introducing readers to writers since 1995

June 03, 2005

N.M. Kelby Hits the BookExpo Party Circuit

by Ron Hogan

nmkelby.jpgWhen N. M. Kelby volunteered to come to BookExpo and go to all the parties so she could write about them for Beatrice, I immediately said yes. Not just because I like Theater of the Stars so much, and I can't wait for Whale Season to come out next spring, but because she writes such great emails I couldn't wait to see what she'd have to say. And because it was a perfect excuse for Mrs. Beatrice and I to meet her! (After the party she mentions here, Nicole hightailed it over to the tail end of the litblogger reception, then the three of us piled into a cab, in pursuit of Sarah Weinman, Pearl Abraham, and Bella Stander, on our way to the party for Akashic's latest Brooklyn Noir anthology...)

DAY ONE: Alice. I feel like Alice tumbling through the looking glass. DRINK ME. I am too small when I enter the Javits Center. Steel cuts across the ceiling several stories above my head. Everybody is getting ready for the show. Scurrying. Running up and down the flights of frozen escalators carrying boxes of books, looking worried. "Could somebody turn these damn things on?" a woman shouts to no one in particular. Security makes its way towards her. Her voice is so small in the cavernous building, it doesn't even echo.

On the fourth floor, tucked away in a corner of the building, is the pressroom. The Journalists, a tribe that I've been a member of for nearly 30 years, sit in the huge room at table rounds and don't speak to each other much. Their cell phones chirp rap music, Chopin, and one plays Queen's "We are The Champions." The room feels like the ballroom at hotel scheduled for demolition. Smells like industrial cleaner. The journalists polish their 'game faces'. They look so appropriately wary, tired, and bored––it makes me feel even smaller. I write novels now mostly. I'm neither wary, nor bored, but often amazed and joyous at the texture of the world. I laugh a lot. Try to ferret out joy.

My tribe is lost to me, now. I've lost my edge. I'm Alice and the Queen and her court is playing croquet all around me.

In the Press Room there's huge windows that provide a bird's eye view of the show floor. Right now, the displays are endless and empty. Tomorrow's the big day. Show time. Tomorrow, I will be one of the thousands and thousands of novelists who make their living whispering in the dark. I'm not part of the show, I'm here as a tourist—so I'm even lower on the convention food chain. And I certainly I am not John Irving, Or E.L. Doctorow. Or Billy Collins. I am small. So small. Smaller than Alice.

But the great thing about BEA is that even though I am so tiny that I cannot be seen in the sea of titles, I can go to a party. I can't be John Irving, but thanks to my publishers at Random House, I can eat a shrimp and talk about the weather in Syracuse with him—and I'm not even from Syracuse.

The Random House party is on the 26th floor of their offices. DRINK ME, I think as the express elevator kicks in and elegantly whooshes me through the looking glass. I want to be in my own skin again. I don't want to be too small. I want to be my own size. I want to feel as if I have something to offer. I am nervous. This party is thrown by Random House to honor, as the invitation says, "some longtime members of our literary family." The guest list looks like the reading list for a 'Modern Contemporary Lit' course. It's daunting. My heroes are all in one room. I plan to hide in the corner and just watch, but a crowd of people part and Billy Collins is suddenly standing next to me.

"I'm planning to teach you," I say. Then my face turns the shade of beets. Teach you what? I think. Yikes.

But Mr. Collins laughs. And I explain that I'm teaching a poetry writing class at the University of Tampa in the fall. "I'm starting with an examination of rap music––its particular poetry, message, and beat––and then moving on to talk about how the tools and language of poems elevates them into things of unique beauty and sometimes truth."

Mr. Collins likes this. He gives me his card. "Call me. I'll come to the University, to your class, and explain myself to them."

And then he laughs again. Then says, "I'll give a reading. It will be great. I love Florida. It would be fun."

This is not what I expected at all. That's when I suddenly realized something. At the core of it, all writers are the same. Irving and his tanned boxer's face. Doctorow and his Mad Hatter eyes. The raffish Billy Collins. We are all neither too small, nor too large. We are human. And, sometimes, too human.

And we are all whispering in the dark together.

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