Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Guess who came to the bookstore last night...

Yep, that's me and Michael Chabon.

The Michael Chabon. Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon, at Joseph-Beth Booksellers to promote the release of his newest book, Manhood for Amateurs

Ha, yes, well I can assure you it was quite the event-filled night of hobnobbing with a famous author. Not really. A few of us were called in to help out with the event, so I mostly stood at the front of the signing line taking line tickets and making awkward conversation with a variety of Chabon enthusiasts, from the older intellectual couples to the lit. majors with baby faces and serious chips on their shoulders.

Ah, college. Being an English major means going to author signings and asking things like, "While you admit to providing a form of literary escapism, do you attempt to provoke social change with your work?" and "While [insert early work long out of print] was clearly written from a post-modern perspective, your later work seems to hold much in debt to early modernism. What elements in your work really mark that turning point?" It's intellectual curiosity... sort of. It's also a way to show off how much you really get the author, how much you really get literature in general. Basically, you're a smarty pants when it comes to literature, and you don't mind letting everyone know, especially any author you would bother going to see.

This is the second time Michael Chabon has made an appearance here at JB's, and as much of a fan of his work I am, I am even fonder of his occasional appearances in Pittsburgh and this bookstore specifically. I've begun to think of the author somewhat sentimentally, which is never how I choose to read an author, but in this case, the sentiment is somewhat deserved.

The last time Michael Chabon came to the store, I had just started at the bookstore as a bookseller. I mean just started. It was the end of my second week that I experienced what a big author signing is like at our store, and it at first blew my mind.

First of all, right there, in my store, was going to be an author whose work had profoundly affected me as a reader, writer, thinker. It affected the way I interacted with other readers and with the educators who put books into my hands. My mind is both bigger and fuller because of this author. And there he/she is.

Second, there's a ton of people. I was still getting used to basic register functions at this point, and I've never really been known for my grace under fire. But I'm the new girl, and I desperately want to make a decent impression. But you can see the terror right under the surface. Eyes widened toward a sea of enthusiastic readers with a purpose, books curled under arms, bags full of backlist titles, vouchers out to claim books reserved, money out to acquire others... I played it as cool as possible, but it would have been obvious to even the most obtuse observer that I was slightly in over my head.

Third, there's the careful balancing of being a worker and spectator. I know how to do this now, but then? Not so much. I'm listening in more than I'm paying attention. Instead of steadily watching for new customers entering the store, I'm craning my neck to catch a glimpse of Michael Chabon at the podium. It was my luck not to get caught gawking by my bosses. It would have been unfortunate to prove myself unreliable only a second week into the job, and for something fairly ridiculous, like trying to watch an author read.

This is not to undersell the lure of an author appearance, but there is not really anything inherently interesting in going to listen to an author read from his/her new work. A few are very entertaining readers, most are adequate, and some are just terrible (although my personal experience with this third group has been minimal), but what most, if not all, attendees are coming for is the after-reading Q&A, a barbaric literary ritual where audience members grasp for something to say to someone whose work they've spent considerable time with. I say barbaric only because these sessions often make or break the whole event. A good mixed crowd can yield a fantastic Q&A, as long as the author gets into the ritual and tries as hard as his/her audience is, but sometimes, not even the best questions can save a tongue-tied author whose strong point isn't answering direct, impromptu questions.

Barbaric, also, since most post-signing Q&As go on with little to no organizational methods aside from hand-raising. The author, confronted with a sea of hands, must do his/her best to pick from the avid nameless, and it's a crapshoot as to whether or not he picks worthwhile questioners with worthwhile questions. Last night, for example, there were several thoughtful questions, some mediocre redundant inquiries (some authors are magnets for the same questions over and over again, and that's just the nature of being known for your creative work and the obvious details of your personal life), and maybe only two or three clunkers. Early on in the Q&A, an older lady asked Mr. Chabon what he thought of the events of G20 and it being set here in Pittsburgh.

A somewhat confused Chabon asked her to clarify what she was asking, and she replied, "Well, our town was overrun with fascists!" She went on, but she kind of lost me there, as well as most people in the audience. The author, to his credit, was very kind and deftly navigated a tricky question that was, in a way, a guaranteed ideological trap.

Anyway... I'm much more adept at author appearances than I used to be. As starstruck as I can get, I rarely lose my cool in front of the author anymore, or at least I keep wrapped under a slightly awkward, but not-as-awkward-as-babbling veneer of silence. And it works out for both of us - awesome author gets to remain relatively unscathed, and I usually get a book signed and/or a photograph. [See above.]

What do you think of author appearances? Any particular favorites or memorable experiences stick out in your mind? What's the best and worst author event you've ever been to?

1 comment:

Marie said...

that's awesome! :-) best author event i've been to? Hard to answer. Abraham Verghese was awesome because he was really, really nice and laid-back. AS Byatt because she's my favorite writer. China Mieville because he was really nice to me and said he'd read my blog. :-)