Wednesday, September 3
I first heard of John Scalzi when I came across his blog, Whatever. I don’t remember how I found the blog. It was either recommended by WordPress or Wil Wheaton. Scalzi is so prolific that a few months after subscribing to his blog, I opted out of email reminders. Even one reminder a week would include one or two entries from other blogs I follow, and about ten from him (okay, maybe not that many, but more than five).
Then I visited my brother earlier this year, and he asked me if I wanted a book to read. It was Scalzi’s The Last Colony, the third book in his Old Man’s War series. Someone had given the book to my brother after reading it in an airport, which hopefully doesn’t speak to the book’s quality. Since I recognized the name, I said, “Sure.”
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, when I passed by the University Bookstore, near the University of Washington. In the window was Scalzi’s name, his latest book, and the date he would be in town. I made a note of it, confirmed it on the website, confirmed it again the day of the event (in case he became deathly ill and canceled), and then headed down to the bookstore, arriving three minutes before the event was to begin.
Last time I went to an event in the store, it was held on the second floor. This time, chairs lined the main floor, leading to the staircase, which branched left and right after reaching a small platform. On this platform stood a podium.
One of the great things about going to an event by oneself is that there’s usually one empty seat in the middle, separating people who’d rather not be rubbing elbows with the person next to them. Lest you think this is just an expression, I found that empty seat (two, in fact), and found my elbow rubbing against the arm attached to the body sitting to my right.
For far too long that day and the previous one, I had debated which camera to bring: my point-and-shoot, or my DSLR. One is small and light; one takes awesome photos. I went with small and light. Since I got a seat, I could’ve gone with awesome photos and not worried about the added weight. Instead, the lighting made everything in my photos glow orange. I guess that’s better than everything being too dark.
First, this guy came down and spoke into the microphone. I wish I remembered his name, but it wasn’t John Scalzi, so I forgot it. Too bad, too, as without him, this event wouldn’t have happened. He mentioned other events coming up, though he spoke softer after asking if everyone could hear him, so those of us in the back couldn’t. Next, he introduced Scalzi in the usual “what-can-I-tell-you-that-you-don’t-already-know?” routine — and then told us what we already knew. Finally, Scalzi came down the left staircase and took the mic for the next hour, minus the minutes his introducer had used.
Scalzi started by taking a panoramic photo of us. Then, as he looked around, he saw people he knew before he was famous. He asked one of them how it felt to see him. She said, “I think it’s great.” Like his blog and his books (I take the second part on faith, since I still have to read one), he’s funny and intelligent. I’ve never heard anyone describe Crime and Punishment as “guilt-guilt-guilt-guilt, then he turns himself in, Siberia.” This was to point out why the book was so long, which sprung from a discussion concerning his inspiration for writing (his mortgage), which led to Dostoevsky’s inspiration for writing (gambling debts). He also told us that his new book, Lock In, will debut on the New York Times Hardcover Bestseller List. He told us not to tell anyone, or tweet or text it, but since IT’S ON HIS BLOG, I’m pretty sure I’m allowed to mention it now.
He made us promise to buy a book, too, even if it wasn’t his book, to show our appreciation for the bookstore hosting this event. I did look at his books after the event was over, but I couldn’t decide which one to buy. Two of his books have won Hugos (Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever 1998-2008 and Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas), there’s his new book, and then there are the Old Man’s War books. I also passed Le Petit Prince in its original language while in the signing line, and a hilarious calendar featuring sloths. But, back to the event.
Scalzi first read a long passage of dialog between four people from the fifth book in the Old Man’s War series, The Human Division. Too many descriptors after the word “said,” and while funny in parts, the dialog was average, at best. The two other works he read — both humorous pieces and short — were much better. Scalzi’s way of humorously describing a scene is his strongest asset, and shows off his creativity more than his dialog does. The first story was about a pig roast; the second, about a lemonade stand. Both were hilarious.
The readings were followed by a twenty-minute Q & A. The first question was about his writing habits, the second revealed a spoiler about the new book (but not really, though I’m still not mentioning it, just in case). He also played a ukulele that someone brought in, even though it wasn’t tuned right.
During his continued discussion of Lock In, he said something that stuck with me. The paraphrase is from someone else, but it involves writing about another person (i.e. a character who is not you). Once you realize that you’re going to screw it up, no matter how much research you do, it allows you to listen to criticism of that character without feeling it’s a personal attack. Rather, it’s to prevent you from making the same mistake in the future. Or, as Scalzi put it, “I only want to make new mistakes.” To be given license to be wrong, and knowing that every author is given the same license, is a welcome freedom.
After he finished answering questions, people who had bought Locked In received a ticket that allowed them to line up before everyone else. The rest of us either left, browsed his books, or joined the signing line. I did all three, but not in that order. A young man and woman stood behind me in the signing line, despite having purchased a copy of Lock In with the priority ticket sticking out. After a fifteen-minute discussion, they left, making me the last person in line.
The line went quickly, despite standing behind someone who couldn’t stand still, as if he had to pee. He also kept making grunting sounds. I wondered if he had turrets but without the swearing. As we rounded a corner, a woman asked each person what books they had to sign and if they wanted them personalized. When she asked the gentleman in front of me if he wanted his book personalized, he said, “What’s that?”
“He can write your name in the book and sign it to you.”
“No, I don’t need that, just the signature.”
She then had to step around him to ask me the same question. She seemed excited that I had The Last Colony. Maybe she thought I’d bought it at the store, despite the worn spine and a white spot on the top.
As I reached the part of the line where we could see people getting their books signed, the gentleman in front of me left to put a book away, which he had been reading in line. I thought maybe he would leave, but he came back. When I made room for him, he told me he’d rather be last. That was fine with me, as I wasn’t sure what would happen when he got to Scalzi. When we reached the final gauntlet, two staff members joined the line behind him, ruining his dream of last-dom.
During the 90 minutes I was in line, I had thought of all the things I could say to an author whose books I hadn’t read. Things like, ” I like your blog, but I had to stop reading it because
you post too much I’d never get anything done otherwise.” Or, “You’re the second Hugo award-winning author I’ve met. The first was Ursula Le Guin.” Or, “There’s a funny story behind this book. My brother gave it to me when I stayed at his house, which was given to him by a random guy at the airport. So you see, no one in my family has purchased any of your books.” Or I could mention something he said that night, like “That was the most concise summary I’ve ever heard of Crime and Punishment.”
When the moment arrived, I got up there and said, “I really like your blog,” to which Scalzi replied, “Thank you,” to which I responded, “You’re welcome.” And then the man in charge of taking photos with other people’s cameras took the following photo with mine:
When I got the book back, I looked inside. Above his awesome signature were the words “Enjoy this!” I hope to, Mr. Scalzi. And if I do, I’ll be sure to buy one of your books. For once.