With best wishes, Aleksandar Hemon

by Bobbi Nicotera

Not long after receiving my MA in writing from Johns Hopkins University, my favorite living author, the writer who had been such a huge influence on my work during grad school, Aleksandar Hemon, was giving a reading in Manhattan. I reacted to the news of this event like a teenage girl sitting in the audience of the Ed Sullivan show while the Beatles played “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” This was kind of huge.  And, as luck would have it, I had friends in nearby Jersey City, NJ who were willing to host this resident of Baltimore for the weekend.

But it wasn’t actually luck, I convinced myself. It was something more – this neat little conflation of convenience and timing was actually the universe reaching out to me. This was a benevolent and possibly divine being reaching down through the cosmos to gently guide me toward my destiny. This. Was. Fate.

   That crier on the left is my soul-sister.
   (Photo courtesy of AP)

Okay, maybe it was just a really great coincidence that worked in my favor. Whatever one chose to call it, with a full tank and some road trip-appropriate snacks, I was on my way to NYC to meet – however briefly – the greatest influence on my writing since the pen. Or maybe William Faulkner.

The trip to New York from my home in the northwest part of Baltimore is a good, solid three-hour drive. This alone-time was perfect, because I needed to think of what to say to him when we met face-to-face during the book-signing part of the evening. Being a socially awkward kind of gal, I find it important, whenever possible, to rehearse what I want to say when meeting someone new. Or when meeting someone who single-handedly changed the course of my entire life. Sometimes, though, a person doesn’t always have the chance to be thoughtful. Sometimes, you’re sitting in a bar in your little hipster neighborhood in Baltimore when John Waters walks by and you end up spilling beer down the front of your shirt because you tried to take a sip and say “Hi” and be cool all at the same time. My point is, preparation is key, so I needed to take advantage of the long drive to think about what I’d say in those precious 15-20 seconds I’d have with him.

I ruled out not saying anything at all. As difficult as the whole try-to-make-small-talk-while-a-National-Book-Award-nominee-and-McArthur-Award-winner-signs-your-book thing can be (haven’t we all been there, am I right?) I knew I’d kick myself if I stayed silent. I also knew I had to be very careful about the words that would eventually tumble out of my mouth.

You see, some people make the mistake of trying to be witty or charming. They want to be that one fan the famous person in question will remember, based solely on the sharpness, on the acuity of a seconds-long exchange of words. Rookie mistake. Unless your brilliance with a quip or witticism is on par with, say, Dorothy Parker (and don’t kid yourself, it’s not), this plan will fail. I speak from experience.

           Dottie, sharpening her tongue.

Similarly, unless the person in question is actually a close friend, do not try to point out or create some kind of personal connection. I once had the opportunity to meet someone that my family held in very high esteem. I’d known and admired this person practically out of the womb, so when I had a chance to meet him – it was at one of those charity meet-and-greet affairs – I thought it would be a great idea to inform him of just what a big deal he was in our household and how we’d followed his career for so long and blah blah blah all the while clutching his hand harder and harder until I realized his smile was starting to falter and he was trying desperately to make eye contact with security.

I’d like to think I’ve learned from my mistakes.

The other big no-no is being way too effusive. Too eager and you sound, at best, like Comic Book Guy at a Star Trek convention and at worst like a stalker with a shrine in your closet (and no, I don’t have a monument to Hemon in my house, but thanks for asking). Try to avoid being creepy. It’s not a good look on anyone.

                                Worst. Fan. Ever.

So. With all this running through my head as I hit US 9, what could I do? What should I say? I mean, how was I going to impress upon Hemon just how much his writing meant to me, especially his first book, The Question of Bruno? How could I explain to him that reading that book was like a punch in the gut (the good, epiphany-like kind of punch)? That he really showed me what a short story could be. That it didn’t have to follow a formula, that writing could be instinctual – and if it was, if it truly was – it would almost always be dynamic and engaging work. How could I explain to him that reading Bruno changed the course of my writing? That it got me thinking about who I wanted to be as a writer and what I wanted to write (and read, for that matter). That his book connected me to a whole new world of similar writers. Writers that were not constrained by tradition, but who were not bucking the system just to be clever, either. This was visceral and necessary and I’d never read anything quite like it. How could I tell him that his writing had changed me? It was true. As hackneyed and mawkish as it sounds, it really did. It changed my outlook, my approach, my attitude toward the written word.

Needless to say, I obsessed about it the entire drive. I arrived in town. Someone poured a jar of molasses over Time, bringing it to a near-stop. The next few hours were endless and torturous. I arrived at the bookstore 60 minutes early (I was not the first one there). I bought the latest book. I brought my dog-eared copy of Bruno. He arrived. A huge, bald, polar bear of a man. He read. He was smart and funny and charming in a gruff way and said profound things. Then the reading was over and he moved to a desk set up on one side of the room. My friend Tom and I got in line (yes, I was first, if you must know). I made my other friend Tim take photos like it was prom night. I approached the desk. He was seated, I was standing. We were eye-to-eye. I slid the new book toward him.

“To whom am I addressing this?”

“Bobbi. With an i.”

“Bobbi with an i,” he repeated, scribbling on the inside cover.

“Would you also mind signing this one?” I tentatively offered The Question of Bruno to him.

Then, I found myself still talking. “Because this is the book that really changed the way I write.”

“Really? What about it?”

Wait. What? He’s actually listening to me?! “I’m sorry?”

He looked up and smiled patiently. “What about the book changed the way you write?”

Oh crap! I didn’t rehearse this part! “Uh…well…it was like nothing I’d ever read before. It really opened my eyes to a new way of writing.”

Whew. I think.

He smiled and slid the now-signed book back to me. “Good luck with your writing.”

                                The  proof

 Also, this is my dog, Bruno. Nope. No obsession here.



Enjoyed this Bobbi! Nice to meet you at the Filling Station the other night.
Friend of Holly’s.

By Bill Band on Oct 18 2015

Great post!!! Now you need to tell about how now you and Hemon and Teju Cole are besties.

By Eddie on Aug 08 2015