This time last week, I was in the car, on my way to Boston for ALA Midwinter. Before I go further, shall I share a few key secrets? Yes? Excellent. Nothing I like more than admitting things publicly.
1. I have never been to a book conference.
1a. I haven’t been to any other kind of conference for…maybe ten years? And that last conference? It was on midwifery and had well under one hundred participants and was held on a farm AND I was called to a birth before I had been there an hour.
2. Other things I have never been to: book launches, book signings, theme parks.
2a. I have been to precisely one reading. It was roughly twenty years ago, and it was a writer whose work I loved. She read from her book about being struck by lightning and what happened after that. When she finished reading, she took a few questions. One was less a question than it was a wish to lead the writer to say the words the asker wanted to hear. The other? “Do you write about horses?”
2b. Why haven’t I been to other readings? There is an intimacy in listening to someone read their own words that I find a little intense. No matter what those words are. I was once in a play in high school that required I perform lots of monologues, some within hand-holding distance of the audience. In the final one, as I sat on a stool and spoke, a friend’s mother reached out and patted me on the knee. That’s how close readings feel to me. Also, I’m afraid of being the person who stands up and asks do you write about horses?
3. I have no books in my collection that have been signed by their author. A few that have inscriptions from the giver. One or two that came to me through used book channels and have loving inscriptions from people I have never known and will never meet.
4. I have both a loooong name and a squiggly signature.
Stepping back out of the confessional, shall I continue? Rainy Sunday, drive to Boston, remembering something new I’ve forgotten to pack every five minutes. Nice beeswax lip balm? At home. Sundry things that help me cope with anxiety? On the counter.
Luckily, my beloved spouse is driving me, because he is exactly the sort of person who will spend his Sunday keeping me company on the road. And then sitting on a bench for several hours and waiting for me with great patience. And then driving me home. He’s the best. Ever.
We arrive at the right time. We leave our warm cozy car and get on a bus. We leave the bus and enter the giant conference center. (It is about as unlike a midwifery conference on a farm as you can get.) I meet my lovely and thoughtful editor, who leads me around to look at things. What is this like? Well, imagine a giant trade show, only the vendors are mainly publishers of books, and the freebies are not things like key chains made of machine parts, or bags of water quality sampling gear, but books. Many many books, in a room roughly the size of a football field. And I am afraid to take any. One does not merely take books from stacks and walk away with them. It is a reality unfamiliar to me, and it is only thanks to my editor’s gentle encouragement that I end up with any.
It is then time for the signing portion of the event. Things that people who ask me to sign an ARC do not know: items 1-4 from above; the extensive signing practice event I held with my family the day before, in which I practiced small talk (It’s very rainy today, isn’t it?) and answering questions (Yes, I have read that book.) and, of course, signing while doing both; and the hours I have spent trying to make my signature look less like something that happened while countless volts of electricity surged through me.
Which brings me to the takeaway lesson for anyone who has felt awkward walking up and asking for a signature in a book. While there are writers who have never experienced a moment of doubt in their blessed lives (I’m sure there are, somewhere), there are also people like me, who are smiling while thinking remember all the letters in your name: J…E…N…WHY IS MY NAME SO LONG! And more than anything, even more than the worry about whether their signature actually looks like a name and not a hairball, they are so VERY VERY grateful that you are asking for that scrawl. Or telling them that their daughter is looking forward to the book so much, or that you are so excited to have a copy. Or even just standing there, looking nervous while asking, because that writer may be thinking of all the times they have been too chicken to ask for something similar, and the fact that you’re standing there may be reminding them to be a bit braver. Don’t be afraid. You are stellar.
Those are the sorts of things that go through my mind as I sign books in the booth. That, and how awesome my editor and all the Abrams folks are, because they make this all feel so effortless. I am pure gratitude, even if my name looks a little like an unfortunate geometry accident.
And that, dear ones, is my adventure for the week. Thanks for tuning in.