It’s difficult to know what to expect when you meet one of your heroes. Will they be everything you’ve ever dreamed of? Will they be a pompous ass? Will they disappoint you?
I look up to a lot of people in my life, like my grandmother and my high school English teacher. Others are more distant inspirations, like Julie Andrews and James Baldwin. A few weeks ago, I got to meet one of my greatest writing inspirations, Swedish author Fredrik Backman, and it was an incredibly special and unexpected experience.
I was introduced to Backman’s work by the owner of my local bookstore, Chapter Two Books. I always trust Brian for great book suggestions, so when he told me to read his debut novel, A Man Called Ove, I immediately bought it. Countless outbursts of laughter and puddles of tears later, I was hooked. I have never felt more connected to or inspired by a writer in my entire life.
Backman has a divine mastery of character, which is something that I truly value in a piece of literature and try to develop in my own writing. His pitch perfect world building makes the reader feel as if they are an integral part of his diverse cast of characters, making every characters’ triumphs and downfalls feel deeply personal. When I was nearing the end of Ove, I felt a wave of grief wash over my heart. I didn’t want the book to end. I sat in the blistering sun outside a St. Paul coffee shop shedding quiet tears of joy and mourning because the novel had touched me in ways I hadn’t been touched in a very long time. So when Brian told me that he booked Backman for an author interview and book signing, I was overjoyed and marked it on my calendar months in advance.
After lots of anticipation, the day finally came for the event, and I could hardly contain my joy. My mom and I arrived at the venue and found a seat in the front row right cross from his podium. I gazed around the crowded lobby, realizing I was the youngest attendee by at least 30 years with the exception of a few children and a former high school peer. I was shaking with excitement in my seat, and my mom laughed at my nervousness. Despite her mockery, she understood how big this was for me. As an aspiring writer, the prospect of getting to see a man whose depth of character and understanding of human emotion inspires me endlessly was profoundly emotional.
Fredrick finally approached the podium with an easy awkwardness that was at the same time endearing and surprising. He answered the interviewer’s inquiries with an effortless grace, squeezing insightful observations and personal stories out of straightforward questions. The man who I built up as a literary god was no more intimidating than a small rabbit skirting through the grass, and his charisma made me feel as if he was a friend I had known most of my life. He spoke candidly about his family (his wife sounds incredibly hilarious), and his self-deprecating humor made me trust his authenticity and further admire his subtle humor in real life and in his literature.
There was a book signing at the end of his speech, and my mom and I waited at the end of the line until there were just a few of us left in the library. Despite fully understanding that Fredrick is just a normal man, and therefore I needn’t be afraid of speaking to him, I was freaking out about what I would say when my turn came. There was so much I wanted to tell him. I wanted him to understand just how deeply he impacts me as a reader and as a writer. I wanted him to understand how real his characters feel to me. I wanted him to understand that thousands of miles away from his home in Sweden, he had a young Midwestern woman who considered him her biggest writing inspiration.
Of course, we never say any of these things when we’re presented with someone who has had immeasurable impact on your life. Instead, I choked and looked around for something to talk about, finally asking him about the bracelets on his arm. He told me the sweetest story about how he wanted the Mighty Ducks theme to play when his wife walked down the aisle at their wedding, and she (unsurprisingly) said no. Instead, she made him a bracelet that said “Ducks Fly Together.” That is such an absurdly romantic gesture, and I loved it. My only response was that I once did a community theater show with someone who was an extra in Mighty Ducks 3. Profound, I know. Then I basically stood there awkwardly until he finished signing my books, and I walked away kicking myself for not telling him how much he truly means to me.
Sometimes eloquence is overrated, and sometimes our words fail us. I don’t think it matters whether I would’ve stood there professing my love for his work or if I would’ve stood there in stony silence waiting for him to write a short message to some anonymous admirer. All that matters is that I was there, and that it happened. I’ll never forget meeting this man, even if he may not know the impact of his words on me as an aspiring writer.
Not all heroes wear capes. It just so happens that mine wears beaded bracelets made by his children and a band professing the words of a nineties Disney hockey team.