Monday, March 24, 2014

"To future writers: Don't be a dick!"

If you are a book lover like I am, chances are you have a few books on the shelves inscribed with a message on the title page by the author, perhaps with a simple message or just an autograph.  Maybe a relative or friend has given you a collection of poems as a birthday gift and personalized it an inscription.  I was contemplating inscriptions as I finished my MFA thesis - a collection of essays that I hope to publish one day - thinking about how instead of standing in line for an autograph, I might be signing books in the future.  Maybe.

Serendipitously, I discovered that one of my graduate school mentors, Roy Hoffman, had written a lovely blog post about inscriptions for the Spalding University MFA in Writing blog.  In his post, Roy waxes nostalgic (but in a good way) about books he has signed for family members who have since passed and how he now keeps them safe on his own shelf.

As I pondered the many inscriptions I have accumulated, both first-hand while waiting in line after a reading or as gifts, I settled on an important truism for all writers.  Listen up, friends, I'm about to drop some wisdom.  If you find yourself in the honored position of signing books for fans of you work: DON'T BE A DICK!

It's a simple rule, really.  Easy to understand and follow.  I intend to put it to use should I ever find myself in that hallowed position.

I've had a good many books signed; I worked in a bookstore for 6 years and had access to countless acclaimed authors.  And most of them were incredibly gracious.  It was always the non-authors, the famous move star/model/politician/musicians who were the worst, who had the most ridiculous requirements and requests.  Country singer Naomi Judd made us move the signing area away from the front windows and Charlton Heston sat on - I kid you not - a throne.

In more recent years, I have stood in line to have a book signed after a store reading and have had very pleasant experiences overall.  There are 2 standout instances when, however, this was simply not the case.

My book club had read and rather enjoyed Julia Glass's first novel Three Junes.  So when she came to town to promote her second novel, The Whole World Over, I left the kids with my husband and trotted off to Carmichael's Bookstore.  After her reading, I bought the new book and presented it and Three Junes to Ms. Glass.  Okay, I admit it, I had bought Three Junes at a secondhand store where I trade books.   You know, "renew, reuse, recycle?"  Apparently, Ms. Glass is not an environmentalist.  She looked at the $3.99 price sticker on the front cover and scowled at me.

Proper response, Ms. Glass: "Thank you for purchasing my new book, Amy.  I am also glad to see my last book is being read and passed on to other readers, rather than thrown into the fireplace and used for kindling.  You are a remarkable woman, Amy.  Allow me to introduce you to my editor."

Case two, also occurred at Carmichael's, as they are the sole remaining indie bookstore in town.  I believe it was their first annual David Sedaris block party.  (Warning Sedaris fans:  I love the man, but that doesn't mean he's incapable of a dick move.)

It was a sweltering, August day.  The street had been closed because Sedaris draws a big enough crowd to cause a major fire hazard in a tiny store.  Those of us who didn't squeeze in between the shelves, sat on the curb and listened to Sedaris read via two portable speakers.  After the reading, I purchased his anthology Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules, and waited in line holding my stack of his other books (he must have limited the number of books he would sign, because I only have sigs on Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, Me Talk Pretty One Day, and Holidays on Ice.)  Strange, my two favorites of his - Naked and Barrel Fever - I left at home.

I was pretty close to last in line and, counting my time sitting on the curb outside, had spent a good 3 hours waiting to have my books signed.  Once I got to the table where Sedaris sat, I recall asking him for advice for a budding writer as he signed and stamped my books.  He seemed a little flustered and beleaguered, red eyes and empty water bottle, and didn't have much to offer me.  Just something about perseverance.  I had hoped for something a big more profound from one of my greatest influences, but I didn't take it personally.  When I got to the car, I opened my books to read the inscriptions.  One just had "To Amy" - fine.  I can live with that.  But in another, he wrote" "To Amy: Thank you for making me rich."

My husband thinks that's funny.  I'm sure that was the intention.  But after waiting in line and hanging outside in the heat, I didn't want smug or snark.  What was I expecting?  It was David Sedaris.

On happier note, I had wonderful interactions with the following writers at book signings: Gloria Steinem, Noah Adams, Margaret Atwood (who was amazed that I had such an old, out of print copy of Bluebeard's Egg -- love that book!).  And the following writers left me with the following memories and inscriptions:

The late great Molly Ivins (I was 22 and completely shy when my boyfriend pushed me up to get my book signed) wrote, "For Amy Miller, Keep fightin' for freedom and keep laughin' too."

Marion Winik chatted with me about my two-year-old daughter (who was with me) and helped me pick out a children's Hannukka book.

Mary Karr (or Goddess, as I like to call her), wrote in my dog-earred copy of The Liar's Club, "To Amy: Kick butt and take names!"

And last fall, I was bringing up the rear to have my copy of This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage signed when Ann Patchett - sick as a dog with the flu - came to town.  I expected the worst.  She's such a gifted writer and during her interview on stage she appeared unruffled, down to earth, normal.  What would she really be like in person?  When I gave her the book, I mentioned that I'm doing exactly what she preached not to do in her essay, "The Getaway Car," which if you're a budding writer, you should read.  In it she says to never, ever borrow money for a graduate writing program.  "Too late!" I told her.  She leaned over the table after signing my book, and with a wry smile confided, "You know what you should do?  Porn.  It pays really well."