In the cozy, faux-intimacy that is a writers’ conference, Frank quickly became a central figure in my world that week in the summer of 2003. There were several things that led me to feel like I knew Frank better than I actually did–the fact that he could have been a voice-double for my stepfather, that he told us such intimate stories about his defeats as well as his triumphs and just his general Frank-ness: he was–or at least he seemed to me–an authentic type of person who feels very familiar almost upon meeting.
When I walked into the cocktail party/book signing with my Angela’s Ashes under my arm the third night of the conference, I was relieved to spot Frank across the room with his collar askew and hair rumpled. Well, there’s Frank! I thought, as if I’d spotted my uncle across a crowded train station.
“Theo! How are ya? Do you want me to sign it?” he said, gesturing to the Angela’s Ashes’ under my arm.
“Oh, yes, yes,” I said and fumbled the book into his hands.
He took a moment and scribbled something. I remember thinking, Hmm, that’s more than a signature and reminded myself to not read the inscription in front of him.
“Thanks!” I said, retrieving the book and then I realized that, in fact, I didn’t have anything else to say and didn’t want to seem like an idiot or the sycophant clinging to the famous person, so I made some excuse to head for the other side of the room.
Later, back in my cinder-block dorm room, I was relieved that my roommate hadn’t yet returned. I pulled out the Angela’s Ashes and turned to the title page, and there it was:
To a hell of a writer!
I might as well have been handed a lightening bolt for the reaction this set off in me. Who knows what he was thinking when he wrote this–for all I know this is his standard greeting, maybe he walks down the street saying, “Good Morning, you one hell of a writer, you!”–but for me, I might as well have been little Simba held above my father’s head being promised that I would inherit all I could see before me.
A writer, a real writer, oh for God’s sake, a Pulitzer Prize winner, had called me a writer. Of course, that in itself would have been enough, but the impact of this was exponentially increased by the fact that it was a male writer who reminded me of my stepfather. All my adult life I’d sought out mentors and found them, but they’d always been women. It wasn’t that men wouldn’t have been willing to mentor me but I’d never dared to seek them out of fear of being turned down. Just before my stepfather died, he cleared the hospital room to tell me “You’ve made me so happy,” and I’m ashamed to say that even then all I wanted to ask him was, “But are you proud of me?”
I know it sounds crazy and weird but that summer night in 2003, I felt like this other Irish guy gave me the answer I’d wanted.