Learning to be serious

When I was a little boy in Alaska, my mother would sometimes take me to book events at local bookstores. I don't remember which bookstores, and I don't particularly remember the events themselves, but I do still have copies of books that we returned home with, inscribed. There's a copy of Martha Alexander's Blackboard Bear, signed to me; there's a copy of Walt Morey's Gloomy Gus—which I much preferred to his more famous classic, Gentle Ben—also signed to me. And a third book, about an injured moose that a boy finds in the willows near his home, though for the life of me the title escapes me, and I can't recall the author, either. 

Which is a terrible way to start off a post about how special books are to me. 

Most of the books that I still have from those early days are a bit banged-up. We weren't precious about books in our house—they existed to be read, inscribed by the author or not, and so we read them, inscribed or not. My copy of the moose book is wrapped in a dust jacket that's tattered and ripped. I'm not sure Gloomy Gus has its jacket any longer. 

For years before I switched to reading my books on smartphones and tablets and Kindles, I collected them. If I were planning to move from one house to another, I would take it as an opportunity to purge, since the last thing anybody wants to lug from one house to another is forty boxes of books. But in the new house, the books would pile up again. I read quickly and often. People sometimes challenge themselves to read fifty books a year; I read fifty in the first few months of a new year, easy.

As a boy, I conquered reading competitions and won prizes. Once I won a cheap Walkman, the one with the orange foam headphones. In elementary school, when our class had an all-night reading contest in the school library—imagine thirty kids in pajamas and sleeping bags, surrounded by books—I took first prize, besting the runner-up by several hundred pages read. I remember that event well. A handful of us were frantically engaged, desperately trying to best one another; the rest of the kids took the opportunity to hide behind the stacks and goof off. 

When Amazon introduced the Kindle, my folks gave it to me as a birthday present. I loved it immediately, and loaded it up with books, and purged my bookshelves at home. When I traveled to Oregon that fall to hole up in a lodge and work on Eleanor, I left physical books at home and brought only the Kindle, and during my daily treks to a nearby breakfast joint, I would sit at the slab-wood counter and read until long after I'd finished eating. (Then I'd make my way back through the woods to the lodge, and into my quiet little cabin-ish room, and stare at my widespread piles of index cards and notes, and get back to work on the novel, unaware that it would still be seven more years before the book would be completed.)

For a time, I would discover books to read by visiting real-world bookstores, then later tracking choice titles down on the Kindle. Not all books were there in those days, but it wasn't long before the libraries rounded out, and you could find almost anything on them. At first, I read only on the actual Kindle device; then, three years later, when Felicia gave me a first-generation iPad, I switched to reading anything good I could find in iBooks. When Amazon introduced the iOS Kindle app, I was in heaven. I could find pretty much anything there. And eventually, I started reading on my iPhone, swiping through book after book each day when I ate lunch or breakfast. (That's just about the only dedicated reading time I have anymore.)

But when I started self-publishing novels, I found myself enamored once again of physical books. I was designing my own, and I obsessed over the things I loved about books I'd always owned: the particular typesetting, the elegance or bombastic nature of the interior title page, the texture of the cover. And suddenly I wanted real books in my hands again.

In early October, as I've previously written about, Eleanor was acquired by a publisher, and I celebrated by visiting Powell's and piling my arms high with books. I left the store with two heavy paper sacks that day. My love for technology had spun me astray for a time, but I'm firmly back, still agog over the beauty of a well-designed, well-crafted, perfectly-weighted book. But there's even more to it now; with Eleanor moving into the publishing process, I'm going to be exposed to the way those books are made. I'll see decisions made along the way—some I can contribute to, some that will probably be made without me—and at the end of the process, I'll have a hardcover book to hold. What will it look like? How hefty will it be? Will the pages be deckled or flat? Will I get one of those wonderfully soft, lightly textured, matte-print covers that are so trendy now? What kind of nice words by other authors might decorate the book? I look at every book I purchase these days and think: Will my book look like this one? One of the more gorgeous books I've held recently, and brought home to read, is Michael Faber's (likely final) novel The Book of Strange New Things. The texture of the cover just sings, and the pages are smooth and straight-cut but gold-rimmed, and the text within is perfectly set and clear. It's wonderful, and I get a little charge of what if when I remember that this book was published by the same lovely people who are going to publish Eleanor

The entire thing of being an author is, for me, uncertain and curious these days. I pester my agent with stacks of questions about things that I assume most authors already know, or don't care about. I ask for things that must sound impossibly naive. One of my favorite things to do now—well, it has been a favorite always, but especially now—is to attend readings and signings that other authors are putting on. I'm there because I love to listen to authors read, and I enjoy meeting them and coming away with a book signed just for me... but I'm also there to learn How Authors Behave. Not exactly for the purpose of modeling myself after any one of them; but to see what choices they make, how they field questions both difficult and simple, how they treat readers, how they hold themselves, what they wear. Will anybody take seriously a Serious Author who shows up at book events in shorts and hoodies and flip-flops? 

