She sat on the front row and wore a black beanie atop a head of white fluff. No one sat next to her. She was so short I probably never would have noticed her had she not raised her hand and asked a question in that halting speech of a voice affected by age or disease or both. I was too busy trying to figure out why the beanpole guy in the white polyester suit was wearing a Mickey Mouse cap. Felt ears would have been odd enough but this particular cap had half of Mickey’s face, pointy snout and all.
By the time I’d pulled up in front of Portland’s Old Church, five minutes late, everyone else had taken their seats. I’d found an empty seat near the back, behind a structural pole that threatened to block my view of the speaker, forcing me to scooch a little closer to the guy on my left than I typically would. He’d swung his crossed legs around in a dramatic fashion to let me know how annoyed he was that I’d arrived late.
I wanted to say, “Sorry, my drive is a little longer than yours.” It takes me two-and-half hours to get from my front door to downtown Portland and that’s if there is no traffic or road construction along the way. I’d debated all day about whether I’d go to hear this New York Times bestselling author speak or not. I’d heard him before, way back when in the 90s. I pretty much figured he wasn’t going to tell me anything I hadn’t already heard.
I didn’t feel all that well, still suffering the affects of that nasty bug I picked up. So at 3 p.m. I’d pretty much convinced myself, nope, not going. Then Tim called and said, oh, yeah, babe, forgot to tell you I’ve got another meeting, and the thought of spending yet another evening watching Poe destroy things sealed it for me. By 4 p.m. I was headed west on Interstate 84.
The Author writes thrillers. He’s written 14 so far. Two have been optioned by Hollywood. He spent the hour talking about how he comes up with ideas for his novels. Some people have trouble with this — coming up with ideas for books. Not me. I suffer from a syndrome that sees a book in nearly everything. My latest book idea came to me from a dinner party discussion about obits. I’ve got three books in my head right now that I want to write. The question for me is deciding which one do I commit to.
And there is that other tiny bugaboo. Once you write them you have to sell them. I have two books in the hopper now. One a true crime. The other a novel. Well, three, if you count the book about the war widows, too. So far, half the year has passed, and the agent hasn’t been able to sell any of them. He tells me not to worry. They’ll sell in due time.
I know this, of course. And I really have nothing to complain about. For the most part, I’ve had very little trouble getting published. The very first column I ever submitted for publication was picked up. My first book got several rejections before it was picked up. The next one was a little easier. Twenty-four hours after it hit New York there were three offers on it. The third book was even easier to sell because the publisher came to me and asked me to write for them. And this next book was sold on the title alone, thanks to my editor, bless his pea-picking heart. That’s really the easiest way to sell a book. Have somebody else sell a book you haven’t written yet. It saves you a lot of worry.
I mention this only because that’s what most of the people in the audience wanted to know about — getting published. Except the gal on the front row with the white fluff of hair. She wanted to know about copyrights. As she explained, she has a manuscript that her agent is taking around New York. What would prevent somebody from stealing her idea? At least I think that was her question. It was hard to hear her from where I was sitting and what with Mickey’s snout turning this way and that in front of me.
Not to worry, the Author said. He’s a lawyer so he knows something about the law. Manuscripts are protected under a broader copyright law until they are optioned and then — if it sells — the publisher will take care of the copyrights. There was a pause, then the Author, perhaps jokingly, perhaps haughtily, added, “Don’t worry. I’m not going to steal your idea.”
It’s easy as a published writer to forget sometimes what it’s like to be the wannabe.
“It just may be that what you’ve written is bad,” said the Author at one point, quick to note that his first novel was very, very bad.
Published authors get inundated with people who want to know the secret to getting published. The truth is there is no secret. As the Author explained, it’s like learning to play tennis. You have to learn how to stand. How to grip the racket. How to move your feet. How to hit the ball. Writing and publishing is the same thing. There are skills you can master but just because you do doesn’t mean you are going to get to play at Wimbledon. But you won’t know that until you learn all the basics.
Some of it is sheer luck. As the Author explained he got his first book deal not based on the strength of his writing, but on the strength of his contacts. A law school buddy of his happened to work for the most notable literary talent agency in New York. It’s like they always say, it’s not what you know but who you know…
After the Author left the stage to go sign copies of his bestseller, I walked to the very back of the church and watched as the elderly lady on the front row maneuvered her walker around to a secure position. She stood the very same way she talked, slowly, in a halting fashion. The church had pretty much cleared out by the time she started pushing that walker up the wide aisle.
I met her halfway.
“So what’s this book you’re working on?” I asked.
“It’s the story of a young girl in World War II,” she sputtered, unable to control the moderation of her voice. That lack of control meant that she hit piercingly high notes and dropped off to barely audible tones mid-word. Carrying on a conversation, even a brief one, took an exhausting amount of concentrated effort.
Trudi was her name and when she smiled it was like having grace rain down around me. I could see what a beauty she had been, back in her day, back when people didn’t dismiss her as that elderly woman but angled for a chance to sit next to that beautiful girl.
She’d worked for the Red Cross during the war, she told me. Still has those letters she wrote home to her mama every Friday.
“They say the same thing,” she said, smiling. “That I was fine and everything was okay.”
It was all lies, of course, meant to give comfort to a worried mama.
“I’ve thought about taking those letters and putting them in a book along with the real story of what was really happening over there,” she said.
“That’s a terrific idea,” I said. “You ought to do that.”
I told her about the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress and wrote it down for her, so she’d remember.
“How old are you?” I asked. (You know me. Never one to shy away from the rude question.)
“Ninety-five,” she said proudly.
“Thank you for serving our troops,” I said. “It means a lot to me that you made that sacrifice.”
“It was my honor,” she said.
Funny. I was thinking the same thing as I stood in Trudi’s presence, listening to her stories, and hoping like heck that she makes it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list before it’s too late, before her stories are lost for eternity.