It’s that time of year again,  when my beloved Bella Voce whisks me away from the drone of small town life and catapults me, like a babe in the woods, into the glittering world of the literary elite.  Oh, the cocktails, the schmoozing, the name-dropping and agent-swapping circle of artists and poets!  It’s Genius meets Decadence at its best.

Well, actually, it’s lunch at a hotel in Portland.  But just go with it.

You may remember my last misadventure at Bella Voce wherein I stalked Rebecca Skloot–unsuccessfully–across the hotel ballroom in a desperate attempt to get a picture and a few moments of chitchat.  She somehow (unintentionally, I’m sure) skedaddled away from me and I had to settle for a long-range photo during the book signing, just like everyone else.  And the chitchat?  Forget it–her assistant snapped the shot and moved me through that line like common cattle.  I didn’t exchange a single pleasantry with Ms. Skloot and, truth be told, she didn’t seem all that excited about having me as a fan.  (Go figure.)  And though I always love BellaVoce, the gray February sky that hung over me as I drove home that day reflected my mood just a bit.  I’d spent the afternoon listening to an articulate, matter-of-fact woman talk about stem cell research.  It was interesting; it was informative.  It was moral.  It was what it was.

Fast forward three months to a dazzlingly sunny day in May.  Cruising down the Gorge with my sunroof open wide, I watched the sagebrush turn to rock turn to shrubs turn to trees, the metamorphosis taking place along the sweep of the sparkling Columbia River.  It was one of those rare spring days when the sunshine from the east held steady all the way to the west, and I took this as a bright sign of things to come.  For though I was going to see an author I’d never heard of (Jess Walter) talk about a book I’d never read (Beautiful Ruins), I just knew that this time, I’d get everything right.  The stalking, the photo-opting, the chitchat.  Oh, the chitchat!  My husband says I’m the only person alive who uses that word, but he obviously has no appreciation for the art–or etymology–of the chitchat.  Of course he doesn’t; he’s an engineer.  Engineers don’t understand that chitchat is the fiber by which we weave our cultural threads.  Jess Walter, I’m sure, would.  He may be a male, but he was a male writer.  And that means he’d be capable of chitchat.

I made it to town, parked the car, and ran-walked into the hotel.  I headed for the ballroom where my friend Lisa would be waiting for me, but upon breezing through the open doors, I quickly learned that I had made a wrong turn and instead landed in Italy.  For suddenly I was awash in a sea of blue and green gauziness.  The tables and chairs were covered in white linens and aqua tulle with glassy beads poured over every spare surface.  Enormous Italian landscapes graced the walls which, with the scent of fresh flowers that spilled over the tables, assured every person in the room that they had just stepped inside their dream vacation.  And when the writer approached the podium and began to speak, so we had.  He was that good.  And the day was that dreamy.


Me with my darling friend Lisa, Bella Voce benefactress and the woman I’ll be in my next life.

Jess Walter was brilliant and funny and fascinating and self-deprecating.  He’s a New York Times bestselling author, a finalist for the National Book Award, has had his novels published in over thirty languages, and yet still lives in his childhood home of (drumroll please…) Spokane, Washington.  An east-sider!  You may remember me joking, in my last Bella Voce post, that the next author I stalked might think I’m “crushing” on him?  Fifteen minutes into his speech, those words became prophetic.  He had me at “Spokane.”

He talked about his latest book, Beautiful Ruins, which is set between 1960s Italy (hence, the ballroom decor) and modern-day Hollywood.  Can you think of anything more fun to read this summer?  I can’t—and I can’t think of anyone more fun to listen to than Jess Walter.  When his lecture (comedy routine) was over and the Q&A session wrapping up, Lisa leaned over to me and whispered, “Are you going for a signing again?”

“Are you kidding?  I’m not just going for the signing; I’m going to meet him, and talk to him, and get my photo with him, and run off with him.”  Wait.  Did I say that last part out loud?


“Um, I’m going to get my picture with him.”