I hope so.

In 2001, I think, I gave myself a birthday present. Even then I had developed a bit of a reputation for being a difficult person for whom to buy birthday gifts; I don't often ask for a particular thing, and in most cases, if I want something, I just get it. (That was harder in those days, when I earned a very meager salary as a web designer, but I still found a way, most times.) For a few years, I developed a habit of just giving myself a gift that nobody else would necessarily know to get for me. 

That year, I drove from Nevada to California—to Stockton, I think, though I can't remember for certain—to see Michael Chabon at two consecutive events. The first was at a Barnes & Noble, where he read a bit from his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, then answered some questions, then signed the books. The second was at a university, where he lectured on maps and boyhood—an early version, I think, of an essay that later appeared in one of his books (Maps and Legends, I think, seems the most likely candidate). At both events, I had books signed by him. I had a first-edition of Kavalier, before the Pulitzer Prize sticker was affixed to every dust jacket in every store. Chabon signed it. On the used/rare book site Abe Books, you can find that exact book—signed first editions—for more than $700. 

We seem to have lost that book. Recently, my mother-in-law moved into our home. We emptied the room that we called Switzerland, which was Felicia's and my joint working space, so that my mother-in-law could have a space completely her own. All of the books and shelves were relocated to other places, and during the process, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay went missing. Felicia has been feeling terrible, and has torn apart the house searching for it. I feel less concerned; it will turn up, I know. It wasn't in perfect condition—remember my earlier statement about reading books, inscribed or not? I'm the worst kind of reader, the kind that other book lovers hate, because I'm all about breaking a book in while I read it, dog-earing pages and cracking the spine when a book won't submit—and I'm not selling it anyway.

What I remember of the Chabon events I've written about before. During the Q&A at the bookstore, I lifted my hand, which meant that an author who I truly admired, who had never seen me before and knew nothing of me or my thoughts or opinions or aspirations, looked straight at me and said, "Yes, you." I don't often idolize or elevate famous people, and in fact I often go out of my way not to interact with them if I'm ever in proximity to them; in many cases, an author's work has impacted me in some real way (I cry at books all the time, for example), but I know that in my tidy, small meeting with them, I won't make a similar impact on them, which reduces the importance of my meeting them or saying anything at all, in my mind, and so I usually decline. But that day I asked Mr. Chabon what he felt when he learned that Kavalier had won the Pulitzer, and I'll be damned if he didn't seem to tear up, just a tiny bit, like a real human being, when he thought back to his experience. He told a story about being in New York—just after he learned he'd won the prize—and seeing a ticker in Times Square that announced the death of another author. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty dead at 92, I seem to recall him describing the ticker's message. He spoke about the way it struck him, then, that the thing which had just happened to him would be used to contextualize him and describe him for the rest of his life. 

Another special book that hasn't been misplaced is a hardcover first edition of Contact, by Carl Sagan, which was a gift to me years ago. The book is signed, though not to me. It's addressed to someone else entirely, but as Mr. Sagan died in 1996, before I truly began to discover his work, it's the closest I'll ever come to being in the same place at the same time. I wish I'd been able to meet him and have him sign a book to me. I'd put aside my general hesitation about interacting with notable people, and I'd probably tear up a bit myself as I told him my name, and that his books are the reason that my life changed dramatically in my mid-twenties, and that one book in particular—Contact—deeply inspired me to write Eleanor. I'm not sure what he'd say in return, but I'm sure he would have said something genuine and kind and heartfelt, and I think that I might have left a small mark on him, one dwarfed by the immense mark he made upon me. I think I'd have learned something amazing about being an author that day, and the responsibilities that come with it, and the imperceptible ways in which you can affect someone else without even knowing it. 

Which is so much more important, really, than whether Eleanor will have deckled edges or how it might be typeset when it's published anew in 2016. Don't get me wrong: I'm unfortunately a career designer, and not a bad one, and that means I'll have considered, strong opinions about those things. But they don't matter all that much, really. They're just the wrapping, not the meat. 

This weekend, over three days, I'll be at a science fiction and fantasy convention called OryCon, where I'll sit on a few panels and try to say things that aren't useless, and where I'll sign a few books, hopefully, and even read from Eleanor a bit. And at the end of it all, on Sunday, I'll join many other better-known authors at Powell's, where as a part of Authorfest we'll sign books and meet readers. 

I'll be easy to find, if you'd like to say hello. Just look for the Serious Author in a hoodie and shorts and flip-flops.