Meeting the Wizard

Recently I had the opportunity to pay $36, travel two hours by public bus, and go to a reading/book signing by one of my favorite authors, Jodi Picoult. At first, I jumped at the idea; what could be better than hearing her words read by her and listening to her talk about writing? But then I began to rethink it. What if she was disappointing? What if in real life she wasn’t as awesome as her books? What if she’s actually mean? It is hard to read something without thinking about the author and what she was thinking when she wrote it, although modern criticism encourages this detachment (see The Intentional Fallacy). As a writer, I know that often things I write have nothing to do with me, but as a reader, I imagine everything as an extension of the author’s experience. So if I meet Jodi Picoult and she doesn’t live up to my expectations, would I ever be able to enjoy a book of hers again?

I decided to protect my illusions and skipped the reading.

This led me to wondering about the benefits of getting to know an author. Everyone has experienced the swell of curiosity after reading a good book; you just want to know everything about the author and how they came up with the idea and how you can extend your experience of the fiction through meeting them. Writers become even more obsessed with meeting their idols to pepper them with questions like what their writing schedule is like and how they come up with their ideas and how long it took them to be published. A cult of personality is created around the great writers that lasts long after their deaths; on my vacation this past week to the Florida Keys we visited Hemingway’s home (although we got there too late for a tour) where you can see the rooms in which he wrote and meet cats descended from his pets.

Me in front of Hemingway's House

But what is the point of trying to meet the wizard behind the curtain? The questions authors give eager writers rarely have any impact on the aspiring novelist’s writing; the fact remains that you have your own rhythm of when you write and just because Jonathan Franzen says to write in the mornings doesn’t mean that will work for you (I have no idea if he said that; I made it up for an example). Seeing where Hemingway wrote doesn’t hint at the secret of his genius. Elizabeth Berg writes in her book Home Safe about a writer visiting her idol, E.B. White’s, home and feeling much closer to him and imagining she has so much more insight into his work. Then she says:

“As she stood in White’s work space that day, it occurred to her that she was grasping at straws when it came to really understanding anything about the man; you could read his work, even biographies about him, and imagine a certain kind of person; but the reality of him would forever be a mystery…She thinks it was Margaret Atwood who said that wanting to meet a writer because you like their work was like wanting to meet a duck because you like pate.” (p. 63)

This captures for me what is the pointlessness of meeting a writer. It is the piece of fiction that you fell in love with, not the person. And, after all, most writers are shy, introverted people; it follows that their best work, their masterpieces of brilliance, are what they write, revise, and set out for you to read, not the speaking engagements they do to get money or the empty rooms in which they wrote. Meeting the writer will not extend your experience of the fiction; only reading more of their works will do that.

I imagine many people have different opinions on this, and I would love to hear them! Also keep an eye on Sarah Martinez because she has a lot to say on this subject.

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3 thoughts on “Meeting the Wizard

  1. Great post!
    I “befriended” one of my favorite authors on Facebook and was disappointed with her. In fairness, she didn’t do anything wrong. She just showed how human she was– posting a lot of personal comments. And then her mystique was gone. When I read her next book, I couldn’t help recalling things she had revealed about herself, and the story got too mixed up with the person. You made a good choice skipping the reading to protect your illusions. I wish I’d skipped the friend request…

  2. I’m sorry to hear that! I haven’t connected with too many of my favorite authors virtually, but I can imagine it gets too personal way too fast. That leads to another question for authors of how to monitor your online self so you don’t disappoint readers.

  3. I met Salman Rushdie and was very impressed. He was very nice, and seemed to understand that I was nervous talking to him and was very cool, polite and actually made small talk when I ran out of things to say. That didn’t change anyhting about how I read his work.
    I met Andre Dubus III and left that not only wishing I had been able to spend more time with him, but with a great outlook on my future as a writer. The man has energy, charisma, and actually paid attention to me and offered advice about my writing. He encouraged me so that was definately a positive experience.
    I did not actually meet Franzen though I stood about two feet from him and made eye contact for about two seconds! My experience there had more to do with the things he said in his talk about the writers life, duties to themselves, and the state of the world around them. There was an anxiety there that I found hard to deal with but perfectly matched what I’ve read in his essays and fiction. The man is something else for sure, I just haven’t figured out exactly what yet.
    All in all I would say that meeting or hearing them speak hasn’t damaged my opinion of any writers yet though I did hear that one of the women I admire was not very nice to have as a teacher. That made me sad but it was second hand information so I try to disregard it.
    I am super excited because I get to spend a considerable amount of time with the author of my favorite writing book over the weekend. I have every expectation that it that will be a great experience as well.I have already emailed and corresponded with her on FB.
    I do wholeheartedly believe in telling authors (in the least intrusive and abnoxious way possible) if they have meant a great deal to me, whatever they do with that is their business.

    A book that addresses this issues head on and that I love, love, love, is Nicholson Baker’s “U and I.” In this book he talks about wanting to meet John Updike, one of his heroes, and describes the urge and all its attendant worries and anxieties.

    And here Updike sums up the entire matter quite conclusively:

    “Evasive temperaments are drawn to the practice of fiction. Their work is done far behind the heath-shield of face and voice that advances against a room of strangers. The performance can be a shambling and ingratiating one as much as a cocksure and intimidating one, but performance it is: a pity for these anonymous devoted readers who press affectionately toward a blind man are his lovers, who have accepted into themselves his most intimate and earnest thrusts. I would like to meet, I suppose, Vladimir Nabokov and Henry Green, but recognize the urge as superstitious, a seeking of a physical ritual to formalize the fact that we already are (I write as a reader) so well met.”
    —On Meeting Writers, John Updike

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