Over the course of forty-odd (quite odd) years as a free-lance writer and occasional singer/songwriter, I've spoken publicly in a lot of places and learned a great deal about show-business in the process. I've learned how to use a microphone properly, how to size up a crowd and recognize in a hurry just what they like about you, and - most vital of all - how to get offstage neither too soon nor a nanosecond too late. And I'm something of an expert on judging the quality of laughter and applause, from the decorous academic patter to the more generous clapping of an audience that has no stake in not liking you - and, once in a while, the genuine roar that comes when you've taken them by surprise and made them like it. I'm no standup
comic, but I know this stuff.
Screaming is twelve-year-old girls; screaming is the Beatles, the Stones, the Dead, James Brown, Jose Yglesias, Britney Spears. Screaming has always made me nervous, partly because I don't understand hysteria, or deal well with it; partly because screaming for the star's ties and undershirts never seems more than a skin away from howling for his head. When it started for me, I froze in my tracks.
The occasion was a post-Oscar party for The Lord of the Rings, thrown by TheOneRing.net, a website devoted to the work of J. R. R. Tolkien and other writers of epic fantasy. I was one of some twelve hundred guests hitting the cocktails and canapes and cheering, not only the landslide results of the Oscar voting, but the final cultural validation of a beloved tale; and, beyond that, of the other great stories still so often denied official designation as true literature. Once upon a time, in a world lit only by fire, all literature was what we now call fantasy; but then the fluorescents came on, and more than Tolkien's Elves dwindled and faded and was lost. Even so, the fantasy ghetto, set apart from "real" writing and visited only by geeks, weirdos and artistic slummers, is very largely a creation of the last half of the last century. The walls around it are crumbling steadily away these days, and us weirdos are out and storming the literary castles. The raucous cheers I shared were saying, Hurray, finally, for our side!
I knew in advance that, as a fantasist myself, I was likely to be introduced from the stage, and I expected my usual share of the mannerly applause I've grown used to over the years. It wouldn't be exactly Dionysian, but it was my due.
When the time came, the MC announced me as "a special surprise guest - the author of The Last Unicorn." He never got to my name.
The screaming went on and on. I've already said that I froze, but it was more than that; it was an internal paralysis as well as a physical one. A friend literally pushed me up the steps and onto the stage. He figured, more or less correctly, that reflexes would take over when I got there.
There's a show-business streak in my family; we may seem naively wide-eyed and spontaneous, but we know what we're doing. I wandered out to the microphone, waited for the ovation to die down slightly, and then said, "So that's what it's like. I always wondered."
And they did it again. Louder.
I don't know whether I've made adequately clear exactly how unused to this sort of reception I am. I do know that I haven't at all stressed just how addictive it is. Within seconds - seconds - I wanted, needed another dose, on demand, this minute. The violence of the desire was almost shocking, especially to someone whose lifelong self-image is that of a modest professional, in no need of limelight, content merely to get the work done right. But when I look back on that moment, all that comes to mind is a hunger and a reward, both more powerful than anything I think I've ever known. It must be like that for a new-made vampire getting his first taste of blood.
When I got off - which I managed properly; there's another reflex - I found myself surrounded for the rest of the evening by people who kept telling me what an honor it was to meet me, and how much my own novels and stories had affected their lives. A beautiful lady sat with me and sang me songs in Elvish - something else which had definitely never happened to me before. I fell promptly into my Gracious mode - every writer, no matter the sales figures, has one of those - determinedly making eye contact, telling little self-deprecating jokes, and, above all, showing personal interest by asking earnest questions. It's an old trick, one of my best - and, paradoxically, quite sincere - but this time I couldn't hear either them or myself, because the screaming was still going on in my head. I really don't remember much after the screaming.
But I do understand something now that I never did before. It's
no wonder that the standups, the singers, the matinee idols (is anybody ever called that anymore?) so often find it impossible to leave the stage after the very last farewell tour, the final comeback. It's no wonder that the stars and superstars so often turn into monsters; what's remarkable is that not all of them do. I've now had my one taste of blood - I've no idea what I might become if I should ever get more of it. Just remember, if you encounter me after my thirteenth appearance on Oprah, and I brush rudely by your proffered autograph book on my way back to trash my hotel room, that Iused to be a real sweetheart, a pussycat, an unpretentious regular guy. It's the screaming, I swear - I'm not really like that. It's just the screaming...