Meeting your favorite artist, performer, writer in person – these things don’t normally happen. Not to me, not in my own backyard. When I was seven, the Monkees never did come to my town, although their TV theme song cruelly hinted otherwise. When Yes, my favorite 70’s band, did come to Concord last year, it was minus their original lead singer. I passed. Later, I heard what a great show they put on and kicked myself.
So when I heard that author Bill Bryson was coming to New Hampshire for a reading and book signing, wild unicorns could not have kept me away. It was to be at the Stone Church in Portsmouth on a Sunday afternoon in October. A mere one hour drive. I would have to buy his new book and wait in line to have it signed, but so what? I’d be reading it anyway.
Bryson is a rock star only in the literary sense. I’ve been enjoying his works since 1997, when I first experienced his Appalachian Trail book, A Walk in the Woods. Two of my co-workers recommended it. I was hooked. Funny stuff, written in an irreverent yet dignified style. I went on to read everything else of his I could. He writes travel books mainly, but also taps into science, language and history.
Here’s Bryson describing his boyhood dentist, whom he considered to be 108 years old, in his memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: “Worse still, he didn’t believe in novocaine. He thought it dangerous and unproven. When Dr. Brewster, humming mindlessly, drilled through rocky molar and found the pulpy mass of tender nerve within, it could make your toes burst out the front of your shoes.”
My one concern about the upcoming book signing was Bryson himself. I’ve heard stories about people who meet their heroes, only to be sorely disappointed. Was Bryson for real? From his books, he seemed to be a nice guy pretending to be a grump, but who knew? I did not want my favorite author to be a jerk.
The day arrived, October 17. I motored down to the Port City, found the church and joined a long line that had quickly formed outside. The sky darkened and it started to rain.
To the couple waiting in front of me, I said, “I hope they let us in there fairly soon.” They both nodded agreement, and as if by magic, the line began to swiftly move forward. We were all inside and under cover in less than a minute. I love events that are organized. In this case, the RiverRun bookstore of Portsmouth deserves credit for a job well done.
Once inside the church proper, I looked around. The first ten rows had filled up, but I saw a spare seat near the middle of the cavernous room. To my delight the seats were padded and comfortable. I settled in and looked at the walls, tall stain-glass windows, the crowd. There were lots of Bryson fans there, all clutching or peeking inside his new book.
The rain outside stopped and the sun came out. And shone into the right side of my face for the next half hour. I felt like a bug under a magnifying glass, but I managed to shield my eyes with the bill of my baseball cap.
The stage was set for Mr. Bryson. A lectern awaited. The crowd murmured. A fire alarm beeped behind a curtain. The bookstore manager appeared, told us to ignore the alarm, then introduced the man we had come to see. Bill, at last!
He looked like his picture, only better. The smile was more natural. The clothes were preppy; sports jacket, blue sweater, no tie. With his white collar, standing behind the lectern, he looked a bit like a preacher. In a half American, half British accent, he calmly told us what to expect, and when. I love knowing what to expect, and when. He was, he said, going to read to us from various books, take a few questions, and then sign a few hundred books.
He read a funny story from Thunderbolt Kid, another from his African Diary, and a passage about the origin of men’s wigs from the new book, titled At Home. Then he told a story he learned from an Australian author friend, now deceased, about a little girl who learned to swear. Bill repeated the swear, blushing a little. He spoke with ease, in a conversational, friendly tone.
Question time. Did he travel with his family when researching for a book? (No, it just doesn’t work.) Could he talk about the Dictionary of Troublesome Words? (Well, it’s just that.) Is there a place he visited that he couldn’t write about? (Norway, at the coldest time of the year. But he did anyway, for Neither Here Nor There.)
The last question: Why did he move away from New Hampshire and back to England? It was planned that way, he replied. He wanted his kids to experience America and then return to the country where they had mostly grown up.
The talk over, most of the crowd formed a long line that descended a flight of stairs and into a large basement. The line snaked seemingly forever, but most of the time I could observe Bill. He was the same with everyone, pleasant, chatty, smiling. He was happy to be photographed. The line trudged forward.
When I finally arrived at Bryson’s table, I had no idea what to say. He took my book from a helper, who opened it to the correct page and passed it to him. As he inscribed, I mentioned that my girlfriend had bought the book for me, but could not be there herself. Soccer game, I said.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” he said. I could tell he really meant it.
As he handed me the book, I mumbled, “I really enjoy your work. Thanks, Bill.”
He flashed a smile at me, then greeted the next person. I felt good. I’d met Bill Bryson, my favorite writer. He wasn’t a jerk at all.
I also felt lucky. Before walking away, I glanced back. The line of Bryson fans behind me was still pretty long.