Tuesday, June 7, 2011

There’s No Place Like Home



I had a friend who went to Mexico and was very careful to avoid drinking the water. He thought himself clever by only drinking Coke-a-cola as he didn’t trust the bottled water there. I think he even brushed his teeth with it. What he never thought of, what was his downfall, were the ice cubes. It’s the little things that ruin us. He contracted the famous Montezuma's Revenge, a form of poisoning caused by ingesting contaminated food. The upside was that he had wanted to lose weight and I think he dropped thirty pounds or something. It added a whole new definition to the term “liquid diet.”

It’s been a long grueling two weeks, during which I attended the Nebula Awards, the BEA, and Balticon. I got back last Monday, and I am only now recovering, but that has more to do with the stomach flu than the trip. Although since we brought the bug home with us, I lump it all together. I learned a lot, or I thought I did. In some ways I’m like Dorothy returning to Kansas wondering if it was all a dream, and if I would be happy or sad to find it was.

I have a friend, a Science Fiction writer by the name of Jamie Todd Rubin, who considers himself a fan first and a writer second. He is a voracious reader, one of those people who has read everything and yet in a recent post on his blog laments his realization that there are not enough hours in a day, or days in a life, to read everything. He idolizes authors, has read their autobiographies and can pull dates of publications from memory. He also attended the Nebulas and Balticon. For him it was a chance to meet with gods, to wander the pantheon of some of the greats. I on the other hand felt like a Christian accidently invited to a Mt. Olympus dinner party. I didn’t know anyone.

I’m just not that big of a reader. I know that sounds strange. Writers are supposed to be readers. How else can they learn to write? The problem is that I read very slowly. It’s not unusual for me to take months to get through a single book. Also, the time I would spend reading is the same time I can spend writing, and these days writing is what pays the bills, so guess which wins? Finally I am very hard to please. It is one of the reasons I started writing in the first place. Frustrated with never finding a book that I could enjoy, I wrote my own. Out of the perhaps thousand of books or so that I have read over my lifetime, I only really liked about five. The rest I thought better than average, were so-so, or out-right awful. (At this point you are really happy not to have me reviewing your unpublished manuscript.) This has only become worse as I have progressed as a writer. The more I learn, the more critical I am. I tend to read books like a slush-pile intern. I usually can’t get through the first page without finding enough fault to close the book. I just don’t have the time anymore to invest in reading a book that isn’t really good. So in short, unlike Mr. Rubin, I would not style myself a fan of writers. After all, I am one now, and I know I’m nothing special.

So it was sadly humorous to sit on panels with other authors, who I didn’t know in the slightest--they could have been cookbook editors as far as I knew--only to find out afterwards that they were giants of genre literature, authors such as Joe Haldeman and Jack McDevitt, not to mention Nora Jemisin and Paolo Bacigalupi. I was asked how I managed to score such sweet appearances with such illustrious names. To quote the Twain version of the often quoted phrase, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” I would just smile and nod. I did that a lot.

Then it was on to New York.

Snapped trying to find my way back to my hotel
Robin wanted to attend the BEA, (BookExpo America.) Given that I was setting a scene in the book I am presently writing in New York I tagged along to do research. When my publisher heard I was in town, they arranged several meetings and events, and that’s where the trip turned surreal. I had dinners with my agent, lunches with my editor, RSVP only cocktail parties with multiple publishers, authors, reviewers, publicists, etc. I was literally wined and dined. Every day it was something new. I felt like I was lost in a Nora Ephron movie. I wrote in coffee shops in the morning, had a picnic lunch with Robin in Central Park in the afternoon, and went to dinner with authors Joe Konrath and Blake Crouch, and talked books all night, only to wander back to our hotel through the glittering lights of Times Square. And everyone treated me as if I was a celebrity. Events were arranged for me. Chairs set out. Drinks provided. Multiple people bumping into each other trying to guess at my needs. And because I had such an entourage, readers saw me as important, thanking me for coming.

Scaling Central Park

 It became really weird when it seemed everyone was talking books. At public restaurants I overheard conversations at nearby tables. “No, not at all, I think your manuscript is perfect. I think you should send it to Bob. He’s looking for just this sort of thing.” Was everyone in New York a writer, publisher, agent, or editor? Only later did it occur to me that due to the BEA there would be lots of publishing related folks in town. Still it was fascinating to be in this ocean of people and have everyone seemingly talking books. I was on a movie set and everyone had the same script.

