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On Remembering That Writers are People

I met a new author this week, the first professional author that I’ve spoken with for longer than 15 seconds in the course of a book signing. We talked about traffic and getting lost on Interstate 80; it was a normal conversation. And I think it was exactly what I needed.

The setup: Husband and I went into San Francisco on Sunday night to attend SF in SF‘s monthly author reading, something we hadn’t done in a long time. As luck would have it, each one of us was excited about one of the two featured authors this month. Husband, a hard SF/Big Idea guy in the core of his being, devoured the first book in Hannu Rajaniemi‘s Jean le Flambeur trilogy late last year and was eager to get his hands on the rest, while I’ve read Daryl Gregory‘s We Are All Completely Fine and Afterparty (read my review of the latter here) and find myself consistently interested in whatever Gregory announces he’s working on next.

So we joined a decent-sized crowd for the reading, hosted by Terry Bisson, and listened to each of the authors read two short pieces. As I suspected might be the case, I was left admiring Rajaniemi’s craft even as I acknowledged that his stories weren’t really aimed at me, and wanting to check out Gregory’s short story collection (not, alas, available for sale at the reading!) The first piece Gregory read was about a very human reaction to the coming apocalypse (which was, really, all this dystopian fan sociologist needed to hear to be hooked :)); the second was a lighter piece about the location of human consciousness. Once both authors had finished their readings, we took a short break, and I sat down to dive into one of the new books I’d picked up from the Borderlands sales kiosk — at which point, Husband tapped my shoulder. “It looks like they’re chatting with people — do you want to go say hi?”

I froze. “Oh, no, that’s OK. I wouldn’t know what to say. I’d feel awkward. I — they’re real authors.” 

Husband: “So are you!”

Me: “No — no — I’ve been working on the same story for ten years and I’ve got nothing to show for it yet. I’m not a real author. I — uh — I’m just gonna read.” At which point, I proceeded to bury my face in Pandemonium.

And then heard a friendly voice say “So, you’re getting a head start by reading at the reading?”

I don’t remember exactly what I said to Mr. Gregory in response; honestly, I think the first thing was a stammered schoolkid answer along the lines of “no, I promise, I wasn’t reading while you guys were reading!” But then he cracked a joke, and then Husband asked him where in the Bay Area he lived (since he’d mentioned in his intro that he’d recently moved here), and then, suddenly, we were talking about a neighborhood where I’ve got friends, and a coffeeshop there where he goes to write, and the struggles of figuring out exactly how long it takes to drive from one place to another in the metro area with one of the worst commutes in the nation.

Daryl Gregory just won the World Fantasy Award; his work has been nominated for the Nebula and the Locus. He first crossed my radar because of an interview he gave in Locus Magazine a few years ago, where he talked about the difference between fantasy and science fiction as being focused on the characters’ reactions to the unexplainable:

Readers will read something as science fiction if the characters are engaged in the process of science. In fantasy there’s no fiddling with the rules. You pull a sword out of a stone, and that makes you King of England. There’s no, ‘But what if I put a sword into the stone?’ In a science fiction novel, everybody would be trying to figure out how to make more kings by inserting more sharp objects into rocks! A fantasy novel is almost distinguished by not asking those fundamental questions about what is going on. A science fiction novel, no matter what the rules, is always asking those questions.

This  idea has stuck with me, and continues to be one of my basic benchmarks for how I distinguish the two genres; it’s the brainchild of a “real author.” A real author who struck up a conversation with me about the weirdness of being a Bay Area immigrant and who offered to chat if I ever see him around town.

Given how I’ve been feeling about my own writing lately (more on that in the last few posts, so I won’t recap here), I think I desperately needed that reminder — that the people behind the books are real people, who live in the real world, and have to deal with getting into San Francisco on a rainy night just like everybody else. And that in many of the ways that matter, the successful aren’t so different from the rest of us.

So thank you, Mr. Gregory, for reaching out; I hope to bump into you around town, and I also hope I’ll have the opportunity to pay your kindness forward someday. If I ever finish this book.