Growing up in Los Angeles, I was surrounded by fame. My elementary school catered to the offspring of celebrities, and Crosby, Stills & Nash performed at my high school fundraisers. Call it what you want: fortunate, pretentious, obnoxious, weird, I somehow managed to grow up politely turning my head away from all those stars around me. Celebrities, I was sternly told, were just normal people like everyone else. I was supposed to continue on with my day whenever I encountered them. To pretend as if they almost weren’t there. So I’d down my cocktails at The Standard on Sunset with Simon Rex shooting tequila next to me, somehow refraining from mentioning his stint as an MTV DJ. I’d flash my terrible fake ID at The Roxy to see bands like Maroon 5 (before they were Maroon 5), who weren’t mega-stars but merely the “cute seniors” who happened to have a recording contract. When Jake Gyllenhaal and Alex Braverman wandered into my friend Lyssa’s party one random Saturday night, I (painfully, I’ll admit) turned away to resume flirting with my crush-of-the-month Robby instead. To respond to their presence was to betray my parents and teachers. No greater sin could be committed than acknowledging celebrity.
But writers? What about famous writers? Writers, it seemed, were a different breed. No one told me how to act around them. No one ever said if it was cool or appropriate or even gauche to be a writer-groupie. This was Los Angeles in the mid-nineties; we didn’t have the internet to find out where they’d be reading, or Twitter to see what they were doing at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday. For someone who grew up surrounded by fame, I was obsessed with the quiet inner world of the writer. And the only way to learn about that world was the old-fashioned way: I’d compose embarrassingly gushy handwritten letters, stuff them into envelopes, and send them on to their publisher.
“Dear Francesca Lia Block,” I’d begin. “I’m writing to tell you just have much your book Weetzie Bat spoke to me and was wondering if you had any advice for a future writer?”
Or, “Dear Sandra Cisneros,” I’d say. “I’m writing a paper on The House on Mango Street and was wondering if I could interview you for your thoughts on the novel’s success?”
This became a semi-masochistic routine. I’d pour my heart out, although actual replies were rare. So I resorted to another form of contact — the book reading.
I was 15 when I went to see Jim Carroll read. I’ve written about it before, because it’s the one reading that sticks with me the most. Sophomore year of high school, I wasn’t just a Carroll fan. I was angry, hormonal, “dabbling in Wiccan,” and absolutely convinced that no one understood me (and here I thought I was an original). And yet, for some reason, I believed that Jim Carroll would “get” me if only we had the chance to meet (this sounds borderline stalkerish now, but at 15 my intentions, I swear, were innocent). All I had to do was get to speak to him, and we’d become the best of friends. Easy enough, right?
The night of the reading, McAbe’s Guitar Shop was packed with coffee-drinking twenty-somethings whose Doc Martens and pageboy haircuts both terrified and thrilled me. Carroll was a good 20 minutes late to the stage, and when he arrived, he wore a tight black turtleneck that magnified his shaggy red hair. He read for an hour in his endearingly cigarette-hoarsened voice.
“That’s it,” he said at the end, closing the book. And that was it. Carroll didn’t open the room up for questions. He didn’t sign my dog-eared copy of Fear of Dreaming. He stood up, the house lights not even yet raised, and made his way upstairs, not once looking back. Fast-forward 11 years and Carroll would be found dead of a heart attack in his New York apartment. I would never get the chance to shake his hand.
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