I couldn’t sleep. Anxiety and self-doubt and apprehension swirled ’round my brain.
Why did I agree to do this?
I’d been approached by Mary Lukkarila of the Cloquet Public Library towards the end of 2013 about participating in the One Book event being sponsored by local libraries. Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo was the novel Northland communities were going to read, discuss, and celebrate. My connection to the event was twofold. First, I’m one-quarter Slovenian and the book is about the former Yugoslavia. And second, my novel, The Legacy covered some of the same ground as The Cellist in that my first book tried to give folks a bare bones understanding of the age-old conflicts embedded in the Balkans. Mary followed up on our Facebook conversation with a link to Patra Sevasitades, the coordinator of the event through the Duluth Public Library Foundation. In indicating my interest, I didn’t consider the ramifications of what I was being asked to do. As a writer struggling to be read, any publicity of my work, my involvement in the world of books, my craft, is welcomed as a possible link to that one person, that one connection that will bring my fiction to the attention of the “powers that be”, i.e., the New York publishing world. Saying “yes” really wasn’t that difficult.
When Mary and I and Patra sat down for a quick lunch at a Chinese eatery near the Duluth courthouse, they laid out preliminary plans for a week of activity related to Galloway’s novel. My part would be to lead a discussion of the book at the Cloquet Public Library. The format and the date and the time of the event would be dependent upon the author, his schedule, my schedule, and our collective imaginations. I suggested an interview style format, an informal dialogue between myself, the interviewer, and Steven, the interviewee. Both women liked the concept but no commitments were made. Patra said she was thinking of putting together a separate event, a panel of experts on the Balkans who could put the imagined story of The Cellist in historical perspective. I suggested she contact my friend and former State Representative Mike Jaros, a native of Bosnia, where the book is set. Patra liked the idea. We parted with promises to stay in touch.
I called Sally, the store manager of the Bookstore at Fitger’s, and asked her to set aside a copy of The Cellist for me but, due to a old man brain fart, I didn’t pick the book up for two weeks. Once I dove into the novel, I was amazed.
This reads like a long prose poem. Very lyrical.
I sped through the novel, reveling in the book’s structure (four interrelated stories centered around the siege of the city), the main characters, and the sparse beauty of the author’s style. I posted a review of the book on this site, giving The Cellist of Sarajevo 5 stars out of 5 (you can use the search engine above to find and read the review) and finalized the event in Cloquet with Mary and Patra. And then, I waited.
That’s not really true. I read the book again while on vacation in Hawai’i. After the second reading, I put together a theme and a direction for the upcoming interview, part of which was, I have to say, bold and a bit over-the-top. Given that many folks would not have read the novel by the time of the One Book celebration, I decided to read small samples of Steven’s prose featuring the four main protagonists. I’d use the passages as a springboard for a larger conversation about the research behind the book, his writing style, and the genesis of the tale. The fact that I had the hubris, the nerve, to tackle reading a best-selling author’s work in public, with the author sitting beside me, well, that either declared my genius or my desperation for attention. In any event, that was the plan. I’d then move on to discussing the writing life, a topic that many non-writers find fascinating (“How do you find the time to write? When do you write? Where do you write? Have you always written?” are all questions I get asked at book signings and events). We’d finish with questions from the audience, hopefully coming in just under an hour, allowing time for folks to meet Steven and buy signed copies of the book. I tackled organizing my train of thought on the airplane on purloined recipe cards.
The event, as finally realized, was to be a lunch time discussion. The timing of the interview required me to finish my morning court calendar on time, drive from Duluth to Cloquet, do the gig, and then dash back for an afternoon of probate hearings and adoptions. After my work day was over, I had to teach at UWS. Later that evening, I was to have dinner with the folks from the library, Sally from the bookstore, and the author at Midi restaurant at Fitger’s. A very full day, and one, as suggested by the title of this essay, that began at four in the morning with me staring wide eyed into inky darkness, awakened by the specter of failure.
The morning sped by. My court reporter Deb and my law clerk Rachel accompanied me to Cloquet. I invited them because I figured I’d have at least an audience of three to hear what Steven and I had to say: my two employees and my buddy Bruce, who works nearby and promised he’d show up. I pulled the Pacifica into a parking spot on the street in front of the library. We didn’t park in the library parking lot because the lot was full.
“That’s a good sign,” Deb said in a helpful voice, trying to calm my observable anxiety.
The room was jammed with folks eager to hear about the book. The library staff wrangled every available chair. It was standing room only. Steven and I shook hands, engaged in small talk, walked to the front of the room, were introduced, and began our discussion. I watched his face when I dove into his work and read the first passage depicting the Cellist in my voice, not his. I discerned no adverse reaction from the Canadian author to my interpretation of his work. My heart lifted. I knew we were going to be OK.
It was, as I posted on Facebook, a splendid hour spent with a gifted author.
Thanks to the Cloquet and Duluth libraries for involving me in this wonderful event.