Before Mr. Walter had even stepped down from the stage, Lisa had cleared a beeline for me straight to his person, around which numerous middle-aged women were already clustering.  We approached him from behind and, in a gesture diametrically opposite to that of Rebecca Skloot (who, you may recall, kept walking away from me), Mr. Walters turned around and said “Hello there!” with a wide smile, as though he’d been expecting us both.  Lisa wasted no time in stepping back a few feet with her camera and telling us to pose.  That woman is efficient, I’m telling you.  She knew that just a few misplaced seconds and a determined assistant could snatch away our subject and foil my plans.

“Oh, you want a picture?” Jess asked me.

“Um, yeah–yes, if that’s okay?”

“You bet!”    And so inside of a minute (that plays out in my mind like a week) we took the photo, we shook hands, we stood and chitchatted.  And at the risk of getting too personal on this blog, let me just say that if things don’t work out with Derrick, I have a solid Plan B.


Jen and Jess, together for ever a minute

And ladies, it gets better:  he was the one who suggested I hold up the book, so I could remember what the lecture had been about.  Oh Jess…as if I could ever forget!  And then, as Lisa wisely foresaw, he was scurried off to his signing table where a huge line had already formed.  Well past discretion by now, I galloped straight behind him and staked my claim in line.  When my turn finally arrived, he looked up with (what I was sure was) a spark of welcome recognition.

“Well hello again!”

“Hi!”  I may have said this a little too loudly.  “Ha ha–I’m stalking you!  Ha ha!”  My eyes were wide (dialated) and my smile friendly (eager).

“Well, that’s great.  I always wished my stalkers had more energy.”  He was smiling patiently, but wait…did he mean I was coming off as too energetic?  Impossible.  I couldn’t think of anything to say except:

“Well…yeah…I do!  Ha ha!”  This may have been said, again, a little too loudly.  But in true Jess Walter fashion, he  was gracious and smooth and simply asked me a few more questions about myself as he signed my Beautiful Ruins in his beautiful hand.  And what you need to understand is that my book was already signed on the inside cover; that’s a standard courtesy the visiting authors perform for all Bella Voce guests.  Now, however, he would write his own, personal greeting on the title page.  To me.




And with these fifteen words, Jess Walter transformed me from Stalker to Groupie to Fan to Friend.  In my own mind, at least.  Which is, rather happily, a beautiful ruin of its own.


Have I told you about Bella Voce?   Because it’s the coolest thing I do.  Which is hardly an impressive distinction, I know, considering the level of my Cool Barometer, but that won’t stop me from bragging about it.  Bella Voce is an authors series sponsored by the Sterling Wealth Management Group, which is run by Sterling Bank, which is where my hubby’s business banks.  (Did you follow that?  Me neither.)  One of his partners, Lisa, holds three tickets to the tri-annual event and uses them as a marketing tool and fun perk for her many clients and colleagues.  A  couple of years ago, Lisa–being the kind and generous rock star that she is–offered the third ticket to me, indefinitely.  Her reasoning for sacrificing one of the coveted spots to a no-name gal east of the Gorge?  She knew I liked to read, and she thought that I’d enjoy it.  That’s all; that’s the way warm and thoughtful Lisa thinks.  So thanks to her, I get to bypass the long waiting list and high ticket price and, three days each year, I get to shimmy over to downtown Portland to sit in a beautiful ballroom, eat wonderful food, meet wonderful people, and listen to various New York Times bestselling authors talk about life as a writer.  If you think it sounds like a Pretentious Wannabe’s Dream Come True, you are absolutely right.  I gulp down this opportunity like a Tri-Citian does her Slurpees and let me tell you, even the Cherry Fanta doesn’t go down as smooth.  Bella Voce is interesting and exciting and genteel.  It’s enough to make a housewife smile.

Here’s me and my tablemate, Judi, after listening to Elizabeth Berg last year, who was charming and funny and really needs to be My New Best Friend.  (If only I could make her see.)  I have no photos with Lisa, as she is always behind the camera in her signature self-deprecation, making sure everyone else looks great and has fun.  I, on the other hand, will grasp at any photographic evidence of me doing Something Cool.  (I fear this speaks volumes about my insecurities, but…whatev.  Take the picture, get the flowers in it.)