I’m not used to any of this. My father was a steel mill crane operator, born in Pittsburg who started a family in Detroit after returning from WWII. My mother was a housewife who raised the kids while watching soap operas. They never bought a house, they inherited a tiny one from my grandmother. My eldest sister was the only one in our family to graduate from college and her big dream was to be a stewardess. No one in my family had ever been to New York. I don’t think they have ever even left Michigan. So the idea of chatting with legendary authors, and clinking wine glasses with my literary agent in a small dimly lit restaurant as we joined in the city-wide discussion about the future the publishing industry and foreign deals, is just…well let’s just say I couldn’t relate this story to my family because it lies in a dimension beyond the one in which they dwell. Even I would have had a hard time wrapping my head around it the week before. How could you really explain to Auntie Em what happened to you in Oz?

Then it was on to Baltimore and Balticon. Once more I played the part of the author, only now I was starting to recognize more of the faces, and since they had seen me on panels with impressive people they knew me, too. I became significant by mere association. Most had no idea who I was, but acted as if they ought to know. Then Robin got going, holding her evangelistic revivals on helping aspiring writers get published whether it be self, small, or big. And she couldn’t help but mention me. Soon more people knew my name and by the end, I was sitting at an empty table resting and waiting for the next panel, only to have strangers stop and introduce themselves, stuttering and apologizing and prefacing their introduction with phrases like, “I’m just a lowly writer but I just wanted to say…”

It really all came down to that one moment. The whole two weeks funneled into that instant. Me sitting there in that chair tucked away from the crowds and having strangers, come over and clumsily apologize for speaking to me--as if I was somebody.

I didn’t want to be rude, but I had a hard time keeping a straight face.

Maybe if I was younger, maybe if I was more na├»ve, or just plain stupid, I  could have been sucked in at that moment. After all I had spent two weeks being treated like a rockstar. It was nice, in the way a Disney ride is nice. You get to pretend for a few hours that you are in a fantasy of your very own. Only I knew something no one other than perhaps my wife knew. I’m still the same person I was before all this started.

I’m not special. I’m not a great writer, maybe not even a good one. I think I am pretty adept at making an entertaining story, but there are so many authors who can write better than I can. And these people who tilt their heads up to look at me, the only reason they do it is because they don’t know the truth. They have strong imaginations, readers and writers usually do. They see the idea instead of the person.

If there was any question about my lack of godlike status it came at the end when Robin and I were nailed by the stomach flu that reminded me just how mortal I am. I managed to lose five pounds. And as I lay on the cold tile of the bathroom, even in my misery I had to laugh. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. I had clicked my heels and was finally home. And…No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.—L Frank Baum

Amen

5 comments:

  1. Beautiful post, Michael. I'll even overlook the jibes at my home state (Kansas).

    Ad astra per aspera

    Best wishes,

    Jon

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  2. I can't begin to tell you how much it pains me that you didn't know who Joe and Jack were.

    I will take issue with this, however:

    I’m not special. I’m not a great writer, maybe not even a good one. I think I am pretty adept at making an entertaining story, but there are so many authors who can write better than I can. And these people who tilt their heads up to look at me, the only reason they do it is because they don’t know the truth. They have strong imaginations, readers and writers usually do. They see the idea instead of the person.

    It's not your judgment that matters once the book is on the (virtual) shelves. If a reader thinks you are a great writer, then you are a great writer and there is nothing you can do about that. The truth doesn't matter.

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  3. I accept your observation, Jamie. The problem is I am pretty sure most weren't readers...at least not of my work.

    Thanks Jon, and I certainly didn't mean to slight Kansas.

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  4. It was a real pleasure meeting you at BEA and getting a signed copy of Theft of Swords. I am so glad I stopped by your booth. What a great read. I am anxiously awaiting the next volumes.

    And I thought you had to have multiple initials in your name to write excellent fantasy!

    Thanks,

    Jim Sullivan

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  5. Thanks Jim,

    I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    M. J. Sullivan

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