Many of us never meet the living authors who influence us.
I met William Gibson, twice, before reading one word he had written.
I’d known about William Gibson since the late 80s. Cyberpunk, which WG helped pioneer, is a gritty, snarly, neon-in-rain, dystopian genre. I was more of a Star Wars kind of kid. Any time I’d mention that I was a fan of SF, folks would wax rhapsodic about Neuromancer and I’d nod and say, “I know, I know.”
These kinds of conversations continued until the mid-1990s when I actually met WG in person. Below is a timeline of what happened next:
1996. Claremont, California. I was a student at Pitzer College. My classmates Armand and Mike – both huge WG fans – took me to the Athenaeum at Claremont McKenna college, where WG was slated to speak. After he sat down, I remember WG saying something like, “LA looked very Blade Runner-like as I raced down the 10 freeway.” Pretty cool. I bought Neuromancer and he signed it for me.
1999. Seattle,Washington. My friends Jesse and Shirleen Nelson – both massive WG fans – took me to a WG reading for All Tomorrow’s Parties. I still had yet to read a word of his fiction. Jesse, Shirlee, and I were involved in “The Apparent Boulevard,” a DIY fiction magazine we created and peddled. Jesse handed an issue to WG, who accepted it gracefully. I had Neuromancer on hand and stupidly didn’t realize that WG had already signed it. After an awkward moment, he graciously dated it and said, “in the future, when people see this signature, they’ll wonder why there are two different inks.” Pretty wicked.
2004. Portland, Oregon. I finally read Neuromancer. Mind=blown. I start to look at fiction writing in a new way. “Chromed” and “cased” become new favorite words. William Gibson had only written about 9 or so novels at the time and a handful of short stories. I began to ration them, planning when I would read each one.
2010. Portland, Oregon. By this time, I had read most WG novels and all his short stories (favorite WG short story: “The Winter Market”). He came to Powells, the City of Books. The room was packed. He read from Zero History, his latest novel. He made jokes about Twitter and cyberpunk manifestos. When it came time to sign my books, I was shy and didn’t say anything even though I had far more to say than ever before. He inscribed Zero History to me, and then simply signed his name to the rest while I stood by, mute. (I was too shy to ask him to inscribe the others.)
In our Internet Age of Immediacy, there is still no substitute for seeing a favorite author in person. You see them up close, hear the cadence of their speech, note the clothes they wear, and watch how they sign their books. At a reading, authors become more than the mysterious conjurers of words on page and screen. They become closer and more distant at the same time.
William Gibson has a particular gift, on page and in person. Check out these opening lines from Zero History:
Pearlescent silver this one. Glyped in Prussian blue, advertising something German, banking services or business software; a smoother simulacrum of its black ancestors, its faux-leather upholstery a shade of orthopedic fawn.
Before reading that, I’d never thought to use “glyped” as a verb or “orthopedic” as an adjective, did you? With a a few carefully-chosen words, he can evoke a fully-realized setting. In person, he speaks with a Southern drawl, and he said that many Southern writers speak in an “incantatory” way. It makes you read his words differently, knowing that.
I’m not sure when we’ll see a new William Gibson novel. It may be 3 years, 5 years, or 10 years. It doesn’t matter. When I see him next, I know what I’ll do.
When it comes time for the signing, I’ll ask him to inscribe the novels he signed in 2010, with different ink, “to Mahesh.”