Almost Famous

The Overlook

By Tom Clavin

“The Overlook” appears every Thursday at tomclavin.substack.com. An overlook is usually a place from which one can see in many if not all directions, including where one has been and where one is going. If you enjoy the column, please "like" it and let me know what you think by commenting (check out previous ones while you're at it).  Likes, comments, and shares help with author discoverability on Substack.com, and all support is appreciated.Don't forget to hit the ‘Subscribe’ button – it’s free!

            Every so often I am asked, “How does it feel to be a famous writer?” Usually, an awkward silence follows. By answering directly, I am acknowledging that I am a famous writer. What is “famous?” I begin to ponder. Do more people recognize my name on a book cover than 10 years ago? Yes, that is true. But otherwise, so what? I can say that I seem to be working at least twice as hard as I did 20 years ago but I’m getting paid more for it. This encourages me to believe I’ll be able to retire by 80.

But going around thinking that one is famous, what good does that do? Probably more harm, I would think. And anyway, it’s not like I’m Tik Tok famous, which is what really counts today.

            By this time, the person who posed the question has drifted away, after debating if I’ve had a stroke and should a doctor be called.

            What fame means to me is that more people are going to see the errors. At least once a week I hear from a reader in Nebraska or Utah or Maryland who questions a piece of information in one of my books or discovers an actual error. Last week, a reader pointed out that in my book Wild Bill I report the fourth child in the Hickok family was born in 1832 and the third child was born in 1834. Mistakes can no longer hide behind obscurity.

            Another one: In The Heart of Everything That Is, Bob Drury and I write about Lt. Casper Collins and his death during a battle with Sioux Indians. To honor his heroism, the Wyoming state capital, Casper, was named after him. The manuscript went through countless hours of editing and proofreading before Heart was published and it remains our best-selling book (though the most recent one, Blood and Treasure, is making a run for it). However, it was only after publication that a reader revealed to us that the capital of Wyoming is Cheyenne.

            I have learned that the word “famous” is rather meaningless and most important is to keep one’s ego right where it was. I was reminded of this a couple of years ago while on Ebay. I stumbled upon someone offering to sell a copy of another Drury/Clavin book, Halsey’s Typhoon, for $150 and that it was “signed by both authors.” My chest puffed out. I scrolled down. There was an offer to sell another copy of that same book “signed by Bob Drury” for $250.

            Three years ago in San Francisco I was waiting to give a talk and a woman seated in the front row commented on what a great character Jack Ryan was. I politely agreed. “How did you come to create the Ryan character?” Confused, I said, “I didn’t.” Then it dawned on her. Irritably, she asked, “You’re not Tom Clancy?” “No, I’m Tom Clavin.” In a huff, she got up and left – before I could add that Clancy had died in 2013 and so far only my self-esteem was dying.

            A few years ago, I wrote a column for the then-Press News Group about an experience that put this famous writer in his place. It proved to be a particularly popular column, so with your indulgence (and a few minor revisions) it is offered here:

A tipoff should have been that everyone else wore a dinner jacket and I was the only one wearing sneakers. They were pretty nice sneakers, Keds-like, but still: Something wasn’t quite right.

The setting, however, could not have been more right. We were standing on the back deck of a house that looked out at Georgica Pond in East Hampton. The Saturday evening sky was clear, and with the sun having set about 10 minutes earlier, the western horizon above the pond featured layers of pink and purple. The temperature was perfect and there was barely a breeze. Two swans drifted silently south on the water. But something was off. Maybe a jacket would do the trick. I’d forgotten mine in the car. My partner, Leslie, found where the valets had parked it and retrieved the jacket, but even after I slipped my arms into it, we still felt oddly out of place.

