BEA, the Book Expo of America, was awesome and crazy and frightening and wonderful. It was my first time. In fact, it was my first time ever going to New York City, and the first time I’d ever met my editor face-to-face. It was a first for a lot of things.
Regular readers of this blog can probably guess which parts of the trip were awesome and wonderful, and which others were crazy and frightening. Simply put, I have a severe panic disorder that is most regularly triggered by chaos and noise. So… can you say “New York City”?
For those who haven’t been to NYC, here’s how I summed it up to my wife (and then how my brother tweeted it):
This wasn’t referring to “real” crime. Despite what Law and Order has taught me, I didn’t discover murder victims around every corner. Instead, it refers to the complete third-world chaos that is New York traffic. There was neither law nor order. Lanes are only suggestions. Horns are constant. Jaywalking would be a sport if the jaywalkers ever bothered to try to dodge the cars—instead, they just avoid eye contact with the drivers and expect everyone to stop for them. Seriously, this isn’t just my mental illness talking: NYC pedestrians and drivers are insane people.
So: crazy. Check.
As for frightening, we stayed at the Hotel Pennsylvania, which is known for being one of the cheapest hotels in Midtown. How does a place stay cheap in a city where real estate is outrageously expensive? First, you cut out all customer service (I was able to leave and get pizza and come back before Dan, my brother, got through the check-in line). Second, you cut out the maintenance budget: Paint was flaking off of every wall; both room lamps flickered so much (in both the “on” and “off” position!) that we unplugged one, worried it would short out and burn the place down; hallways were lit so poorly it always appeared to be night.
But more frightening: we had a strange extra room on one side of our room: it was about the size of a bathroom, but with blank cement walls and no fixtures. It had a very distinct dungeon/secret-torture-chamber vibe to it. More than one joke was made about us waking up to find two little ghostly Victorian twins standing at the foot of our beds.
So: frightening. Check and check.
But lest you think I had a bad time, I most certainly did not. New York has more to offer than just murdered little girls and sociopathic cab drivers.
First, the food. We ate amazing food, all day, everywhere. It started with the aforementioned pizza, which I bought at a restaurant called simply “Pizza” and was the best pizza I’ve ever had, hands down. But then that night we went to Les Halles, famously known for being the subject of Anthony Bourdain’s book, Kitchen Confidential (he was head chef there for many years). The food was French (we had escargot and roasted brie on croutons as starters) and it was ridiculously good. I ate lamb chops, and it was all I could do to stop myself from gnawing on the bones like a dog. (Dan had crepes suzette for dessert, and the alcohol most certainly didn’t cook off.)
The next day I ate lunch at Barbuto’s, the Michelin-starred restaurant of well-known chef Jonathan Waxman. I ordered soft-shelled crab just because my editor, Erica, had never eaten (or even seen) them before. The portions were tiny, but the taste was incredible. (Plus, the small portions gave me an excuse to go back to “Pizza” later.)
Dinner that night had Dan and I driving blindly into Chinatown, eating at the first restaurant that looked crowded enough to be good, but not crowded enough to make us wait. We found one called Amazing 66 Restaurant. The first menu item was Frog Casserole, so we were sold immediately. We ordered all the usuals (steamed pork buns, potstickers, ham fried rice) some unusuals (half a duck) and some very unusuals (shark fin soup). It was all phenomenal.
But there were more wondrous things than just the food.
The first day we went to the top of the Empire State Building. It was very windy and very cold (it had been raining most of the day) but it was really incredible. I grew up in Salt Lake City, where the tallest building with an observation deck has only 26 stories. Also, Salt Lake City has about two dozen “sky scrapers”, most of which are less than twenty stories. So, the top of the Empire State Building, while extremely touristy, was truly incredible. I just don’t think I had ever really imagined how big New York City really is. “It’s a little island with a lot of people crammed on it,” I used to think. I never contemplated that the “little” island is pretty big, and there is a lot more city than just Manhattan, and that there’s not just “a lot” of people crammed on it–there’s “a LOT” of people crammed on it.
Plus, I’m an art and architecture geek, with a particular penchant for the styles of the first half of the 20th century. Needless to say, I was in heaven gazing at the Art Deco Chrysler and GE Buildings, the Neo-Gothic Woolworth Building, and the older, shorter Beaux-Arts buildings that are all over the place, everywhere I looked.
The second day I was busier with the convention, but still managed to make a solo trip down to the World Trade Center. I wasn’t aware that you needed tickets to go in and see the memorial (and at the time my panic disorder wasn’t really interested in standing in a long line), so instead I sat across the street in the cemetery of St Paul’s Chapel, beside gravestones so worn that no words were even recognizable. It was only after I left that I realized the church (built in 1764) was so close to the 9/11 collapse that it should have been heavily damaged, and I’ve since read that it survived without even a broken window. I also came to find out that it became a significant gathering place and memorial. I was on the wrong side of the building to even realize that there were exhibits, but sitting in that cemetery was the one place in New York, all week, where I felt truly peaceful.
