Monday, November 9, 2009

Can You Sign It As "Liz, Will You Marry Me?"

Texas Book Festival 2009! A couple of weeks ago I rose at an unholy hour to drive the three hours to Austin in order to attend the annual Texas Book Festival, held every year on the Capitol grounds. I have a love/hate relationship with the Book Fest, going back to its creator (Laura Bush; sorry, not a fan) and the days when I worked it with a bookstore in the tents and it was invariably rainy, freezing, alternately stifling hot, and my favorite, tornadic. I also would prefer that the Texas organization chose to support Texas businesses in their book sales. Nonetheless, Texas Book Fest hosted over 200 authors this year, including some of my all time favorites. I've skipped the event in years past, but this year two of the four "If I Lived Near You, You'd Issue a Restraining Your On Me" authors were in attendance. I would have hit the road any hour hour to bask in their awesomeness.

I arrived at the Capitol at 9:50 am, just in time to hear Richard Russo kick off the festival by reading from his terrific novel THAT OLD CAPE MAGIC. Russo's event was large enough that the organizers had placed him in the sanctuary of the Methodist church that's next to the Capitol. The place was packed. I was supposed to meet my boss Valerie there, but there was no way I would find her in the crowd, so I took a seat in the back (close to the door in case my presence in a holy place peeved a heavenly entity into some divine retribution lightning strikes). Russo took the pulpit after a brief introduction and kicked off his reading with an apology; his selected reading contained choice words normally not uttered in a House of the Lord. Words that I would use...and one of the reasons I'm not a minister. Or nun. Anyway, he was great--hilarious, charming, a strong reader, and he held the crowd for a full hour as he read of the travails of a son negotiating his divorced college professor parents' strained relationships. If you haven't read this book, find it and buy it and read it. It's classic Russo--humane, funny, poignant--but at a third the page count of some of his tomes. This book is my rare exception to my "I hate beach chairs on book jackets" tenet.

After the Russo event, still unavailable to locate Valerie, I instead found Gianna in the bowels of the Capitol building, where she was waiting to hear Dan Chaon, author of the amazing AWAIT YOUR REPLY (previously mentioned on this half-assed blog). Gianna and I had eaten dinner with Dan a couple of nights before, the day his book was named one of the 10 Best of the Year by Publishers Weekly (well-deserved). Dan is the antithesis of the jerkwad author; he's a delightful dinner companion and reader, and the kind of guy with whom you just want to sit around and talk books. He was part of a panel at the Book Fest, and as the room filled to capacity I relinquished my seat and set off to find my lost boss instead, leaving Gianna after a brief hello. I did find Valerie, though, and we walked through the tents of exhibitors. Unlike just about every other year, the weather was perfect and the Festival was actually festive. I ran into more friends that Saturday than I've seen since, say, the days when I was in college and saw all of my friends (and enemies) every single day. We strolled, gossiped, and then ate lunch with one of Valerie's old friends. Then Valerie said good-bye and I went off to stalk authors.

Specifically, I drove to Austin to see two people: Colson Whitehead and Margaret Atwood. Recently Gianna sent me an email asking me what my five favorite books of the 2000's were. I sent her a list and she sent me hers in return. The common thread? JOHN HENRY DAYS by Colson Whitehead. Everyone should read this book. I love it. Anyway, because lunch took awhile, I missed his reading, but like any good stalker I knew where to catch him in the signing tent and I was fourth in line, camera ready. The line attendant asked me if I'd like for the author to personalize my book. I answered, half-jokingly, "Will he write, 'Will you marry me?'" The woman laughed nervously and walked on. On the one hand, I like making people uncomfortable. On the other, I do work for his publisher and should mind my manners. When I introduced myself as his sales rep, though, he was generous and thanked me for my work on his books. He didn't propose...perhaps because I think he's already married and because he probably didn't know he was supposed to...but I still love him.

And from the wondrous Mr. Whitehead's presence, I walked down to the Paramount Theater, a few blocks from the Capitol, because if I had to maim children, I would in order to see Margaret Atwood speak. I can't think of an author I more revere. She's a tremendous writer, she's crusty and funny, and she's from Canada. I love Canada. I collect her books as a chronicle of my life--where I was and what I was doing at the times I first read them. I sometimes pretend that she's my grandma. We get along swimmingly in my imagination. And I love Canada. Anyway, I was thirty minutes early for the event and here's what I saw when I arrived: (left)
I, apparently, am not the only Atwood fan out there. The theater, once we were allowed to enter, quickly filled to capacity, and in the dark the place bubbled with anticipation. Finally, there she was. My granny, my elder Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every literary way. The format of the program was a Q & A with a moderator, Ben Moser, who happens to be the son of the manager of Brazos Bookstore in Houston. Ben, who is the books editor for Harper's, held his own versus the feisty Atwood, and both had the crowd laughing and engaged in the perils of global destruction (the cautionary tale of Atwood's latest novel, the dystopian THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD). I was enthralled. People aren't supposed to take pictures inside the Paramount, so I only took seven. Having already read and sold the book, and already a follower of Atwood's blogging and Twittering (she's a big fan of organic coffee), there wasn't a whole lot that was said that I didn't already know, except for the people who were there. I found their reactions to this author's work surprising. For example, it never even occurred to me that their aren't happy endings in Atwood's novels. She made a point of saying that none of her books is Hamlet, in which only one person is alive at the end. I guess I never read books expecting a happy ending. I consider that desire for cheery resolution a bit immature and simplistic. The real world isn't like that (or at least, my version of the world). I'm regularly surprised by readers who want happy endings. I tend to dislike books that end this way. Anyway, after the stage portion of the event, Atwood moved to the balcony area of the theater and began to sign books. I somehow managed to end up four people from the end of the line, and therefore had a ton of time to kill by talking to the other people waiting...and waiting...and waiting. We waited for almost two hours. The staff members working the event after a long day of big authors (Buzz Aldrin was at that venue before Atwood), looked like they would tackle people for a cocktail. Finally, though, I was standing next to her, talking to her, bumbling before her. And she was taking down my name for the restraining order. I'm quite convinced that Canada will confiscate my passport the next time I attempt to cross that border. I'm willing to risk Canadian jail though. Mounties are cute in those uniforms, ay?

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