The Day I Got to Hang Out with Alice Walker
Writing is not my day job. Since 1999, I’ve worked for audiobook publisher Recorded Books, first as a library sales rep, and starting in 2000 as Director of Acquisitions, a position I continue to hold today. When books are sold, agents or publishers parse out various rights: hardcover rights, paperback rights, foreign rights, movie rights, serial rights, and audio rights. That last one is where I come in. I review probably fifteen to twenty manuscripts a week, decide whether they’re audio-friendly, then make an offer on the audio rights or decline accordingly. In essence, I get paid to read books. I’m not saving the world any time soon, but short of being a full-time writer, it’s as close to the perfect job as I will ever have. Along the way, I’ve met some interesting characters.
The first author I remember meeting face-to-face was Jonathan Franzen. He was in the Recorded Books studios in New York to do an author interview, and he was so intelligent and earnest I thought each word that came out of his mouth made me that much smarter for having heard it. I had a champagne toast with Alice Sebold and her husband Glen David Gold to celebrate her yet-to-be-published debut novel THE LOVELY BONES. I got stuck on an escalator at a Los Angeles book convention behind Tom Sizemore and Heidi Fleiss and watched as Tom proceeded to lick the side of Heidi’s face. I had breakfast with Richard Dreyfuss, who proceeded to recount the time he and Billy Zane discovered a Colorado museum dedicated to bison that also happened to own an authentic Shakespeare folio. I met Gene Simmons from KISS, and he autographed a lunch box for me. But my high water mark had to be the day I got to hang out with Alice Walker.
When I was promoted into the acquisitions department at Recorded Books, I made my own personal “honey do” list of classic evergreen titles I couldn’t find in audio. One of these titles was Alice Walker’s seminal classic, THE COLOR PURPLE. I called her agent, the late Wendy Weil, who I would come to regard as one of my most cherished mentors in all of publishing. Wendy was straight with me about the audio rights. She told me plenty of interested parties had come knocking on her door over the years, that Alice Walker very much wanted to see THE COLOR PURPLE produced in audio, but that it was under the condition that only Alice get to narrate the book, and that presently Alice simply didn’t have the time to do so, and that I was to check back later.
I called Wendy once a month asking for the rights…for nine years.
Long story short, in 2009 Recorded Books consummated a deal for the audio rights to THE COLOR PURPLE, with Alice Walker as our narrator. In recognition of that production, we invited Ms. Walker to be our special guest at a librarian dinner for the March 2010 PLA Conference in Portland, Oregon.
Now, these events aren’t unusual for Recorded Books. Previous author events at the big national shows—PLA, ALA and BEA—had included the award-winning memoirist Alexandra Fuller, beloved mystery writer Alexander McCall Smith and blockbuster best-selling author Jodi Picoult. Normally, all the logistics—the car to and from the airport, the hotel, the meals, etc.—would be handled by one of my assistants, or perhaps the library sales director, or even a local rep familiar with the area. But not this time. When Alice Walker got off that plane at Portland International Airport, I was the one who was going to meet her, and nobody else.
I had this preconceived image of Alice Walker as a sort of Nubian queen based largely on just the photos of her circulating on the Internet. She was usually at a podium, no doubt saying something profound, her hair in dreads, sometimes wearing reading glasses, with a knowing smile. As she approached me in the airport, she didn’t disappoint. Her dreads were gone, replaced by a short salt-and-pepper swirl of tight curls, but those high golden cheek bones and piercing eyes were still unmistakable. I introduced myself. She leaned in and shook my hand. Her greeting was courteous and cautious, what I expected from an intellectual.
I picked Alice up at the airport a little before noon on Saturday, but our event wasn’t scheduled until 7 PM that night. In between those times, Alice and I spent roughly four hours sightseeing in Portland before I dropped her off at her hotel. We had lunch, a couple sandwiches I don’t even remember eating because I was so smitten. We talked about a lot of things, things out of respect to Ms. Walker I prefer to keep between us. I’ll say only that she’s as beautiful, as wise and as intense as you think she is. I know I struck Alice as a bit of an oddity. There I was, this clean-cut white boy from Indiana, who called himself a social progressive, a liberal, and at least as much as he could claim to be, a feminist. Truthfully, she asked most of the questions, as if I was a figment of her imagination.
The time finally came for the event. Our library director was emcee for the night. He took the stage, saying a few words to a crowd of roughly 200 librarians, then he ceded the floor to Alice. She told the story she had probably told a thousand times about how she came to be a writer and an activist. We hung on her every word: mesmerized, entranced, whatever you want to call it. There are just people who are that impressive, who transcend the moment. Several times that day, I found myself trying to slow things down and step outside myself, just so I could take a mental snapshot. Alice progressed into the story of THE COLOR PURPLE itself: the book, the movie, and then the Broadway musical. She talked about the time Quincy Jones and Steven Spielberg showed up at her house “in a limousine longer than my driveway.” She talked about Oprah. Alice weaved one anecdote into another. None of us wanted the night to end, but it looked like it was going to. “After the Broadway show,” Alice said, “I thought the story of THE COLOR PURPLE was over.”
And that’s when it happened. That’s when Alice Walker looked down from the stage at this clean-cut white boy from Indiana and said, “But then there was Brian.”
She told the story about me calling her agent every month for nine years. She talked about the audio production and about how she fought through some laryngitis. She even talked a little bit about our day in Portland. She ended her story by giving me a personal standing ovation. After Alice finished and graciously posed with librarians for a few pictures, a handful insisted that they get their pictures taken with both Alice and me. It was humbling. It was surreal. It was whatever superlative you could possibly imagine.
I’d like to say there was a poignant goodbye, but life can’t be that poetic all the time. Alice was on an early flight out the next morning and wanted to get to bed early. I still had some glad-handing to do with librarians, not to mention at least an hour of power drinking in the hopes of somehow bringing me down off my euphoric high. Alice said goodnight to me just outside the banquet hall before going to her room. She leaned in, kissed me on the cheek, and we hugged. Her goodbye was sweet and tender, what I expected from a friend.
I had come into that weekend in Portland fairly depressed. A closet writer, I had a manuscript that had been on submission to publishing houses for three years. I had got a few nibbles and been to a couple ed board meetings, but the rejections were starting to pile up, and I was teetering on hopelessness. Alice Walker changed all that.Maybe I’d get published someday, but maybe I wouldn’t. So what? All Ineeded to do was be a better person, to appreciate everyone and everything around me—to“walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and notice it”—and the rest would take care of itself.
About Brian Sweany:
For future details, check out the author’s website at : www.briansweany.com