Festival America: the Shakespeare and Company Pop-Up
Looking at the other stands, it was clear straight away that we’d taken a different approach. While elegant French booksellers artfully arranged their elegant piles of books, we hummed and ha-ed over the best position for our stuffed raven and searched increasingly frantically for an errant ‘K’—pretty crucial for our ‘Shakespeare and Company’ sign.
A few hours later, though, the raven was secured, books by all the festival participants attractively alphabetised, and the fridge expertly stocked with beer by a helpful Tumbleweed (“Yeah, I went to American college…”). We wanted to inject a little theatricality into the signings, so all that remained was to install the giant picture frame for authors to sit in. Once up, however, it looked a little… bare. “Fairy lights!” exclaimed Sylvia. The fairy lights jazzed it up perfectly.
After the festival’s opening rush—a mob of French teenagers hell-bent on getting a copy of Wally Lamb’s Columbine-themed novel The Hour I First Believed—it was time for our first scheduled signing: Margaret Atwood. I was a little nervous. I recently re-read a diary I wrote when I was 16 and was totally blown away by the quality of my prose… until I realized I’d just transcribed pretty much the whole of The Blind Assassin in lieu of my own mediocre teenage angsts. So yes, I adored—still do adore—Margaret Atwood. A more surreal part of my job is meeting these extraordinary figures, these people who have played their part in conducting my imagination and shaping how I understand the world.
Margaret Atwood was small and birdlike, with something reassuringly otherworldly about her, too. I managed to resist asking her to sign my diary and instead presented her with a first edition of The Handmaid’s Tale that she’d inscribed to George Whitman during a visit to the bookshop in the early 90s. She re-inscribed it, 20 years later; a nice symmetry.
After the signing, she asked whether we had Taipei by Tao Lin—she’d just done an event with him and was curious about his work. “Of course,” I said. “And please, it’s a gift, to say thank you for the signing.” She looked aghast. “Oh no! I would never accept a free book from an independent bookshop!” She took that book, and others, to the till.
All of us Shakespeareans were very impressed by Tao Lin—not only because he donated all of his lunch vouchers to us (a little bit—thanks for the pizza, Tao!)—but also because he drew a tiny monster in every one of his books.
My memory of Festival America will forever be dominated by visions of Richard Ford arriving for his signing, a snaking line of fans already in tow, looking like a literary Clint Eastwood. He is the living, breathing embodiment of charm and it was as moving as ever to watch people have a moment with the person who has created words and worlds that mean so much to them.
Then there was Philipp Meyer, but that’s a whole other blog post…