NASHVILLE—The book publisher’s building is large, modern-looking, and intimidating. There is a mirror-like finish on the outside.
There is an intercom by the front door. Before getting inside, you must present a valid ID, a birth certificate, the blood of a sacrificial ram, and five years of past tax returns.
No, I’m only kidding. The intercom is probably for weeding out crazy people.
Which is why the most important thing to remember when speaking into this intercom is to relax and be yourself so the receptionist doesn’t think you’re a crazy person.
I mash the button.
“Hello,” I say, using a 17th-century British female accent. “I am not a crazy person.”
The voice says, “Do you have an appointment?”
The door unlatches with a buzzing sound. And I am inside the HarperCollins building. This place is fancy. Tall ceilings, big windows. There’s a pianist in the lobby playing “Moon River” on a six-foot baby grand piano.
Again, this is just a joke. He’s actually playing “Red Sails in the Sunset.”
I am greeted by Alecia and other members of her team. We all exchange hugs. Alecia says, “Thank you so much for being here.”
This seems to be the phrase of the day. I hear it a few hundred times from many nice people.
These are book-people. Their lives revolve around books. Anything you can imagine doing to a book, they have already done it. They eat, sleep, and bench press books.
They think in complete paragraphs that are virtually typo-free. Some copy editors even do double air quotes with their fingers before and after every sentence they say.
There are cubicles everywhere. People at computers. Bookshelves. Coffee makers.
The walls are lined with posters featuring some famous book covers. And these posters all leave you struck with the feeling that pretty much all people in the Western world—including various cast members from “Love Boat”—have written runaway bestsellers.
And I am starting to feel ridiculous about myself. I don’t feel like I belong here.
I am led into a small auditorium. A sound-tech approaches me. He says, “Mister Dietrich, would you like a headset mic or a handheld?”
I opt for the handheld. The last time I wore a headset microphone, I felt the urge to break out into Garth Brooks songs and they never invited me back to the Methodist women’s bingo retreat again.
Soon, the room is full. There are lots of people here. I get handshakes, hugs, and a few Roll Tides.
One Hispanic woman introduces herself and says, “Gracias por estar aquí.”
Which, if my Spanish serves me correctly, means: “The bus driver does not grow pinto beans in Central Asia.”
Then she translates by saying, “It means: Thank you for being here.”
That was my next guess.
After this, I am announced over the microphone by my editor. She asks the audience to “thank Sean for being here.”
And they do. The people applaud and welcome me to the stage where I am supposed to tell stories for thirty minutes, talk about my book, and, God-willing, not say anything stupid.
I take the microphone. I am nervous. Because this is a big deal for me. I am a small-potatoes kind of guy. I don’t do big things. I am so painfully average it hurts. I don’t know what I’m doing here.
Until today, the most notable thing I ever did was ride my bike down Johnny Cooper’s hundred-foot plywood ramp, wearing an Army helmet, with second-grader “Stinky” Reinhardt Jennings strapped to my back.
Don’t get me wrong, public speaking doesn’t bother me. I do it for a living. But mostly, I do it in small towns, telling homespun stories that cause entire groups of people to erupt into spontaneous REM sleep.
This is different.
Before I even start speaking, my nerves kick in. I am swallowing a lot. The audience sort of disappears. So does the microphone.
And I am no longer in my body. I mean this literally. I am long gone. I am millions of miles away. Bye bye, Sean.
In my mind, I am seventeen again. I am sitting on a hay bale in a field somewhere outside Defuniak Springs. It’s two in the morning. My young life sucks. And I’m terrified.
I remember this exact day in my youth. I remember what I was thinking: “Why doesn’t anything ever work out? Why do fathers die young? Why do I lose lose more often than I win? Why am I even here?”
The seventeen-year-old boy looks at the sky and wishes that somehow he could be up there instead of down here.
And for some reason, he remembers this night forever.
But getting back to the book-people. They turn out to be a gracious audience. My talk goes okay. They laugh at all the jokes. They clap when I am finished.
One older woman even kisses my cheek and says, “Your father would be so proud of you, Sean.”
And when it is all over, I leave the space-age building. I get into my vehicle and drive away. I pull over into a parking lot. I take a few deep breaths. I cry a little.
Because the ugliest parts of my life are over. And no matter what comes next, good or bad, pain or happiness, I’m not the scared seventeen-year-old anymore. And I will never be him again.
Whoever you are, wherever you are, and no matter how bad life treats you.
Thank you for being here.