Sunday, April 22, 2012

Never Meet Your Heroes?

A question: Does meeting authors affect how you read their work?

If your friend works for the local newspaper, do you read his articles the same way you read articles written by strangers? If your critique partner writes a blog post, do you read her the same way you read someone you've never met? If I've read everything Sports Guy's written since 2004, am I allowed to pretend I "know" him?

Where is that line? Does "knowing" a writer make us more accepting or less forgiving? Is it good to meet your heroes, or does it break some invisible wall, like meeting the cast of a Broadway show when the actors are no longer in character?

A few examples of my encounters with authors who were previously faceless names:

Author 1: I had neutral feelings toward this author. I tried to read her book. Had trouble getting in to it. Stopped. Started. Stopped. Started again. Finally finished the entire thing and ended up getting a lot out of it. When I met her in person, I realized I had several questions I wanted to ask about her book. She gave specific and interesting answers, personalized my book, and never seemed in a hurry to get rid of me, even though she'd been there a long time and there was still a line behind me. I left that encounter with a lot of enthusiasm for this person, and now I can't wait to read more from her. I now count her among my favorites.

Author 2: I'd enjoyed this author's work, but whenever I'd read interviews or other online interaction, she struck me as being rather cold. For example, maybe a fan would post a question asking what color a character's eyes were, and rather than answering the question, she'd say she didn't think that information was important. I felt like she didn't want to play along, so I was kind of afraid to approach her. However, I was feeling very BRAVE that day and took the leap. All of the authors I've met have been very generous with answering questions and letting me drive the conversation, but this lady started with, "So Bethany, tell me about yourself." She was the only one who asked me about ME. I'll remember that about her - I left with a different impression than I came with. For the better.

Author 3: I felt like I had a pretty good handle on this person before I met her. Much like I feel like I "know" Sports Guy because I've read him for so long, I felt like I already "knew" this gal. We'd exchanged the occasional tweet, the odd email, etc. In some ways, I was most afraid to meet this person - what if the picture I'd painted for myself was wrong? It's kind of awkward to feel like you know someone when they don't "know" you back. Anywho, I walked up to this author, introduced myself, and she literally jumped out of her chair, said, "I KNOW YOU!" and then she hugged me. I was a bit startled, but I shouldn't have been. It was totally in character for her. She doesn't have a disingenuous cell in her body, and it reflects in all aspects of her work.

Author 4: I didn't really know much about this person. I'd read one book by her a long time ago, and that was pretty much that. She was a speaker in a workshop, along with a few other authors. She struck me as rather quiet, didn't say a lot. But when she did speak, what she said was well thought out, specific, and helpful. Knowing more about how her mind works, I'm eager to read more from her now. By contrast, I felt like some other members of the panel were trying a bit hard to be impressive - reciting what they thought were witty quotations, and just generally talking a LOT without saying a lot (Note: I'm increasingly convinced that the skills that make a good writer and the skills that make a good speaker are not necessarily related - I, er, um, use myself as chief example).

I stood in line for the bathroom with Author 5 (who I haven't read) and asked her if she'd like to cut in line, in case she had an appointment at the conference we were attending. She laughed and said no, she had plenty of time, but thanks. Then we crafted imaginary Tweets that might be posted about her, if she were seen cutting in the bathroom line. Probably one of my most treasured bathroom memories ever, though it still doesn't compare with my brother sharing a bathroom with Coach Mike Ditka ("I swear, proper etiquette was observed by everyone involved!").

Growing up, I always thought writers had some sort of super-human mystical power that enabled them to do what they do, kind of like Michael Jordan was born with the magical ability to jump. In my imagination, it was all rather cartoony. But now that I've seen these writers as MORTALS, will it change the way I read their work? People around Chicago seem to agree that meeting Michael Jordan in person often made it a bit harder to be a fan.

For the authors I met last weekend, the illusion has been broken. They're people, not magical beings shiny with pixie dust. They all talked about showering and folding laundry and making many mistakes. But don't we, in some ways, want our heroes to stay a little magical? A little infallible? Does it change our reading experience to know how they deal with writers block, or to know they got a 16-page editor's letter after their second book sold? When we read our favorite book, do we really want to know how the sausage was made, or is it better not to think about it?

The authors I enjoyed meeting the most seemed comfortable with who they were. They weren't trying to make an impression, weren't concerned with wow-ing me with their knowledge or making me laugh or preserving their "brand" (at least, not that I could tell). They spoke in specifics. They made me feel important. They were in the moment, not looking over fans' shoulders at what might be coming next. Because they were comfortable, that made me feel comfortable with them. And, when I'm comfortable with them, I trust I will be comfortable spending several hours with their books. And so I have to ask myself - if I were in their shoes, would I do as well?

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