Let me backtrack.  The “Authors Night” benefit, the annual major fundraiser for the East Hampton Library, was a couple of Saturdays ago. I’ve enjoyed participating ever since I was first asked to, in 2007. It’s not unusual that I am called “prolific,” and people may think I write books with regularity because of the money or I don’t know how to do anything else. Actually, both are true. But I’m kind of a needy and insecure guy, and I figure if I keep producing books I’ll continue to be invited to do book-related benefits and appearances. (Certainly, my looks or personality won’t get me there.) Libraries have been especially welcoming.

Anyway, the cocktail reception under a tent in a farm field that began late Saturday afternoon was especially enjoyable. As usual, the organizers were gracious, there were lots of book-buyers but the activity never felt overwhelming. It is fun to encounter new and familiar attendees who so obviously love books and, let’s face it, insure that I can continue to make a living. Once again, I was seated next to Dick Cavett, whose charm and courtesy are inspiring, and I was able to schmooze a bit with fellow authors Lynn Scherr, Nelson DeMille, Phil Keith, and Edward Burns, who easily had the distinction this year of the longest line of people waiting to buy his book, Independent Ed.

As the party wound down, the plan was that we were to head to the home of “Jane Smith,” who was hosting the dinner at which Carl Safina, with his wonderful new book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, and I would be the featured authors. I hadn’t previously secured directions, but during the reception Jane Smith had been nice enough to introduce herself and had told me how to get to her house. I checked with Carl that we would rendezvous there, and Leslie and I headed for our car.

I’d been instructed to follow Lily Pond Lane until it ended at Apaquogue Road and turn there. I was to look for white balloons festooned at the end of the driveway. At the end of Lily Pond, I turned left. I did not see balloons white or otherwise, but I did find two teenagers in crisp white shirts who were obviously parking cars for arriving guests. I called out the window that we were here for the book party and they pointed to the second driveway and then a spot to pull into.

            We hiked across a lushly landscaped yard toward the back deck and the water. There were 16 people chatting, drinking, and scooping up the passed appetizers. I didn’t see our host and apparently Carl Safina had not yet arrived. Even after I slipped my jacket on (nothing could be done about the sneakers), we were ignored by the rather formal gathering. This too was strange because I still had dangling from around my neck the badge that introduced me and that I was an “Authors Night” co-chair. Surely, such a lofty position entitled me to a handshake at least, but we seemed to be invisible to everyone except the catering staff. On the deck a table was elegantly set for dinner. I figured we’ll eat and leave and I’ll ask for a more courteous and accommodating gathering next year.

            As dark took hold, a well-dressed woman emerged from the house and announced it was time for dinner. The guests looked for their name cards, and I wondered if as the honored author mine would be at the head of the table. However, the woman was counting heads and realized there were 18 people for 16 seats. She came up to us and asked, “What are you doing here?”

            “We’re here for the ‘Authors Night’ dinner,” then added with what I hoped was impressive flair, “I’m your guest author, Tom Clavin.”

            “You’re not my guest author,” she said, straining to be polite. “You’re at the wrong party.”

            Dear readers, you might think this was embarrassing enough, but the true horror of our situation was about to be revealed. “That is something,” I mused, trying to excuse my gaffe and save some face, “that there would be two author parties on the same street.”

            The hostess stared at me, and that is when I understood: This was not an author dinner at all but a gathering of friends, and it was being assumed that we had crashed a private party. And we had.

            We high-tailed it back across the lush lawn. The two valets were nowhere to be found. We managed to locate the keys, got in the car, and drove away. Only later did I wonder if the valets – who may have been joyriding in a guest’s Porsche – returned and reported a car had been stolen.

            We literally stopped a motorist on the street – the poor man probably thought he was being carjacked – to ask where the Jane Smith residence was. He told us it was next to Spielberg’s house. “Have you been there before?’ he asked.

            No, alas, I’m not nearly famous enough for that.

Tom Clavin is the bestselling author/co-author of 18 books, including the forthcoming Lightning Down: A World War II Story of Survival, to be published by St. Martin’s Press on November 2. To pre-order, please go to your local bookstore or to Bookshop.org, Amazon.com, or BN.com. (Psssst: It’s really good.)