Sunday, 28 February 2010

The Day I Met My Hero

Jonathan Safran Foer

I read Jonathan Safran Foer's thoughts on fish farming last week. I had heard about his new book a couple of months back and was impressed by the idea of it, to say the least. At the bottom of the piece in the G2 supplement, were details of a book group event in London. Jonathan would be attending and discussing his book, Everything is Illuminated, my favourite book by a living author (to put it morbidly), with its Chris Ofili-esque cover.
My heart sank. My boots were heavy. Everything happens in London, I thought. Every Thing.
And then yesterday, I was sitting in the staffroom at Bath Waterstone's, where I work, talking to my friend Tom Abbot about it.
'But Jonathan Safran Foer is in the Bath Lit Fest line up,' he said.
'WHAT?!' I replied.
'Yeah,' he fumbled around under the Saturday papers and pulled out the programme.
'Here,' he pointed.
'Sunday 28th February, 2pm,' I read aloud, 'that's tomorrow!'

And so, today I caught the one o'clock train from Redland to Temple Meads to Bath Spa. I phoned the box office and asked for directions, then headed to the (thankfully) well-kept toilets on the platform to apply my make-up (I was not about to meet my hero with a bare face).

I walked out of the station, up the road and turned down Henry Street and across the cobbles to the Masonic Hall, where I almost walked into Jonathan, who I was not expecting to be milling around. I don't know what I was expecting, that he be flown in last minute in his own private jet? Not often on a writer's wages.
I stood in front of him, pointed at him and said to the woman selling tickets in the entrance 'look, he's a real person.'
I don't think even I would be able to respond to someone pointing at me and talking about me as if I was some sort of post-illusory Pinocchio, so I wasn't surprised when he didn't respond, instead ascending the stairs to the 'writers only' room.

I could have said anything, I could have held out my hand and introduced myself. I could have told him how much I admired his work. As we have read, I did neither of these things.

My friend Holly Thacker has been photographing events at the festival as a Bath Literature Festival Photographer. I was extremely relieved when she turned up. I had been biding my time before the talk recommending his books, displayed on a table by the entrance, to people who hadn't read him before (I had been asked to by the bookseller who hadn't read them).

I bought a copy of Jonathan's new book, Eating Animals, and went inside with Holly.
We sat on the left hand side near the front. I was nervous. I was excited.

Holly and I talked a bit about weirdos. A man at a festival event had told Holly he was part of the New World Order. Now we were sitting in the Masonic Hall and she had been asked whether she would be infringing copyright by taking photographs.
'What, copyright on his face?' I asked.
'No on the hall. It's the Masonic Hall. Could be some kind of secret. As if a 'secret society' would call the building the Masonic Hall,' she said.
'You'd better watch out, they might abduct you and try to pull your face off, claiming you to be a reptilian lizard, shouting 'show your scales!'' I said.
We mused over the symbol of the all seeing eye and of the keys.
'I like the crest with the handbags and the pens best,' Holly said.
(There really was one).

Everybody started clapping, and Jonathan walked through the centre of the room to one of the throne like chairs.

For almost an hour I sat and enjoyed his intelligent and funny answers to the questions he was asked about his book. I liked his analogy between monogamy and vegetarianism (spending your life not having everything you want all the time but enjoying it nevertheless).
He was everything I had hoped he would be.

The floor was opened up to questions. I had rehearsed mine over and over in my head so I would not cock it up. I raised my arm. Everybody else's questions were a blur around me as my heart thudded away in my chest and my palms sweated over My New Book.

I was the last question asker.

I took the microphone.

'Is it on? Hello? Oh yes, Hi.' Oh my God pleasedon'tfuckthisuppleasedon'tfuckthisuppleasedon'tfuckthisup, I said in my head and then, miraculously,
'would you suggest (could would imply he wanted to) a way we can begin implementing the re-localisation of the food production?'

'I'm glad you asked that...' he began.

Oh thankyouJesus, I said in my head.

I had temporarily redeemed myself. He said, if we wanted to, each one of us could cut just one meat based meal a week, or even just those burgers we eat when we don't need to, but eat just because they're there. And if we each did that, the effect on the factory farms would be felt immediately. Eventually we might in that way be able to make the move back to the way things were. 40% of damage to the environment results from our obsession with meat. Imagine what we could achieve with a slight menu re-shuffle! This man can do no wrong.

When the talk was over, a woman came over to me and asked if she could take my email down. She asked if I'd heard of guerrilla gardening. I told her I'd been introduced to the concept last year and found it very exciting. She was part of a movement in Bath, the members of which have a lot of war-time dig for victory spirit. It's very sweet. I wrote down my email address in her mini-green-moleskine and told her about my quince jam. She was impressed.

I joined the queue to have my book signed by Jonathan.
I reached the front.
'Hi how are you?' He asked in a monotone voice.
'I'm fine.'
'What's your name?'
'P-H-I-E,' I finished, 'I wanted to bring my copy of Everything is Illuminated, my favourite book of all time, for you to sign, but my sister wouldn't bring it to the station,' I said.
'Why was she in the place where the book was?' he asked.
'She was at home.'
'Where had you been before the station?'
'Er, at my other home, I'm living at home at the moment and my parents have split so there are two houses.'
Oh my God why am I wasting my ten seconds of talking-to-my-hero-time telling him I live with my parents?! I thought. I could be telling him how I loved the way he manipulated the language in Everything is Illuminated so that the Ukrainian way of speaking English came through, or Oskar Schell's 'Heavy Boots' in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Or how I had translated the numbers the grandfather in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close had dialled into the payphone on my own battered blue mobile so I'd know what he was trying to say to his lost love.
But I didn't instead I 8653 69 4376 22688 69 3825464 7273687!

'Another time,' he said.


  1. Lovely book dedication. I loved Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close best of all. Wonder if he will be at Hay Fest?

  2. Thank you. I don't know if I can choose between Eveything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Everything Is Illuminated I choose partly because it has the added edge of being the first book I read after my English Liteature A-Level nearly killed my love of literature. I read it in Turkey. (That isn't really relevant if you don't attatch emotional significance to particular settings). I would like to go to Hay, I've never been. Might get overwhelmed. He will probably be back in the States by then.

  3. *Literature *attach (oh dear).

  4. I tend to attach emotional significance to books, The Book Thief will always mean sobbing in a hotel room in Sydney, freezing cold after being a mad pom & swimming in the pool in their autumn, which was rather warm & springlike for me.
    Hay is overwhelming, but I get overwhelmed in any bookshop. Too many books, not enough time.