Aug 5, 2006

An Evening With Harry, Carrie & Garp

I needed that vacation!

I just got back from a two week trip, in which I went to Comic Con in San Diego, then flew to New Hampshire to visit my family and friends, then drove to Manhattan to see my film screened at the Museum of Modern Art, and more visiting. I plan to post lots of photos online soon. You'll see me with a bunch of Storm Troopers, some nice views of Lake Winnipesaukee, and a few great shots of Manhattan, if I do say so myself.

Are there any J.K. Rowling fans reading this blog? How about Stephen King or John Irving fans? I admire all three, and consider myself their fans, so I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see them perform readings at Radio City Music Hall on August 1st. There's a lot to respect about these authors. They've become wildly successful in a waning industry where the odds are stacked high against any writer, and they've actually earned their success (so I believe). Also, unlike many celebrities, they respect their fans, and aim to please them, rather than treating fans as a nuisance. These qualities make them rare among artists of any discipline and any level.

I could talk about the rest of my vacation, but I'll save that for another blog entry, if at all. "An Evening With Harry, Carrie & Garp" was for two nights only, and these are three of the world's most respected living authors. I doubt they'll do another public event together again. I need to share the experience. No cameras or recording devices were allowed in the theatre, so it's all words from here.

Six thousand people bought tickets; the show was sold out. As the seats filled, I noticed lots of families with Harry Potter aged children. Some wore wizard robes and hats. I heard a lot of buzz about Rowling, and I began to worry that 1) these kids would get bored and restless during the readings by the other two authors, and that 2) fans of King and Irving would be a minority, which seemed unfair, considering how many readers they must have.

Whoopi Goldberg, a fan of all three authors, came onstage to give a warm introduction. She mentioned that the King and Irving fans were out there, just not as outspoken as the Harry Potter crowd. I was happy that each author received a huge round of applause; Rowling had not overshadowed the other two.

Each author got a separate introduction by a surprise guest celebrity-fan. Kathy Bates introduced King, relating a story that King used to carry a rubber rat in his pocket during the shooting of The Stand miniseries, and he'd whip it out to scare people. Once introduced, King strolled onstage and got a standing ovation (as did the other two authors, later). He looked fit and healthy, and comfortable in front of this huge audience. He promptly sat in the rural country stageset that had been arranged for him, and launched into reading the pie eating contest scene from The Body in his Different Seasons collection.

I thought this was an odd choice. He could have read an excerpt from The Eyes of the Dragon, or one of his less R-rated short stories. The pie eating contest is a child-friendly scene, but it might make some people feel uncomfortable. Well, King read it with great relish and delight, and the audience laughed quite a lot. I think it held everyone's interest. At one gross-out scene, King interrupted himself, saying, "Who writes this stuff?" Pause for audience laugh, and then he said (with glee), "Let's press on, shall we?" And the next sentence was even more disgusting.

Andre Braugher introduced John Irving. In contrast to King's rural Maine stageset, Irving got an Ivy League New Hampshire setup. He sat down in an ornate leather armchair and read the manger casting scene from A Prayer for Owen Meaney. Like King, he was relaxed in front of the crowd and kept everyone interested. He did a funny, squeaky voice when reading Owen's lines.

John Stewart, a fan of all three authors, strolled out to great applause and introduced J.K. Rowling. He acted as if books were threatening the TV industry, a nice touch of ironic sarcasm. Rowling had a wizardish throne setup. She was a little nervous at first, and joked about being classed in the caliber of King and Irving. Of course, she's much younger than those two, and less prolific at this point in her career. She did an excellent reading of a scene from the sixth Harry Potter book, where Harry accompanies a memory of Dumbledore recruiting Tom Riddle to Hogwarts. Afterwards, she remained alone onstage to answer four audience questions. Among other things, she said that Draco would not have murdered Dumbledore, had that scene panned out differently. She wrote the finale of her series before she began it.

The authors answered twelve selected fan questions, out of a thousand. Soledad O'Brien introduced each fan. Among the answers to their questions:

Irving is a compulsive rewriter, and claims that 3/4ths of his career as a writer is spent revising. He enjoys rewriting, but gets nervous about first drafts. He writes by hand or typewriter, without saving files, which I suppose makes rewriting both more necessary and more difficult.

Rowling was surprised by much of the fan fiction devoted to her series, which she found when bored one night and Googling "Harry Potter." She also has a morbid urge to scroll through the Amazon reviews in search of the harsh ones, and does not recommend doing so.

Irving writes the endings of his stories first, feeling them out emotionally, then meticulously planning and building on the mood structure. He saves beginnings for last and finds them the most difficult. King works the opposite way, starting from the beginning and pulling through without a plan, discovering the plot and characters and mood as he writes it.

Rowling got an agent on her second attempt, but collected rejections for two years before the book sold. She knew from the beginning that Harry Potter was an idea she needed to write, and she never felt like giving up on getting his story published. Hypothetically speaking, if she'd gone through every last publisher without selling the book, she would have kept trying. She would have supported herself as a schoolteacher while continuing to pursue her dream.

Irving said that his book The Fourth Hand was inspired by a TV news story about a hand transplant, and a comment his wife made about visiting the transplanted hand of one's donor spouse. Then his wife went to bed, and he was up all night thinking about it.

Someone asked King how he could come up with such ideas without being demented. King answered that there's no good answer to that question. He didn't have much to say to any of his questions: what scares you, what was the most inopportune place you got a story idea ... he's answered these before. I wish they'd chosen different audience questions for him. Mine, for instance. What would you change about the publishing industry, if you could?

You may wonder what I got from seeing these authors live instead of on TV. The answer (aside from the pleasure of hearing them perform their work specifically for fans like me, and experiencing them along with six thousand readers) is seeing their public personas. One can't hide personal mannerisms when live and onstage for a few hours. I expected one of them to come across as a jerk in some way. Instead, all three seemed down to Earth, not arrogant, very confident in themselves and in touch with their fans. That's a wonderful thing to see.

If you'd like to check out some other reviews of the event:
The Slush God
Tom Richmond
Sense of Soot

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