Six years ago, I sat in the basement of a church in Stratford, Ontario. I had a small table, on which sat copies of my newly-published book. The room was filled with other such writers and publishers: it was a writing festival. But just up the row from me was a guy called Joseph Boyden. He had a newly-published book too. Three Day Road. It really was new then and most people didn't know who he was. But I had read his raw accounts of the flooding in his adopted town of New Orleans in the months just before and I knew he was That Good.
The question was: Would I tell him I thought so?
I sat there much of the afternoon -- between flurries of signing one or two books -- pondering the question. The problem was -- and is -- that, faced with the opportunity to meet someone even remotely famous, I can imagine no role for myself other than Giggling Fan Girl. Every single thing I can think to say has a flavour of "OMG! I LOVE YOU SO MUCH!" At least, that's how it sounds in my head.
And despite the fact that you and I likely agree that Boyden -- man and author -- is worth that kind of adulation, I was not about to drool on his shoes. I thought about how I could approach him, what I could say that would show a good blend of admiration and collegiality.
In the end, I sidled up to the slight blonde woman who sat at his table and got talking to her. Turned out she was his wife Amanda. Turned out she introduced me to him. My heart may have pounded -- have you seen this guy? -- but I did not humiliate myself. In fact, I asked him a question that had been plaguing my writing, and he gave me an answer that was simple and profound, one I return to again and again. I'm glad I got over myself enough to talk with him, glad I was able to remember he was both only human and very good at what he did.
Maurice Sendak died today. I didn't know -- though I knew almost every word of Where the Wild Things Are -- how much I admired him until he was gone. A month ago, reading my U of T alumni magazine, I discovered that Northrup Frye had still been teaching at U of T when I went there -- and I could have sat at his feet to learn. Five years ago, Madeleine L'Engle died, never knowing how much her work meant to me.
Today, I want to draw a line in the sand. More Boyden-like encounters, even if I come across fawning and insipid, and fewer regrets. I'm so deeply grateful for those writers who have opened up my world. Their deaths remind us that they are as human as we are, that their time here is finite and that they've used it well. I want to remember to thank them and learn from them, every chance I get. Before it's too late.
Thank you Maurice. Let the wild rumpus start!