And I feel terrible about it.
Context is essential: I was at the 92nd Street Y on Friday night when he was doing a reading and an interview alongside Rivka Galchen. Her reading was first, and I loved it. She was smart, and funny, and seemed so down to earth. She was shy of the crowd, or at least came off that way, knowing as she did that it was, for the most part, not there not to see her, but to see the famous Knausgaard of the My Struggle saga (the fourth book of which just came out).
I am reading the first My Struggle volume at the moment, because my significant other (SO) loves Karl Ove and his writing with a passion he otherwise reserves for techno music and me. We sat in prime seats, row F and to the side. When Karl Ove and Rivka sat down for their interview, the former was facing us.
His reading had been magical. Hearing the names and the pacing read in his voice, with the correct accent, felt so much more natural to me than reading the book itself, the style of which I’m struggling (no pun intended) with. His adherence to detail is beautiful at times, but at others make me feel lost in a landscape so unfamiliar to me, but in a mind so intensely familiar to me. I do not presume to be as smart or sensitive as Karl Ove. But the way he talked about writing that night, the way he talked about it being a coping mechanism, a way to avoid the shame of life – it resonated. I write for many reasons, but one of them is escapism.
When the reading and the interview were over, it was only 9:15 or so. The line of people waiting to get their books signed was backed up almost all the way into the auditorium so we found an alternate route out, one that was underused and perhaps not totally kosher, though there were no signs telling us we couldn’t be there. I told my SO, I bet he’s smoking a cigarette before the signing. Let’s go around the corner and see.
And indeed, there he was. He is incredibly good looking, white hair and beard, kind eyes, a tall and fit figure, dressed in skinny jeans and a blazer and brown boots. He belonged in Brooklyn. In Portland, OR. In Hollywood. Not at this side entrance in New York. But at the same time he looked entirely natural, smoking his cigarette and talking to Rivka and the head of 92Y.
I legitimately couldn’t find my lighter as I took out a cigarette and rummaged through my bag for one. We approached, getting closer and closer. Should I do it, I asked my SO, should I ask him for a light? And he said Yeah, that’d be so cool.
So I did. I asked Karl Ove Knausgaard for a light. I said, Excuse me, I’m so sorry, do you happen to have a light? I interrupted their conversation in order to get his attention, as I would do with anyone else I saw smoking when I was in need of a light. I’ve been interrupted before for the same reasons. Smokers are pretty much seen as the scum of the earth these days, so we tend to be nice to one another.
Karl Ove took out a yellow mini-Bic lighter, gave me a pained smile and lit my cigarette, cupping his hands around its tip. I held my own up reflexively, to block the wind, but stopped myself from touching him. Behind me, my SO claims to have been smiling like a goof. I should’ve stopped at that, pretended I wasn’t at the event, that I didn’t know who he was.
But I have a penchant for honesty even when it gets me into trouble so as I took the first drag of my cigarette and thanked him, I looked at the other two and said, And thank you, all of you. It was something like that. Thank you for tonight, maybe, with a gesture towards the 92Y building. My SO and I walked down the block a bit, so I could smoke and while keeping them in sight.
After me, other people passed by and interrupted the conversation between the three people who’d been on stage that evening. I couldn’t hear what they said, or how the stage-presence reacted, but I was already regretting my own, similar, actions.
I had cheapened the experience. I had made Karl Ove look me in the eye, light my cigarette, and interact with me when he had no reason to do so other than politeness. I want to think he’s forgotten about it. I want to think that if he hasn’t, he doesn’t think of me as unbearably rude, but as, perhaps, ballsy or charming. Or as a fellow smoker who can’t find her lighter.
But my attempts at being ballsy and charming have backfired on me too often. One I insulted without knowing she would read the comment in which I put her down – a put-down that was entirely made because of my mood that morning and poisonous envy. Another I’ve had a conversation with regarding vaginas and the things we put in them. Another is my mentor. Another I shook hands with in the lobby of a literary agency. Another, recently, is not so much a luminary as an inspiration, and I treat him with a reverence and admiration that I think he finds off-putting. I am convinced that the half dozen published and/or famed writers I’ve interacted with see me as a young, doe-eyed, desperate writer who only seeks fame. Most of them probably don’t remember me or care about me (other than my mentor, whom I know does).
But in this regard, I feel much like Knausgaard. Yes, I want my work out there. I need the validation that he needs; he called a friend and read him what he’d written every day during his writing-about-America column, just so the friend would tell him, Yes, this is good, I know you think it’s not, but keep going. I badly want to find an agent who believes in me and gives validation for my writing. But I also write to take away the shame, as Knausgaard said that night, the shame and guilt of every action I take.
So here is my confession. I am ashamed, Karl Ove, of treating you like a celebrity, a commodity for me to interact with for a moment and then boast about (as I immediately did on Twitter and Facebook). I am ashamed of not taking in your stage-bound words and holding them dearly to my heart and keeping my experience personal. I am ashamed of asking you for a light.
It doesn’t count for much, and this is an apology you will never read, Karl Ove Knausgaard, but I have the utmost respect for you as a writer and a human being – because every human being is worthy of respect and because of who you are. If you remember me, forgive me. If you have forgotten me, good. I will not forget. And I will probably not forgive myself.