It was shortly before 2 p.m. and Richard Russo, a Pulitzer Prize winner, acclaimed novelist and screenwriter, was signing books. Many books. An assembly line of autography.
A clerk carefully opened each book and passed it to the bookstore owner who then passed it to the author sitting at his right, who had just passed a signed book to his right to another clerk who was boxing them up. There was a stack of books by one wall, a larger stack by a bookshelf and a stack of boxed books in front of the table awaiting the trip downstairs to the room across the way where in a little more than three hours Russo would be reading and presumably selling a lot of copies of "Everybod's Fool," his latest novel.
As they worked, Russo and John Evans, owner of Lemuria in Jackson, chatted about Jackson author Eudora Welty and her correspondence with mystery writer Ross Macdonald. "Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald" has been out almost a year but Russo has been rationing the letters. Savoring them.
The words "generous" and "generosity" were dominating the conversation. Good news, I figured. Perhaps he'd be generous with a word or two for me. A glimmer of recognition, as well. Maybe.
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Both men at the center of the signing operation had said hello but kept their attention focused on the steady stream of books. It's generally agreed Russo is among America's best writers, and a novel with a misspelled autograph would surely end up in a bidding war on eBay.
It had been almost 30 years since Russo taught the creative writing courses I took at Southern Illinois University, and I hadn't seen him since. Well, I had seen him. On TV. On YouTube. I'm certain he hadn't seen me. I have a hard time imagining him lining up at 8 a.m. for a casino buffet.
I doubted my fiction stuck with him, either. I assumed you had to be excellent or horrid to be remembered for decades.
I'll admit I fell short of excellent, and Russo's expression as he studied me a beat or two seemed to confirm my hope I hadn't been a nightmarish writer, either.
There wasn't a lot of wasted motion at the sign-a-thon, just as there is rarely a wasted word in Russo's books, most which, like the "Fool" books are, as he says,
"doorstops." That was one lesson that stuck with me all these years: everything in every story must have a reason for being there. Try as we might to pad our stories to meet an assignment's word or chapter count by padding the story, Russo would bust us.
But, even when critical, he was always generous, letting me off the hook in workshop after workshop with my ragged self-esteem more or less intact.
Being a couple of smart guys, Russo and Evans eventually figured out I wasn't lost in the recesses of Lemuria, so they asked if I was waiting for something, then simultaneously remembered the 2 p.m. appointment, and just as quickly determined that was indeed why I was hanging around like an ant at a picnic.
And then came the hard part. What do you say to a fellow who used to get a phone call from Paul Newman when one of his books was published?
I have my stories that he read and autographed with his critiques, stored in the attic. I kept them in case my self-esteem gets out of control. I thought that might be a point of reference but damned if I could then, or now, recall them in any clarifying detail.
And it would be hard to expect the former professor to remember every wannabe writer in more than a decade of teaching that ended almost two decades ago. Still.
Russo, being both brave and generous, once invited us, and all the poets being molded by his friend Rodney Jones, to a party at his home between Murphysboro and Carbondale. Enough of us showed up to have a poets vs. fiction writers volleyball game. It's also a safe bet we drank 'most all his beer and ate everything but the lawn furniture.
Because that he remembered.
And so for a few all-too-brief minutes, we were both taken back to Carbondale and days when we were much younger. Happy times for me, at least.
And then John Evans was sitting there at the edge of those memories to call Russo back to the present. There were books to sign.
Contact Paul Hampton, politics editor of the Sun Herald, at 896-2330 or firstname.lastname@example.org.