Last weekend was the eighth Brooklyn Book Festival, and every year the event gets bigger and better. This year attendance was estimated at 40,000 people throughout the day, and it gives me some small hope that reading is alive and well. I spent a good chunk of the afternoon checking out nearly 200 booths lining the courtyard of Borough Hall. The booths featured small presses (like Graywolf Press based in Minneapolis and Akashic Books here in Brooklyn), literary journals (like the esteemed Tin House and One Story), indie bookstores (like my favorite Greenlight Bookstore) and authors (like The Subway Chronicles alumnus Yona Zeldis McDonough).
Hands down, the panel discussions are always my favorite aspect of the festival. More than 250 authors from around the world participated in programs on thirteen stages. To get the opportunity to hear (two years ago) Pulitzer Prize-winner Steven Millhauser discuss magical realism in his stories or (last year) Karen Thompson-Walker tell what inspired her to write a novel about the slowing of the earth’s rotation is like being on the red carpet at the Oscars. I’m completely star struck.
This year I waited in line (!) to get into the auditorium where Colum McCann (I highly recommend his latest book, TransAtlantic), Amy Brill (The Movement of Stars — about the first woman astronomer) and debut novelist Montague Kobbe (The Night of the Rambler — set in Anguilla) discussed incorporating real people into fictional stories, and how the authors approach those characters with certain sensitivities. This topic was incredibly interesting to me, but mostly I just watched them and thought, These writers get up every morning and power up their computers and type words on a screen, just like I do. Rightly or wrongly, I think about the possibilities for me.
But none of that is the reason I’m writing this post. I want to take you back to August 2006. My book had just been published and the first festival was held a few weeks later. I had no idea what to expect, but I decided to rent a booth anyway. This would be a good time to mention that I’m not really a “people” person. Sitting alone at a table and convincing folks to part with their (I assume) hard-earned cash to buy my book ranks below both getting a root canal and eating chocolate-covered ants. I tried though. I bought some balloons. And a colorful tablecloth. And a fancy pen for all the books I would sign.
But it looked like none of that would be a problem. The festival opened at nine o’clock — except for a few people still out partying from the night before and those on their way to church, the sidewalks were empty. I sat on my little folding chair and waited. I spent an inordinate amount of time positioning my books on the table. Should I fan them out? Stack them? Horizontally? No, vertically was more whimsical. I looked at the four cartons of books I had had shipped to the festival. It hadn’t crossed my mind that I would have to carry home the unsold books on the subway and find a place to store them (for eternity!) in my tiny apartment. I shouldn’t have ordered so many. What was I thinking?
Within the next hour, a few folks trickled past the table. They paused and I gave them my winningest smile. And they kept walking. Then, as if I was selling the last Tickle Me Elmo on Christmas Eve, people began crowding around my table. They were buying my book! I was signing away! That part always gets to me. I understand why people want their books autographed by the author — I’m one of them. But why anyone would want my signature is beyond me. I’m not J.K. Rowling or David Sedaris.
A few friends popped by to offer moral support, one of whom had his own book scheduled to be published the following spring. He’d brought a couple of his friends along.
“I’ll take a book,” one of them said. I got my special pen to sign it. Things had gotten busy and I was distracted, but still, I had a familiar feeling. I must have met this friend of a friend sometime before. I was embarrassed. You know, the feeling you get when you should know someone, but you can’t quite place him? It’s like an itch you can’t scratch.
“Do you want me to make it out to you?”
“No, that’s okay.”
Then he took off his sunglasses and I thought, Oh, I see. Please let ground open up and swallow me whole. Because I was autographing a book for Elijah Wood. I’m one hundred percent certain that was supposed to work the other way around.
Have you met someone you should have known, but didn’t remember? Authors, how do you feel about autographing books?
Have a great weekend, everyone!