Do you have an idol? Do you have someone you are dying to meet one day? Whether it’s this person’s personality that you admire and love, or their work and success, be it in the arts, in entertainment, science, history, or education – that inspires you so much that you want to follow in their footsteps?
We writers are different. We don’t get to meet our favorite authors most of the time. Unless you are Vincent Lam, who met Margaret Atwood on a cruise and then had his first book published and won the Giller Prize. If we are lucky we might get to attend a book signing. We stand in line with hundreds of others, waiting for our turn to meet the author. (And when we come face to face with them we are so nervous we become tongue-tied.) I met Robert Fisk twice in one year and the only words I managed to utter were “I am a huge fan.”
Joseph Sutton, who had interviewed William Saroyan for Writer’s Digest magazine in 1979, tells a different story:
“That strange encounter started with William Saroyan bellowing “What’s your name again?” through his open front door and ended with him shaking my hand at least a dozen times to remove me from his steps.
A few months prior to the article’s publication, I found myself face to face with him again. I’d finished my writing for the day and was walking along Irving Street in the outer Sunset District of San Francisco when I passed the 22nd Avenue Produce Market and decided to turn in. I was about to tear a plastic bag from a roll in front of the orange display when I looked over and saw Saroyan standing next to me, about to do the same thing.
This time, I didn’t let my nerve get the better of me. After introducing myself and talking about his travels and his latest publication, we got down to the subject I awkwardly tried to address in our first meeting: writing.
“Sometimes, Mr. Saroyan, I feel like throwing in the towel because I haven’t sold much of what I’ve written.”
“How old are you? He asked.
“And you haven’t had anything published yet?”
He was surprised because he was a mere 27 when he made a spectacular splash on the American scene with his collection of short stories called The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.
“Are you married?” he asked. “Do you have any kids?”
“I’m married and have an 8-year old stepson.”
“Does your wife support you?”
“No, we go half and half on everything. Whenever money runs low, it’s time for me to start looking for a job.”
“Did you know that John Steinbeck’s wife supported him before he made it big?”
“No, I didn’t,” I said, “Although I hear Isaac Bashevis Singer’s wife did the same thing.”
“Tell me, how long have you been writing?”
“Ten years. I was 28 when I started.”
“Why’d you start so late?”
“I was a high-school teacher.”
“What made you quit teaching?”
“I could never control a classroom of teenagers,” I admitted. “Tell me Mr. Saroyan, what does a writer have to do to get published nowadays? Should he write for himself or the public?”
“Write for yourself,” he told me. “But first you have to make sure you like what you’re writing and that’s it’s interesting. I’m curious,” he kept on, “Why do you keep writing if you can’t make a living out of it?”
“I wish I knew. There’s something in me pushing me to write. It won’t go away; it’s always there.”
“That’s good,” he said. “Keep at it.”
Unlike the first time we met, it was I who initiated the handshake to end our conversation. And then I went home, to sit down and write again.”
Happy writing everyone!