I saw her at our end-of-the-semester party last night: she didn’t fit in.
Most of us were grad school students. There was a one-year-old baby, two twelve-year-old boys who poked and laughed and punched each other all night, and a spouse or two. And then there was her.
Short, quiet, dark of hair and skin, curled up on the bench with a library book, she looked like she knew that she was the odd one out. She was fourteen, and was the sister of one of the twelve-year-old boys. He had brought a friend. She had brought a book.
As she sat there turning pages, just beyond the fringe of the gathering, she reminded me of someone. Me. When I was younger, I always brought a book along to awkward social gatherings, or any event that could potentially be boring. I even brought books to “fun” things, just in case. (I can’t even count the number of homeschool “park days” where my exasperated-yet-amused mother had to tell me to put down my book and go play with my friends.) I’m experienced enough now that I can typically tell the difference between “DON’T DISTURB ME, I’M AT A GOOD PART” reading, and “I’m reading because otherwise I’ll be uncomfortable and awkward” reading.
I watched her for a few seconds – her reading was definitely in the latter category. She’d read a bit, then look up when she heard people laugh, or wander over to the drinking fountain, or sigh and shift positions. My heart went out to her.
I walked over.
“Is that an interesting book you’re reading?” I asked with my best attempt at a friendly smile. She nodded silently, looking slightly alarmed at being spoken to. I felt slightly alarmed at the alarm on her face – I’m not used to being the “scary adult” that I remember being intimidated by as a child. But I introduced myself nonetheless, and tried to look friendly as she stumbled over her words as she introduced herself in return. “I like to read too,” I said, giving her another smile. “And to write. Good stories are awesome, aren’t they? What’s that one about?”
She, however, had latched on to the first part of what I had said. “You write?” she asked. “Like, fiction?”
“Yeah. I’m a novelist.”
Her eyes grew huge in her dark face. “Really? Have you been published?”
I nodded. “One of my books has.”
Her look of wonder was like a child upon seeing Santa Claus leaving presents under the tree. It was a bit disconcerting. “Oh my gosh! What’s your book about?” she asked.
I gave her my spiel: The Quest of the Unaligned is a fantasy novel about a young man who grows up in a technologically advanced society, but is tricked into going on a quest through a magical kingdom. Of course, he doesn’t believe in magic, which makes things difficult, especially when he discovers that he’s the prince of the land.
As I talked, this girl literally began jumping up and down, her library book forgotten on the table beside her. “Really? Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! That’s amazing!”
I thought the same thing. I’ve never had someone react that way to my telling them that I’m a published novelist. Ever. It was unreal.
“Do you like to write?” I asked her, though it was pretty clear what the answer was from her giddiness. Of course she did, she told me – and more than that, she liked to write fantasy and science fiction.
“Were you ever…” she asked, then looked up at me hesitantly, “a bookworm?” She said it like she was afraid it might be a derogatory phrase.
“Oh, my whole life!” I assured her. “I still am.”
It was amazing how her face lit up, and after that, the words came fast and enthusiastic. At my prompting, she told me a little about her work-in-progress, and then asked me to tell her about getting my book published, and then we were summoned to the dinner line for burgers and bratwursts. When it was our turn, the grad student in charge of Fire and Meat asked us what we wanted. I turned to my new friend, who just looked at me helplessly. I turned back. “I’d love a burger,” I told the grill-master.
The girl perked up. “That’s what I’m going to have too!” she said, as if she’d been planning on it all along.
I nearly died from the adorableness.
As we neared the end of the line, my new friend shyly asked if she could sit next to me. (Of course she could.) She tagged along behind me, and I introduced her to my other grad-school friends. We had quite a nice dinner, and she didn’t open her library book once.
“Thank you so much,” she told me later, clutching her book in one hand and jumping up and down again. “This was amazing! I’m going to get your book from the library and read it! I can’t believe it. I never thought I’d meet a real author tonight!”
I gave her my email address and told her to let me know if she has questions about writing or publishing, and that I’d be happy to help. She looked like I’d given her a new puppy. At least I think she did – I had tears in my eyes by that point. She waved at me as she left with her father and brother, still bouncing and wide-eyed.
It was weird. I’m a first-year PhD student, not a celebrity. People haven’t heard of my book, and most just give me strange/tolerant looks when I say I’m a novelist. But every so often, it seems, being a fantasy novelist gives you the power to encourage someone in a unique way. To tell a teenager that being a bookworm is cool, that reading fantasy is awesome, that writing fantasy is even more awesome, and that you don’t have to be an English major to do it. To show that it’s possible to be a normal person and get a book published.
Perhaps even to be an inspiration, the way that other writers and my professors have been inspirations to me.