Books and Writing are Our Caffeine
That was me Friday night. To make a long story short, my husband and I have season tickets for the Portland Arts & Lectures Literary Arts series. About once a month an author comes to the Arlene Schnitzer Hall in downtown Portland to talk about his or her work, and then take a few questions from the audience. We bought patron tickets because we could get assigned seats close enough to the stage to see. Not fancy, schmancy front row seats, but just fine for us. Last month when we got home from hearing Jeffrey Toobin speak, my husband turned the tickets over to see where we’d be sitting for the next event. It turns out we have the same seats throughout the entire season. It also turns out our tickets get us into a reception for the author.
At the end of the lecture we can walk a few blocks down from “The Schnitz”, show our ticket stubs, grab some wine, and hang out with the author. Okay, fine. The author and several hundred other patron ticket holders. As fascinating as he was, we weren’t all that heartbroken when we realized we’d missed Jeffrey Toobin’s reception. The next author, however, would be a different story. That author was Barbara Kingsolver.
Barbara Kingsolver. As in The Lacuna and The Bean Trees and Prodigal Summer. THE Barbara Kingsolver, who wrote one of my all-time favorite books, The Poisonwood Bible.
That Barbara Kingsolver.
She was brilliant. As anyone would expect, she talked about her novels, characters, symbolism, and over-arching themes. She read a passage from her new book, Flight Behavior. Best of all, she talked mostly about writing as a craft and about her own process. We all laughed and nodded our heads in collective agreement when she said to keep a trashcan next to your writing desk, the first draft is always awful. I loved that she talked about making all of her characters flawed somehow, as though she were a “reverse therapist”. To paraphrase my incredible creative writing coach, a character with zero flaws isn’t believable. By the same token, a villain without a single vulnerability isn’t believable, either. They make very one-dimensional characters and readers will become bored with them very quickly.
I loved hearing how her first novel came to be published, that when she sent in the manuscript she sent it with a note of apology. She didn’t think it was good enough, but she wanted to get sending it in crossed off her “to do” list before she went into labor. When she got home from the hospital there was a message waiting on her answering machine saying her novel would be published. “They wanted to pay me for it!” she said, still incredulous after all these years. Not everyone gets a novel accepted for publication that quickly, but knowing someone of Barbara Kingsolver’s caliber was just as nervous as the rest of us is reassuring that it’s normal to feel that way. It was also a great reminder that fear is not a good reason to not submit your work.
As someone who is working on her first novel (Did I just admit that openly? Yikes!), it was comforting to hear it took ten years to write one of her novels. I keep thinking I should be finished next week, even though I’ve only been working on it in earnest since January. Granted, I’m a bit older getting started, but still. It’s okay if it takes a while. Quick side trip: did you know Frank McCourt was 66 years old when Angela’s Ashes was published? There’s hope for all of us middle-aged, first-time novelists, yet!
The entire evening was fascinating and inspiring. When it was over, my husband and I walked the few blocks to the Oregon Historical Society where the reception was being held. We hung around outside for a few minutes so I could dig my ticket out of the bottom of my purse. I also seriously needed to take a deep breath and collect my thoughts.
People who personally know me might be surprised to read I can be fairly introverted. I’m not comfortable in large crowds or in groups of people I don’t know. I’m not one of those individuals who can walk up to a cluster of party-goers and automatically insert myself into their conversation. Once I feel comfortable with someone, the happy-go-lucky, chatty me shows up. Meeting new people is a little scary for me. Meeting someone I’ve admired from afar for a long time? That thought is downright terrifying.
I was hoping I’d have an opportunity to meet Ms. Kingsolver. I knew that if there were some kind of reception line, I’d probably only have a minute or two to say, “Hi, I’m a fan,” before being ushered off so the next person in line could speak with her.
So many questions filled my thoughts. How do I find a way to sum up in such a short amount of time what an author’s work has meant to me? How do I say it without babbling like a nut job? How do I tell her that something she wrote - The Poisonwood Bible - changed something deep inside of me the first time I read it, the way To Kill a Mockingbird did when I first read it at the tender age of 13 growing up in Mississippi? How do I explain the tremendous impact it has on my life every day without sounding like a mentally “off”, overly-obsessed fan?
“The scenes that resonated so deeply and stayed with me have less to do with the political issues you wanted me to understand, and everything to do with the lack of cultural understanding.” How do I explain that without feeling like an idiot, as if I’m back in junior high school and just failed an English test because I completely missed the point of the book?
How do I thank a literary icon for inspiring me to keep going as a wannabe novelist without coming across as having a few pages of a manuscript in my purse I’d like her to peruse and then say how wonderful it is?
I spent a large chunk of the day thinking of something short and rehearsing it over and over in my head. ”Hi, Ms. Kingsolver. I wanted to thank you for writing The Poisonwood Bible. It greatly influenced me, the same way To Kill a Mockingbird did, and it’s one of my all-time favorites.” After hearing her speak I added, “Thank you for talking about becoming a novelist. It was very inspiring.” How hard could that be?
We were barely inside, looking around and getting a feel for what was going on in the room when my husband said, “Hey, look! There she is!” He pointed at a table not ten feet from us, covered in filled wine glasses. “Where?” I asked. I wasn’t seeing her. “Right there with her back turned, picking up a glass of red,” he said. I still didn’t believe it. The woman he was pointing out was standing all by herself with her purse slung over her shoulder like everyone else. “No,” he insisted urgently. “Right there, right in front of you!” As he said it she turned from the table and I recognized the white streaks in the front of her dark hair. As I was thinking, “Wow, she looked so much more diminutive on the stage,” my husband had his hand on my back, insisting I go right then while no one else was standing there.
I walked over and waited for a few people who seemed to have read my mind and beat me to it. Then I did it. I quietly squeaked out, “Um, Ms. Kingsolver? Hi, um, I’m Edee.” She graciously extended her hand to shake mine, not letting it go throughout most of my forgotten rehearsed speech. Through the stammering, I did manage to thank her for writing The Poisonwood Bible. I told her it was a game-changer, that although I knew it was about the political climate in the Congo, it was validating to read that someone else “gets it” that you can’t waltz into another culture and expect to completely change it overnight. She laughed and said that was perfectly okay, no two readers have the same experience with any book. I sheepishly told her I was a fledgling novelist and she inspired me to keep going, that I know now I’m on the right track and it’s okay that it feels like it’s taking forever. She encouraged me to keep writing. I thanked her again for her work, her inspiration, and for her time.
After that my husband and I saw no need to stay. I was on cloud nine. I’d just met a literary icon, an idol. I was also mortified by my stammering. I’m so much more comfortable writing that I wished I’d just written it down and handed it to her. It would have been far more coherent and eloquent.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter. I was probably one of hundreds she met Friday night alone. Most likely she won’t remember me and my nervousness, and that’s okay. I’ll certainly never forget meeting her.