Thursday, February 08, 2007

Enviously on He Sails: Fueling the Writer's Aspirations

I don't believe I've been to an author reading since moving back to Michigan. While living and studying (and procrastinating) in Iowa, writer appearances often provided my only non-school social interaction. Actually, they were one of the reasons I started this blog, because I was seeing all of these fantastic writers and wanted to share that with those I knew would care. (Unfortunately, after looking through the archives, I believe Fried Rice Thoughts was born after I attended many of those readings.)

But for whatever reason, whether it's because I just don't keep track of such things like I used to, I find some excuse not to head downtown (which is surely a sign of onsetting old age), or nothing has raised my literary antennae recently, I haven't seen a writer I admire read from his or her work, and answer questions from students and followers.

That changed last night when Calvin Trillin was in town, touring to promote his tribute to his late wife, titled About Alice. I've been a fan of his writing ever since reading a New Yorker essay about his quest for the perfect New York City bagel (which was intended to lure his daughter back home from California). As soon as I read it, I knew that was the kind of stuff I'd like to create. I like food, I like looking for it, and I like writing. Sign me up.

But it was only in recent years, when I had the chance to devour a bunch of his work while studying nonfiction writing, that I really developed a love for his style, especially the way he'd cast the people in his life as characters for each of his essays and stories. It's something the best humor writers do, and I noticed that the better pieces I wrote while at Iowa were those in which I similarly cast my friends and family. To a much lesser extent, I often try to present the people in my life as the voices of conscience in opposition to my dopier impulses here in this blog when appropriate.

I usually think it's best to leave the Literary Adventures to Susannah's Pub of Knowledge, but About Alice has a particular resonance with me. My mother read a review for it on a flight back home from South Carolina, and very much wanted to read about how someone else was coping with the loss of a spouse. It's a wisp of a book, so I managed to read the whole thing before giving it to her a few Saturday afternoons ago. But the substance of the writing more than makes up for any lack of volume. It's a love letter to his wife, which I imagine surprises no one who's read any of Trillin's previous work.

"I showed Alice everything I wrote in rough draft - partly because I valued her opinion but partly because I hoped to impress her. If the piece was meant to be funny, the sound of laughter from the next room was a great reward...

"When Alice died, I was going over the galleys of a novel about parking in New York - a subject so silly that I think I would have hesitated to submit the book to a publisher if she hadn't, somewhat to her surprise, liked it. When the novel was published, the dedication said, 'I wrote this for Alice. Actually, I wrote everything for Alice.'"

You know, I'm not quite sure who I envy more in that dynamic: the woman whose husband so adored her that he was constantly motivated to impress her with his craft, or the man who found the muse that always fueled his creatitvity. Either way, I think you'd be doing okay. (I suppose as a writer, I'd opt for the muse. But who's to say you wouldn't be inspired either way?)

I think I was spoiled by some of those readings in Iowa, because I'd become accustomed to walking up to the author afterwards, handing over a book to sign, and getting to pick their brains regarding whatever secrets to writing ingenuity occurred to me at the time. Unfortunately, the event at Borders was rather tightly controlled. So you want me to write down the personalization on a Post-It for him? I'm handing you the book to hand to him? Do I get to talk to him?

I suppose it's just as well, because I don't know what I would've said to Trillin, anyway. Actually, I often don't have much to say, other than to blurt out awkward admiration. Sometimes, however, the author surprises you. I'll never forget James Ellroy asking me "What's up, Sayid?" when I handed him my copy of The Big Nowhere. I have no idea why. But I think he was calling everyone that. The smirk on his face said so, at least.

But in this case, what would I have said? The book pretty much says it all. And maybe that's the point, even if I would've loved a good ol' handshake. Besides, the book kind of felt like the same thing when I carried it in my hand as I walked back to my car.

▪▪ Here's the New York Times' review of About Alice.

▪▪ Check out what the Boston Globe thought, as well.

▪▪ And why not see what the Los Angeles Times has to say on the book, too?

▪▪ Finally, the New Yorker has a podcast interview with Trillin available for download.