Some years ago I had the opportunity to work with author and poet Philip Lee Williams in conducting a reading and book signing for his then new book The True and Authentic History of Jenny Dorset. The reading was to take place at the bookstore where I was working at the time.
On the day before the reading was to take place, Phil gave me a call at the store. He wanted to know if--all things considered--we still wanted to go through with the event the next day. "Do you think anybody is going to come?" he asked.
I thought about it for a moment and decided that my guess was as good as his. "Let's go ahead and do it, " I said, "I think people might like a chance for something to take their minds off things." So, the reading went forward.
The next evening at the store, I was pleased, and a little surprised, to see that an audience of some twenty people had gathered to hear Phil read and discuss his book. Always the bookseller, I was also glad to see that most of the people in attendance had at least one copy of his new and other other books in hand for purchase. Still, on that day, even sales didn't seem important.
My being surprised to have an audience that day had nothing to do with Phil and his book. He is well-known and has a loyal following of readers, and deservedly so, in my opinion. That day, however, our little book signing had some pretty serious competition for people's attention.
Some of the people in the audience that day seemed to know each other. Some were obviously acquaintances of the author, either friends from the substantial Athens' literary community, or colleagues and students from the University where Phil teaches. Most of the crowd, however, were clearly strangers to each other.
It was interesting to watch people that day. The best way to describe the mood of the group that had come for the reading was one of quiet--but intense--friendliness. People were somber, for sure. But it wasn't like, say, a funeral. The people in attendance seemed to look around at each other, making a point to give polite--maybe even reassuring--smiles of acknowledgement to these other strangers.
I introduced Phil, who was there to read from his new historical comedy. He welcomed everyone, and thanked them for coming. Then he stated that, before moving on to the book reading and discussion, he'd like first to read several pieces of verse that he had brought along. He thought that, all things considered, they might be fitting for the occasion. I don't recall the poems that Phil read from that day. I wish that I did. I suppose that I wasn't paying enough attention, being too caught up in watching the responses of the audience.
As Phil read, the people in the audience listened politely. People nodded their heads in acknowledgement of the words that he read, and some had smiles on their faces. Two of the ladies in the audience who were smiling also had tears in their eyes. Phil finished reading the verse, and paused for a few moments to let everyone take it in, and if necessary, regain their composure. He then introduced everyone to Jenny Dorset, read, took questions, had people laughing (laughing!), and autographed books.
Even after the signing was officially over, people stuck around for a while. Just chatting with strangers and maybe feeling normal.
That reading and signing took place on the evening of September 13, 2001.
Phil Williams is the author of 13 books, including his 2004 Civil War novel, A Distant Flame, which won the Michael Shaara Award. He teaches creative writing at the University of Georgia.
Phil will be reading from his new book, Elegies for the Water: Poems, at 7 pm on Thursday, March 12 at the Athens, Georgia Barnes & Noble. The book is just out this month from Mercer University Press. Call 706.354.1195 for more information about the reading.
The news these days seldom seems to be good. Recession. War. Dreadful statistics about just about everything. A lot of screaming and yelling, too. And it seems as if we are all ALWAYS in a damned hurry.
Your local bookstore has some help for what ails you. Good luck everybody.
In the Morning: Reflections from First Light by Philip Lee Williams
The Heart of a Distant Forest by Philip Lee Williams