The pleasures and perils of meeting favorite authors

June 30, 2010 at 1:29 am (read)

Since I am an enthusiastic reader, there are a lot of authors with whom I would love to be friends. We’d meet at a reading, hit it off, grab coffee—and voila! I’d have a glittery and talented new companion who would not only tolerate my endless discussion of books and reading and the literary life, but welcome and enrich it. So it was with great interest that I read a couple of recent essays that chronicle disastrous meetings with literary heroes.

At The Paris Review’s newish blog, Justine van der Leun writes about meeting her (unnamed) literary hero, whose work she had been reading since age 15. She struck up an e-mail correspondence, then wanted more:

“If MLH [My Literary Hero] and I got along famously over e-mail, I figured, we could potentially be best friends in real life. So when I took a cross-country trip several months after my first e-meeting with MLH, I wrote to tell him I’d be passing through his outpost and asked if I could buy him a drink. By ‘passing through’ I meant ‘driving thirteen straight hours out of my way.’ ”

Alas, their encounter was highly awkward:

“The more I tried to impress MLH, the less impressed he was. The situation spiraled downward rapidly: My mounting insecurity obscured any charm I might have mustered. I blathered. I blabbed. I prayed for the power to shut up.”

Her general takeaway is, stay away, and don’t let the reality ruin the fantasy. But the temptations are many. Most authors are fighting for attention and readers and therefore have websites with “contact me” links, calling out for e-mails. And imagine the e-mails the author would send! Literate, witty, filled with the lyrical/ funny/ emotional/ sharp/ insert adjective here writing that made you fall in love with his or her books in the first place. But instead of being mass-produced, they would be just for you.

After that initial contact, the possibilities seem endless. The slippery slope—the idea that a relationship with your favorite author could progress from an e-mail or meeting at a reading to a drink to dinner to a whirlwind affair to marriage—is uncomfortably explored in Elizabeth Ellen’s piece from June’s Bookslut, called “Stalking Dave Eggers.” She lays out her tale of obsession and delusion:

“Dave Eggers and I were in love. The fact that no one else knew it did not bother me. I was similarly unbothered by the fact that my communications with Dave were limited to e-mail exchanges, the great bulk of which occurred between the hours of 8 am and 4 pm, Monday through Friday, or that Dave did not e-mail me from his McSweeney’s account, or from an account registered in his name, but instead wrote me from a Hotmail address which incorporated a Tragically Hip lyric and entered my inbox as “Homeless Funambulist.” I figured Dave had his reasons. He was, after all, a self-described genius who in the aftermath of his parents’ death had managed to raise his little brother by himself, start two magazines and write a bestselling memoir. Who was I to question his methods?”

Several times during the piece, she inserts this warning from a friend: “You realize, of course, that you come off sounding completely insane in this essay.”

Yes. Yes, she does. But though her delusions run deeper than I imagine most readers’ do, who among the truly book-loving has not fallen for an author, either in an abstract intellectual-crush way, or because their jacket photo looks like Johnny Depp with sexy glasses? (And then you read Modern Love one weekend and find out that his wife died and left him a single father of a young daughter, and it’s so touching and now you feel like you really know him, because that’s the power of words—to bring you deep into a person’s life and brain and heart.) Books feel so intimate—as van der Leun writes, “The allure of a literary idol is, in large part, the unspoken conviction that you and this brilliant stranger understand each other.”

For Ellen, falling prey to that unspoken (in fact, entirely unacknowledged) conviction of a connection with Eggers made her feel deeply ashamed. Nicholson Baker, who wrote U and I, a literary memoir of sorts about his obsession with John Updike, talked in an interview with Salon about grappling with his own humiliation, like admitting that he felt hurt that Updike, who he did not know, golfed with Tim O’Brien instead of with him.

Since Baker’s book, published in 1991, popular culture has become quite enamored with memoir and self-exposure. Sharing highly personal details with the public is commonplace, and in fact is a pretty good way to get attention. I think what distinguishes these authors’ shame from, say, that which many reality show stars should be feeling, is the element of delusion. It makes people suspicious; it hints at mental imbalance, rather than poor taste, and comes with a side of pity. But fantasy is the playground of the creative writer.

*            *            *

Though I have never stalked authors across state lines, I have written to several. Writing is such solitary business, and so often underappreciated, that the authors—all of whom wrote back—seemed genuinely grateful for my kind words. Then again, they are fiction writers.

The first author I wrote to was Amanda Stern, mostly to tell her about a specific moment I loved in her book:

In The Long Haul, the protagonist and her mother look at a picture:

“I love that picture of you,” she says.

“What picture?” I ask.

“That one,” she says, pointing to a picture of the Alcoholic. She picks it up, presses her finger on a blur in the background. The oil on her finger marks the glass over the unfocused girl, over me. I squint, press the glass to my face and examine. I see then that it is me. A foggy gray wind. My face is faint underneath, like panty lines.

I found the image of panty lines so offbeat yet dead-on that I made a painting based on it, using elastic cut from the edges of underwear. It was meant to evoke a fingerprint, a portrait, an absence. I used pale blue, because in middle school I had a pair of capri pants that color that gave me the worst panty lines ever, and I don’t think I’d yet discovered thongs.

Next I wrote to Rudolph Delson after enjoying his novel Maynard & Jennica, as well as his sparse yet amusing website. He wrote back, and told me that his next novel was about a troll. I eagerly await it.

J. Robert Lennon wowed me with his collection Pieces for the Left Hand, and I just wanted him to know that. When I came back at him this spring with a “So, I wrote to you before…” e-mail, he graciously agreed to an interview.

My favorite author—the author I talk about so much that friends and loved ones know to send me links to articles by and about him and make me birthday cards featuring blow-ups of his handsome (and mocked) headshot—is Jonathan Franzen. Several years ago, I spent a summer living in New York, and I had an epiphany: I am in New York. Jonathan Franzen lives in New York! I should write him a letter, and then maybe he will write back and then we will get coffee and then I already explained how this slippery slope works. I sent my letter off to his publisher, then waited. And waited. And the day I left New York, while sitting in the airport, I got a call from my ex-roommate that a postcard had arrived.

Reading it now, there’s a layer of sadness. I had mentioned that I had seen him read at my college, on my birthday. “I remember that Pomona reading well,” he wrote. “I was nervous with Dave W. & his wife there, and I flubbed about ten lines.” Dave W. is David Foster Wallace, a Pomona professor and a good friend of Franzen’s, who committed suicide in September 2008.

*            *            *

A reader may engage with writers and their characters through simply reading, or by e-mailing, painting, going to talks or imagining love affairs. Understanding may go two ways, but probably only one. Yet holding someone’s heart in my hands and feeling connected as I turn the pages is what keeps me reading every day.

Plus, Franzen is coming to San Francisco in September, so maybe I still have a chance.

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