Some of the other writers who’ve come are Lisa See, Ivan Doig, Anita ShreveCheryl Strand (I was glad to miss that one; email me if you want to know why), Heidi Durrow and, believe it or not, the great Ann Patchett.  (And, believe it or not, I missed the great Ann Patchett because my darling baby sister decided to go and have a darling baby of her own that week and, in spite of myself, I was compelled to go visit said baby and said sister.  Hmph.  Still kinda mad about it.)  (But the baby was darling.  I guess.)

So last week Bella Voce rolled around again, and brought with it the fantastic and formidable Rebecca Skloot, who’s won (and is probably still winning) countless awards for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  Have you read it?  It’s fab.  Beefy and fascinating and fab.  My science-minded friends were enraptured; I was ardently impressed.  This writer knows her stuff.  I was determined to meet her afterward, if only for the purpose of bragging about it on this blog.  (See pp. 2, insecurities.)

As soon as Ms. Skloot left the stage and the lights went up, I beelined to where she stood talking with some bigwigs and slowed down to make my approach seem casual.  Their backs were all turned to me, however, and in a series of unfortunate events, the group began walking away from me just as I was walking toward them, oblivious (I hoped) to my lingering presence several paces behind.  An awkward moment ensued as I quickened my pace a little, trying to catch up with Rebecca and Friends, all of whom were walking–deliberately, it seemed–faster than I could follow, still with their backs turned to me, still ignoring my desperate attempt to infiltrate their clique.  Flashbacks from middle school nearly thwarted my mission, but I quickly refocused and continued stalking my prey.  I followed Rebecca silently and shamelessly all the way across the ballroom, until she found a seat behind a draped table with a long line forming in front of it for book signings.  Despite the time I felt we’d already spent together, I had no choice but to redirect my course to the back of the line, even though I was certain none of the ladies in front of me had hunted down Rebecca with the devotion I had.  But in the spirit of the event, I chose Graciousness and quietly waited my turn.  When it came, I worked up the courage to ask for a picture with her.  She agreed and her assistant snapped this dark, terrible shot.  I wish I could say it was not another awkward moment, but it was.  I can’t put my finger on why.  I just felt like a jack-a.

Turns out I looked like one too.  Please forgive the pooch.  I’m blaming winter, the camera angle, and forgetting to wear my Spanx that day.  I am not blaming my own perpetual lack of self-control, thankyouverymuch.  (And those are boots, not my calves!  Please be aware.)  It took a lot of nerve for me to post this pic, and I see my willingness to do so as a mark of emotional growth (read:  giving up the fight.)

Rebecca was polite enough, but I think maybe I’m just getting too old to be a groupie.  Come to think of it, if chasing down writers (instead of a band) for a photo that will impress no one (instead of everyone) causes you to call yourself a “groupie,” then you are definitely too old to be classified as one–no maybe about it.  But hey: I figure with this photo I’ve significantly raised my Cool Barometer–which hasn’t budged since 1995 when I married an engineer–and that’s what it’s really all about.  Afterward, I tempered my awkward Rebecca sighting with a little retail therapy downtown (new Spanx and a new skirt were first to be purchased), and that put all things aright.  And I still had a blast at this event, and I still think Lisa hangs the moon, and I still can’t wait for the next one in May.

And can you guess whose coming to lunch in May?  Leave your answer in the comment section; whoever guesses correctly gets a free copy of his (hint!) book.  I haven’t read it yet so I make no claims about the content, but let’s just say that it’s a runaway bestseller with a pretty, pretty cover.  And a title that every middle-aged woman can relate to.  In fact, so excited am I about this book, that whoever wins it will also receive a framed 16×20 picture of me, Rebecca, and my gut.  Just to sweeten the deal–and remind you who your Great Spanxless Benefactress is.

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