A bookstore owner recently told me that there was a surfeit of writers asking to visit. A decade ago another bookstore owner told me that even some of the big names didn't draw much of an audience after their second or third appearance.
When I was growing up we had anything but a surfeit of writers.
Part of what I'm about to say owes to the fact that except for Minneapolis I grew up in small cities and small towns. I didn't meet a writer until I was in my early Twenties. He was a local guy who sold to men's magazines and very small soft core publishers. His dream was to sell a story to Amazing Stories. I don't think he ever did.
But it was cool to sit on the summer library steps and talk to him. Cheesy as his markets were, he was an actual pro. He was a grumpy middle-aged bastard and I probably wouldn't have liked him but for the fact that he was an actual WRITER. That was worth listening to a whole lot of bitching.
I'd tried to meet an author before, the great YA writer Henry Gregor Felsen. He was speaking in Des Moines. My cousin wanted to go too. We were going to ride in style. He had a chopped, channeled, louevered 50 Ford. The only thing wrong with it was that it spent half its years in the garage. A very tempermental car. One of us once said that his Ford was the equivalent of marrying the most beautiful girl in the world only to find out she wouldn't sleep with you. His Ford wouldn't run on Felsen day.
One night in a local pub I met a guy who told everybody he was a writer. Paperbacks, he said, and yanked a Dell First edition from his back pocket. I don't remember the title but I do remember the author name: Robert Dietrich. He always used a pen-name when I asked him how come his own name wasn't on the cover. Saving himself for more important work. Then he'd use his real name.
Those were my early drinking days when people passed in and out of my life in a boozy fog. I ran into "Mr. Dietrich" a few times more but decided he was just a bullshitter, As he was, it turned out, the Dietrich name being in fact Howard Hunt of Watergate fame. But the fake Dietrich did do something spectacular. There was a down and out bar down on the river where, on a hundred dollar bet, he walked in with a real full-grown lion on a leash and scared the shit out of all the poor winos. He was arrested, of course. I never did quite know how the hell he came up with a lion.
Nelson Algren was the first writer of any substance I ever saw. He was teaching at the Iowa workshop and speaking on a panel. He was well worth the wait. Funny, melancholy, angry and just generally honest and wise. No bullshit.
He was well worth the wait.