To get a blue wristband, the wristband that guarantees your book gets signed, we had to send two emails at midnight on November 5th. Before the wife and I slept, she drafted two emails on two different Blackberries from two different email accounts. The alarm was set for 11:58 PM. Two minutes later, she pressed the 'Send' button on both, and we both went back to sleep. The next day we got confirmation: on Friday the 13th, we would see Stephen King. And he would sign our books.
The day arrives. I leave work an hour early and drive south to the Barnes & Noble in Buckhead.
The bookstore's in a strip mall, and when I get there the line has already wound its way from the double doors of the Barnes & Noble to the grocery store next door. I go inside, buy my copy of "Under the Dome", Mr. King's latest work, give my name to the man at the table, receive my blue wristband, and get in line outside. I don't have to wait but a couple minutes before the line moves inside.
We wait. The wife and I talk. Seven o'clock, the scheduled start for the signing comes and goes. I feel anxious. I still don't know what to say, if anything. How many hundreds of tall 32-year old dorks have gushed to King at book signings? Should I say something painfully earnest and instantly regretted, like "You're the reason I became a writer"? I wince at the thought. Why should he get the blame for that? I'm still considering when a cheer goes up in the children's section. The author has arrived. An excited murmur runs up the line; people who were sitting, now stand. The show is getting on the road.
The line is long but moves quickly, leading us through the sections of the bookstore few visit: True Crime, Sports, Car Maintenence. And with every bookshelf we pass, we see more of the set-up they've created for the author. A three-sided black curtain has been set at the top of a short set of stairs, with a big wooden table and padded chair placed inside the enclosure for the author working the pen. And then, as I make the turn around the Occult shelf, I see the man himself.
Gray and thin and bent over the book he's signing, Stephen King and I are officially in the same space. For the past 20+ years, I've watched him age and change with each new author photo, but here I am, seeing him with my own eyes. It is a strange experience. Seeing him there, the long face, the hair that will not thin or recede, the omnipresent eyeglasses, I feel I already know him, the way I'd feel if I saw someone I went to school with, and as I think this I am struck once again by the fundamental bizarreness of fame, the way it creates the illusion of a meaningful two-way relationship where no relationship exists at all. As evidence of this oddness: much of this post.
We get close. Getty Images is there to take some photos. Below is King posing with his novel (the 3rd longest of his career) for the Getty photographer. A short time after, I see him raise his arms to chest height and rotate his torso first right and then left in a stretch, settling in, limbering up.
The handlers of this event, some Barnes and Noble folks and some folks undoubtedly hired by the publisher, are the event's greasemen: they keep stuff moving. Requests for photos are knocked down pitilessly. Loquacious signees are subtly edged from the stage. This is a signing, they say with their stern faces and all-business body language, not a chance for you freaks to commune with your personal hero. Which is fine. We are, in this case, beggars, and thus cannot be choosers. King rarely does tours anymore, and never visits the Deep South, so we're all glad to take whatever's given.
We are next. I hand mine and my wife's books to the man in the suit and glasses and tell him, "This is my wife's book, and this is mine. He can sign both and she'll take a picture?" The man in the suit and glasses frowns and shakes his head. I can't quite hear what he says, but he's clearly not thrilled with my brazen and outrageous plan. All I know is I'm getting a picture of this, whether it stresses this guy out or not. The man in suit and glasses hands my books to the woman designated to open books and slide them over to King to be signed, but there's a fan still standing at the table, saying something to King or just watching him sign her books, I don't know, and then he's signing Peggy's book and the fan is still there.
The fan moves away finally and I step to the table. Stephen King is now signing my book.
Shit, say something, I think. He's almost done! I can't let this chance go by without saying a single thing, I'll be kicking myself for years. Literally kicking myself. I'll swing into black depressions whenever my mind chances upon the memory. He's done signing.
"So what should I read next?" I ask. "You got me into 'Edgar Sawtelle' and 'The Ruins', both of which were great, so what should I get into next?"
King closes my book, slides it over to the person designated to hand signed books to their owners, and sits back in his chair. "Ah," he says, mulling. King reads a lot, 80 books a year on average, many of them review copies of books yet to be published, sent to him by editors looking to get a blurb, so I imagine him trying to think of a book out now. He can't think of one. Instead, he says, "There's a book coming out next summer called 'The Bastard', by--" the author's name I didn't quite make out, but it sounded a bit like James Crowley, whose novel "Little,Big" I just finished and frickin loved.
"All right," I say. "I'll read that! Thanks!" He nods, puts pen to paper to sign the next book, I take the signed novels from the nice lady and head back down the stairs.
I've been to lots of book signings but this was the first and likely the only signing where I got to meet someone who's had a real appreciable influence on me. Meeting the writers of Sesame Street or Fred Rodgers himself (RIP) might be the few equivalents. I loved his books as a kid, and though my feelings about his work now are a bit more reserved than they once were, he's one of the few writers who made the transition with me from adolescence into adulthood. He's still good and worth reading and, I think for some books, re-reading. And more than just making scaring people with writing seem like the best possible job on earth to a kid who liked books and movies more than he liked being a kid in middle-school, his books helped shape my worldview. Anyone familiar with King books, or even the film adaptations of his books, knows that certain themes pop up again and again in his stories and, reading him as a kid, I soaked it all up without question: the military is untrustworthy, religious zealots are evil but wrap themselves up in 'good', life can end suddenly and violently and unfairly, etc. I still believe those things, so meeting the guy who had a hand in putting those ideas in my head so many years ago was a big deal for me. I'm glad he was a nice guy, didn't blow me off, and that he appears to be, more or less, exactly as he seems in his conversational notes to his readers and in his columns in Entertainment Weekly: friendly, human, engaged and serious about what he does, and always ready to recommend a book.