Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Getting Books Signed (or My Embarrassing Tom Stoppard Moment)

I rarely pursue authors to sign books. Not after one bad experience with Tom Stoppard.

I was a college student studying for a semester in London and had just seen Stoppard's "The Invention of Love". I loved the play and bought a copy. Later, I was lucky enough to attend a lecture Stoppard gave on writing. Honestly, I can't remember a thing he said, but I remember the end of the afternoon vividly. I was determined to get his autograph. After the talk, I followed a group of people around the back of the theatre. We waited for about twenty minutes, and I was just beginning to think I'd give up when Stoppard appeared.

I had not noticed until that moment that all the people I was standing with were female. And I kid you not, they were also all blonde. They swarmed Stoppard, gushing over him. I felt absolutely ridiculous. I almost left right then, but I still had "The Invention of Love" in my hands, which is a brilliant play, and the author standing right next to me. Turns out, I didn't need to make a decision at all. Stoppard saw the book in my hand and mechanically bent, took it from me, and signed it, without saying a word to me. So much for the amazing moment where I met Tom Stoppard.

I don't hold much value in that signature, though I haven't yet sold the book on ebay. I do still love the play, and it is something to have his autograph. But after that embarrassing encounter, I lost interest in collecting signatures. It isn't the signatures I'm interested in anyway, but rather meeting people who have been influential to me.

So I don't have many other signed books. I have one signed by Margaret Weis (a childhood favorite) that a friend gave me. I had another book signed by Margaret Weis which I gave to a friend. I think signed books make great gifts. They say, "I stood for hours in line in order to get you this special book." Maybe getting the book feels better than actually getting the signature, too. I also have signed copies of THE THINGS THEY CARRIED and IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS by Tim O'Brien. I know, too incredible. He led a three hour session I took in Chicago for educators on teaching history with literature. He is a humorous, thoughtful and inspirational person. And while I'm sure he doesn't remember me at all, at least I didn't have to feel like a groupie in order to get my books signed.

And then there's the signature that got away... Through various connections, I am one degree of separation away from both Barack and Michelle Obama. They don't know me personally, but I imagine if I were to introduce myself to them, both of them would know who I was. That's what comes of living in the same neighborhood as them in Chicago.

In the fall of 2006, Barack Obama was on a book tour for his second book, THE AUDACITY OF HOPE. I had decided to get a copy for my dad for Christmas. Obama wasn't well known nationally yet, at least not to the general public, but he was a political hero in Chicago already and a US senator. He was signing books at the local independent bookstore one morning, about three blocks from where I worked. I planned to get to work, run my advisory class, and then hurry over to the bookstore.

Of course, it was pouring rain that morning and I was in a foul mood... maybe a parent wanted to talk to me about their kid, maybe I got a grouchy email from a co-worker, maybe my dog wasn't feeling well... I really don't remember, but I do remember consciously deciding: Obama lives in the neighborhood. He knows who I am. I'll get the book another time. It's not like he's going anywhere.

Needless to say, I didn't get the signed book for my dad (sorry Dad!). I expected to have another opportunity that year, but it never came. And then... well, and then he got famous. And now I'm living in the UK. And how much do I regret not meeting him? A lot.

But I console myself by imagining it probably would have gone just like my meeting with Tom Stoppard. There would have been a line, groupies, he wouldn't have had time to catch my name, he would have been tired. So maybe knowing I could have gotten his signature, and didn't, is a better memory than the actual getting.

Course, my feelings on this whole process will probably change if someday, as I hope, I'm on the other side of the table, the author giving signatures... but that's another post.

Do you sign books? Do you get books signed? Any good (or bad) memories?


  1. 'It's not like he's going anywhere'...classic!

  2. Yeah, not one of my better judgements. =)

  3. I love Tom Stoppard too, and would have felt the same way. I do sign books, but I always try to write a personal note. Talking to the kids is the best part.

    And say, I used to live in the Obama's neighborhood too, back when he was running for very local office. We may have been neighbors.

  4. That's so sweet that you take the time to write personal notes when you sign books, Jacqui.

    I had forgotten you were a former Chicagoan! Hyde Park? We need to swap Chicago stories someday (in a non public forum... =) ).

  5. I love this post, Anne. I'm a great fan of Tom Stoppards and would easily have endured anything to get an autograph. But it's weird, isn't it, this business of autographs. Nevertheless, I look forward to an autographed copy of your first novel!

  6. Thanks, Cynthia. If I'm ever privileged enough to have a first novel, you can have as many autographed copies as you like.

    Do I regret standing with the blonde groupies to get Stoppard's autograph? Horrifically embarrassing, but looking back, not sure I mind. At least it's a good story and I DO have his autograph. =)


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