By Kay Kendall
When I was the age of 20 through 45, I only had occasion to see live, in person, three authors of note. The first was Truman Capote, soon after In Cold Blood became a bestseller. He stepped out on the basketball court of Allen Field House at the University of Kansas, a diminutive figure in a place usually dominated by giants.
He smiled faintly at a crowd of a thousand people and began to read immediately from his non-fiction account of the murder of the Klutter family on a farm in western Kansas. He hypnotized the audience with his performance, despite his voice being so high-pitched that it almost squeaked. In Cold Blood went on to become today’s second highest selling true crime book of all time—behind only Helter Skelter about the Manson murders.
|P.D. James, 1920-2014|
One of my majors in college was English literature so it was natural for me to be in awe of famous authors whose work I admired. While I never got closer to Mr. Capote than the length of three cars, I sat at the feet, literally, of Margaret Atwood when she read her poetry to an adoring throng of women at the University of British Columbia some four years later. Strangely, this author’s gig also occurred in a gymnasium—although much smaller in size of room and audience than Capote had had. When Atwood finished reading one poem that really captured my heart, I embarrassed myself by gasping aloud and clapping ahead of the other audience members.
Twenty years after the Atwood encounter, I saw a notice in the Houston Chronicle stating that P.D. James would appear at a Border’s bookstore on a coming Sunday. Excitement flooded through me at this news. I’d read and enjoyed all her mysteries and decided to attend this book signing. I’d never been to one before and figured she would be an excellent choice to start with.
That hallowed day dawned wet and gloomy. Undeterred by the rain, I drove half way across Houston (no small undertaking) to meet P.D. James and to have her sign her latest mystery, Original Sin. The ninth book in her series starring Commander Adam Dalgleish featured murder afoot in a publishing company in London.
I arrived early at the bookstore but rather bedraggled from tramping across the parking lot in torrents of rain. Houston was experiencing what I’d learned to call its version of a monsoon. Once inside the store, I was told by staffers that Ms. James’s plane was delayed by the weather, but she was expected to appear shortly. We were encouraged to wait. A group of thirty did so.
After an hour had passed, the throng had dwindled by half. The restless remnant was told the author would come, no matter what, but it might be a long while. I turned to a women beside me and said, in honor of the author’s British heritage, “In for a penny, in for a pound.”
After a total of three hours, P.D. James finally arrived. By that time only five dauntless readers remained. I was second in line. She signed my book and talked pleasantly with me for several minutes. I was so thrilled I thought I might levitate.
Looking back two decades later, I no longer recall what we talked about. I do remember how kind and gracious she was. Meeting P.D. James remains a high point in my life.
When I read of her passing last week at the age of 94, of course I recalled my shining moments talking with her. Knopf Vintage, her longtime publisher, calls P.D. James “the everywhere adored queen of crime fiction,” and she certainly was that for me.
I think it is important to meet one’s heroes, to learn that they are flesh and blood like you, in order to be inspired to follow in their foot steps, in whatever small way possible. Had the august author been too tired and cranky after her travel delay to appear or to be gracious when she spoke with me, who knows if I would have gone on to write my own murder mysteries?
My generation of boomers coined the term groupie. I realize now that term applies to me. I am a groupie of certain authors. No, not in the regular sense since I don’t want to sleep with my favorite authors. I simply want to BE them.
Have you had similar memorable encounters with authors who resonated with you? I hope you have, and if so, I'd love to hear your tales. Please share.