Sean Bernard’s Real-Time CA WEX Running Diary

Thursday, March 11

5:30 AM: Wake up in California. Lame. Two-hour drive to LAX airport, another hour in security. Run onto plane, barely making flight. Speed-read Peter Carey and Meg Wolitzer books in advance of meeting them. Begin preparatory insecure stereotyping of people I’ll meet: Famous authors will be interesting but aloof. Editors will be insanely intimidating and rushed for time. Agents will be bored by my weird fiction and will talk very quickly. All of them will only have polite-curiosity, versus sincere-curiosity, which is something only the literary poor (indie press people, struggling writers) can afford.

5:30 PM: New York! Well, Newark. No Jay-Z, no Alicia. Cab to hotel, where ebullient guy at check-in is sad we didn’t arrive the previous week because, wow, the weather was really nice. Drop bags, wander Chelsea, eat a slice of New York pizza. It really is foldable. It really does taste like pizza.

8:30 PM: Vietnamese-French dinner with the amazing two-books-under-his-belt-and-four-time-Grammy-award-winning-nice-guy-who-knows-everyone CA WEX poetry winner, Craig Santos Perez. Also our official chaperones, Cheryl Klein and Jamie FitzGerald, who don’t look at all like Rocky IV’s Siberian Russian bodyguards. I immediately feel awkward about my for-the-occasion fluffy beard.

Friday, March 12

9 AM: First-night-in-hotel-sleep = coffee.

9:10 AM: There’s a cat wandering the hotel. No one seems alarmed by this.

10 AM: En route to the Poets & Writers office, our foursome passes Alexander Hamilton’s tomb. Ho-hum, just, you know, one of the founding fathers! I’m a sap for the revolutionaries, what can I say. At the office, we meet the entire staff (save the Webmaster; everyone ‘jokes’ that he’s locked away). Everyone is very hip but not in the clingy LA way of being hip. They clearly read the New Yorker and I’m jealous since most of the articles actually mean something to them. In fact, everyone is way cooler than me, and also kind, even the staff members whose work we’re clearly interrupting. Sadly, we’re told, the weather last week was just awesome. Too bad about the storm!

11:30 AM: Stroll Battery Park beneath spritzing, slightly horizontal rain.

12:30 PM: Cheryl and I have lunch at Savoy with Peter effing Carey. When a two-time Booker winner would rather chat about gardening, living in walkable towns, crummy weather, and the fantastic fried Maine shrimp on the menu (versus topics such as publishing, agents, his own awesomeness), I feel deeply reassured that being normal and having future success are not mutually exclusive. He’s impressed when I explain why pound cake is so named. (It’s on my factoids-to-impress-people list.) Trip highlight.

2 PM: I was just kidding about having a factoids list. Really.

3 PM: Back with Craig and Jamie, our foursome meets with Josh Kendall, senior editor extraordinaire at Viking/Penguin. Frank Stella works hang madly in the expansive lobby. We must first clear security to talk to Kendall, who’s younger than me, I’m pretty sure (and I’m young enough to like South Park). He talks for an hour. We sit and nod. I feel deeply worried that being normal and having future success are mutually exclusive, after all. Post-meeting, our foursome stands numbly on the descending elevator.

4:30 PM: Call Mom, wish her happy birthday. (True! Though I’m admittedly adding this to present myself as a nice and thoughtful son.) Run into the cat in the hallway. We consider each other slowly before walking separate ways.

7 PM: Dinner with Martha Rhodes, founder of Four Way Books, the great indie poetry (and some fiction) press. French food! Craig orders bone marrow, I order raw steak with raw quail egg. We are men! In New York City! Martha Rhodes is awesome—sincerely curious about us, enthusiastic, fun. More wine? Of course more wine!

Saturday, March 13

Power outages to hundreds of thousands in the New York area. We brought a little California disaster with us. Hey, that’s how we roll.

Sunday, March 14

The bad weather continues.

3 PM: Reading in Harlem, the Hue-Man bookstore. Nicely appointed place, odd organizational system. The reading goes well, according to family and friends. Elliot Figman, P&W executive director, kindly tells me he liked a particular image in my story. I say, “Yeah, that one’s a good description,” and moments later realize how vain and obnoxious I sounded. (It is a good one, though.) Craig’s part of the reading blows mine away: He milks the crowd, takes our photo, gets us all to yell and shout. Am I envious? I am. (Is it possible to write something like this—succinct, self-involved—without leaning heavily on self-effacement? I don’t think so. Blame Wes Anderson. I’m admittedly writing this in the plaintive voice of Jason Schwartzman. That fox movie was great; check it out.)

