I have a terrible sense of direction—as does my brother. Maybe it’s genetic. I suspect, however, that it’s more on the order of the circumstance that plagued Macon and his siblings in Anne Tyler’s Accidental Tourist. In that novel, the siblings’ frequent relocations left them without a set place to start from, so they often found themselves lost. I read Tyler’s observation with the relief of a patient who, after years of specialists and inconclusive findings, finally receives a diagnosis that explains her symptoms. I, too, had many addresses as a child. Even now, most terrain seems equal, temporary, not worth memorizing. I can visit the same shopping mall dozens of times, and still need to consult the lighted map with it’s soothing “YOU ARE HERE” announcements as I search for a given store. Somehow, where we start from, and where we end up possesses a mystery I cannot fully comprehend.
Last Friday evening, the writer Erik Larson gave a reading and book signing at the St. Louis County Library. Mr. Larson’s latest book, In the Garden of Beasts, has just been released by Crown, a division of Random House. The book chronicles the story of William E. Dodd, America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany. I attended the reading because I’m a long-time fan of Mr. Larson’s fine prose. I also welcomed the opportunity to make his acquaintance again: we first met years ago when we attended the same writer’s workshop at Johns Hopkins University.
Our paths have been very different. Larson’s Devil in the White City was a finalist for the National Book Award and won an Edgar Award. His books have sold millions. He’s been on the New York Times Best Seller list for years running. With five previous non-fiction titles to his credit, Larson has been proclaimed a master of narrative non-fiction—and the quality of his work bears this out.
I, on the other hand, have just published my first novel. And although I hope (and work) for its success, it’s still much too early to know how the book will fare.
So when Erik told the story of his experience as a newly-published writer, I took notice. As he described it, invitations after his first book came out were not forthcoming. Then, he was invited to do a signing at a bookstore in Pennsylvania. Although one of the bookstore staff had placed a plate of chocolate chip cookies on his table, Larson seemed all but invisible to store patrons. The few customers that came near perused the shelves behind him and above him, and avoided eye contact. An hour and a half passed. I asked myself … ‘Who could wait that out?’ At last, a woman approached his table with enthusiasm, a promise that died with her question: “How much are the cookies?”
Of course the audience laughed. I laughed. Larson’s self-effacing humor won over the 250 people in the library’s auditorium and the 90 others in an overflow room watching on a monitor. His charm was, by now, an easy practice. And how I admired his ease, gained through readings where few showed up.
He’s succeeded, yet he’s quick to admit the path to that success was not always apparent. My own journey still mystifies. But I’ve never had a clearer view of where I want to go.