Hello, friends. This past weekend, I went to Belleville to meet E. K. Johnston. She and I have been friendly on Twitter for a few years, and I became a raving fan of hers as soon as I read her debut novel, The Story of Owen. The Story of Owen, which is shortlisted for an LA Times Book Award, is about dragon slayers in small-town Ontario. It is hilarious and heartbreaking and sly and insane in all the best ways, and it’s also about music, storytelling, and courage. Can you tell that I adore it and its sequel, Prairie Fire? So when Kate asked if I wanted to do a signing, I shrieked, “YESSSSSSS!” and hied myself to Belleville, Ontario.
Ali, who manages the Chapters bookstore in Belleville, was so well organized. She had all our books set up on a stand-alone rack, flanked with tables and chairs. She had an array of pens. She had alerted her staff, some of whom came in on their day off to say hello. The whole afternoon was an object lesson in How to Host Signings.
And you know who came as a last-minute surprise guest? ERIN BOW, that’s who!
Erin’s debut novel, Plain Kate, won the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award; her second novel, Sorrow’s Knot, won the Monica Hughes Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy. Erin is also a physicist-turned-poet. (Nope, not intimidating AT ALL.) And her beautiful, merciless novels make me weep until I’m soggy. I love them, and I aspire one day to write as well as she does.
So this was going to be a quick, celebratory blog post about the wonderful afternoon we had, the books we sold, the fascinating people we met (including a woman called Linda who hand-feeds cougars), and how much I learned from Erin and Kate about the Art of the Signing. They were funny, generous and gracious, and I want to be more like them.
And then, just today, I spotted a blog post by Kate:
WHAT? I had to click to make sure it was the same event I was at. And then I remembered the start of this conversation, reported by Kate:
A man approached the table. “You wrote these books?” he said. “Tell me about them.” So I did. I launched into my pitch, and got about halfway through. Then he held up his hand. “I’m going to stop you there,” he said. “I don’t read books. I just like to talk to people who do, because I don’t understand how they work.”
Right after he declared, “I don’t read books”, I (Ying) made a joke: “Yet here you are!” I said, loudly, gesturing at the books all around us. He ignored me, and I listened for only a couple of seconds longer before turning away. I left the scene because I’m not in the habit of cultivating the boastful, the non-readers. Neither do I listen attentively to those who ignore me.
After reading Kate’s post, however, I really wish I’d stayed in the conversation. This is what happened next:
Somehow, I ended up telling the guy that I am an archaeologist. “Why aren’t you out digging holes?” he asked. I don’t tell him that archaeologists don’t dig holes. I don’t tell him that it’s still too cold for real field work. I don’t tell him I’m not that kind of archaeologist. No, he’d made me angry, so I waved my education in his face, and told him that I have a masters in forensic archaeology and crime scene investigation.
“That’s kind of gross, eh?” he said. “Yes,” I said. Because sometimes it is.
“Well, I wouldn’t date you,” he said.
We could spend a very long time enumerating the problems with that statement, with the illogical turn the dialogue took. I won’t do it here, because Kate has already done so.
What I want to add is that I’ve now learned something else: when someone instantly flags himself as an attention-seeker (as this person did straightaway), I need to keep half an ear on the conversation. I need to stay present, as a conversational ally.
I know Kate doesn’t need protecting. She handled herself with professional sangfroid – so much so that I didn’t realize what had gone down until I read about it on the internet. But I could have jumped in. Things I could and should have said, as a semi-bystander:
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“That was inappropriate.”
“You need to leave now.”
I’m going to remember this incident. I’m going to practise those lines. And I’m going to lovingly teach every young person in my life that a) the world is not about them, and b) the golden rule.
I’m sorry I didn’t have your back there, Kate. Next time, I will.