The third day I made a trip I’ve been wanting to make for years: I went to the Museum of Modern Art. Before leaving for New York it was actually the only must-see thing on my agenda. And, because Dan was busy that day promoting his other book (The Hollow City) I had many hours to myself to wander up and down the halls, to sit in the galleries and stare.
There was one painting above all the others that I wanted to see. As I mentioned above, I’m a fan of 20th century art, and I wanted to see the Mark Rothko painting (simply titled No. 10). I wound my way through the museum, taking detours here and there, kind of pumping myself up to see it. I’d heard stories of people being completely overwhelmed by Rothko’s work and breaking into tears. While I didn’t expect that to happen to me, I still wanted to prolong the experience. (Sidenote: I realize that Rothko’s work is abstract and that the thought of breaking into tears in front of it might be foreign and even laughable to some. To each his own. But, to put it in some perspective, the point of his work is to be overwhelmed: the canvases are big–this one was 7′ by 5′–and Rothko wanted people to view them from eighteen inches away. His quote on the subject: “I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however . . . is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command!” In other words, even though you may not like this little jpg of his work, I still encourage you to see one in person and see if it has a different effect on you.)
It was while I was wandering the museum, postponing Rothko, that I came to what should have been an obvious realization: I was in the presence of masters. Out here where I live, in Middle America, any single Picasso or Matisse or Gauguin or Klimt would be the centerpiece of a museum’s collection, yet at the MoMA there were dozens, everywhere.
And as this feeling was settling in, I walked around a partition to find a cluster of people gathered at a single painting. I couldn’t make it out until I got closer, but there, suddenly three feet in front of me, was Van Gogh’s masterpiece Starry Night. I had no idea it was in the MoMA, and I had to stare dumbly for several moments, wondering if it was a print–this couldn’t be the real thing. But it was, and I was right there, in awe. The experience was too short; not unlike the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, there were so many people who wanted to see it that I didn’t have time to absorb it as I would have hoped. But I saw it.
I then went straight to the Rothko, and found it around a corner; I never even had the opportunity to see it from far away and move in close–I was suddenly right there. And yes, it was everything people said it would be. And yes, I felt like crying.
It was directly across the hall from an enormous Jackson Pollock, another of my favorites, and another which has to be seen in person to be really experienced. I spent more time in this room than in any other, and left feeling exhausted.
Going to New York was worth it if for nothing more than visiting the MoMA.
So when am I going to actually talk about BEA? Now.
My brother and I had a signing together on Tuesday. He was signing Partials and I signed Feedback, and the line was so long that we ran out of copies with people still waiting. I don’t do a lot of book signings, and this one was incredibly gratifying: people mad at me for leaving Variant the way I did and eager to get their hands on the sequel. It was also the first time Dan and I have really signed together, which was a lot of fun. As strange as it sounds, it was only recently that Dan and I realized that–for the first time in the twelve years I’ve been writing–we were actually writing something for the same audience. We plan to have more events like this in the future, working together (such as our podcast). It was a lot of fun.
I also happened to be signing three tables over from one of my favorite artists, Natalie Merchant. I didn’t get a chance to meet her–her line was considerably longer than ours, and I didn’t want to pull rank just because I was on the author side of the tables. We did, however, make brief eye contact in the green room. So, that’s something. (Anxiety disorders aren’t terribly helpful when trying to introduce yourself to one of your idols.)
But the best part of BEA was meeting all of my New York friends for the first time face-to-face: my awesome editor, Erica Sussman, who is absolutely hilarious; Christina, my marketing manager (who also picked our fantastic lunch restaurant); Casey, my new publicist who arranged the entire signing; Jordan Brown, Dan’s editor; Tara, my publisher, who interrupted her conversation with James Frey to meet me; and, of course, my bubbly and amazing agent, Sara Crowe.
I also got to see a bunch of other authors, some new to me and others old friends: I had lunch with Jonathon Maberry and Jeff Hirsch; I chatted with Larry Correia in the green room; I ran into Veronica Roth at the Harper party. (Also at the Harper party was none other than Neil Gaiman, and Dan–a more-daring, less-panicked soul than I–introduced himself.)
(I do get some amount of cool street cred: Ally Condie’s husband stood in line to get a copy of Feedback.)
BEA was awesome because it was full of awesome people.
And through it all, everyone’s question was “When is the next manuscript coming??” So, I guess it’s time to quit writing enormous blogs and get back to the next book.