Last night was arguably one of the most momentous of my life. I chose that word with care — it was also important, and special, and exciting. But it was, more than anything else, momentous…or monumental.
It was last night, after all, that I did something I thought might be impossible. It was last night, where I saw a walking, talking, living, breathing, charming, intelligent, funny, down-to-earth, brilliant, engaging, kind English woman of middling age, and of towering significance. Last night, I watched from roughly 200 feet away as Joanne Rowling made her way onto the stage at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City. J.K. Rowling, AKA the most famous writer of our lifetimes, this generation’s “Shakespeare”, the soul of our age.
I’m going to backtrack for a moment, because I should talk about Rowling properly before I talk about myself. She’s the John Lennon of this blog post, afterall. I was just a wallflower.
The reason for her appearance was her “novel for grown-ups,” otherwise known as A Casual Vacancy. The novel itself is brilliant; it’s received high praise from all of the people who praise or condemn books for a living (and more practically, I loved it!). It’s very different from Harry’s world, and in many ways, that’s what last night was about. A celebration of that dichotomy.
Because as much as anything, Rowling and Ann Patchett, who “interviewed” her, reflected on change in Rowling’s literary career. The two continuously (and unavoidably) returned to the world of Hogwarts in their discussion of Pagford. All of this happened after a standing “o” at the mere mention of her name, and after another standing “o” once she actually arrived on stage. It was clear from the beginning that this was not normal literary rock-stardom, even as the majority of the 2,500+ audience members tried their best (dressed professionally, with only the smallest hints of their true fandom escaping: a Gryffindor scarf here, a Ravenclaw tie there, a man who naturally resembled Snape [to no fault of his own], etc.) to remain courteous and patient. These were not Neil Gaiman’s fans. (Gaiman has wonderful fans. I’m a Gaiman fan.) These were…an entirely different animal. These were adults who would’ve done anything they could for the woman on stage, because we all feel a debt to her, for various reasons.
They discussed wonderful things for me to listen in on as a writer: things like the complicated structure of A Casual Vacancy, the inclusion of true “villains” in an adult novel, the antonym of “evil” (Rowling perceived it to be “humor” while Patchett sees it as “good”), and all the while, fans sat with bated breathe. They also spoke of wonderful things as people, and those moments were priceless as well. They serve to humanize the mysterious writer/deity that is Rowling, and though the videos will surely be available, I got to experience that in person. It was dazzling.
Rowling is a quote machine. Every time she opens her mouth, brilliancy emanates. She seems to be so acutely aware of how carefully she’s being watched, and seems to easily thrive in these moments, even as she’s being simulcast around the world and talking with several thousand ears catching her every word and shift in her chair. She spoke as easily as if it were over afternoon tea. She laughed graciously and sincerely. She spoke of porn (and of 50 Shades…) She was just…cool. Someone you want to be friends with. It’s easy to forget she is richer than God. (Probably because she’s more gracious than Him too…)
And she stayed to sign books. She signed over 2,500 books. From Twitter, I discerned that she gave every fan the attention she gave me. Which was: eye contact, and an enchanting remark of equal weight, enthusiasm, humor, and appreciation as she was receiving. (All of this in the span of the 3 seconds you were allowed to be face to face with her). And that’s the magic of this woman. She is naturally enchanting. In all that she does. She is a miracle of imagination, personality and charisma.
When I was on line waiting for my turn at a signature, I had rehearsed so many different things to possibly say:
“I never knew how I’d be able to conjure a patronus until now…”
“You gave me license to discover my own voice,”
“You saved literature, and so, have saved the world.”
And so many more ideas. Cheesy ideas. Ridiculous ideas. I was aware of how fanboy-ish I would seem. I didn’t want to be that, though. Not tonight. I wasn’t dressed in my Ravenclaw shirt. I was in a suit, and I was an adult, with so much more to offer the world because she had offered me one of hers. So finally, when faced with Rowling’s gaze, I managed the truest and most sincere feelings I had. The most basic. They were of gratitude.
“Thank you, Joanne.” I said.
She looked up at me, and considered the weight of the words I had forced out with every ounce of truth I could manage. And she returned them, effortlessly when she said “You’re welcome.” The smile was mutual, and brief, and I was shuffled off by rude security officials (who probably didn’t read, or didn’t know what this was to all of us. Or who had a schedule to keep…whatever.)
I know it was a “small” exchange. I know she probably heard “Thank you,” in a thousand ways from fifteen hundred different people last night; but it meant so much. She stupefied me (see how I did that?) with her personality and her presence, and I am going to treasure last night until the day I die or my mind falls into oblivion.
I’m glad I saw her alone, too. Because that’s how I first experienced her and her writing. I was alone when I read, I was alone in my appreciation of her work (the only among my friends for a long while who read Potter) and I was alone (in the real, physical world with friends and other people whom I associated with) in my appreciation of the things that go un-noticed in Harry Potter. So, meeting her alone, feeling that excitement alone..it was proper. And to feel excitement at all anymore…when so many things are jaded and tainted and underwhelming…it was a wonderful experience. And I was happiest enjoying it privately, among 2,500 other fans. This was always, after all, my story.
I’ve put some pictures here for you to view.
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