Better Than Brad Pitt? (Why You Should Go to Book Events)

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Today's guest post is from becoming-a-regular-and-fabulous-contributor Darrelyn Saloom. Above she is shown with Tim Gautreaux, the recipient of the 2009
Louisiana Writer Award and author of three novels and two story collections.
The picture was taken at Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans.
Follow Darrelyn on Twitter.

A book event! Authors read from their latest masterpiece, sign copies, and, if you’re lucky, share stories of their writing journey. Maybe an author will reveal how he/she found the plot (in a newspaper), the characters (popped into their head), or even the theme (a song on the radio).

It’s easy to project grandiosity on an admired author. Born to brilliance, for them it comes easy. Such a perfect sentence, and look at that verb. Oh the ease!—the ease from which he/she writes—larger than life, and so much smarter than me.

That’s what I tend to think of writers I admire. And that’s what I thought of Tim Gautreaux. My friends knew this about me. I drove around with his books in my car. Recommended his short story collections and novels to strangers in airports and on the streets (yeah, that was me). So I was thrilled when Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans sent me an e-mail to announce his scheduled book signing.

The day of the event, I checked into Hotel Monteleone and found my way to Prytania Street. The bookstore had a small coffee shop to the side of the building, and I spotted Gautreaux and his lovely wife, Winborne, sipping coffee in a window seat. And, yes, I was nervous. This was better than a French Quarter Brad Pitt sighting for me.

The Louisiana native did not disappoint. With Cajun accent he read from his latest novel The Missing. And then he talked about his writing process. The audience sipped wine, nibbled cheese, and asked questions. And his answers were generous.

Generous because his stories were often rejected by editors—yes—rejected! And he told us that red marks mapped the pages of his returned manuscripts! But here was the key (and what I believe separates a talented writer from becoming a published author—or not).

When Tim Gautreaux’s stories and manuscripts landed back in his mailbox, he read suggestions and criticisms with an open mind. He explained how he’d carefully tear apart a rejected story, rewrite and revise it, put it back together, and send it out again. And again. And again, if necessary. Until he got it right.

If you’ve read Gautreaux’s novels and stories, you know he’s a man obsessed with machines. His characters are camera repairmen, piano tuners, welders, train engineers, and a priest. Okay, so maybe a priest has nothing to do with machinery, but there’s an old Toronado in the story with a “huge eight-cylinder engine and no muffler.”

Tinkering is Tim Gautreaux’s lifelong hobby. He told us about the barn in his backyard in Hammond, Louisiana; and about his collection of antique steamboat whistles, lanterns, and gauges, an amusement that seeped into his novel, The Missing.

“Find what you love,” he said, “and write about it.” What Tim Gautreaux loves has served him well. Tinkering with machinery seems to have taught him the patience to be a writer. To construct something, to take it apart (piece by piece), and then to build it again is not easy. It’s hard work. And it’s akin to writing a poem, a story, a novel. It took him nearly five years to write The Missing.

There are other reasons to attend a book signing: to support a fellow writer, a favored bookstore, (did I mention they often serve wine and cheese?). But to connect to an admired author, and to share his/her struggles are valuable lessons for an aspiring author. And there really is no excuse not to go. Because—they are free.

(The day I completed this blog post, the June issue of The New Yorker arrived in my mailbox—bearing a stapled gift—a new story by Tim Gautreaux! “Idols” is about Julian Smith. And he is a typewriter repairman. So add typewriter repairman to my earlier list. Follow this link to read Julian’s comical and stubborn journey to defeat.)