introducing readers to writers since 1995

June 10, 2005

Guest Author: N.M. Kelby

by Ron Hogan

nmkelby.jpgI got a lot of positive feedback about N.M. Kelby's's BookExpo reports, so I was pleasantly surprised to receive her post-event reflections. If you enjoyed her stories as much as I did, there's good news: the experience has won her over completely, and now she's blogging! So look for all sorts of observations from her in the near future...but for now, here's what she learned last weekend...

LATER...The thing about BEA is that, when you come right down to it, it's all about wisdom: the wisdom of the business, the wisdom of the authors who speak at the events, and the wisdom, or lack thereof, that can be found in the books themselves.

I'm writing this missive a few days after the show has ended. I am home with my hardworking staff, my beloved dogs, and my big screen TV. Tonight it is the NBA playoffs. Even though I also like Detroit, it is my secret hope that Tim Duncan, whose skill, athleticism, work ethic, and genuine decency are unsurpassed, will lead the Spurs to victory. He's a good guy. I like it when good guys win.

The thing I've learned about basketball is that good players train incessantly to be at the top of their game. But great players, like Mr. Duncan, not only train, but study the wisdom of those who have come before. They understand the kindness and grace and dignity of Dr. J and take it to heart. They play the game as if it is more than just entertainment. To them, it is about how teamwork and fair play can illuminate the human spirit. The great players are living proof that man is a creature that can attain a certain mortal perfection. They can hit an impossible 3-point shot, while in traffic, from center court. Or hang in the air forever like Jordan, an angel levitating. The great ones take the wisdom they have been given all through their life and manifest it.

It's a lot like being a writer.

There were many words of wisdom at BEA offered by the writers. Nick Hornby (there for his latest, A Long Way Down) talked a great deal about the writer's life. He said he doesn't believe in inspiration. To him, you just sit down and write. "Panic and fear," he said, "really tends to focus the mind."

"Writers are really not very skilled at any other task. So, let's face it, if we couldn't write we'd have to get another job––and that would really suck."

Mr. Hornby said he finds that it's very easy to come up with ideas for books. "I'll be sitting on the bus thinking about a story about two kids floating down the Thames on a raft having adventures. One of them would be named 'Thomas.' "

Unfortunately, many of these ideas have been done before and prove to be, in his words, "not-a-goer."

Michael Cunningham (The Hours) was also promoting his new book, Specimen Days, which is Walt Whitman-influenced this time. "A really sad book," said Mr. Cunningham, who began his talk by referring to himself as "Mr. Just Wing It! Mr. Get Up There And Just Start Talking!" Though the course of his charming ramble, he told the audience that writers really don't know what their books are about. He said he can remember sitting in an office with the producer of the movie version of The Hours and staring at a poster with Meryl Streep and cast, wondering what the tagline for it should be. Mr. Cunningham said he didn't have a clue. Finally, the producer turned to him and said, "How about 'Three depressed lesbians. You do the math?'"

Luckily, the ad agency stepped in.

Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose and the new The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana) also finds it difficult to distill the meaning of a book: "If I could summarize a novel in a few words, I would have written a telegram."

He spoke on Sunday morning, the last day of the show, at 8 a.m. Mr. Eco went on to tell us all about his new book in great detail, and then gave advice on how to be a successful writer. "I don't listen to people when they talk to me. You save a lot of time. This gives you more time to be brilliant."

I thought about this on the way back to the hotel. Of all the 'wisdom' that I'd been given that weekend, this bit really stuck with me. I know writers like this. They keep their own company, live in their own world, listen to their own rhythm, and they create the most amazingly brilliant fiction.

This is why I will never be brilliant. I am, by my own admission, a chronic conversationalist.

The night before Eco's talk, there were several BEA-related parties so I ran back to the room, took a quick shower, changed clothes, and then ran back out into the world. Quick. Quick. Quick. Feeling just like Alice again. The Mad Hatter was waiting. The parties were about to begin.

One problem. It was raining. I didn't have an umbrella. Not a taxi to be seen. When I suddenly realized that I was getting wet, I just stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. What to do? I thought. What to do? Why did I ever evoke Alice?

At that moment, a gnome of a man wearing a straw boater hat and chomping on a cigar grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the rain, and under an awning.

"Come back later," he said, and gestured to the Italian restaurant behind us. "At midnight, we have male dancers who stand on the top of the bar and strip. The ceiling is very low, they're midgets, so we charge half the price that the other clubs do."

The restaurant is a family place. Checked tablecloths and red sauce. I laughed. "I'll keep it in mind," I said.

Then he pulled out a creased picture of himself as a young man. He'd obviously done this before. Still, I looked at the photo. He was good looking. Rakish. "In 1952," he said, "I could have been one of those dancers, but sex wasn't invented until 1960."

I kept laughing, so he told me a long story about a girl he'd loved and lost and a tear actually came to his eye. No jokes now. His voice was lower, sadder. As he spoke, I could see in him the young man he once was, the rejected suitor who knew he would never get over it. It was a little overwhelming.

"Why are you telling me this?" I asked gently.

"She was a redhead like you," he said. Then ran inside the restaurant and brought back an umbrella for me. "Keep it," he said. "I have four more."

The gesture was so kind, and unexpected. Gallant. It made me wonder if he really had four umbrellas, or even one spare. "I can't accept this."

"You have to," he said. "I gave you a little of my heart. You have to keep dry so you can give it to someone else." Then he squeezed my hand quickly and said, "But when you tell this story again, the only thing I ask is that you make me taller."

So now, I think that the best bit of wisdom that I brought home from BEA is that when you take a little bit of someone's heart, and shape it into a story, always make sure you make them taller. Make them the giant they truly are.

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