It takes a lot to (1) get me out of the house, (2) get me to remain in a crowded space, (3) get me to sit still for an hour, and (4) get me to sit still for an hour next to a man who has quite clearly crapped his pants. But Jasper Fforde has this power.
Last night, I headed downtown for a Jasper Fforde reading. It has been on my calendar ever since he announced that he would be in D.C. on his website's tour page. Which makes me one-third loser, one-third dedicated, and one-third clever (a case in point, this week, I took my son's supersheet away because he kept crawling in between the supersheet and the regular sheet. As he watched me undo his bedding, he told me, "Mommy, you are a clever girl.")
There is a very short list of people I think are interesting enough to get me to sit next to a man whose pants are full of feces. Especially in a crowded room. In the center of a row where I can't really move around and fidget as I like to fidget. I would drive downtown--and have--for a Peggy Orenstein reading. I would go hear the Dixie Chicks speak. I would love to spend an evening receiving cooking lessons from Alton Brown. And I once called Norton Juster at 9 p.m. and got invited over for a tea party later in the week.
This side story is important to understand my whole Jasper Fforde/infertility wrap up at the end of this post so indulge me for a moment, will you? Maybe pause and get another cup of coffee because this is a longer story.
My favourite book growing up was Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth. If you haven't read this book yet, you should go to your local independent bookstore (you like that, Politics and Prose? I always have your back) and purchase a copy today, simply for the best line in the book that applies nicely to infertility treatments, "so many things are possible just as long as you don't know they're impossible." I started reading this book when I was six and I read it over and over again through elementary school. I loved this book so much that I always left the last page unread so I could feel like the book wasn't over.
I liked to buy this book whenever I found it--new or used--so I own many copies. When the anniversary copy came out, I purchased that too. I was in graduate school and I was living in Amherst. One night, I was looking at the biographical information for the author and I noticed that it said that he lived in Amherst, Massachusetts. My heart started pounding and I took out a phone book, certain that he would never have his number listed. But there he was--and he lived only a few streets away from my co-op (of course I lived on a co-op. Did you really think I would live anywhere else?).
Everyone at the co-op told me I should wait until morning to call him because it was rude to call at 9 p.m. But I couldn't wait and those who have ever come close to meeting their idol will probably be able to conjure up the blood-racing excitement I felt knowing I was so close to connecting with him. I called him and he answered. And after a brief phone conversation, I was invited over for tea on his screened porch. It was one of the most incredible afternoons of my life--the man who had made me want to be a writer, the man who had made me love books, was showing me pictures of his grandchildren and telling me stories about how things came to be in my favourite book. It came at a time when I was questioning whether or not I wanted to remain in my MFA program and it was the twist of fate I needed to finish out the degree.
I picked up Jasper Fforde's first book because it was billed at an adult Harry Potter. And it was on a display table. Fforde's character, Thursday Next, was just about as close as you could get to Juster's main character, Milo. Instead of playing with words, Fforde was playing with literature, mucking around in all the classics. It was just good fun and it was a great world that you wished you could visit as much as Diagon Alley.
Though another book has since been published, the fourth book in the series, Something Rotten, was presented as the final book for Thursday Next. I started thinking about this book in the same way I thought about that final page of The Phantom Tollbooth. If I didn't read it, the series wouldn't end. Since I knew we would be trying again, I decided to save it--either for when I was pregnant or sitting in the two-week-wait or just plain depressed--you get the idea.
I still haven't read it. It's just been sitting next to my bed. But this is where the coincidences tie themselves up (just to be clear, we've already had the Juster/Fforde similarities in my love for them and willingness to sit next to someone who reeks of human excrement; the whole last page/last book comparison; the met Juster and it changed my outlook on my situation and we're almost at the part where I talk about meeting Fforde and how it changed my outlook on my situation).
At the reading, Fforde admitted that despite his enormous success (the room was packed--hundreds of people. The last time I had seen Politics and Prose that crowded it was for a Michael Chabon reading after he won the Pulitzer. And the crowd for this reading made the Chabon reading look like it was for John Nobody reading from his book on whale mating rituals), he had written seven books in twelve years before he got his first break (I bolded that sentence because it's important). When he said that, it was as if the lights dimmed for a moment and he turned directly to me in the audience (as I sat squinting in the spotlight, the stench of shit barely noticeable):
"Melissa, learn from my story. Twelve years. Seven books. And none of it was a waste because it brought me here. Keep trying. Start with your own eggs. Run yourself $500,000 in the hole or take yourself up to Cornell. But keep plugging away. And when that doesn't work--because let's be honest when we consider your stim response and your wonky cycles: it probably won't--you should go to donor egg or adoption. But if your family isn't complete, keep trying."
"At the risk of my sanity?" I ask.
"At the risk of your sanity. You can get sanity back."
"You can?" I ask. "Because I'm not so sure. I feel like I'm teetering close to the edge sometimes..."
"Teeter. Let yourself fall. Pick yourself up. Start over. One day you'll be an enormous success in family building as I am in writing. Your children will all come home for Christmas and you'll be standing around the piano singing carols and you'll think to yourself, the twists and turns brought me here."
"We're not Christian," I explain. "And we don't have a piano. But I'm still going to keep trying, Jasper. For you."
This was the point where I came out of my daydream and realized that I was still wedged between two people on a folding chair. Stuck in the center of a row.
When it came time to have my book signed, I was going to just have him sign the first book in the series to be polite to the hundreds of people waiting behind me. But at last moment, I yanked the final, unread book out from my bag as well.
"Could you sign it, 'congratulations'?" I asked the non-daydream, very-real Jasper Fforde when I was standing in front of him.
"What am I congratulating you on?" he questioned, signing my name and the word across the inner title page.
"I can't really answer that. Can we just leave it mysterious?" I said, thinking about how I still have no idea when I will read this book: I will read it when I need it. When I need to get out of this world and be somewhere else for a little bit. Even though there is now a fifth book in the series, this fourth book has taken on such huge significance that it feels wrong to read it until I've accomplished something.
On my way out of the store, I found a book I have wanted for a long time on the remainder shelf. It felt like kismet. Like I should be in the store that night. Like I had been delivered an important message and the literary gods wanted to make sure I didn't miss the fact that the reading was where I was supposed to be. Sometimes it comes in a burning bush. Other times it comes in the form of a remaindered copy of the Daniel Gilbert book you've borrowed from the library a few times. In the end, it's all just fire and smoke to direct your attention to the words.
At this point, I would love to hear who you want to meet badly enough that you would remain wedged between two people for an hour.