remember that stamped in red in on the inside cover is the message, “THIS BOOK WAS SLIGHTLY DAMAGED IN TRANSIT AND IS NOW BEING SOLD AT A SPECIAL BARGAIN PRICE.”

Chapter 4: Now you’re at Harbourfront, lining up meet the wondrous Zadie Smith, who as given a wonderful reading and just metaphorically sucker-punched some idiots in the Q&A that followed. Funny how all this time waiting in queues for author signings should theoretically give one time to prepare, but it never really does, and you’re always struck dumb when you come face-to-face. Zadie Smith opens up your copy of White Teeth (which, thankfully, wasn’t damaged or sold at a bargain price special or otherwise),  reads your name in the top left corner, and tells you she likes it. Zadie Smith likes your name. Unfortunately, the cleverest thing you can think of to say in response is that you like her name too, which is true, but does nothing to push your conversation forward. In fact, it ends just about there.

Chapter 5: You should have learned your lesson, but you haven’t. You’re back at Harbourfront and you’re lining up to get your copy of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem signed by its author who is currently promoting The Year of Magical Thinking. Once again, all that time waiting does not make you remotely ready when you finally get to the head of the line. You approach Joan Didion who somehow manages to be the smallest person you have ever encountered, the most terrified looking person you’ve ever seen, and the most intimidating. She stares at you without expression. You stare back, probably with an expression, and it’s probably a regrettable one. Neither of you say anything. You hand her your book, and she signs it with a scrawl. You muster the courage to tell her how much you enjoy her work, and she responds with a new expression that can only be described as pained.

Chapter 6: You’ve kept your distance from authors ever since then. Though from afar, you’ve witnessed the most horrifying experiences of all, at literary festivals when authors are seated at the signing tables, patiently waiting and pen in hand, stack of books beside them. And there is no queue. Authors trying to look casual about the whole thing, like they’re not anticipating anything, really. They’re just hanging out, welcoming the break. And you’re almost tempted to jump in line and stop the agony, but you know better now. No amount of authorial suffering will drive you to it, for you’ve had enough shameful author appearances for one lifetime.

(Point of view has been changed from first to second person in order to protect the idiotic).

14 thoughts on “Enough shameful author appearances for one lifetime”

  1. patricia says:

    Oh this is wonderful, hilarious and agonizing, Kerry. I know these humiliating experiences all too well. I said some very silly things to Lynn Johnston and Robertson Davies in my dumb hero-worshipping youth. And on another occasion, I missed an opportunity to see Irving Layton speak at our high school, because I had promised my then idiot boyfriend that I would bake him a cheesecake. But perhaps that is a good thing, because who knows what I might have said to Mr. Layton.

  2. Rebecca says:

    1) This post is so funny!
    2) I am trying to think of a bad moment I’ve had with a famous author that I can share, but the shame is too accute! I’m blushing right now!!
    3) You clearly went to a better elementary school than I. We never had author appearances, and our only field trip was to the post-office (we walked, holding onto a rope).
    4) I love that picture.

  3. patricia says:

    Yes, great photo, and that thought occurred to me too, about children’s author appearances. Not once did we have a well-known kid’s author or illustrator come to our grade school. Lucky you, Kerry!

  4. Mr. B says:

    When I was 20, I took a copy of Dorothy Livesay’s Collected Poems (which was as old as I was) to her reading to have it signed. When I approached her and told her how much I enjoyed her work, she reached up and touched my face with the octogenarian hand, smiled, and told me how much she enjoyed having young men attend her poetry readings. Awkward, but touching.

  5. Clare says:

    I laughed out loud at #3! My chagrin-worthy author experience is when I had a chance to meet Philip Pullman. I hadn’t brought any of the books I owned by him to the conference so I bought an omnibus just to have him sign it. But when I got to the front of the line he was sitting next to Ken Oppel, whom I know slightly, and because I was so nervous about meeting Philip Pullman I spent the entire time chatting to Ken and barely looked at Pullman. I wanted to die about 5 seconds later as he pushed to book back toward me, signed.

  6. Kristin says:

    I had the same thing happen to me (#3) when I had Sarah Vowell sign a copy of Assassination Vacation. I almost died. She made a joke about it, which I can’t remember, because I was trying to maintain some semblance of composure and not flee the room. Hmmm…I think that was the last time I went to an author’s reading…I guess I know why!

  7. m says:

    I loved this post!

  8. (a different) Kerry says:

    Oh, oh, oh I can relate to this!

    Dear Michael Ondaatje,

    You won’t remember me
    from the bookstore in Winnipeg,
    where I stood, stunned-dumb,
    wanting to say my name
    so you could spell it
    onto the title page of your book,
    so that I would have it
    in your handwriting
    so you would know it
    even for a moment

    But you waited patient,
    bewildered, watched my shy mouth
    open and close
    open and close
    before embroidering your signature
    on the thick, cream page
    and pressing it like a violet
    for me to keep

    Of all the things I haven’t said,
    I regret this most.

    Sincerely,

    Kerry Ryan

  9. Frédérique says:

    I think the story of a seventeen-year old waiting in line for Margaret Atwood in a McDonald’s uniform is the most wonderful thing I have heard all week.

    Also, Robert Munsch came to my elementary school, too! Defining childhood moment.

  10. Rona Maynard says:

    My favourite moments in this wonderful post are Joan Didion’s pained expression and the studied nonchalance of all those authors with piles of books and no queues. I’ve been there–and consoled myself by thinking of an author friend who spent a whole afternoon in a book store, utterly ignored with her Sharpie and stack of books.

  11. Nathalie Foy says:

    What a treat to read this post! Isn’t it funny how we can be enamoured with books but cannot translate that love into coherence when me meet the authors we’ve bothered to line up to meet? I’ve seen both Margaret Atwood and Ann-Marie MacDonald at my local coffee shop, and I have left them in peace with their newspapers and silently wished them well. I like to think of my silence as a good deed to protect their privacy, but really I was protecting myself. I would have been tongue-tied and tripping over my words had I attempted to tell them what they mean to me.

  12. Carrie says:

    This is hysterical! I love it! Brings back lots of memories.

  13. babelbabe says:

    I love you. Seriously. this is a GREAT post.

    I told AS Byatt I should name my impending baby Antonia. (I was hugely pregnant at the time.) She was very gracious and made a little joke and I love her a little bit more. But seriously? WHO says that?!!

    I was speechless in front of Madeleine L’Engle, but she was rather intimidating and a wee bit snarky, so…

    (The Other Kerry – I love your poem.)

  14. Amanda says:

    This was so delightful. But now I’m feeling left out because my own meet-the-author experiences have rarely been as noteworthy. (Robert Munsch come to my school? Forget it. We went to church instead. Good old Catholic education — nothing beats it.)

    I do remember listening to Steven Heighton read, though, when I was in university. He joked about how, after publication of “The Shadow Boxer”, his father went around introducing him as “this is my son, the pornographer”. We all giggled. And then he signed my book and wished me the best of luck with my work and, well, getting blessed by the Pope himself couldn’t have been more exciting.

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