Women & Children First, a bookstore in Andersonville, had only two copies left of Her Fearful Symmetry when I went in to pick mine up before dinner. I only needed the one.The rest were already stacked neatly on a cheap folding table in the lobby of the Swedish American Museum, ready to be picked up by the line of adoring readers arriving to hear Audrey Niffenegger read an excerpt then maybe — just maybe — answer their questions.
I wasn't worried about getting a seat, though I was determined to think of a question, a good question, and make her notice me. But the seats didn't matter, so I didn't care that we lingered over our pommes frites at Hopleaf or that the check took its sweet time taking care of itself. We ambled back up the street, gathering our coats closed around our chests. Inside the museum, glazy-eyed from my pumpkin ale and CB&J sandwich — cashew butter, fig jam and Morbier cheese, grilled to greasy perfection on sourdough — I glanced around the lobby while the women at the table rifled through their plastic index files to find my friends' tickets. A willowy, pale woman with flowing dark hair stood near the entrance to the room. Book jacket to woman. Woman to book jacket. Oh, hello, Ms. Niffenegger.
Glazy eyes went starry, and stumbling, I led my friends toward the room. I stopped in front of her and lost my powers of speech. "Are you…her?" Great. Great. (Yep, Audrey, believe it! I'm a writer! Which puts us on a first-name basis. Right? Right.) "Ummm. I guess." Well played, Audrey. (I believe it! You're a writer, too!) Her handler, a woman from the bookstore, broke my stunned silence. "Audrey will be out in a few minutes. You can go ahead and take a seat inside." COLD. But fine. Before we turned the corner, I turned back and blurted, "You'refantasticthankyousomuch." God, I'm cool.
Good thing we weren't worried about seats: Every chair in the room was occupied, and the space was about 473 degrees. We found places to stand in the back, bright white spotlights searing and blinding us, in the interstices of an installation of…braided boiled wool. Swedish art. Apparently.
Audrey began her reading in a measured monotone, almost a deadpan. Not at all what I'd expected her to sound like — not that I'd really imagined her speaking — given the graceful lilt and rhythm of her prose and…pretty much everything else about her writing. Then again, if I'd really given it thought, I might have expected a choir of angels. When she finished, the audience was silent. She opened the floor for questions, and the room was still with stifling heat and held breath. One man in the front reluctantly raised his hand. "What'd you think of the movie?" The room heaved a collective sigh of a relief, the silence broken. She hadn't seen the movie, seemed to have no desire to. The questions continued from there.
I knew what I wanted to ask — well, knew what I wanted to know — but not how to ask it. The gist: HOW? How do you do it? How do you write a book? How do you begin? How do you find the perfect words? How could you paint such vivid pictures in your readers' minds that your book could move thousands to tears? Start small, Paige. Simple. I raised my hand, squirming against the wall as she called on everyone else she could see, everyone but me. Finally: "Yes, all the way in the back." Heads turned. And…I don't even remember what I said first. It was one of those blood-rushing-in-my-ears moments, words spilling out uncontrollably. I guess I asked about her process, how she started writing. I wanted to know that first hurdle to jump, the single step that would begin the whole process. "Because I'm about to start my first book," I said. "And I'm petrified." Her answer? "Well, no one's going to say bad things to you when you start writing." Which…not exactly what I was looking for. But it started to diffuse my anxieties. (Hence, eventually, the NaNoWriMo sign-up.) She described being on the faculty at Columbia College and the encouraging environment she found there, the push to branch out into other disciplines. She had an idea, and she ran with it. No grand aspirations — just an idea.
Start small, Paige. Simple.
Questions from her adorers started to dwindle, and the organizers moved the registration table in from the lobby to create a makeshift signing booth. They called attendees by number; of more than 200, I was 35. Not 20 minutes later, I was face to face with her again — and that awful woman from before the event couldn't shoo me away. I'd waited in line, dammit. Audrey remembered me from the back of the room and asked me about my writing; I mumbled something about my blog and the terror to go much further, and thanked her for her glorious book. And told her that, more than anything, I admire the way she writes about love. Because I have never read anything, save for Pablo Neruda's "Sonnet XVII" and a few other poems, that so perfectly describes the way my heart works, that captures how I idealize love. The thing about that, she told me, is just going out and experiencing as much as you possibly can.
Guess I'm on the right track where that's concerned, anyway.