Nick Hornby and Cheryl Strayed and one of the coolest nights in my literary life

Other than the publication of my own books and the Oregon Literary Fellowship I won a couple of years ago — in other words, other than events involving my own work — I’ve had a handful of truly exhilarating, giddy, can’t-stop-grinning literary moments in my life:

  • I once heard Kurt Vonnegut lecture (he did his amazing “shapes of stories” bit)
  • I once interviewed Madeleine L’Engle
  • In grad school, I spent a whole evening drinking with and interviewing Tom Franklin in what became the beginning of my masters thesis on him
  • Later in grad school, I brought Tom Franklin to my campus as a visiting author and the resulting reading, Q&A, after party, after-after party, and after-after-after party is to this day a legend in the grad program I graduated from
  • I once shook hands with Frank McCourt and talked with him for a few minutes about teaching
  • And tonight, Nick Hornby signed my cast!

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Back when I was an undergrad, in 1996, my main college writing mentor, the novelist and poet (and now Reverend) David Breeden, gifted me a then-new paperback edition of High Fidelity. I was perhaps dimly aware of some book called Fever Pitch, but Hornby wasn’t really on my radar at the time, and up til then I’d only really read novels in three categories: my dad’s action-adventure novels, lots and lots of horror, and whatever I had recently discovered in my college classes. By this point, I’d already (just) been inducted into the Fraternity of Kurt Vonnegut and was devouring him, but my mentor thought it was time I read some more contemporary literature, so he loaned me Mark Leyner’s bizarre Et Tu, Babe and then, as a gift, he gave me Nick Hornby.

And Nick Hornby changed me.

It seems odd to think so all these years later, and it speaks to my relative naiveté as a reader back then, but I’d never before encountered that kind of intimacy and that confessional style in a male novel before. Most of the books by men and about men that I’d read were all funny, or all horror, or all bravado. But in Hornby’s Rob Fleming, I’d found a character who was a human being I recognized as some kind of dream version of myself — though roughly a decade older than I was then, the character felt somehow like both my coolest and my most pathetic self: hip and deeply musically literate (I am neither of these things but still wish I could be) but also immature and emotionally fragile (I’ve certainly been these, a fact I felt keenly at the time I first read the novel).

A few years later, I wrote my first completed novel under the guidance of Breeden and another of my mentors, William Woods. They kindly allowed me to write a ridiculous straight-up comedy about two clueless morons who are best friends but have a falling out over a misunderstanding in a library and spend the rest of the book trying to figure out their lives alone until they each can — well, fail to mature, really — and finally reconnect.I was no Nick Hornby and I knew it, which is why I gave up trying to be insightful and just went for broad absurdist humor, but I  told my story in short, punchy chapters, full of lists and quips and not-so-hip pop culture references. Stylistically I was sure as hell trying to be Hornby.

Later I discovered other influences (namely, Tom Franklin and Cormac McCarthy) and my long-form style shifted, but I still love the humor and the humanity and the insight and the intimacy that Hornby continues to bring to his work, whether it’s older books like About a Boy or his little-known literary study Contemporary American Fiction (yes, I actually read that book) or his beautiful screenplay adaptations of An Education and Wild or the films made from his novels or his new book, Funny Girl, which I’m eager to read.

So tonight was already a treat enough just getting to hear Hornby in conversation with Cheryl Strayed. But getting to meet the man, watching him sign that same copy of my first Nick Hornby book my former professor gave me nearly 20 years ago, and, ultimately, his agreeing to sign the cast on my still-healing writing hand (he wished me a quick recovery!) is going to be a memory I will always cherish.

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