Recently, I visited two well-known writers in my modest suburban neighborhood bordering Chicago's West Side. Oak Park is best known as a virtual museum for Ernest Hemingway, Frank Lloyd Wright and Dr. Percy Julian.
It was at Wright's beautifully-designed, still-being-restored Unity Temple where one Monday night in November, rumple-suited mystery writer Alexander McCall Smith shook my hand and that of a disabled senior next to me. The following night, novelist Amy Tan smiled approvingly as she spotted this reporter scribbling notes.
Both writers took potshots at critics, many of whom never read the books they're critiquing. To be honest, I have not yet read Smith's acclaimed No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, which has been translated into 45 languages, sold more than 20 million copies, and adapted into an HBO series. Nor have I read Amy Tan's The Valley of Amazement, which will most likely achieve or surpass the fame and fortune earned by her previous novels and films, such as The Joy Luck Club. My observations are based more on their public readings, their performances and their rapport with audiences.
In both cases, they were superb.
The Zimbabwe-born, Scotland-educated law professor Smith produced nearly a full house, with the bookseller (The Book Table) telling me folks were lined up for signings two hours after Smith concluded his joyful chat, centered less on his books than on "manners."
Without a doubt, Amy Tan produced a much more diverse audience with many more people of color, women, and, notably, mother-daughter pairs. Of course she discussed her mother's influence in recent and past novels, which seemed to strike a chord with the crowd. When she read in her calm, lyrical voice, discussing "riddles of hope," "yearnings," and how her character "could not see out of the labyrinth," the audience was spellbound by her poetic storytelling.
For example: "I never knew my mother had a divorce. I never knew my mother had lovers. I learned from her and other relatives about how, at the turn of the century, some Chinese men who married White women had their kids snatched and sent to orphanages. … I would sometimes read my drafts to my mother, who would say I was correct, but add that she never told me these things, wondering how I knew these truths. She is pleased with me and what I write. After all, before I was a novelist, I was a successful business writer who was able to buy her a house."
The mothers and daughters all smiled with approval as they lined up for about an hour to praise this brilliant writer during a cordial book-signing, complete with cookies and juice.