The first thing I said to Jessica Grant when I met her this evening at the Belleville Public Library was that I was a huge fan. I was sweating, breathing heavily, and highly excited. I was also talking very loudly, so I had a bit of an audience, even though I was early and one of the first to arrive. Okay. Probably frightening.
But I had run from my workplace about ten minutes away, loaded down with bags and books! I had been afraid of being late (I lost my watch somewhere today). To be fair, though, she didn’t know that. For all she knew I was one of those people to watch out for. Oh, those ones. Yes. For all she knew I was…odd.
And I kept gushing but inside, really, I was kicking myself under the table. “I’m a huge fan”? Ugh. I mean, this is not Stephenie Meyer we’re meeting and I’m not 13. No, this is Jessica Grant: calm, cool, genius Jessica Grant, who does not wear her matching sweater to every reading and book signing (I can’t even believe I asked about it). You do not gush like a fool, you do not show off how much you know about her—you beautifully articulate how much you loved her book and why you enjoy her writing. Punto e basta.
But I’d already started off wildly enthused and bumbling and there was no stopping me. In my defence (my poor friends were embarrassed, I think, by my behaviour) I have to say that none of it was exaggerated or dishonest. All day long I had been excited about meeting Grant, the author of Come, Thou Tortoise, my favourite book of the year. I truly felt as though I was in the presence of an amazingly talented woman (well, because I was) who possesses the power (times sixty) to imagine such incredible things and render those things with exactly the right words in unique and wonderful ways that speed their way directly to your heart. I am jealous of this. Time and again while reading I was struck by how beautifully the characters spoke and expressed themselves.
I wondered briefly—as I stumbled over my words and asked her to instead just read my review here on the blog and would she please maybe comment too and also sign my book and also take a photo or two with me—if she thought I was “too much.” She was so gracious and down-to-earth and calm. In comparison, I felt too in her face, too touchy, too scarily enthused, perhaps too strangely unlike most booklovers of literary fiction (you know the type).
To her credit she did not scrunch her face and back away slowly. So, then, meh, what of my geekiness, I decided. This is who I am: in love with this book and her writing, and extremely happy to be immersed in some way in the book culture again. I wish so much that more people would be this supportive, to be honest. Every author needs at least one person who believes in their book this way! If I were a published author, it would mean the world to me, and if someone liked my book I would not want them to be shy. I would not say no to a picture or two.
Anyway. To my disappointment, there were not a lot of people there. Sigh. O Belleville: once again you disappoint me. How can I open a bookshop in this atmosphere? Then I decide, no, this is exactly the atmosphere I want because then I have a heroic mission; I can wake up Belleville and get them excited about our Canadian authors. Excited times ten.
When we finally got started, I found myself desperately wanting Grant to feel comfortable and accepted and appreciated—and I worried for nothing, in spite of the number of people who showed. She was undaunted, good-natured, professional, smooth, and unwavering. She gave us background on the book, answered questions she said people mostly asked her, and then read to us the first two chapters. I wanted her to keep going. I would have sat there till she’d finished all 412 pages, to tell the truth. She read well and elicited much laughter, and later applause. It was almost as though I was hearing the book for the first time.
Then Grant fielded questions from those in the audience. She spoke about her writing insecurities and about certain fears and how she’s transferred some of those fears into the book, particularly flying (which she both loves and fears: imagine being killed by something you love. Imagine that something not loving you back. Imagine). She answered the inevitable autobiographical question (no, Oddly is not anyone in particular but, yes, she shares some characteristics with Grant). She discussed Winnifred and how the irresistible tortoise sort of appeared later as she was writing, and she described the misgivings she had had about writing a talking tortoise (would it be too Walt Disney. No.), and how Winnifred is another (more intimate) look into Oddly and Cliff and Chuck and Linda.
Grant also carefully addressed the relationship between Walter Flowers and Uncle Thoby, asking first for the question to be clarified. What exactly did they want to know? It was obvious Grant did not want to give too much away, did not want to impose any interpretation over another’s, perhaps did not want to enter into a discussion about possibly gay relationships. This was wise on her part, I thought—that is, to deliberately keep things ambiguous. Grant’s mentioned before that the book doesn’t answer all the questions for the reader. Oddly asks some but also doesn’t think to ask others, and as much as Oddly fancies herself a kind of detective, this was no Flavia de Luce novel. Ambiguity, for me, is what makes a book rereadable.
I wish I’d thought more ahead of time about questions to ask, good ones, not silly ones, and I’ll probably think of them later, knowing me. I also wish I’d taken pen and paper so I could have written what she’d said so I could have quoted her here.
But I did find, thankfully, that much of what she said I’d read elsewhere. And because what she expressed is important, I’ll share it with you so you can read it for yourself, in her own words. Below you’ll find links to some of Grant’s National Post guest editor pieces, and also a bonus short story, excellent of course, called “Humanesque.” Plus, I’ve included a link to Random House’s New Face of Fiction page for Jessica. At the bottom is a video in which she says some of what we heard in person tonight. Read, too, on BookLounge’s blog, how one book club honoured Grant and her book.
Oh, and one more (important) thing. Grant is working on a new novel. No, I have no clue what it’s about. She won’t say. And no, it does not have a tortoise in it (yet) and it is not a sequel to Come, Thou Tortoise. I do not know if the wind sings in B flat or if swans search for the bottoms of ponds (Can you see the bottom. No. Can you.) or if there are magical strings of Christmas lights in this new book. I doubt it.
But I can’t doubt there will be cleverness and humour and wordplay and tenderness and beauty in her new book. Even without a tortoise and a girl like Oddly, and even without planes and kissing pilots or horses’ hooves that are like exposed hearts, I would not say no to a new book by Jessica Grant.
Before she left, I did what I felt compelled to do, as I had done with her book when I finished it: I hugged her. Thank you, I said. She said it was nice to meet me. And then, as she walked away, she looked over her shoulder and added, making my night: I’ll never forget you. And I don’t mean that in a bad way.
Random House New Face in Fiction : Jessica Grant
National Post Guest Editor pieces: Jessica Grant (here is one link, and you can click on the others below the article. Don’t miss a word!
Making Light of Tragedy: Jessica Grant’s short story collection.
” Humanesque”: Jessica Grant, short story