Sunday, September 16, 2007

"Long life, much laughter."

It's very rare to be able to meet your greatest influence in person, so I consider it an amazing gift that I met Pete Hamill today at the Brooklyn Book Festival, so much so that I get a little misty eyed just thinking about it.

I was having a bit of a sickness relapse today, so I wasn't able to get out of the apartment until about 2:30. The panel he was on was scheduled for 4:00 at St. Francis College, and tickets were going to be available at 3:00. After some snafus with the subway, I managed to get to Court Street at 3:20 or so, but by then, all tickets were gone. Bollocks. Plan A foiled. Initiate Plan B.

So I wandered around, checked out some of the vendors and the books on sale, sat on some steps while a panel of graphic novel authors talked about their work, saw babies and kids having their pictures taken with the Target dog (not an actual dog -- someone in a fuzzy bull terrier costume).

Then I came across a booth selling the Noir series, and I instantly said "OOOH." I already have "Brooklyn Noir," but I had no idea the publisher had come out with "Brooklyn Noir 2," "Chicago Noir," "Twin Cities Noir," "DC Noir," "LA Noir," "Manhattan Noir," and "London Noir." It was like looking at a table laden with sweet, sweet candy. One of the editors was selling them, and he said they're coming out with a bunch more. These were on sale for only $10, so I made it easy on myself and bought "London Noir" and "Manhattan Noir."

Treasures in tote bag (never having been a fan of tote bags, I've discovered that they're actually really good for carrying books), I went across the street to St. Francis College, where Plan B was to take place. It was about 10 minutes to 5:00, and the panel discussion/reading should have been done. The lines for the next event were already stretching down the block from the main entrance. So I waited nearish the doors, sitting on a bench, occasionally dipping into "London Noir" to pass the minutes by.

At about 5:10, a whole bunch of people began to stream out of a second exit a little down the block. I waited and watched a little more. At about 5:20, a guy with a professional video camera came out of the main entrance. And...there was Pete Hamill. He paused there on the steps to talk to the camera man, and over the murmur of people and traffic, I could still hear that gravelly New York accent I'd grown familiar with after watching him on the Ric Burns documentary about NYC.

He came down the steps and some dude went up to him to shake his hand, yadda yadda. Then when he started to walk off, I sallied forth and said, "Mr. Hamill...?"

He turned around and then...some other dude cut in and started talking to him first.

Okay. Stay calm. Stay calm.

I was actually nice about it and didn't say anything. I just stood there smiling faintly. The guy also called him "Pete." I couldn't do that. "Pete" also probably thought I was with him, so as they got into this whole conversation...um...we all started walking down the block towards the courthouse plaza where the book fair was. So...yeah...I was just walking along, walking along, trailing behind them a few steps, anxious as all hell.

At the crosswalk, "Pete" pulled out a cigarette and lit it. He turned around and glanced at me, and I smirked. Once we all crossed the street, I finally got up the nerve to talk to him. And I called him Mr. Hamill, dammit. That's who he is to me.

So while clutching a copy of "Downtown: My Manhattan," I told him how much of an influence he was on me as a writer and as a lover of New York history; that I always look to his work to inspire me; that I have only two authors who I want to emulate: the first being F. Scott Fitzgerald, the second being him. And he thanked me very sweetly for that. I then said that I know that autographs are really silly... But he obliged me and took out a pen and signed the inside of my book, inscribing it with "For Meisje -- Long life, much laughter! Pete Hamill, 9/16/07 Brooklyn."

I thanked him profusely for it and I thought it was going to be over when he asked me, "So what do you write?"

And there I was, standing on a Brooklyn street, with Pete Hamill asking me...ME...what kind of stuff I wrote. WAIT. WHAT.

I told him historical fiction, mostly set in New York City during the 1930s and '40s, because I loved those decades so much, and I often felt that I should have been alive during that time. "Well, now you can live it through writing," he said grinning. He said writing characters from other times should be like writing from memories -- their memories. After doing all the research, after looking at all the old photos, just set all that information aside and write, and write fast. Write like you're writing from memory. Writing longhand helps because it's more like writing a letter -- when you're writing a letter, the sentences come more freely -- from memory. And then sleep on it: "You gotta let it stew. Let it marinate. Let their memories become yours."

...How the hell do you adequately thank your idol for that kind of advice?

He was going to go to one of the booths ("I guess I'm going to go over there and...sit down?") to sign some books and chat with people, and so since I'd already said what I needed to say to him, although there is just so much more that I would have loved to say, I thanked him for the advice and shook his hand. He told me once more: "Remember: longhand, and let it marinate."

He's like the uncle you wish you had, the one who can tell countless stories, the one you can listen to all day because he never ceases to be interesting. And I walked back to the subway, thinking...oh. my. god. I don't even know how to express how much this brief contact means to me. To just be in his presence and to speak with him. It really is a gift.