Scenes from the PEN Gala

By Neal Comment

PENreception.jpgThe problem with covering events like the PEN American Center Gala is that when you throw me into a room of famous writers I’ve never met before, I’ll see a pairing like Grace Paley and A.M. Homes (top row, with Homes’ editor at Viking, Paul Slovak) and, power of the press notwithstanding, become totally gunshy. And the entire lobby of the Museum of Natural History was filled with people like that, including (bottom row, from left to right) Jonathan Franzen, Joan Didion, and Dominick Dunne. I mean, what am I supposed to do, ask Calvin Trillin if he likes the artichoke fritters? I tried to keep an eye out for Rakhim Esenov, the novelist from Turkmenistan who was allowed to fly to New York at the last minute by the Turkmen foreign minister, who views Esenov’s work as a threat, but I really wouldn’t have had much hope of recognizing him. So, shortly after persuading a reporter for one of Manhattan’s morning freebies that I was not, in fact, Bret Easton Ellis, I worked up the nerve to say hello to Anderson Cooper, whose show we almost got on back in January, when people cared what we thought about James Frey. He seemed pleasantly surprised to hear I was looking forward to his memoir, and, yes, folks, he is exactly that dreamy in person.

And then I spotted Jonathan Lethem, who I have met before, talking with a couple other writers at the back of the lobby, so I wandered over. The author standing next to him, who I thought I recognized, said hello, but when he learned I was from GalleyCat, immediately said, “No good can come of talking to you!” Oh, great, I thought, I’ve run into Dale Peck, and he’s upset about that Tournament of Books item. So we banter for a bit, and then he introduces me to Mohammed Naseeh Ali, who tells me how thrilled he was when this author blurbed his short story collection, The Prophet of Zongo Street. Blurbed? That doesn’t sound like Dale Peck, I thought. And then someone else came over wanting to introduce her friend to…Rick Moody. Which still left me slightly confused, as I thought I’d been pretty nice the last time we wrote about Moody, but apparently the previous regime’s Paris Review coverage still rankles. I think I was able to convince him a different team was working the gig, but he dashed off to dinner before I could be sure we’d fully made peace.

Luckily, Jessica Fjeld of Atlas Books spotted me in the crowd and waved me over to say hello to Stanley Bing, who was fresh from taping an interview for NPR’s Marketplace about his new book, Rome, Inc. (one of these days, I’m going to get “our” copy back from Sarah…), and then I spotted Paul Slovak again, chatting with Gerry Howard of Doubleday. I remninded Howard that we’d actually met back in 2001 at a party for one of his authors whose book had suffered from being released in September 2001, which led him to recall one of his favorite books, Ivan Morris’ The Nobility of Failure, which the three of us agreed was too often a perfect metaphor for publication.

Later, I ran into Karen Murgolo, who until recently was at Bulfinch (which, in case you didn’t know, is my publisher), though in the recent shakeups there, her division (Springboard) is now being shuffled into the Warner Books deck. So she was sharing a laugh with Warner’s Emi Battaglia, about a beauty book that the two imprints had been bidding against each other on, because Battaglia was thrilled that it wound up at Warner after all. Of course, by the time this book comes out, Warner will be called something else entirely, but that’s another story…