There are some people who can keep their shit in check in the presence of someone they admire and then there are the rest of us. I found out which camp I belonged in the time I met Pulitzer-winning writer Annie Proulx.
Writers are rock stars. To me, Annie Proulx is the literary Springsteen, the Aretha of words, the Beyonce of books. I read The Shipping News, the book that won her a Pulitzer, later became a movie (no biggie) as an undergrad in college and was instantly smitten. Proulx’s prose is unparalleled. Her economy of language is masterful—she can render a shatteringly poignant moment in three words or less. Her characters are complex, relatable, tragic, hilarious, and darkly beautiful. Her storytelling is endlessly layered without being dense. It feels like truth that is both lighter than a spider’s thread and heavier than granite. When it comes to the Proulx kool-aid, I’m a gulper.
I was studying for my master’s at Georgetown University in DC and took a part-time job working at Barnes & Noble. I met a lot of amazing people working at that store. I goofed around way more than I shelved books (no guilt, YOLO), and once I accidently waited on the daughter of our President at the time: Chelsea Clinton. I was at the computer pretending not to read some celebrity biography when I looked up to find this young woman with almost cartoonishly enormous blue eyes standing in front of me. It took a few seconds for me to realize who she was. The gentleman in the suit with the earpiece standing at a discrete distance was a second giveaway. She inquired about a particular book. “We don’t have that in stock,” I said squinting at the computer screen. “Can we order that for you?” I asked slipping into my automated bookseller speak. She smiled kindly and shook her head, probably thinking “Yeah, I’m just going to give you my address and phone number because I’m not the daughter of the leader of the free world or anything.”
One day I was invited (note: euphemism happening) to be a part of an event sponsored by the store. It was a book fair taking place downtown, attended by about 60 renowned (note: exaggeration occurring) authors. Barnes & Noble had won the contract to supply all the books. Could they count on me to work the event? I never met a book fair held in an elementary school library smelling of socks, paper, and plastic sandwich bags that I didn’t love. Yes!
What this actually meant was some serious hard labor and two complimentary drink tickets.
The book fair was held downtown at the National Press Club. One of the many amazing, mind-blowing things about DC is that you can’t take more than ten steps without falling over a building, a monument, a statue, or a grassy park that has some larger than life historical significance or that you’ve seen on TV shows like The X-Files and The West Wing. The Press Club is an organization that represents journalists and all kinds of media conglomerates. News briefings take place throughout the day at its DC headquarters. Say something insane suddenly happens to the price of corn. The Secretary of Agriculture schleps from his office near Capitol Hill over to the Press Club to address reporters about that morning’s corn crisis while trying to assiduously avoid saying things like “I know you’re going to be all EARS for this news” and “there’s more than a few KERNALS of truth here.” Or maybe that’s just me (note: apply for job as Secretary of Agriculture immediately).
Our job as “invitees” involved transporting what seemed like 9,000 boxes of books from the store, to the Club, and then loading them into the event room for the fair/signing. We got to attend the event because we also had to break down at the end of the night and cart everything back to the store (note: thus the drink tickets). The club was an active, sensitive space, which made galumphing the books up to the event room tricky business. We were restricted to the service elevator and had to creep stealthily past the rooms where active briefings were taking place, which was basically all of them. Creeping with an ancient hand truck stacked up with book boxes should be an Olympic event.
We finished up with about fifteen minutes to spare before the event opened, dashing into the bathroom to shed our disgusting, sweaty clothes and indulge in a little bathroom sink spa action before heading out onto the floor.
I was so focused on the drudgery of the day, I hadn’t paid much attention to which authors were coming as featured “guests” to sign and sell books. I wandered around the room a bit, sipping my half ounce of wine in a plastic cup. The event had just opened, many of the authors were still absent. A smattering of people began filtering in. I noticed a table in the front, quite close to the door where a glut of people had formed, picking up and turning over the books stacked on the table. I craned my neck to see the placard: Don Knotts. The actor famous for his role on The Andy Griffith Show had just written a memoir. I supposed he was the token celebrity of the night.
I drifted up another aisle of tables and came to a stop when I saw the placard that read Annie Proulx. The seats behind the table empty. The room was starting to fill up now with a steady parade of people. I looked around expecting to get smooshed any second in the crush of people who would surely be jockeying for face time with her, the true celebrity at this thing.
