Wednesday, November 4, 2009

American Gods

I now have autographed copies of the latest books by Hulk Hogan and John Irving, both of whom were at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park last night in a bizarre juxtaposition of crowds and personalities. Both of them draw a crowd of minions even on a suburban Tuesday night.

I arrived at Third Place Books around 4:15, and was fortunate to be there at all. I only found out about the events Monday evening. In a change of routine I haven't been taking the paper lately, but Monday night I picked up a copy of the Seattle Times on a whim. I noticed John Irving's familiar face in Mary Ann Gwinn's column - and when I read that Hulk Hogan was going to be there on the same day I was completely sold, even though it meant that I would not get to attend Steve Martin's banjo concert at Benaroya Hall (no, I am not kidding).

Hogan wasn't due to start signing until 5 o'clock, so I had some time. Third Place Books is on the upper level of this small, suburban mall on the northern tip of Lake Washington. Lake Forest Park has always been a town I drive through to get somewhere else: a bridge-less route into Seattle or a right turn on the way to a track meet in Shoreline. The mall is built on a grade. There are two levels that are largely independent; depending on the street you enter from you see what appear to be two different malls. There is a space an escalator ride up from Rite Aid that joins the two sections like the pin joining the two hands of a clock; that space is split roughly in half with the food court on one side and Third Place Books on the other. I slipped over to the food court and picked up a slice of pepperoni pizza and a cran-grape juice to steel myself for the evening.

I want to say that I am a huge John Irving fan. I read The World According to Garp when it first came out and immediately went back and read his first three books as well; The Water Method Man remains my favorite, though even I couldn't defend it as his best work. I've read each of the novels he's published since then, as well. He is one of two authors that I will buy simply because I see their book on the shelf (the other being Tom Robbins). As famous as Hogan is, I don't think I would have come for his book signing alone, but for Irving I would have.

I finished up my pizza and joined the Hogan line at about 4:30. It had grown by about half again, so there were maybe 30 or 40 people ahead of me. Hogan would be signing in the section where they buy back used books, a rectangular area largely cordoned off from the rest of the store by low stacks, but which allowed three or four hundred square feet of space for the signing and easy access in and out.

I warmed myself up for the evening by finishing up Neil Gaiman's American Gods. His story of ancient deities lost in America and struggling against up-and-coming deities like Technology and Media seemed like appropriate preparation.

I stood in line reading my copy of My Life Outside the Ring. I haven't read the whole thing yet and this isn't a book review, but his recent struggles with divorce, car crashes, and alienated family members struck a chord with me.

The queue continued to grow behind me, through the gardening section, past the bargain books, and all the way back into the children's section. Some people excused themselves through gaps in the line to get to the rest of the store surprised to see such a crowd at dinner time on a Tuesday night, but most were there for the signing and the length of the line seemed to justify their excitement at getting to meet such a celebrity.

The crowd itself ran more to tattoos than tweed, but it was not a rough crowd even by suburban Seattle standards. There were a few hardcores replete with bandanas and WWE t-shirts, and a couple of people looked like this was the first time they had actually bought a book, but there were also the Microsoft employees behind me talking about work. It was a cross-section of America, and could have taken place in Cedar Rapids as easily as Lake Forest Park.

Hogan was late. A voice came over the loudspeaker saying that he would be signing books only, no memorabilia or clothing, but that there would be people there to take pictures if you gave them your camera. Someone came through the line to see if anyone wanted to buy additional copies of the book for Hogan to sign. I continued to read.

He finally arrived about 5:30. I was expecting a big entrance through the front of the store, but it was very low key. I didn't even see him come in; he must have come through the used book buyback room. There were a couple of hoots when he came in, but the only reason I was sure he had arrived was because the line started to move forward.

The line moved apace, but not too quickly. Though I couldn't see him, it was clear he was taking the time to talk to each person. I got to the front after about 25 minutes.

If you want your celebrities larger than life then Hulk Hogan fits the bill. He claims to be 6' 7" (though other sources have him at 6' 4"), but it's not the height that catches your attention when he's sitting on the other side of the table, it's the width. The man is huge, and even at 56 years old your eyes are drawn to his leathery, don't-fuck-with-me arms. His voice is low and resonant, calm and relaxed.

Last night he seemed tired, but whether from the fatigue of touring or just worn out by life I couldn't tell you. Ahead of me in line was a high school girl and her mother. The mom was too intimidated to go up to the table. She stood three paces back while her daughter talked to Hogan. The mom said she was just there for her daughter, but she was nervous, almost dancing from one foot to the other. She was extremely self-conscious and couldn't figure out what to do with her hands. Completely star struck. Her daughter was much more relaxed. She talked about bowling with Hogan - I read enough of his book to know that he had bowled competitively when he was a kid - and they made a nice connection. He's good with people.

When it was my turn I walked up and shook hands with him. I think the oddest thing was that his hand didn't feel large, though I'm sure it swallowed mine completely. He isn't one of those insecure guys who have to prove their masculinity by pulverizing yours. His was a confident, practiced handshake.

I didn't really have anything to ask him, so I just winged it and asked him "Ginger or Mary Ann?" It was offbeat enough to get giggles from his entourage. He thought for a moment and said, "Well, knowing what I know now, Ginger," which immediately caused discussion among his handlers and after a couple of minutes he realized that the perky, low-maintenance one was Mary Ann, not Ginger. He apologized for the confusion. "I really didn't have my mind on Gilligan's Island at the time."

