The Author in the Flesh
Updated: Apr 30, 2020
One of the reasons readers go to readings is to hear the author, to put a voice to their favorite poems or stories, and to hear the personal stories that sometimes go with the
stories in print. I like to read my poems or fictions to a live audience, so I get a sense of how they strike their readers. Knowing where people laugh or in some cases cry, really helps me to get a sense of what kind of an impact my work has on its audience. The other reason (in my humble opinion) is to get books signed. Sometimes, people want books signed over to themselves. Sometimes to a friend. Sometimes people will ask for a particularly kind of greeting, “Would you mind putting, ‘To Sarah, in love and admiration’?” someone once asked me. But the best story I know about signing names comes from a time when Czeslaw Milosz was in Ann Arbor, reading. He was about to get the Nobel Prize, but was still relatively unknown. Not much of his work had been translated from the Polish. Czeslaw read from his original poems in Polish and I read the English translations, which had not yet been published. After the reading, there was a reception at an admirer’s house. A few people came with copies of Milosz’s work in Polish for him to sign. Then a student came to Milosz with a well-worn copy of Huckleberry Finn. “Would you sign this for me, please” he asked Milosz. Some of the people around Milosz clucked disapprovingly, but Milosz seemed amused. “Certainly,” he said. He took the book and signed on the flyleaf, “I am not Mark Twain—Czeslaz Milosz.” I think now that student was very savvy. I’ll bet that book would command a high price in an antiquarian bookstore somewhere. I also remember Bob Haas saying that he had a book that was out of print and wanted to get a couple of copies for a friend. He saw a stack of five of his books in the window of the bookstore, for sale at $20 a piece. He went in and asked to buy the five books. “Why are these books so expensive?” he asked. “The book costs less than $10 to buy.” “Yes,” said the bookstore owner, but these books are signed by the author.” Bob was amused. “But I’m the author,” he said. “I can sign my books any time I want.” “Well,” said the bookstore, in that case why are you looking for them in a bookstore?” Bob paid the owner $15 a book, in an agreed-upon compromise.