I attended this year's ALA conference in Washington D.C. last week with only one thing in mind: inspiration. From start to finish, that's exactly what I got, partly because I was willing to buck up for the paid events that allow you to listen to and keep a little company with the best writers of our day. The next time you find yourself coughing over the expense of an event like the $45 Gala Author Tea, presented by Friends of Libraries USA, I hope this story will help you decide to forgo a few lattes in exchange for a more thrilling and lasting form of stimulation.
The line-up for this event included Joyce Carol Oates, Eileen Goudge, Frank Delaney, Susan Vreeland, and Markus Zusak, appearing in that order. For nearly two hours, we were regaled, enchanted, and entertained in delicious variations. A wispy, ethereal figure, Joyce Carol Oates explained how often her work is criticized for dwelling on violence, a misunderstanding of her intention to show how people live through it without becoming victims. Her latest book, The Gravedigger's Daughter, is based on the imagined life of Oates' real-life grandmother.
Eileen Goudge provided a stark picture of her beginnings as a writer, a single mother living on welfare who could hardly pay her bills, much less afford to frame the first check she received for a published work. She now receives six figure advances for novels such as her latest, Woman in Red.
"My brother used to say to me, 'We can only take you anywhere twice--the second time to apologize,' " said Frank Delaney, who suggests his latest book, Tipperary, will be appropriate for a girl of 10 or a woman of 19. Delaney said he uses story as a means of sharing intimacy, smuggling whatever ideas he can from life.
Susan Vreeland described writing as a creative endeavor that kept her alive through a lengthy battle with lymphoma when she was often housebound. While she was ill, Vreeland walked to her neighborhood public library to collect research materials, despite doctor's orders not to go out. "You just don't know how important your work is," Vreeland said, crediting librarians for sustaining her during a difficult time. Vreeland's latest book lifts characters from a Renoir painting, Luncheon of the Boating Party, as the inspiration for her latest novel by the same name.
By the time the final author reached the podium, I was so blown away that I must admit to feeling a little sorry for the 32-year-old Australian who would close the afternoon event. Even Delaney, a former judge of the Man Booker Prize with a long, prestigious career in broadcasting, conceded that sharing the stage with Joyce Carol Oates was among the most thrilling experiences of his life. How could Zusak top the likes of these authors?
I needn't have given it a thought. Markus Zusak stole the stage. Zusak's publisher has taken him to task for being so self-deprecating and uncommunicative about his work at promotional events. After regaling us with hysterical stories about family, Zusak delivered a modest and heartfelt summary of the nature of his latest novel, The Book Thief. "We Australians aren't very good about talking about our work," he said. "I just wanted to write a book that might become someone's favorite." I knew that Zusak had done that, but not because I had read the book. Like a groupie, I rushed the stage afterwards to tell him how I knew. I had no other motive. Promotional copies of his book had been mysteriously lost (or stolen) before the event, so there was no chance to have a book signed by Kusak. We both knew that.
"I just have to tell you one thing," I said. "I haven't read your book yet, but it's at the very top of my must-read list and I think you may be too modest. A good friend of mine from a book discussion group is a retired English teacher in her 80s. Her sight is failing, but she still loves to read and her appetite for books is enormous. The day after she finished, The Book Thief, she told me she had just completed one the best books she'd ever read. If she says it's really good and one of her favorites, I think you've really accomplished something big."
He grinned at me and looked down at the reading copy in front of him, brought in case someone asked him to read aloud. "What is your friend's name?" he asked. "I'll sign this one for her." This is what he wrote: "Dee, *Here is a small fact: you can thank Crystal for this!* Here's to life, death, love, and all the colours in between." I slipped out of the room quietly and returned the book to my hotel room, hoping no one would notice the treasure I carried.