Thursday, April 10, 2008


In Which We Meet in the Fog...

It's been rainy, bookish weather the past few days, and that plus recent events like the death of Jon Hassler have no doubt got me in a literary frame of mind. I've been spending the past few nights rummaging through my bookshelves and marveling at how many of my writing heroes I've managed to meet--or in the case of Mr. Hassler, at least trade e-mails with--over the years. There are some I still hope to meet--Stephen King, for one example, and Neil Gaiman, for another, although we've brushed by each other several times over the years. When I was doing a story a few years back about ways to get your kids interested in reading, he gave me some great tips and quotes for the story, albeit all via e-mail, and all through the middleman of his publicist, so we didn't actually have a conversation. Later, when Thomas was a brief Internet sensation as Art Lad, I ended up as the middleman for my son's e-mail exchange with the man himself, after Neil had so kindly mentioned Thomas on his Web site.

(Hmm. Isn't it curious that I call Neil "Neil" but call Jon Hassler "Mr. Hassler"? What's that about, do you think? But I digress...)

I know people in the business who are incorrigible name-droppers and I try to avoid that myself, but I'm in a bit of an odd mood tonight, and not long ago, a reader and I were trading stories about brushes with fame, and so I think I'll get this out of my system:

As it happens, Mr. Hassler is not the first writing hero of mine who has both died and been someone with whom I had at least a passing exchange. Once, several years ago, and on a dreary rainy spring day like this one, I had an encounter that made my day. Hell, my year.

I was a poor graduate student in Chicago back then. I really was quite astonishingly destitute in those days. I had a job freelancing for a small publisher of travel guides, but he paid by the month, so I went through long periods of utter broke-ness when the only thing I could afford to do on the weekend was take long walks around town and campus. Thus it was one foggy, wet Sunday afternoon in May that I found myself once again scuffing along a pathway by the lake, peering into the gloom, trying to pick out landmarks on campus, but not really seeing much, only hearing the water off to my right. Otherwise, I was quite alone there on the fogbound path. Or so I thought.

But then, quite startlingly, an immense figure loomed up out of the fog in front of me. An enormously tall man with white hair and a largish nose was suddenly standing before me, looking down at me. He smiled, but he had the air of someone who was in a hurry.

"Hallo," he said, looking all around, then staring at me. "Um, look, we're a bit lost." As he said this, I realized three things. First, he was British. Second, he wasn't alone: behind him two older, shorter people--a man and a woman--emerged from the fog, blinking and alternately looking at me and at their watches. Third, this guy looked awfully familiar. For the moment, I assumed he was a professor or somebody on campus whom I'd seen, but just couldn't place.

"We're looking for Brentano's bookstore," the man continued. "In fact, we're expected there something like, oh..." he looked back at his companions. The man showed him his watch. "...five minutes ago. Would you happen to know the way?" he asked.

"Sure," I said, and started to give him directions, but realized that in the fog there was no easy way to give him landmarks to follow. "You know what?" I said, "I'll walk you over there. It's pretty much on my way home."

"Oh, cheers. Cheers. Thanks very much," he said and gestured to his companions as I led them across campus. In those first couple of minutes, I didn't really speak to my new companions because I was trying to figure out where I knew the man from. I had definitely seen him from somewhere before. At first, I regarded him with a sort of excited buzzing going on in the back of my head that the guy was famous, but he didn't have what I would call a celebrity's face. Still, I knew it. Or at least, I knew I was supposed to know it, if that made any sense. I suppose I could have just introduced myself to them, but instead, I decided to engage in a little small talk.

"So, you're visiting?" I asked.

"Mmm. Just in town for the day. The afternoon, in fact. Then it's back to airport and off to the next stop. Always assuming we can take off in this," he said, gesturing all around us.

Then I remembered that Brentano's often hosted book readings on Sunday afternoons.

"Wait," I said. "Are you here for a reading?"

He gave me a kind of impish, knowing look and opened his mouth to answer, but at that point, my brain finally started working and I placed the man.

Who was, incidentally, THIS man.


I slapped my hand to my mouth. "Jesus Christ!" I screamed. "Douglas Adams!" I screamed.

He just smiled. "Right the second time," he said.

I was so flabbergasted, so excited, so distracted, I promptly walked into a light pole. Ever since 8th grade, Douglas Adams had been one of my favoritest, funniest writers. That year I was in 8th grade, our local NPR station had been broadcasting its dramatized version of Star Wars and had been following every episode with this quirky little BBC production called The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In time, I came to tune into NPR for that rather than Star Wars. And then, that spring, I saw the novel in my local bookstore and I was hooked. Now, here he was, stepped out of a fog bank in the spring of 1991, here in Chicago. And I was conducting him to the bookstore.

