Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Author's Hand - Part 1

One thing the Van Winkle Project has accomplished for me in the past year is that it's opened up some time in my life.

I've estimated that I may have gained as much as an hour a day.

Formerly this time was devoted to reading the newspaper, watching the evening news, leafing through Newsweek.

Or I'd indulge in those little "cheat breaks" when I'd open a new tab on my web browser and dip into the NY Times on-line as an escape from what I was supposed to really be doing.

The extra time that has bounced back my way has allowed me to become better acquainted with the books I have in my library at home.

Squiggles on a Page
At some point I realized that I was mentally  tallying the number of autographed copies of certain books I'd been fortunate to accumulate over the years. Sometimes these acquisitions weren't even  by design. More than once I've simply bought a used book, opened it, and discovered it was signed by the author. Happy day! A real analogue bonus feature!

I picked up this copy of short stories at the annual
library book sale. It was signed by the author!

Most of the time I end up with a signed book in the usual way. I stand in line at a special event and meet up with the author at a table piled high with books.

Once it was even less calculated. I was at conference and I spotted the author of one of my favorite books as a child, A Wrinkle in Time. She was sitting by herself in a wheel chair. She proved approachable and very kind when I made a clumsy compliment and held out a book to be signed.

So not long ago I pulled out Ms. L'Engle's book and others and started looking at the signatures and reminiscing. That's when it occurred to me that maybe I could go to eBay or some other on-line source and add to my collection. Would it be affordable?

Well, it might be if I set a budget and refused to pay over a set amount per book.

The Significance
A month-long buying spree transpired during which I added about a third more signed books to my collection.

What was this all about?

It starts with loving books. Beyond that, as someone who has labored over a few books of my own, I know books don't just happen. The author has to live with a book for a long time, sometimes even before he/she begins to write it. Then there's the slow process of getting it down on the page.

The short trail of ink represented by the author's signature takes me closer to a flesh and blood person,  the person who performed this nearly miraculous feat of writing a good or even great book

Varieties of Signing Behavior
In the process of examining my signed-by-the-author books I noticed something. The signatures fell into roughly two categories.

1)  A flamboyantly interesting and creative rendering of the name.
2 ) An ordinary as an accountant's payroll checks signature.

Just because some authors I admire have blah autographs is my faith in their work shaken? Not at all. I just find it interesting and I'd like to share them with you now.  - V.W.

Nine Non-descript Signers

John Updike: He's one of my all-time favorite writers. I could have gotten his signature back in 2002 or so at a conference. He gave a reading and when it was over he was right there waiting at the signing table. There was no line. But I had no Updike book in hand! So I walked on by.

Mr. Updike's prose is the furthest thing from bland; in his stories and novels he packs in almost an excess of life and makes me feel at times like he's zoomed in to the point of almost putting the material details of our live, as well as our behavior (including tons of sex), under the literary equivalent of an electron microscope.

Joseph Heller: I consider Heller one of the handful of great post-World War II American novelists along with Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, J. D. Salinger, and John Updike. Catch 22, I can say without exaggeration, changed my life.

In the course of spending a week reading about the insanity Yossarian is up against as he tries to get out of World War II alive, I went from being a cavalier teen who thought "war is heroic" and features "cool weaponry" to becoming something much closer to a pacifist.

Raymond Carver: When I was in college, Raymond Carver's short stories were just starting to be noticed. I was in a workshop taught by the fiction editor of Esquire who more or less considered Carver to be his greatest discovery. He shared some of Carver's stories with us.

It was later that Carver would make a greater impression on me; I had to be closer to the age of the men and women in his stories who struggle with how the American Dream doesn't seem to have landed on their street. And Ray Carver would do me a huge favor and provide a blurb for my first collection of short stories.

Wright Morris: I had not heard of this writer from Nebraska until a friend told me about his comic novel (not typical of his work) Love Among the Cannibals (1957). I had to read this book! the friend said. It turned out that Morris had written other well regarded books that were in the vein of my own early short stories. He was also a photographer (that's his photo on the left) and his black and white images were kindred souls to his spare prose. Like Raymond Carver he was willing to help me launch my own stories into the world with a blurb.

Alan Paton: I think Cry, the Beloved Country, a tale of racial misunderstanding, violence, and forgiveness by this South African author is one of the most powerful stories ever told. It's beautifully written and it's heart rending.

Paton died back in 1988, so his signature had to be purchased by finding a special leather bound, autographed edition of the book. He was a fine writer, with a great passion for ending apartheid so I treasure this signature.

Norman Mailer: If Paton was a great man, Mailer, who died a few years ago, was certainly a great personality. He strove to be larger than life. He may have been our most energetic writer, churning out books, interviews, running half-seriously for mayor of New York, and marrying five times.

Highly opinionated and provocative, Mailer's writing was hurt by what a high school mate of mine called his "verbal diarrhea." But when he took the trouble to hone his work, it was the best around. And even in the midst of the sloppiness, there was always genius.

I was surprised when years ago I bought a $20 remaindered, signed copy of his "best of" collection that his signature was, well, not very Norman Mailer-ish. No scrawling beyond borders, shouting out, trying hard to get our attention. It's rather straight forward in the way the man wasn't.

Gene Tierney: Yes, I know she's a movie star, not an actual writer, but I still feel fortunate that evidence of her "hand" came into my possession.

I used to live in Houston and that's where I found at a garage sale for a buck a copy of the screen siren Gene Tierney's biography. Tierney, who will always remain a Hollywood icon for her silky, sinister lead performance in of Laura, settled in Houston once her movie career ended.

Her book is a candid recollection of how with fame her life went to hell. She had to undergo multiple rounds of electro-shock treatment before she recovered. When you read that you're not surprised to see that her signature in her later years (the bio came out in 1979 when she was 59) shows the wear and tear. But in my opinion, in her youth Gene Tierney had the most beautiful, sexy face that has ever been shown upon the silver screen. (Note: G.T.'s co-author/ghost writer also signed the book).

\Adm. Richard E. Byrd: I ran across Byrd's account of how he stayed by himself for six months at the South Pole--and came with a hair's breadth of dieing. The riveting story is intimate yet elegantly written in the sort of calm Englishman under duress style that has almost disappeared. Without sounding quite like Thoreau it reminds me of Thoreau.

In his later years Admiral Byrd probably signed quite a few books as he went on lecture tours around the world. It wasn't hard to find this copy at a very reasonable price. I look at it and think that the same hand that once chipped at ice and wrote "-50 degrees today" in his log also signed the book I have in hand.

Joe McGinniss: A few years after he came to Anchorage and signed my copy of  his book McGinniss would have fabulous success with his nonfiction exploration of the so-called "Green Beret murders" in Fatal Vision.

I already admired McGinniss for his seminal work on how television helps determine who becomes president, The Selling of the President. He also helped me early in my career by talking to me at that book store signing and remembering a story of mine he had read in The Atlantic. He encouraged me and gave me a quote for my novel. A really nice fellow!

Coming Next: Part II - Flamboyant Ink


No comments:

Post a Comment