BATON ROUGE—I am at the Louisiana Book Festival. The downtown is overrun with tents, vendors, and lots of book-people.
Book-people look just like real people, only they aren’t. They have much bigger vocabularies. Many of them have earned doctorates in fields of study like post-Romantic Russian interior plumbing.
These are the kinds of brilliant people who spend two years writing a four-hundred-page dissertation about precolonial usage of the semicolon.
People who use words like “prosaic” in daily conversation.
Prosaic, I just discovered, means plain. Ordinary. Sort of run-of-the-mill. One book festival volunteer (a grad student) used this word—this is the truth—when he was giving me directions to the bathroom.
“It’s just down that hallway,” he said, “to the right, over by that rather prosaic-looking plant.”
He even used the hyphen.
So believe me, these book-people are all very nice, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that some of these well-dressed folks are the kind who—how do I put this?—have never heard of Rusty Wallace.
But it’s a great festival. Baton Rouge really comes alive. It’s not a stuffy literary gig at all. It’s fun. There are live bands playing jazz and Cajun music. The smell of jambalaya is in the air. Many vendors are serving boudin, which is basically Cajun sausage on crack.
I am standing on the sidewalk, waiting for a ride to my presentation downtown. A black SUV pulls to the curb. A chauffeur wearing a suit opens the door and asks me to get in.
“No thanks,” I say. “I’m waiting for my ride.”
“I am your ride, sir.”
“You mean this stud mobile is for me?”
He makes no facial expression. “Please, sir.”
I have never had a chauffeur before. On the ride over I am cracking all sorts of jokes to lighten the mood, asking where my mimosa is. Come to find out, chauffeurs don’t find mimosa jokes funny.
He drops me at the capitol building and soon I am on a panel with other authors. We’re doing a town-hall discussion before a small audience comprised of other authors, grad students, professors, and people who frequently tell Charles to go saddle their horse.
One person asks the panel how we came up with ideas for our books.
AUTHOR 1: Well, it’s hard to say, I know that I personally felt like I had a real story that needed telling.
AUTHOR 2: I was motivated to write via a desire to communicate the unforeseen symbolism that life can present, and the subversive implications of it all. Realism notwithstanding.
ME: I was at a Willie Nelson concert.
Which is really how it happened. I was at a Willie concert when I first came up with the idea to write a novel. He was singing “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” and I’ll bet he did a good job singing. Though I wouldn’t know. I couldn’t hear Willie over the sound of my own singing voice.
I was having a gust of inspiration at that concert. I was going to write a book! A novel! A thick one! A book that was all about… Well… I don’t know! Stuff! Yeah! A book about stuff! That’s it! And this book would also be about… Well… More stuff!
So I didn’t have the details nailed down, but one thing I did know: I was going to do it, by God.
Then all at once, the concert arena started getting very foggy and I got dizzy. Then, I noticed President Abraham Liconln was sitting beside me, along with all four of the Beatles who were holding live alligators in their laps.
Anyway, I forget what I was talking about.
Oh, yes. Willie. Ever since childhood, I dreamed of seeing Willie. Because compared to all the country music stars, he was always the Williest.
Back in my childhood we had lots of pathetic country music stars who wore rhinestone Nudie suits, and boots that cost $1600 bucks. A lot of these guys had never done a hard day’s work in their lives and used more hairspray than all fifty-one Miss USA pageant contestants combined.
But then we had Willie.
I know he’s not exactly a role model for a young kid, but he was a redhead like me. He wasn’t the best singer. He wasn’t the best showman. He wasn’t the best looking. His hindparts weren’t rock solid, and no crazed female fans were throwing their underwear at him on stage. He was just a regular guy.
At that concert, my whole childhood came back to me. I remembered the night my father let me stay up late to see Willie on the Tonight Show. Or the one weekend I sat in my room learning to play “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” on guitar.
When Willie walked onto that stage, he was an old friend. He wore a T-shirt, a cowboy hat, tennis shoes. He didn’t do the theatrics all the other country-pop stars did. He didn’t hurl T-shirts into the audience, or prance around while being followed by backup dancers, no pyrotechnical explosions.
He was an eighty-some-year-old man playing guitar. And it touched me. I knew from that moment on, my life would take a sharp turn, and no matter what I did, no matter where I found myself, no matter what happened, I was going to do my best to write a book. And Ringo’s pet alligator would help me.
And if I were lucky, maybe even my late father would look down from heaven and be proud of the prosaic guy his redheaded son became.