Where it turned out he was in the midst of a tour to promote his excellent (and often overlooked) nonfiction work, Last Chance to See with Mark Carwadine. I had been so focused on my graduate work (and so poor) that I hadn't even been around the bookstore to see their posters announcing the event. I would certainly have missed the reading altogether, if I hadn't bumped into the author himself, whose handlers (the old folks) had got turned around in the fog after they'd picked up Mr. Adams at the airport and parked in the garage nearest the bookstore, at the edge of campus.

Right after the event, I wrote to a couple of friends and told them everything, but right now, I'm hard-pressed to remember what I said. I was 22 and it was the first time I had--knowingly, anyway--met any hero of mine, let alone a writing hero. I babbled about how much I loved Hitch Hiker's Guide and (to a lesser degree) Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, and had inquired about any future sequels. He led me briefly to believe that Dirk Gently would appear in the next Hitch Hiker's book and when I started to flip out and get all fanboy on him, he quickly let me know he was having me on.

By this time, of course, we were at the bookstore--once I recognized him, our meeting seemed to last only a split second--where he was so late that store staffers were actually out on the street looking for him. As they hustled him inside, I had a moment to decide. I could go in and stay for the reading, or I could run home (it wasn't quite on the way, as I had told him, but was in fact completely the other side of town) and get my well-thumbed copy of the first Hitch Hiker's book, which I always packed and took with me wherever I moved. I mean, when was I likely to have another chance? And anyway, it wasn't like I had the money to buy another copy there at the bookstore (the truth was, I realized with more than a little embarrassment, I didn't even have the money to buy a copy of the book he was promoting). So that clinched it. I ran home, found my book, and ran back.

For such a simple sentence--only nine words--you'd never guess that the doing of it took me almost an hour, so that when I finally arrived back at Brentano's front window, glasses as fogged as the air around me, panting and gasping extravagantly, my book clutched over my heart (which was all but beating through my rib cage), the reading was already over.

And of course the store was locked shut.

The staffer guarding the door was turning people away by the dozens and I could see why. A huge line snaked all the way around the interior of the store, ending right by the door as the signing portion of Douglas Adams' visit began. "Too many people inside already," he said as he gestured people on. "Fire regs," he said to someone else.

I tried to speak to the guy, but realized I didn't know what to say to him. "Hey, let me in, I brought Douglas Adams over here in the first place"? I tried to get in as the signing continued and people were being let out, but almost got in a tussle with store staff then, as they looked at my scuffed up little copy of Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and told me in no uncertain terms that the signing was closed (at this they gave me significant sidelong looks that seemed to suggest the signing was especially closed to poor dumbasses like me, who clearly didn't have the money even to be a paying customer).

Luckily for me, the signing desk was actually fairly close to the door. Luckier still, Douglas Adams was, as I mentioned, a very tall person indeed. He saw over the heads of the crowd, over to the door, and spotted me instantly. He called out to the dink at the door and waved me over. Heart almost bursting through my chest now for completely different reasons, I shrugged past the store staffer and came over.

"I was looking for you earlier, but you went missing," he said. I gasped something about going home for my book, which he looked at, smiled, and took from my hand. He turned to the person who was next in line and excused himself for just a moment, then turned back to me and signed my book. As I reached out to take it back, he reached behind his chair and pulled out a brand-new copy of Last Chance to See and plopped that on top of my old book. "Cheers," he said, and held out his hand. Feeling lucky and foolish, like a character in a book or a show, I grasped his big hand and we shook. "Thanks. Thank you," I said.

He waved my gushing gratitude away. "Thanks for being my guide here," he said.

And that was that. A second later, I was out on the street again, with my two books. I still have my copy of Hitch Hiker's. But in an uncharacteristic fit of generosity, I gave my signed copy of Last Chance to See--Douglas Adams' personal copy, which he gave to me--to my best friend.

(You DO still have it, right?)

Over the years, I've heard it said--actually, it may even have been Neil Gaiman; he'd have been in a position to know--that Douglas Adams was especially kind and decent to his fans, of which he had a very great many. I saw that first-hand, not just in his treatment of me, but even in something as small as taking a moment to apologize to the person who was next in line, while he made that person wait as he signed my book. I always hoped I would have a chance to go to another of Douglas Adams' readings and this time actually sit through it and enjoy it, then get to meet him once again and thank him once more for his kindness.

I never got another chance. Almost exactly a decade later, Douglas Adams died suddenly, and with him went all hope of me getting to thank him again.

But I think of him often, especially on rainy nights like this one, when I have one of his books in hand. I smile to think of the pleasure he brought me and others like me, and I hope that, if I'm ever lucky enough and my writing ever puts me in the position to do so, I can follow his example, and give some poor guy (or gal) a break, and bring a smile to someone else's face.

And now, back to my reading...