A few more pics and my time with Hulk Hogan was at an end. I made my way out of the signing area and over to the food court stage where John Irving would be interviewed. The line for Hulk Hogan still stretched back into the children's section.

"Food court stage" and "John Irving" are not phrases I ever thought about using together before last night. By the time I had gotten over there about 6 o'clock there were two or three hundred chairs lined up facing the stage. I was early enough that I got a seat in the second row and, more importantly, got a sturdy wooden chair instead of a flimsy plastic one.

The seats filled up slowly. At first groups were spreading themselves out at polite distances apart, going farther back than I would have. It was more important to them to have separation than it was to be close to the stage, but they needn't have bothered isolating themselves because by 7:15 it was SRO, all the spaces had filled in and people were standing around the sides and all the way at the back by the Kitto Japanese restaurant.

This was definitely a different crowd from Hulk Hogan's. Older, more staid, definitely on the tweed side of the tattoo-tweed spectrum. The chairs were more important to this crowd. Some people were writing in journals, but most were reading, reading and waiting.

Most people seemed to come in groups. There was a small book club in the row in front of me, a half-dozen women who were reading The Cider House Rules. One woman I talked to complained that she was having trouble getting going in the book. She was on chapter four and it still wasn't grabbing her. She had also read A Widow for One Year and a couple of old Tom Robbins books (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and Another Roadside Attraction), but wasn't a huge fan of Robbins, either.

Irving would be talking about his newest novel, Last Night In Twisted River. In contrast to Hogan, this would be in an interview format. There were two low-backed swiveling barstools, each with a matching high table suitable for a glass of water. Microphones would amplify the discussion. He would be interviewed by Mary Ann Gwinn of the Seattle Times (no relation to Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island).

I had brought my worn out, water-marked hard-back copy of The Water Method Man with me hoping to get it signed as well, but it was announced that Irving would not be signing and would not be available after the interview. We were also asked to limit photography to the first five minutes of the interview so that it wouldn't be overly distracting. We were given index cards to write questions on which he would answer at the end of the interview, time permitting. I had lots of questions, but they would involve follow up questions and wouldn't really work in the format, so I settled for the "Ginger or Mary Ann?" question for him as well.

The format was in stark contrast to Hogan's populist presentation. Granted, Irving drew a larger crowd than Hogan, but it wasn't that much larger. The presentation, though, was very different: more controlled, more broadcast, less spontaneous, less personal. As a novelist he was presenting himself as he would a novel. He looked at all the stories he had, selected the ones that were coherent and (to him) significant and presented them as a story. In contrast, Hogan was more like a video game, where the general gameplay is guided, but the specific events are less controlled.

Irving came on the stage at 7:30, as planned. It wasn't really an interview at all, it was John Irving presenting John Irving. Gwinn asked, I think, two questions in the hour and a half they were onstage. The rest was all Irving. It was very interesting, but his talk was as practiced as Hulk Hogan's handshake. Each man had his own way of presenting himself, a way he was comfortable with, a way he was good at.

Physically, Irving cannot compete with Hulk Hogan. He looks quite ordinary. His hair now far more salt than pepper, the vestiges of his wrestling days are past. He was dressed casually in jeans and a plaid button down shirt and looked like someone on his way to the hardware store or the local farmers market. If I had run into him on the street I probably wouldn't have recognized him.

The thing that struck me as odd, the thing I didn't expect, was how much his speech and cadence reminded me of Christopher Walken. If anyone ever films John Irving's biography, Walken must play the lead.

He started out by establishing his literary cred with a light-hearted story about annually exchanging stacks of fan mail with John Updike, fan mail which had been mistakenly sent to the wrong author. Updike would send the Irving fan-mail to Irving, and Irving would send the Updike fan-mail to Updike. Humorous to a certain crowd, and, fortunately, that was the crowd I was sitting in.

Irving then jumped into his new book and his writing process, a process which is integral to the book because Twisted River he imbues the main character, a writer, with aspects of his own process. The signature point of his process which he noticed only incidentally over the first few novels, was that he wrote the last sentence first. In each case the last sentence was written in its entirety and never changed. Once written, he could play the story backward and lay out a roadmap of the story back to where he felt the story began.

Twisted River is a story he's had in mind for twenty years. The reason it took so long for him to get into written was simply that he couldn't find the last sentence. Once he found the sentence, the actual writing of the book was (for him), blindingly fast. He had known the story for twenty years, after all.

The book that made him want to write? Great Expectations.

Best first chapter in the English language? The beginning of The Mayor of Casterbridge.

They were canned answers, but they are clearly the questions he's been asked time and time again. Like a classic rock band that knows the five songs they have to play every set, Irving knows the questions he has to answer. Gwinn didn't seem too interested in interviewing him, she just sat back and listened like the rest of us. He didn't seem too interested in being interviewed. On the other hand, he was only scheduled for an hour and went on for a full hour and a half.

Even the index card audience questions at the end he answered with things he had said before and refined over time. Not surprisingly, in retrospect, he skipped over my Ginger v Mary Ann question, whether it was because he found it too frivolous or because he just didn't have a canned answer for it I will never know. Clearly Irving has a sense of humor, but he is not a back-row wit trading barbs with the teacher.

It was an evening of contrasting styles and personalities. Very interesting for me to see them both in the same place. Bigger than life in the abstract, professional, and good at what they do. These are both men with minions. Although they represent different sects, both of these men are American gods.

Wendy Manning from Third Place Books sent me these photos of Irving and Hogan together last night (that's Wendy in the middle on the right).

Third Place Books
Seattle Times
Benaroya Hall
Wikipedia (and again and again and again)

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