I remember it like it was yesterday. I guess it’s like that with major disappointments.
But in actual fact it was September 2014 at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town. This was the first literary festival I had been invited to and I was equally thrilled and terrified at the prospect of sharing the stage during a session on crime and fantasy fiction with both Raymond E. Feist and Deon Meyer – as far as that goes, it went great: we were allowed (and actively encouraged) to drink the headline sponsor’s wine during the session and the presence of fiction-writing juggernauts Feist and Meyer ensured a main auditorium packed with adoring fans. As far as debut literary festival experiences go, it could not have been more fun.
But there were other, darker experiences still in wait for me.
At the festival was also going to be one of my literary idols: Geoff Dyer. I had read Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi and, like many, many others, was spellbound by how good it was, and awestruck at how it gave no hoot as to whether it was fiction or non-fiction. I had rejoiced at finding Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It at my local library and had scoured the internet for essays by (and about) Dyer, reading them on the train, and saving them all in a special drawer at home.
And now here I was, standing outside the main festival venue, the Fugard Theatre, on a cloudless September afternoon and there, coming towards me down Caledon Street, was Geoff Dyer. Cue awestruck. He’s so tall, and he looks exactly like his book jacket photograph!
And so what did I do? I waited until he was less than a metre away and then called out his name and surname. Cue Geoff Dyer looking confused. Cue me introducing myself and shaking hands (we shook hands!) and then being at a total bleeding loss at coming up with anything more to say. I’m not sure what I was hoping for – all right, to be frank, I was expecting Geoff Dyer and I would click instantly, that this would be the kick off to an enduring literary friendship. To my credit, I think I at least managed to refrain from blurting out, ‘I’m a writer too!’ Geoff Dyer favoured me with a bit of a smile and informed me that he was going into the theatre. He did not invite me to join him at the bar.
But it is exactly at the bar that I managed to corner him the next evening. I don’t mind telling you this was no mean feat – Geoff Dyer was constantly surrounded by other, more persistent (and successful, dammit) acolytes than I. But I saw a fleetinggap when he was unguarded at the bar counter and I took it. This time I was prepared: I asked him about Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It and what his publishers thought of this odd title (they didn’t think it was that odd, they loved it); I enquired after his health after reading about the minor stroke that had that caused him to give up on the doughnuts he so loved and wrote so eloquently about. When he informed me that he was about to spend a month in Johannesburg and was scared after hearing so many stories about violent in crime in the city, I could even improvise and come up with the great (I thought) suggestion of going to visit Joburg Zoo whenever he felt like getting out in the fresh air for a safe walk. And I especially made a point of not mentioning anything to do with Billy Joel, whose music I know he cannot stand.
But I have to confess, it was all for nought. Geoff Dyer nodded and responded to my questions in a kind and somewhat attentive manner, but there was no spark. It’s not that Geoff Dyer disliked me; I just failed to make much of an impression, unless that impression was of someone trying too hard to impress and befriend, and let’s be honest, nobody really likes a sycophant. The bromance was just not going to happen.
So there it is, I’ve shared and I do think it’s helped me feel better. And I can sincerely say that we’re cool, Geoff, really. If you ever feel like getting in touch, just click on the ‘Contact’ tab (it’s at the top of the page, at the very right hand side, you can’t miss it). Until then, happy festive season Geoff Dyer, your Christmas present is in the post. It’s the complete Billy Joel box set.