January 06, 2012
Some behind-the-scenes advice for attending The National Book Awards, or any literary party:
1. Take someone with you who doesn’t write books.
My mother and father and aunt came all the way from the West Coast to New York for The National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 celebration. They had a blast dancing to the tunes and meeting everyone. People who don’t write books or who don’t want to write books are essential because they are going to talk about things other than books and writing. Who else is going to turn to Jaimy Gordon, winner of the 2010 National Book Award in fiction, and like my aunt, say, “Jaimy, do you want me to teach you to shuffle?” when the DJ plays LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem?”
By contrast, I ventured out to The National Book Awards alone, with plans to meet up with fellow 5 Under 35ers Danielle Evans and John Corey Whaley. This was not a good idea, as I ended up completely lost in a mass of genius literati during the cocktail hour.
2. Find the Alaskans—they’re a friendly bunch.
I was still stranded in the mass of genius literati. I had just spent ten minutes waiting and staring at Julia Glass as she was being interviewed because I hadn’t gotten a chance to meet her at the 5 Under 35 event. I wanted to say, “Fabulous patent leather shoes and fishnets and vintage print dress with the crinoline petticoat.” And, “What a wonderful introduction you gave fellow 5 Under 35er Mary Beth Keane.” But I soon realized I wasn’t going to get a chance to meet her as the interview continued and I did not want to interrupt.
I still couldn’t find my fellow 5 Under 35ers or anyone who looked familiar. Then I spotted a woman wearing a traditional style parka with velvet trim next to a man wearing a bolo tie. I knew immediately: Alaskan formal wear! I went up and introduced myself to Debby Dahl Edwardson, who lives in Barrow, Alaska and was nominated for the National Book Award in the Young People’s Literature category with her novel My Name is Not Easy. She introduced me to her whole circle and entourage as “the 5 Under 35er who also had a book set in Alaska.” And when others joined the circle to introduce themselves to Debby, she would make sure to point me out to them. Debby and I laughed over special Alaskan terminology–how we’d had readers and editors in the lower 48 tell us to change the words “snow machine” to “snowmobile,” and we had to explain that now one calls anything a snowmobile in Alaska. I told her how my fisherman uncle in Anchorage had loved her interview where she said her husband was the storyteller and she was the scribe.
3. Do not try to meet the famous people or the National Book Award nominees before the awards are announced.
I may be alone in this sentiment, but if I can save a wide-eyed emerging writer any sort of embarrassment, then I will. The friendly Alaskans and their entourage had to move on, so I wished them well and said goodbye and then realized I was alone again. So I thought, why not meet another one of the writers? I went up to a nominee’s circle and started chatting with one person in the entourage. At one point I said, “I would really like to meet (enter name of nominee).” The entourage member said, “No.” No explanation. No hint of good-natured kidding. I thought, “Thank you for the humiliation and please get me out of here and I’m just a new writer in a sparkly dress who doesn’t know how these things work.” Thankfully, dinner was announced and we were allowed to go find our tables and I, rather shocked, went to go find my seat.
Moral of the story: wait until after the awards are announced, as my hunch is everyone is extremely nervous–the nominees, those surrounding the nominees—unless the nominee is from Alaska or some other cold, obscure place, in which case your chances are improved for a better outcome.
4. Marvel at the number of forks at the formal dinner place setting—because you can—and who knows if you will ever be invited to an event of such literary standing again.
Once I was in the buffet line of a function and using tongs to grab some shrimp set on ice and the spring-loaded tongs somehow launched a shrimp straight up into the air and I watched, mortified, as the shrimp did a few obnoxious back flips, but then miraculously landed on the shrimp platter on the other side of the table. The phrase “slippery little sucker” immediately came to mind, and who hasn’t had a moment in his or her life where quoting the film Pretty Woman isn’t entirely appropriate? Sitting down for dinner, having finally found Danielle Evans and John Corey Whaley, who had been looking for me, I did marvel at the number of forks and wish I had studied the dinner fork scene in Pretty Woman more intently. I then made a silent wish to someday, somehow, be invited back to The National Book Awards.
5. And speaking of Pretty Woman: Do not wear a black trench coat over your black sequin dress and take the subway to the party.
I did this, and a man sitting across from me was staring at me too intently and I realized he must have thought, with my chandelier earrings hanging out of my hat, my red lipstick, my black trench coat, and the flash of sequins underneath the coat, that I was a real life version of Vivian, Julia Roberts’ character. Or in a cabaret. Where is Liza Minnelli when you need her?
6. Work on your death glare.
This is needed in the drink line surrounding the crowded dance floor on the second level of Cipriani after all the awards have been announced. When I ordered a drink, a man turned to me and said, “Really? That’s what you’re ordering? Club soda?” with such disdain that I immediately went death glare on him. He then said, “I guess you can order whatever you want.” Yes, mister. Yes, I can. And thank you for acknowledging my right to order club soda. With a twist. Speaking of twists and turns—do let a bald man in a tux spin both you and fellow 5 Under 35er Danielle Evans on the dance floor. Smile when you spot John Ashbery cutting loose to the music.
7. Do not try to carry on a conversation on the dance floor.
Just dance and smile and then nod when you meet people or are introduced. Then go back to dancing. Because these introductions are when you will likely say well-intentioned but awkward things because you can’t hear crucial bits of information. At one point I misheard what a nice man said to me—I thought he said, “How do you know Danielle Evans?” I said, “I’m also one of the 5 Under 35.” He said, “I know.” And the look on his face said, “I know you are, you crazy narcissist.” I have no idea what he had asked me but no dance move—not the running man, the shopping cart, or the shuffle—could save me here.
8. Dance with a diva in red.
When Liza Minnelli is unavailable, having a friend who wears red at these functions is imperative, because said friend is easy to spot in a sea of black formal and on the dance floor. Fellow 5 Under 35er Danielle Evans was the diva in red for the evening and my designated dance-buddy-wingwoman. Sometimes there are books you read and you just know the person could be your new best friend. I’m not talking the delusional inflated author crush—just the “we could sit down and have coffee and have a fantastic conversation” sort of feeling. I read Danielle Evans’ book title Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self and I had that feeling. Then I read her book in one sitting at the airport on my trip to New York. That’s what these big literary events are all about after all, those books that you can’t put down and transport you to a new world and make you forget to breathe and those authors you put on your dream coffee shop run-in list. I mean, it’s easy to say that you and Jane Austen could have been confidantes, but much more thrilling to be on the same dance floor as Danielle Evans and John Ashbery.