Tuesday, July 21, 2009

In praise of an author (and his first book) that proved this theory: life is copy.

In the mid-1990s, I had what may turn out to be one of the best jobs of my life. My official title was rights acquisitions editor. I didn't acquire books for original publication; instead I acquired the rights to sell already published or soon-to-be published books to our book club members.

Acquiring those rights involved visiting publishers - mostly in New York but in other areas of the country as well - to review their upcoming books (their pub lists) to determine what titles might make the best selections for our club members. We read galleys and proofs; we perused early pub lists to get a sense of what was coming in the next several months. We consulted Publisher's Weekly for reviews and deals made; anything that would give us a clue about the next big trends in publishing.

The coveted ancillary benefit to this job was being able to hear about up and coming authors from the editors who worked with them, hearing about the "big books" of the next season (publishers have three seasons or three "lists" a year), and, best of all, having wonderful books show up on my desk, courtesy of friends I had at various publishers.

My timing on the job was nearly perfect. Sometime during the fall of 1996, a good friend from Scribner called me at the office, during a break from a jury duty stint she was serving that week. She couldn't stop talking about this delightful new book she was reading, a surprising little memoir that came out of nowhere by an author no one ever heard of, titled Angela's Ashes. She couldn't recommend it highly enough and I couldn't wait to read it.

I bought it immediately upon publication and loved it. (I bought copies for practically everyone I knew that Christmas.) It took a little while to get into the rhythm and narrative nature of the writing but once I got there, it sounded - to my ears anyway - as beautiful as an Irish tenor. And I wasn't alone in my delight. The book went on to win the 1997 Pulitzer Prize in Biography / Autobiography.

Skip ahead about five years. In the spring of 2003, my family and I had the chance to hear the story of Angela's Ashes told to us, by the author himself, when McCourt appeared at Lafayette College with the Newman-Oltman Guitar Duo. At the time, my sons were 13, 11 and 11, and my oldest had read Angela's Ashes. [I'd made a deal with my boys as they grew up and began reading contemporary novels and other kinds of books: they could choose an author to read, as long as they also read a book by someone I recommended. Trevor wanted to read a Stephen King book - and I love Stephen King, have no quarrel at all with his work - and I told him he could pick out a King novel after he'd read Angela's Ashes.]

The music and readings that evening were lovely but the highlight had to be the book signing McCourt graciously held following the performance. Practically everyone in line had their own copies of the book; he wasn't sticking around just to sell a few more. He was approachable and charming. He looked humble and grateful for the kind words people shared with him about his work and the evening we'd all just spent together.

As we approached the author with our book in hand, McCourt asked Trevor if he'd read it. Trevor told him yes, and went on to explain my "deal" about books: that he could read a Stephen King book only after he'd read Angela's Ashes. Frank said something like, "Oh yeah, he's a popular guy; done quite well for himself, hasn't he? So who do you like better; that King fella or me?" [I could tell he was kidding around a bit, but it was an unexpected question.)

I was nervous, for about three seconds. My god, what would his answer be? Without missing a beat, Trevor told him he loved Angela's Ashes. It was the truth - he did love the book. And McCourt looked pleased that he'd met a 13-year-old who had been engaged and interested in his work, in a era of video games and electronic communication.

That short exchange has stayed with me. Watching my son connect with Frank McCourt, however briefly, remains a cherished moment.

McCourt's death last week diminishes the literary landscape. He emerged from almost no where and became the Cinderella story of publishing with his memoir. His unique narrative style and the moving story of his challenging childhood found an unlikely audience around the world, and bound us together as one, regardless of our religion, ethnic background or nationality.

The Broadway lights do not go dark when an author dies. Perhaps we should begin a tradition of lowering the lights in bookstores and libraries for one minute when we lose one of our national treasures, to remember and celebrate the contributions of authors who touch millions of readers with their words. As a book lover, I'd like that shared moment to think about the words that touched me, in the quiet dim light of remembrance. For me, Frank McCourt and his words will live on, on the page and in my mind, just as that brief moment we shared as a family at Lafayette College will remain with all of us forever.


Michael Newman said...

Hi, Renee,
I'm so glad I ran into your story about Frank. We were so lucky that his last performance was with us and the new orchestrated version of "Laments & Dances" for the Raritan River Music Festival on May 30.
Here's a very nice interview about that show:
We plan to put some of the video from that performance on our YouTube channel very soon.
With best regards,

renee said...

Hi Michael -
What a treat the performance was that night - it remains a wonderful memory for all of us.

I'll take take a look at the interview as well. Frank seemed to be a genuinely nice man. It must have been a joy to work with him.

Thanks for your note -