Two neat piles of books sat on the table. The cover showed a bleak and lovely watercolor of a stream cutting through snowy plains. A small, grey saddled horse without a rider stood at the edge of the stream. Close Range: Wyoming Stories ran the title. I sucked in my breath. I unearthed a copy of the book closer to the bottom of the stack, less chance of it already being over-handled. I gingerly opened the book, thrilled by the soft creak of its newness. I carefully thumbed a few pages, catching glimpses of glossy sheets with more brilliant watercolor sketches. I understood with a terrible wonderful realization that I was going to get to meet my literary hero.
No one wants to be the first one to the party. I should take another spin around the room and come back when there were more people, I thought. Besides, that would give me a chance to compose my thoughts in order to make an eloquent, articulate, classy impression on Ms. Proulx. I wanted to come off cool and breezy, but not aloof or only casually interested. I wanted to be enthusiastic, but not Golden Retriever sloppy; it was important to me to be reverent and appreciative, but not stalkery. There was a lot to consider.
While I was busy hanging around “considering” (considering having a stroke it seemed), Annie Proulx and another woman slid into the two seats behind the table looking unassuming and a little stoic. This was happening.
I continued to pretend to look through the book, but really I was counting to fifty, which I hoped would give me a sliver of time to get it together. After I got to twelve I forgot what came next and found my mouth moving.
“Hi!” I said to her too loudly, too brightly, inflated with fake confidence. I gave her my name. She nodded, returning my greeting in a normal-toned, normal-volumed voice. There was a beat. I clutched her book to my chest.
“Thank you so much for what you do, really,” I said. There was another polite nod and a curt “thanks.” Shit. It was my turn again, wasn’t it? How long had this exchange been going on, I wondered stupidly, hours? Eons? I saw her pick up one of the Sharpies in front of her. Right! This is the part where you do that give-her-the-book-part, uh, part lectured my thick mind.
I put the book in front of her. She flipped to a blank page, neatly penning her signature. In the three seconds it took her to scrawl her name, I leaned in a little bit and out came the following in what felt like one long run-on sentence:
“Thank you so much! I know most people love The Shipping News, but I really, really loved Accordian Crimes. I thought that book was just stunning, so inventive and cool and epic, really.” At this point, I honestly didn’t think she was even listening. After all, how many of these things did she do in a year? How often had she heard a variation of this kind of thing—you’re a genius, blah blah, this book is my favorite, yadda yadda, naming my first born after one of your characters.” Typical. Little more than white noise to her most likely.
But something else happened. She lifted her eyes from her writing and straightened up a little, cocked her head to the side ever so slightly the way animals do when they catch an unusual smell on the wind. Annie Proulx smiled. She smiled at me.
“Thank you. That’s very nice to hear. Thanks.” Actual words aimed at my face. Truth.
Emboldened by my newfound kinship with Annie Proulx, drunk on our budding best friendship I then said to her: “Your writing is so……chewy.”
I just likened Annie Proulx’s writing to Annie Proulx herself to a piece of beef jerky or a chocolate covered caramel. Icarus! The sun, Icarus! The sun!
What did I even mean? Did I even know? I couldn’t reach for “brilliant” or “beautiful” or “complicated” or “exciting?” No. Apparently, if I couldn’t make a smart impression I was going to make a weird impression.
Like the sudden hush that follows when the electricity goes out, the magic of the moment vanished. Her eyebrows creased almost imperceptibly, the smile retreated to reform what might have been a smirk or a grimace, very blurred lines there. If I had video to replay, I would have studied it closer than the Zapruder film. Now other people were gathering around the table. I scooped up the book, thanked her again, and hurried away.
When I think about that encounter, and I’m fairly certain I’ve thought of it a lot more often over the years than Ms. Proulx, I’m actually not all that sorry that I wasn’t “cooler” or “hipper” or more measured. I was real. I was completely star struck by this artist whose craft I loved (and continue to love) so damn hard that, quite frankly, I would have been shocked if I hadn’t gushed, hadn’t let my emotions grab the gears and take this goofy self out for a spin. We all want to feel that we’ve made impact in some way, we all long to know that what we do—whatever we do with our singular, extraordinary life—has meaning, has significance, has indelibly etched itself in the life of someone else in some way. I believe that when you feel that you’ve been forever altered by someone else’s work, by their efforts, their actions, you actually owe it to them to pay that forward in whatever earnest expressions you have to give. That’s the joy and reward of the journey.
I bet there is a very young Annie Proulx who fangirled someone in her life—another writer, a musician, a teacher, an astrophysicist—who whispered to herself, “if I could only be like you, do what you do.” I hope she told them so in her own, freaky, sweet, odd, genuine way.
They would be lucky to know it.