In the ’90s I lived in a suburban area just outside Philadelphia, and the main newspaper there was The Philadelphia Inquirer (it still is). It’s like the New York Times of Pennsylvania. The paper ran a humor column by a journalist named John Woestendiek, and I lived for Sundays and Wednesdays when I could read it. I’d dash out the door to buy the Inquirer so I could see what Seinfeld-esque commentary my literary idol would tickle me with. As a budding writer myself, I developed a serious writer’s crush on John and decided one day to contact him. I had no idea how this idea would change my life.
I have crushes on literary idols like others have crushes on film stars. The only actor I have a serious crush on is Hugh Laurie. But I digress. I’ve always had this desire to reach out and touch those whose talent I admire. This would later translate into working for a high-profile talent agency in New York. So I wrote a note to Mr. Woestendiek. I told him how much I loved his column, that I was a writer too, and that he made me laugh on Sundays and Wednesdays. I figured I’d get some form letter from his assistant. Did I mention he was also a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist? Yup, he helped free a man wrongly convicted of murder.
But to my surprise he wrote back. We even developed an online literary relationship, where I would test my humor writing skills on him and he would respond. I recall writing something where he said, “This made me laugh. I might have even chortled.” I made John Woestendiek chortle.
Fast forward—he invited me to meet him at a Philadelphia Inquirer social at a restaurant in downtown Philly. After changing my outfit 8 times, I grabbed my friend Susan (also a writer) for support and went. I pretended in front of all his colleagues to be a crazed fan who recognized him from the newspaper (his headshot accompanied his column), and played it up for all the drama I could muster. They believed my shenanigans and teased John mercilessly. I was surprised at how humble and shy John was. This made me admire him even more.
Fast forward to now—we have been friends ever since. He has even come to New Mexico with his dog and stayed in my home.
At the most recent Editorial Freelancers Association conference in Chicago, I had a similar experience. This time I met a literary idol of another type: Louise Harnby, editor extraordinaire. As I stood there in the ballroom on night one, with two other colleagues, the three of us giggled like high schoolers as we watched Louise talk to someone at the bar. One colleague said, “Oh my God, don’t look now, but there’s Louise Harnby.” Of course I looked, and there she was, the mighty redheaded goddess of editing chatting away with someone. The two women I were with were way too nervous to approach her, so I finally announced, “I’m going in!”
I walked up to Louise and said, pointing behind me, “See those two women over there? I’m with them and we all have a girl crush on you.” She smiled and said “Really?” I said yes and that I thought I’d be the brave one to come over. She then motioned for them to join us, even though one of them looked mortified. The next thing I knew, the four of us, plus Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, another editor phenom, were standing in a huddle chatting. I said to Louise, “Please don’t take this the wrong way but I have one of your books in my bathroom.” She responded, in her splendid British accent, “Your baaah-throom? I love it!” I said, “Oh, good, because I don’t read just any book in my bathroom.”
We all then took a group photo. All I could think was, Louise Harnby just touched me.
Why did I write this? A few reasons. One is that I suck at networking, but when I threw my fear in the toilet and just plunged ahead, I was able to make connections, both of which I suspect will be lifelong (Louise and I are now Facebook friends). The second is that writing is a solitary profession, so it’s necessary to be proactive in forging associations with others—you never know what might come of them, professionally and personally. The third is that meeting people—especially people you find interesting—can lead to ideas for books, articles, and other writing prospects. It’s one thing to scrutinize your surroundings to stimulate the imagination and quite another to actively seek out people you already hold in high regard. Another reason? It’s fun! It’s exciting to see their response. Literary heroes are becoming more accessible these days through social media, and most of them respond positively to fans of their work.
If you’ve had an experience of meeting a literary hero, please share it here. If you haven’t, I encourage you to go for it! Now if I could only get Hugh Laurie to have lunch with me . . .