Monday, March 15

10 AM: Cheryl and I breakfast with Amy Williams, high-powered agent extraordinaire. She points out what a bummer, the weather, etc. Gives advice: Novels sell more easily than stories. Have a one-page query. Expresses concern about how e-publishing will affect the industry. She’s read my prize-winning story—three times!—and sort of thought parts were okay. Talks about how much photography means to her and about how she likes being at her agency (rather than working for a firm), as it allows her more integration with her writers. Also talks about James Spader. Yup, James Spader.

12:30 PM: Our foursome meets up for lunch at a fantastic Indian place (Tamarind) with Renée Zuckerbrot, high-powered agent extraordinaire, and Meg Wolitzer, family-novelist extraordinaire. Meg and I talk a little about Iowa City, where we’ve both lived (pie shakes are discussed at length). Renée tells us how she was infected by a nuclear spider in college, which gave her the super-agent powers she has today. When she voices editorial concerns about my story, Meg Wolitzer sticks up for the story; Meg Wolitzer is super-awesome. Everyone is worried about the future of the publishing industry, specifically enriching e-texts, which sounds nicely nutritional, like book Wonderbread.

Afternoon: Sneak off to the High Line and Chelsea Market. Both pretty sweet places. This is only the third time I’ve been to NYC, and the other two visits were 48-hour whirlwinds back in college. Chelsea is a great area, and the High Line is a nice little path about twenty or thirty feet above the streets, so you feel dislocated, a new view of the city, and look! Megan Fox on an enormous billboard (weird thumbs hidden, natch)! Then I wander down to Greenwich Village, another great area. New York—as everyone knows —is a great city. Smart, efficient. People are considerate. Very well done. Bravo, guys. I was there less than a week, I’m an expert.

6:30 PM: Our foursome meets for dinner in Greenwich Village with “the Kundiman guys,” Vikas and Joseph, who are entirely awesome: Young writers who’ve set up an annual retreat for Asian-American poets (complemented by a reading series and, this year, a book prize). They don’t mention the crummy weather, don’t talk about e-publishing, just talk about their own struggles, their own successes, and we all talk about the same. This more than anything on the trip is the writing life: sitting in a nice little Village restaurant (Cornelia Street Café), drinking wine, and talking about writing with writers.

Tuesday, March 16

Penultimate day. Pet the cat. Cat purrs. We shake hands and agree to be friends. Sun comes out. Sixty-five degrees. I mean, I liked the city when it was spitting rain and blowing trees down. On a day like this? Don’t make me leave.

9:30 AM: Our foursome makes a fearless walk one entire block from our hotel to the New Directions offices. New Directions is basically the greatest publishing house you have or haven’t heard of before. Really—go look it up. Check out the catalog: not just the old stuff, the new stuff, too. Now imagine walking through several offices messy with books, meeting the people who put that literature out into the world. Enough said.

12:30 PM: Lunch with Rigoberto Gonzalez. I’ll admit right now I didn’t know anything about Rigoberto before meeting him. He is shockingly prolific: I won’t even share his crazy work routine, but he’s under forty and he’s done this: published novels, children’s books, poetry collections (award-winning, at that), teaches in Rutgers’s MFA program, and works with the El Paso Times of Texas, PEN, the National Book Awards, the National Books Critic Circle, the NSA, and is the galactic president of Mensa. And to top it off, he’s entirely unassuming. More than any other meetings, this is the one that inspires/shames me the most, the Rilkean You must change your life meeting.

3 PM: Meet at Little, Brown offices in Midtown (I casually toss around terms like ‘Midtown’ now). The building’s atrium is too shiny and frightening and awesome to describe. Asya Muchnick meets with us. She’s bought/edited books by Alice Sebold, Stephanie Meyer, and Richard Lange, the last a very literary, gritty Los Angeles writer who doesn’t have any vampires or angels. This meeting, final on my docket, is a counterpoint in many ways to the meetings with the agents and other editor: Asya is high-powered, clearly, but in a quieter way. She talks to us about the industry, gives us all a few pointers, asks us how we learn about books, seems curious, very down to earth. A refreshing encounter that will keep me, sadly, from stereotyping ‘big’ publishing. Sigh.

Evening: Final dinner with Cheryl, Jamie, and Craig. We eat in a very odd local Italian place, talk about the trip highlights, promise to become Facebook friends (I pretend to know what that means), and say our goodbyes. Great trip with a big learning experience: If you want to be a wealthy and famous and successful literary author, there are a lot of smart and hard-working people trained to help, and you won’t necessarily end up being a shallow awful person. I guess I should have known that already. So it was an educational, busy, exciting, strange, and almost—but not quite—overwhelming tour.

Exactly as it should have been.