Monday, July 27, 2009

At First Sight

On Friday, June 26th, Kim, Andi, and I saw Kate Christensen at Books & Books Coral Gables for her latest book, Trouble. Christensen also wrote The Great Man (which has been on my to-read list for some time) and three other books. Approaching a decade in the book business, I can say with authority that no author looks better in person than they do on a dust jacket. Author photos are sexier, younger, thinner, moodier, more intelligent-looking and mysterious than the actual people. Marketing folks are genius at finding these shots.

I have mixed feelings about this, knowing I can look younger, thinner, and sexier in a photo than real life, too. When the time comes to publish, hopefully an editor will look at me and think, “now there’s a face that’ll sell books.” At the same time, MTV killed real music. Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz are undeniably movie stars, but would we have been patient with their performances, watching them improve over the years, if they weren’t so damn pretty to look at? Publishing catalogs feature author headshots the same size as the book covers. God very rarely gives looks and talent in equal measure, yet we keep giving breaks to beauty over talent, lowering the bar on good art.

But I digress.

Reading Trouble, I fell in love with the author a little bit. Christensen’s slightly grating and self-centered narrator was living my emotional turmoil in print. I ate Mexican food for a week and wondered if I had any friends as close to me as Raquel and Indri are to Josie. I also wondered how much of herself the author put on the page.

There are few things more sexist toward, or dismissive of, a female author than focusing on her physical beauty over her work, which is why I want to emphasize that my appreciation of Trouble brought me to the reading. Besides, when Books & Books emailed the blast about the event, I saw a black & white author photo, slightly horse-faced and goofy, clearly years out of date. Not a dust jacket you’d pass to a co-worker and say, “I hope she comes in for a reading.”

Um, yes… booksellers do that.

Before the reading, I exchanged eyes with a woman about my age, maybe younger. I wasn’t piggy about it – my wife was with me, after all – but I’d be lying if I didn’t say she turned my head. She wore a tight black dress with a thin, black, woven top over it for modesty’s sake. The pattern of the top was widely-spaced, the fabric clingy. Easy to see the definition in her arms, the width of her shoulders. She was tall and did nothing to hide it (which is really all it takes to turn my head, truth be told); wore heels, in fact. No makeup. Striking natural beauty.

Kate Christensen, of course. Nearly ten years older than me, looking five years younger. When she stepped to the podium and I realized it was her, my jaw dropped. Her answers during the Q&A were intelligent and articulate, and I developed my first full-fledged author crush.

Booksellers mingle with authors at dinners and signings, discovering sometimes they are as beautiful and charming as the pages they’ve written. Some co-worker always comes back from BEA or an event gushing over someone. I’ve always found the author crush pitiable, akin to teen girls I used to know with posters of feathery-haired rock / soap stars on their bedroom walls. Then I got one, and I remembered why it’s called a crush.

A week after the event Andi finally said, “Jesus, shut up about her.”

The reason I couldn’t shut up? I assumed Christensen had exorcised the demons from her relationship by putting them in print, but it turns out her husband is now her ex-husband.

There’s nothing more pitiable than hope.

What would I have done, if Andi and Kim weren’t there (and I didn’t have a garlic-soaked gazpacho for dinner and the subsequent breath that would wilt a vampire)?

“Mrs. Christensen, I noticed you don’t say ‘uh’ or ‘um’ when you’re thinking of what to say next, you simply wait for the thought to arrive. I do that, too.”

“Kate, I was going to ask what kind of advice you had for keeping a marriage together when going through the crisis your narrator is going through, but now that you’ve split from your husband…”

“You said you wanted to be a rockstar, like your character Raquel? There’s a great karaoke dive bar called the Seven Seas not far from here.”

“From the Q & A, I assume that blogger character was based on Perez Hilton. He’s from Miami, did you know? I never heard of him, then he did a signing for Red Carpet Suicide at the Lincoln Road store. Billy from Southern Book Service sent me his Wikipedia page. His whole personae is pretty appalling. Of course he sold out of 250 copies in half an hour, but don’t feel bad comparing tonight’s sales with his. Didn’t you know, popular culture is the new low-brow culture?”

Some things you can’t do for the sake of your marriage.

Besides, if I tried being half of one of those cool, literary, New York couples, it would just push the gaps in my education and erudition to light.

Kate Christensen went to Reed.

She doesn’t have children, either. It’s why we both look younger than our years, and probably why our relationships got scrutinized to death. Without children to fill up the first part of your marriage, it has no arc. Raising children, it’s acceptable for your relationship to suffer. There’s a pulling away that’s necessary to effectively assume the roles of mother and father. Once the children are gone, it’s time to address the relationship. Rebuild yourselves as husband and wife first, father and mother second.

In a childless relationship, there’s no excuse for boredom, complacency, or mutual taking for granted. Beyond the obvious. As the narrator in Trouble says, “It might as well have been scripted, for all the surprises it would contain.”

Standing behind the podium, Christensen radiated light. She had an energy, a vibe Andi responded to. Like calls to like. Andi wants to be a rock star, too. She also lights up a room. I hope Andi was thinking about how good she’ll look in a clingy black dress in nine years, not admiring Kate Christensen for dropping her husband.

For the sake of your marriage, some questions you don’t ask.

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