Meeting Your Heroes

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It’s not everyday you get to meet one of your heroes. I got one of those rare opportunities Monday night. Mary Doria Russell visited Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, NC to talk about her new novel Epitaph. I was glad to be one of a crowd of people who came out to hear her speak.

If you are unfamiliar with Mary Doria Russell, she is awesome. Her first novel, The Sparrow (and its sequel, Children of Men) captured many people’s imaginations. It is the story of a group of Jesuits and scientists who follow a song into space in search of other inhabited planets. It is science fiction with a punch. I loved those books when I first read them in the early 90’s and still reread them today. Mary went on to write about Jews in WWII Italy, the middle east after WWI, and now has released her second book set in Texas at the end of the 19th century. I never thought I would love books about Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, but I do. Doc was great and I’m sure Epitaph will be too.

Anyway, what I wanted to discuss here was Mary’s slightly unconventional author event style. I’ve been to many, many author events and have a handful of them myself now, and they usually go the same way – the author talks about themselves a little, they read from their latest book a little, and they talk about the inspiration for the book, then take a few questions. Mary didn’t do any of the usual self-deprecating, aww-shucks kind of things. She spoke for twenty minutes or so about the people she writes about and the historical research she did. She didn’t read from the book at all. She spoke with authority and humor in a way that made the audience feel a personal connection to her, yet also made it very plain that she knows her stuff backwards and forwards and upside down. This sense of authority really came out during the question and answer portion of the event. Some one in the audience asked a question about how she did the research for her two books set on another planet. Mary then spoke about how she used her training in anthropology and biology to imagine sentient beings that did not evolve from an ape-like creature. It was fascinating to hear her talk about how she arrived at the beings in The Sparrow from her research. It was also refreshing to see her not laugh off the question with a self-deprecating comment like ‘I just made them up.’

I enjoyed the author event because I am a complete book nerd and love to meet the authors of the books I read, but I was also inspired. A large chunk of an author’s life is taken up by the minutia of editing and marketing. We don’t get to talk about the big ideas behind our words very often. It’s easy to doubt the importance and weight of what we do all day.  It was inspiring to listen to someone so obviously confident in what they are doing and not apologizing for being good at it.

That is why it’s good to have real life heroes and try to meet them whenever possible.

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3 thoughts on “Meeting Your Heroes

  1. I’ve always avoided meeting my heroes. I doubt you’ve heard of them, but there is an English folk rock band called “Steeleye Span” that I’ve loved since I was a kid. I finally got to see them in concert in Pittsburgh (I missed seeing them in Dublin by a couple of weeks). During the intermission the audience was given the opportunity to mingle with the band, get signed artifacts and have a glass of wine. I refused, despite the urging of my then-wife, sister, and brother-in-law. My reason: what if they’re assholes? I prefer to love my heroes at a distance. My imagination is always better than my reality. That’s why I’m a writer.

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  2. I see where you’re coming from, Jason. It would be terrible to meet someone you admire and have them turn out to be a jerk. Then again, we admire them for their work, not to be their friend. As long as they are civil and inspiring, I’m ok. I like inspiring. I met Elizabeth Berg years before she was really successful and got a lot out of that interaction. I also met Yann Martel before Life of Pi got big. That was a great conversation where I learned that great writers can be just as awkward and goofy as the rest of us.

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  3. This post has given me great food for thought, Elizabeth, especially with my upcoming book launch for The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley. I have been wobbling on my heels for weeks trying to figure out a way that I can make my launch enjoyable for others. I’ve felt uncomfortable with the idea of talking about myself – especially in front of all Swedes who typically are not easily impressed. Reading from my book would be something that would probably make a Swedish audience start to itch. So here, when you say that Mary Doria Russell spoke unexpectedly about the people in her book, her characters and the historical research behind the project, and did not read from her book at all, little bells started to ring around me. I love this idea. I can speak about my characters and how they came to be. I know them well. And the historical research fascinated me while doing it, so why not share that with an audience. No wonder you your hero author’s event struck a chord with you. Her approach was unique. I like that, and it makes me want to check out this hero of yours! Thanks for the post.

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