Before I had a book published, I allowed myself all sorts of fantasies about firsts: the email from the agent who would say yes, the call saying that a publisher had also said yes, the moment I would hold my manuscript as an actual book, my debut reading, a book tour, an award. But for some reason, I never imagined the first time I would see a stranger reading my book—so I was unprepared when it happened.
My seatmate on a flight to Minneapolis was a smartly dressed woman in her mid-fifties. She gave me a polite demi-smile when I took my aisle seat, but the way she turned her attention to the inflight magazine suggested that she wasn’t interested in conversation. I wasn’t offended; I typically keep to myself, too.
But somewhere around cruising altitude, she put away the magazine and withdrew a book from her satchel. It was 11 STORIES. My 11 STORIES. My gasp must have been less audible than it felt, because she didn’t react to it. She settled back, opened it to her bookmarked place, and began to read.
My inner Kindergartner tried to squeal, but I shushed her. What if this reader wasn’t enjoying the book? (I had just learned the hard way not to read casual online reviews of my work.) I imagined tapping her on the shoulder and identifying myself, and her offering that same taciturn smile and saying something awful like, “Well isn’t that nice.” So I said nothing, and instead spent the next hour pretending to read and stealing glances at her expression, trying to guess her reaction to the story as she neared the end. By the time she reached the last page, I was nauseated with tension. Her face revealed absolutely nothing, but when she closed the book, she placed her hand on it and held there just long enough to embolden me.
“What did you think of that book?” I asked in what I hoped was a neutral tone.
She took off her glasses and sighed. “I loved it.”
“Really? I loved it too.” (Oh no. Did that sound giddy?)
“You’ve read it?”
“A couple of times, actually.” At this point, I could have revealed myself instead of demurring, but curiosity quickly supplanted my nervousness. “How did you find out about it?”
“A friend of mine gave it to me. The new one, too. But he said to start with this one because something in it had bothered him, and he wanted to discuss it. I think I know what he meant.”
“Oh,” I said, steeling myself. “What part was that? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Roscoe’s fall off the roof. Was it intentional or accidental? I can’t decide, but I don’t want it to have been intentional. Which do you think it was?”
“Well, I’m not sure either. I think the author meant to write it so that each reader could interpret it for themselves.”
“He did a good job of it then. I thought about it throughout the book and either option seems plausible.”
“I think you mean she.”
“I think Chris Cander is a woman.”
She turned the book over, and seemed to notice the tiny author photo for the first time. She didn’t recognize me. “Oh. Interesting. The writing seemed rather masculine.”
I tilted my head back and forth, pretending to consider that opinion for the first time. “I can see that, yeah.”
“I liked it though. I’m looking forward to the other one. Whisper something. Apparently it’s gotten some good reviews already.”
“That’s it. Have you read it?”
“I think so,” I said, emphasizing the I. I was about to come clean when the flight attendant made an announcement about initiating our descent and coming through the cabin to collect trash.
“Will you excuse me?” my seatmate said, and pointed aft, toward the restroom. She slipped the book into the seat back pocket as I stood to let her out. While she was gone, I replayed the exchange in my mind, and felt a little silly for having been coy. I should have let myself squeal, should have told her right then that I was Chris Cander, that she was the first stranger I’d ever seen reading my book. It was too late now; the appropriate moment to do so had passed. Instead, I dug around for my boarding pass and wrote on the back—I’m so pleased that you loved 11 STORIES and I hope you enjoy WHISPER HOLLOW just as much. It was very nice talking with you.—and signed my name. I slipped it inside the book just before she returned.
We spent the last twenty minutes chatting about both books; I, taking care not to sound too authoritative. It was fascinating, actually, having the opportunity to hear her unfiltered opinions and questions and even insights. It was moving to know that she had absorbed the story so carefully, and that my beloved characters would go on living inside her imagination, at least for a little while.
At the gate, when the captain turned off the seatbelt sign and it was time to go, I again considered introducing myself. No, I decided. It was enough to enjoy the moment anonymously. She put the book into her satchel, and collected the rest of her things. We said goodbye and joined the slow spill of passengers into the aisle. We might have continued talking, but I had to stop to pick up my gate-checked bag, so she passed me, smiling warmly this time, and was gone, taking my secret with her.
(This post originally appeared in the “My First Time” column on The Quivering Pen.)