As the 2015/2016 Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series continues tonight with a sold out reading by Booker Prize winner Salman Rushdie and a long book signing line expected to follow, Houston writer Sam Dinger gives us his take on how he prepares for the magical moment when he gets to meet one of his favorite authors.
I just rushed out the back of the room to get a good spot in the book signing line. I’m holding a clean, new copy of the new book. There is paperdust on the edges of the pages. There are something like a million of us in this line and it’s looking like I won’t have the chance I hoped to have a meaningful interaction with this writer I love, or want to love, or, let’s face it, whom I want to love me. But all hope isn’t lost. I remember that there are things I can do. I have a plan.
In the many book signing lines that I’ve stood in, I’ve developed a list of things that I do to up my chances for any of the above hopes–that is, for the chance of a meaningful interaction. Some of them are simple and small, others require a little something more.
This means taking the flap on the dust jacket and marking the title page, where the author pretty much always signs. If you’ve been in a book signing line at an Inprint reading or a Brazos Bookstore one, you’ve probably had someone come up to you and do this. Maybe they stuck a sticky note on that page, with the correct spelling of your name. All this does is make it easier on everyone. And it frees up the writer to be able to talk to you. You’re standing in the line, after all, so you’ve got the time.
- Come up with something interesting and specific to say.
This is more difficult-sounding, but if you really like the writer’s work, it won’t be hard. Questions are better than comments here, too, since you want them to talk, not just work up enough patience to listen to you, say thanks, and then look up to the next person in line. Depending on the writer, they may have heard just about every question there is. So, get real specific, or even odd. A canned response that you hear and then remember hearing on the author’s Fresh Air interview is a disappointment, but it is, in the end, your responsibility to avoid. Your experience, since it’s all yours, is a good place to start. When Richard Ford came to town, I found myself talking to him about mysterious Mississippi–which he hardly writes about–and not his new book, since I spent my boyhood there and he’s a Mississippian.
I was thinking about saying don’t worry about the people behind you in line but if you’re there to have a meaningful interaction and nobody is behind you, you’re not rushed except for a few people–the organizer, the venue closer, the writer–who usually want people to be smiling at the writer and asking her good questions and showing that it was a good idea to bring her to town. Sometimes you’ll get up to the table and realize that your favorite writer looks like a corpse for how tired they are (maybe their father just died, or maybe their plane got routed through Anchorage, or maybe they’re narcoleptic, or maybe the baby kept them up all night, or maybe they’re just tired). Just take this loss and roll with it. After you get your book signed, that is.
- Forget that the stakes are high. They’re actually not. This is a person. Just like you.
In the very few times that I’ve had people simply tell me they liked my work, I didn’t know what to say but thanks. And by now I don’t remember who paid me the compliments. It’s very kind to praise someone’s hard work, and this will likely be part of the interesting thing you say to the person (see #2), but this does not, under most circumstances, constitute a meaningful interaction. Ask them one of the questions you’ve been thumbing in your pocket since you read their book. You’d ask another regular person a good question. Why not this regular person?
While you’re getting up the nerve to discuss something interesting with the writer, don’t come up with enough nerve that you are able to make yourself walk behind the table and, say, give them a noogie. This could very well find its way into the “meaningful interaction” category, you might be thinking to yourself. But it’s not the meaningful that I’m encouraging. This will probably get the object of your affection to drop everything and catch a cab to the airport from the curb right outside.
- Remember that knowing a good writer won’t make you a good writer.
One of the things that has motivated me to try to have conversations and get the contact information of and try to correspond with the writers I love is the illusion that knowing a good writer will turn me into a good writer. This, I’ve come to realize, is dumb. So, for the most part, I’ve come to think of these social interactions as chances for me to get something out of this person. A piece of information. A new angle on a story I’ve been chewing on for a year. You have their book in your hand. You just bought it at indy bookstore prices. You like them. Remember that and then see if they can help you like yourself a little more. And like your work a little more. And get you more interested in it. And that might turn you into a better writer.