Friday, September 2, 2011

The Author's Hand - Part II (Flamboyant!)

In our last post we looked at some books signed by authors whose personal inscription is rather pedestrian, even (yawn) ho-hum compared to the extraordinary quality of their literary output.

Perhaps it comes from having signed too many books. Maybe it's a general boredom setting in when it comes to the mundane task of scribbling out one's name for some fan who smells slightly of garlic and has an inordinate fascination with a certain novel's character. Or it could be the writers are too humble to linger too long over their own names...

Whatever the case, I've discovered there's one group of writers who do rise to the occasion. The copies of their books that are in my library feature premeditated strokes of ink. Truly each has embraced their status as a man or woman of letters!

11 Authors Who Sign With Elan

Our first three writers take up and wield masterfully...Sharpies and markers. And I'm not joking.

Ken Kesey: Long ago the late Ken Kesey was the leader of a band of proto-hippies who called themselves "the Merry Pranksters." They went around the country in a technicolor bus, making home movies, and turning people on to a newly available (and at the time still legal) drug called LSD. Journalist Tom Wolfe has chronicled this story in his The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test.

Given this background, I'm not surprised that in his later years the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (as well as my personal candidate for Great American Novel, Sometimes a Great Notion), had an eccentric way of signing his books--with gold or silver colored markers as in the case of my copy of Sailor Song. It's not terribly readable but it's all Kesey.

Mary Karr: In the 1990's it was the Liar's Club by Mary Karr that helped jump start the public's fascination with memoirs by ordinary people. These were people like Mary who grew up in not so savory circumstances, but managed to overcome. Ms. Karr is still writing memoirs. A student of mine caught her book signing for Lit (about her alcohol drenched years and more) and asked her to sign a book for me.

I've heard Ms. Karr speak, too. She's a stylish middle-age woman who at the time favored pencil skirts and lots of leg on display.  She was brassy and no-nonsense like her books, a Texan who went to New York City and then, biggest plot twist of all, found Jesus and joined the Catholic Church.

I love this cover for Donald Barthelme's twisted
take on the familiar fairy tale.

Donald Barthelme: Here's an author whose works remain the equivalent of a foreign film. Those who know Barthelme's stories still rave about him. These are post-modern tales that are singular and original and overtly weird. Like Mary Karr, Barthelme was another Texan who fled his home state to hang out with the artists in New York City. There's a method to Barthelme's madness. His stories give us people who speak mechanistically, almost randomly, and move in response to consumer messages or products. It was D.B.'s way of sinking his teeth into the soulless aspects of lives adrift in a world ruled by TV screens and media messages. Black humor abounds. I think the implication is either wake up before it's too late or learn to laugh because in a push-button world it's not going to get any better.

Lastly, there are writers who exude tons of personality when they sign with a ballpoint, roller ball, or classic fountain pen. They're  fond of a well placed loop or curve or backward stroke, yielding stylish results. Or maybe, like Annie Dillard, they're so anti-style that it becomes a style of its own...

Annie Dillard: One of the highlights of my literary memories involves meeting Annie Dillard at a signing in Michigan. She was funny, effusive, friendly and said she had a headache. I couldn't tell, though, that she was feeling any pain as she chatted with everyone in sight. An effervescent woman! She looked at my wife's copy of Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek and noted all the sticky notes placed on practically every page. She said to me, "This looks just like books I use when I'm researching. I find myself highlighting everything! And then it's almost pointless. The whole book becomes yellow!"

Dillard's signature is quick, like her rise to the top. Pilgrim, which is a modern-day Walden that intertwines science and theology using the voice of poetry, won the author a Pulitzer Prize when she was just 29 years old.

Really? Does this signature say "Annie Dillard"
or "A . d . d"?

John Irving: I was living on my own in an apartment by the beach in Long Beach, California. I bought the Sunday L.A. Times and read a review full of lavish praise for a new novel. It was called The World According to Garp. I bought the book.

A few years after that my own novel would be published and by then Mr. Irving would have appeared on the cover of Time magazine and won numerous awards. Some of the award money, that which came with his American Book Award for the paperback edition of Garp, he donated to his publisher earmarked for "the next best first novelist you publish." My publisher chose me and my novel went out into the world bearing a gold seal: John Irving First Novel Award.

