This month has been epic in a rather literary way. From the last week of May until this week, I have been lucky enough to hear and meet Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett from the A Way With Words radio show, author Margaret Atwood, and author Neil Gaiman.
I think I’ve hit some kind of trifecta there. I’m not sure of what, exactly, except perhaps the Jeopardy category of “People Who Make Your Heart and Brain Go Pitter-Pat.” I love the radio show (you can listen online!) and Atwood and Gaiman are both so high in my tier of favorite authors that I’m not even sure which gets the “best” appellation. Atwood was first and perhaps more influential to my personal writing style, but Gaiman is just so prolific and varied that I always feel like I’m discovering something else new (and often scary).
A Way With Words
If you haven’t heard it yet, A Way With Words is a nationally syndicated radio show about language. They do word jokes, explain the etymology of interesting words both colloquial and professorial, and, most of all, answer word questions from callers of all stripes. They have a philosophy of verbal flexibility (meaning that it’s ok that words change meanings and spellings over time and geography) and are incredibly kind and so shockingly learned. It’s like they’ve swallowed the OED and can now regurgitate on command.
I saw them at a special benefit for the Aberg Center for Literacy, an organization I’d not heard of previously, but they are advocates for literacy and therefore I like them. I had expected the show to be mostly a real-life version of the radio hour, but the organizers had mixed it up a bit. Greg and Martha each had a talk, with a game show format in the middle. Greg discussed the ways his young son was teaching him things about language and about how forgiveness is an important part of learning (and teaching). Martha’s talk was about a professor who really taught her to love language, and who became a teacher of more than academics, but of life. It was a very moving presentation.
They took questions from the audience, and I was stunned that my question was the first drawn. But it was too good a question, and they were stumped (“Does the phrase ‘brain-child’ have anything to do with the myth of Athena, who was born from the skull of Zeus?” Answer: “We dunno. Maybe? Sounds good, let’s say yes, sure, why not?”)
The question-and-answer bit really showed how much they knew off the top of their heads; they answered questions without any resources and without having known the questions ahead of time.
The first book of Atwood’s I discovered was “A Handmaid’s Tale,” arguably her most famous because it is both required reading and banned in schools, depending on your region. It was assigned in mine, and I did perhaps the most unconventional book report on record for it. Well, at least my most unconventional. I asked my teachers if I could “act it out.” They were very obliging souls, so they said yes.
When it was my turn to present my “report” on “A Handmaid’s Tale,” I solemnly walked to the front of the class, explained that the president and Congress were dead, and I was now in charge of the class. Several classmates turned and stared at our teachers, who just shrugged and said we’d all better listen. I broke up couples, confiscated religious jewelry, separated girls from boys, explained that the girls would now be divided into groups based on their ability to procreate and that the boys, if they were lucky and loyal enough, might one day get the privilege of a wife. One classmate protested my act, and I said that was fine, and he would be hanged. I had my “bodyguard” (who had previously volunteered, and thus got himself a wife) “execute” him, and he was mock-hanged in the front of the class, as an example for the rest.
Like I said, the most bizarre book report ever. I certainly won’t ever forget it.
I’ve since read and enjoyed many other of Atwood’s books (I have a particular fondness for “Oryx and Crake” and “The Penelopiad”), but “Handmaid” was revolutionary for me. It was bleak…really really bleak. Most of even the apocalyptic stories I’d read had shown a strong light of hope. It was all the worse because it was set in such a realistic version of our world, and it scared me on a level no book ever has.
Atwood came to speak as part of a Dallas Museum of Art Arts and Letters presentation. Ostensibly she was there to talk about mythology, but she did this only tangentially. She did show us lots of pictures of her drawings, at various ages. (Apparently she is also an illustrator, and I’m crushed that the copies of her books I have aren’t those she drew).
Mostly, she talked about her childhood. She grew up in the woods of Canada, and didn’t have running water or electricity for most of her childhood. Books were of preeminent importance because they needed things to do.
I think I told my dad that night that I was now upset that we’d had water and electricity, because how would I ever be a fantastic author now?
He didn’t seem that bothered by it.
Atwood took questions from the audience, and I happened to be sitting right by the microphone, so I leapt up and asked about her feelings on technology. She gave a very lovely and funny response about how her use of social media was like a biologist studying mosquitoes: she is offering her flesh up for consumption to test it out for the future benefit of authors and twitterers.
She was lovely and far funnier than I had ever expected and her brilliance really shown. And when I got up to the front of the signing line, I had no idea what to say and just sort of quietly thanked her for coming.
I still can’t believe it happened.
And then, adding to the list of Things I Never Imagined Possible, I got to meet Neil Gaiman.
Well, me and about 1,500 other people (seriously. That theater was PACKED).
Gaiman is on his last-ever book signing tour, for “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” his newest book that is sort-of fiction, sort-of adult, sort-of magical. (I’m only a third of the way in, because I had to do things besides reading today and I’m very very upset about that, but I’ll be finished this weekend for sure).
Gaiman read to us from his new book, and I wanted his lovely sonorous English talking to go on forever, particularly when he tried on different British accents as appropriate.
I just read, tonight, the passage he’d read to us last night, and I hope it always stays this way, but I heard him again in my head, each syllable rolling around between my ears.
He then took some questions from the audience, and unlike Atwood they were all previously written down and presented to him on cards (and I’m bummed because I was stuck in the interminable line and did not get the chance to even ask a question via card). He joked that a huge stack of them were all “What was it like to work on Doctor Who?” so he’d removed those.
He only answered a few questions, and I admit I was a little disappointed; I wanted him to keep talking. But he was lovely and so kind and humble.
Then we got lucky, and he read from his next children’s book “Fortunately, The Milk.” It’s about a dad who has gone off to get milk for his children’s breakfast and…encounters some rather odd difficulty along the way. It was hilarious and I found myself leaning forward, forward in my seat trying to soak up more of it. He’s delightful. I’m definitely going to buy that one when it comes out in September!
And I was lucky enough to be seated in one of the nearer rows, so I didn’t have to wait too long to get my books signed.
Again, I got up there and just gaped like a goldfish. What do you say to your idol? I just almost-whispered “Thank you for coming out.” And he drew a heart in my book and I was so happy I had a Kristen Bell sloth moment as soon as we walked out. Seriously. Neil Gaiman made me cry.
So that’s been this month. I don’t know that I will ever be able to top that.
Provided you’re actually able to speak when given the moment (since I wasn’t), what would you say to your idol? And who would it be?