Today, the Chicks remember the first published authors we ever met…mostly during a time when our own books were still just a twinkle in our eyes.
I was going to say the first author I met was Stephen King. I was a lowly newbie editorial assistant sitting at the furthest desk on Editorial Row from his editor, who was also the publisher of New American Library. (This was the 1980s, when hardcover and paperback houses were separate.) When he came in, dressed in jeans and a tweedy jacket, he made a point of saying hello to each and every one of us overworked, underpaid plebs. I’ve never forgotten his casual air and kindness–he was so…normal.
But not long before that, I met the equally-lovely David Morrell. I was a student at The Publishing Institute, a summer training program at U-Denver. A few years earlier, he’d written a book called FIRST BLOOD, which was about to be made into a movie: RAMBO. He came out for a week to be the guest author and…our guinea pig. I still remember him lying in the grass, patiently listening to us read aloud our dreadful “press releases.” He went on to a hugely successful writing career and is currently co-prez of ITW. I hope to meet him again at a conference someday and give him my belated congrats–and a thank you.
Does a playwright count? Because the first famous writer I ever met was Lillian Hellman. After college, I had a part-time job as a receptionist in the Personal Shopping department at Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue. (RIP L&T, sniff, sniff.) I met a ton of South and Central American dictator’s wives who’d come to NY to blow through a fortune of their husband’s illicit gains. (As the years went on, it was interesting to see many of their husbands overthrown. I’d be like, hey, I know his wife.) But one day, Lillian Hellman came in. A personal shopper swooped in on her before we got to exchange more than a hello, but I was gobsmacked. She was a writing hero of mine. I went on to work at the Dramatists Guild, where I met Stephen Sondheim, John Guare, Mary Rodgers, Edward Albee – who I’d actually met in college, which was before Hellman, so I’m getting this wrong – and so many other legends. I once walked in on Lanford Wilson in the bathroom. We both screamed and never made eye contact again.
It just occurred to me that I met Maurice Sendak before all that, but that was because my little brother loved all his books. So that was more for David than for me.
The first author I ever actually met and conversed with was Phyllis Tickle, who was also long-time religion editor for Publishers Weekly. She was an absolute delight—smart, funny, and down-to-earth. I had the good fortune to interview her several times while working as a reporter for the small town newspaper near her home, and was her occasional guest for tea. She always wrote her books in long-hand before typing the pages so, wanting a different kind of photo for an article, I took pictures of her with her legal pad and pen sitting in a pasture behind her home. A neighbor’s grazing horse took an inordinate interest in my camera and kept sticking his face in my shot. I finally got a nice picture of Phyllis, but I printed a couple of the photos featuring Mr. Ed with the author obscured in the background, and mailed them to her with a note. “Phyllis, we’re not using these with the story, but thought you might enjoy a couple of close-ups from your photo shoot.” She was amused and appreciative and sent me a warm and funny thank-you note, saying how the pictures were much more flattering than most of her author photos and she planned to frame one of them.
The first author I ever met was Kurt Vonnegut. As my best friend from high school and I waited in line, we practiced what we would ask him because, you know, he was Kurt Freakin’ Vonnegut. We were earnest writers even then and had lots of time to practice our questions because that line snaked through the bookstore in multiple loops, out the door, and into the parking lot. Finally, after 8,420 trial runs to calibrate the perfect wording, we were ready. The anticipation grew with every shuffled step forward. When it was finally my turn, I held out my copy of Cat’s Cradle. As he grabbed the book, scribbled his name, and held it out for me to take back, I launched into my first well-rehearsed question about How To Become A Writer. “Next!” he said loudly to my friend behind me, completely ignoring me. She silently handed him her book and was also nexted out of there. Although we failed to procure an instant tutorial, I don’t blame him one bit–he’d been signing books for hours and he didn’t owe us a thing. And it was thrilling to meet such a celebrated real-life writer, all the same. Happily, I was able to read his fabulous advice to writers eventually, along with the wonderful paragraph at the end that comments on his own rules.
I guess the first published author I ever met had to have been my law professor father, who wrote dreary (at least to my young eyes) “law books.” (I think they’re terrific now, Dad, really!) So that doesn’t really count, does it? And after that? Well….most likely another law professor—some colleague of my dad’s.
Okay, so let’s talk about fiction. I never got to meet him, but back in the early 1980s I wrote a fan letter to Lawrence Durrell, author of the lush and magnificent (though at times overwrought) Alexandria Quartet, which I used to reread once a year during my angst-ridden twenties. Lo and behold, he wrote me back a glorious letter, one that sounded as if it could have been torn from one of his novels. And not only that, but he told me that my letter had inspired him to get back to work on his current work-in-progress, which had been giving him problems. That was—and remains to this day—an incredible thrill.
The first author I ever met was David Sedaris. Sedaris seems to have a soft spot for Oregon, and I was beside myself with excitement when I learned he was coming to Bend for a reading. (I’m a huge fan.) His event was sold out (natch). His reading—both published and new material—was amazing (of course). And there was a loooooooong line to meet him and have books signed (no surprise).
I clutched my copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day to my chest and waited. And waited. And waited. By the time my turn came, I had whipped myself into such a frenzy of nerves, I was sweating profusely. I had hoped to offer some kind of clever remark. I came up with, “Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” Then I thrust my book at him.
In signature Sedaris fashion, he gave a small smile, said something kind (which I can’t remember), and signed with a flourish. I’ve seen David Sedaris several times since, and each time is a delight. Nothing quite matches the magic of that first time, though. It was truly an exceptional experience to be so close to someone I had long admired.
I have been lucky enough to meet famous and astounding authors on a regular basis for more than 20 years. I’ve attended so many writer’s conferences, book conventions, signings, and launches I’ve lost count. I’ve been on the faculty of conferences, and emceed one for a couple of years, so I’ve not only met, but hung out with these magical beings. Ninety-nine percent of them have been kind and generous, and so seemingly normal! (And some, decidedly not.) As I was pondering this list and what to say in this post, trying to pull from the recesses of my sieve-like memory, I stumbled on a passage from the book I’m reading, Mary Karr’s fabulous memoir, LIT. So, instead of a long braggy name-dropping list, I’ll let her tell you what it was like when she met her first famous author, and for me, every time I meet one.
“Writers had heretofore been mythical to me as griffins—winged, otherworldly creatures you had to conjure from the hard-to-find pages they left behind. That was partly why I’d not tried too hard to become one: it was like deciding to be a cowgirl or a maenad.”
Who was the first author you met, dear readers? Tell us all about it!