When I wrote Mr. Irving a note of thanks, he responded with a typed postcard (a la John Updike). He encouraged me and told me that, among other things, he sold hot dogs at football games when he had a family and was scrimping by, hoping someday his writing would make some money. His persistence paid off. He's still writing and writing and writing...

I can't explain why ("John" almost looks like "Tom") but
I LOVE this signature...

The writer in front of his typewriter,
working on...a crossword puzzle!

Kurt Vonnegut: I would have been thrilled to meet Kurt Vonnegut. Because he was an idealist who loved life and people so much, he was very hard on our stupidities and I'm, frankly, on board with that.

Vonnegut shares an outlook and a sense of humor similar to Mark Twain's, but he's arguably even more imaginative in his satire as he habitually tells stories set in the near future. In Slaughterhouse Five, his masterpiece, he manages write about the historical past, the present, and a science fiction future.

I started to read Vonnegut in high school, starting with Cat's Cradle and Welcome to the Monkey House. Decades later I'm happy to say I'm still catching up to all the novels he wrote. When I finally get to the end, I'll start over and re-read them.

Five years before he left us the signature looks
as if it says "Kit Kat," but still it's HIM...


Li-Young Lee: Here's a poet who writes not according to rules but by obeying his instincts, wit and heart. In the face of what he considers to be a reality filled with wonder, Li-Young Lee delivers pure emotion and a dose of mysticism. He's also the most incredible reader I've ever heard. I listened as he kept 400 hundred freshmen on the edge of their seats for 60 minutes. This is unheard of...on par with splitting the atom. [See-listen]

Lee's free form signature is particularly apt for the memoir he signed for me, The Winged Seed. The book was born when he challenged himself to write about his life's story in one sitting, eschewing sleep, until he reached the last round dot of terminal punctuation. It took him 36 hours of non-stop writing, The result is a species of rushing prose that sounds, no surprise, like poetry.

Galway Kinnell: Here's another poet whom I had the honor of escorting when he visited our campus a few years ago. This leads me to take back something I just said. Galway Kinnell's readings are every bit as entrancing as Li-Young Lee's. As someone said to me, "Galway could read the phone book and make it move you." [See-listen] The man is like his poetry and his signature: elegant and understated, the hair now white but still thick with a shock of it that falls boyishly upon his forehead. Galway is perhaps the greatest poet left to us from the World War II generation.

Perhaps the world's most dapper writer...
Tom Wolfe: The most commonly remarked upon facet of Tom Wolfe's storied career (to his chagrin) is that he always wears white suits. He's a dapper man, but a remarkable prose stylist as well. It was said that he "invented" what came to be called the "New Journalism," a type of writing that was the opposite of the "beige prose" of a reporter trying to be strictly objective and keep his/her voice out of the article.

Journalism wasn't enough for Wolfe. Long a critic of late 20th Century American novelists whom he saw as self-absorbed and lacking in social commentary, he decided late-career to show them how it ought to be done. Starting with The Bonfire of the Vanities, there has beeen a succession of door-stop size novels on whatever topic Wolfe thinks needs illuminating. And can the man sign a book? Oh, yes, he can sign like he's the guy wearing the WHITE SUIT!

Jonathan Franzen: The youngest writer here (although he's not that young), Mr. Franzen has IMO the most unique signature. One suspects that he practiced it for years as a child while watching Star Trek episodes.

I've read a lot by Mr. Franzen, including The Corrections, Freedom, and his nonfiction. He's a careful, insightful writer who seems to actually like his characters. Time put him on their cover last year (shades of John Irving) with the headline, "Great American Novelist". I'm not sure Mr. Franzen is there yet, but as Hemingway's Jake Barnes said to Lady Brett at the end of The Sun Also Rises, "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

Try copying this signature. How's he do it?

Yevgeny Yevtushenko: I lost a friend and colleague this year to cancer. Recently, her books were removed from her office and made available for whoever wanted them. I overcame my sense of being a vulture, knowing full well this is what Vickie would have wanted. She would not let a good book go to waste! Take it and teach with it!

It seems appropriate to end this post with the thick book of poems I found in her hoard. It's by modern Russia's most popular poet. He actually came to mesquite tree land in 1992 and signed this book for Vickie. From Russia With Love...

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