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Suldog sent me here. Great post - wonderful to know you were ``guide'' to the man who wrote the definitive Guide!

My first interview as a cadet journalist was with Gerald Durrell. I blogged the yarn some months ago - with sketches he did for me!
Thanks for the cool story.
MM, you know what, every single time I read this blog, I feel as though I really am one of your "dear gentle readers". You do give me the giddy joy you've described here from Mr. Adams. Honest and true.

In the past, you've actually answered an email or two I sent along (asking about disney trip pointers with sons like ours, sensitive and brilliant, etc.). Seeing a "From: MM" in my inbox nearly sent my head into a whirl.

So, you do, kind sir, give us all those special warm simple feelings that as we sit and listen to your stories, we matter to you as much as you matter to us.

I've only met a couple of authors over the was Andrew Vachss, who writes rather dark crime fiction that I enjoy, and he was really nice in person, signed my books and shook my hand. Oh, and I met Wil Wheaton at a reading he did, and he was equally nice, autographing all the books I had brought with me. It's nice to meet people you admire through their writing and discover that they are in fact cool people as well as good writers. I was always a fan of Mr. Adams myself, and I have all his Hitchiker books, although I never got into Dirk at all.
You already have, with the "Give away of Crap (Wave 1)" Item #5.

Have you realized that there is a poetic balance to your life?

This is just an observation from a faithful reader. It seems that for every seemingly inevitable horrible & physically injuring 'Murphy's Law & It Could Only Happen to you' event that has occurred in your life, there is an equally positive & unique 'Once in a lifetime' encounter or experience the rest of us only dream about.

As I said, just an observation.
OK...yet another entry that brought tears to my eyes.

I, too, hope you are in that position someday, because you deserve the chance wholeheartedly.

Best to you and the troops,

D. L. (Dedicated Lurker)
I found your blog via Lizardek's friends list. Thank you for sharing this story. It is truly wonderful to see humankind at it's finest. He reached out and touched you, and you reach out and touch us through the story of Mr. Adams.

I think you just thanked him. :)
What an incredible story! It's always a thrill to meet someone "famous" and to realize that they are mostly just regular people like you and me.

My only close encounters with famous authors were with Marion Zimmer Bradley and Christopher Paolini. Ms. Bradley was doing a signing at a little bookstore in Tacoma. It was poorly publicized, and we were the only ones there when we showed up. She was suffering from a terrible cold, which I caught.

Chris Paolini (author of the Eragon series) did a signing at the bookstore across the street from my office. I had to wait in line with a flurry of silly little girls with crushes.

So there you have it.

Loved reading your encounter - much more dramatic than my own!

Peace - D
I hope I'm not going all "fanboy" on you, but you've already far surpassed your goal of passing on the kind treatment you received from Mr. Adams. Your many readers here can attest to that.
I stopped by from David's post (and recommendation). Amusing story... I don't think I'd recognize most authors on the street unless I was looking at the dust jacket on their latest book with me! ~ jb///
I wholeheartedly agree with Melissa and Suldog. You've done in turn for us what Douglas Adams did for you. Our lives are touched by yours and I, for one, feel extremely lucky to read your incredible stories!

Thank you!
First, Oh my gosh you met Douglas Adams!! I'm squeeling in delight at how amazing that might have felt.

Thank you so much for sharing the story, I love your writing. I feel like I am in your shoes, experiencing what you experience, feeling what you are feeling.

I've been a reader & lurker for sometime and am truly lucky to have found your blog.
I came over here thanks to David McMahon from Autorblog.
Life's little coincidences sometimes turn out to be quite memorable, you certainly have met one of the great authors of our time.
I have seen and shortly talked to Neil Gaiman at a Library of Congress book fair. I came away impressed by his kindness toward his fans, especially the very young ones.
My son, who is also an underpaid under appreciated journalist (at least according to him) would be so jealous right now. Douglas Adams is one of his favorites, and as we all spent several years living outside London and he spent every waking moment trying to figure out how to meet the great man, but never did...yes, jealousy would be his middle name and blue eyes would certainly be a tad green! Oh, and David sent me
you walked into a lightpost...

Had you managed to make your way, in the fog, while geeking out on the fact that you're walking with Douglas Adams (!!!), *without* having injured yourself in some way, I would not have believed the story. ;)

I just quoted Ford Prefect in my blog's an amazing story...I've been reading Douglas Adams since junior high; oh, I envy you! Wow...
I cried when Douglas Adams died.

He kindly allowed our little community theatre to perform a pirated copy of "Hitchhiker's", which was so popular it brought in enough money to keep the theatre group going for 5 years longer than it would have otherwise...and he didn't even make us pay royalties!!

It rocked my world when he died.

Nice to have another story of what a decent bloke he was.

Thanks for sharing.
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