For Valentine’s Day in 2009 my husband and I got tickets to a New Yorker event called “Love Is Strange” where Jeffrey Eugenides was going to speak about love and literature. That February, I was finishing my dissertation that included a chapter on ironic nostalgia in The Virgin Suicides. During the years of writing my thesis, I had fallen in love with that book. On difficult days I would read sections of it aloud to remind myself of the power of words and the beauty of language. Over those last months I was realizing that academic writing was not what I wanted to be doing. I was starting to admit to myself that I wanted to write a novel that wrung out my heart the way that one did, at least I wanted to try.
That Valentine’s Day we went out for a romantic dinner, and I drank some lovely wine. When we got to the event, I was feeling really happy and loose. We chose our seat strategically, and when my writer crush sat in front of me, I leaned forward and said, “Are you Jeffrey Eugenides?” He nodded. Propelled by wine, I gushed and handed him a copy of my chapter and a letter I had written to him about what his work meant to me then, because I didn’t have a smartphone yet, my husband took out a camera and said, “Can I take a picture?” In the resulting shot Jeffery Eugenides looks startled, and I look a little drunk.
It might seem small, but there was something unexpectedly thrilling about meeting the person who had written those beautiful words that meant so much to me. In some ways there is nothing more intimate than reading what someone else has written and being deeply moved by it. That writer, across time and distance, has gotten in your head and changed you. As Steve Almond describes it, “Some blessed stranger, toiling alone in a distant room, has forced me to feel more than I did before, to set the bar of mercy a little lower. God, I love that feeling.” Meeting the blessed stranger crossed that divide between reading the words on the page and living in the physical world. There Jeffrey Eugenides was, smiling at me and wearing two different socks, a person in the world not so different from me.
And thus began my project to meet some famous writers who had written amazing things and take some pictures with them. I didn’t do anything crazy, but I started going to lectures and readings and waiting in line afterwards to get my money shot. I collected the results in a Facebook album I called “Me & Famous Writers.” One of the best parts of the project is how lovely everyone has been to me. Though the people in my album have sold millions of books, won Pulitzers, Pen/Faulkners, and MacArthur Genius grants, had movies and TV series made of their work, they were all incredibly gracious, often funny. I’ve gotten the feeling that the thrill of reaching across that divide might go both ways, that it is exciting to meet a person whose head your words have gotten into, even if you do it a lot. And like the wide-ranging work of these writers, each encounter was different.
Lynda Barry made me pose in a “before and after” style.[foogallery id=”8297″]
Jacquelyn Mitchard took her reading glasses off and made sure it was a good picture.
When I met Judy Blume, I got so overwhelmed, I completely forgot about the picture until she reminded me to look at the woman behind me who had my phone.
And what else did I learn from taking these pictures?
David Mitchell is super good-looking.
Gary Shteyngart has the best laugh.
Junot Diaz is as wicked smart and nerdy-cool when answering questions as when he has crafted a piece of writing.
Dave Eggers likes to talk about his kids.
“Can I take a picture with you?” often feels like a dorky, starstruck request, but for being uncool I get another moment of human connection to a writer of extraordinary talent, and I get a souvenir. The picture is my proof, a talisman to remind me that the writer who got in my head and forced me to feel more is a person just like me and that has helped me believe in the unlikely adventure of writing a novel. There is magic in the words, and maybe I can find some way to the magic, too.