Enthusiastic. Too enthusiastic.
Updated: Jul 27
Right after World War II, Harold Robbins was the King of Trashy Beach Books. The New Yorker Magazine called him “the dirty old man of American Literature” and his books were full of the rich, the famous, money, sex, exotic locations, murder, and more sex (The Carpetbaggers, The Betsy, etc.). Harold sold a lot of books. Although he’s pretty forgotten now, at one time Harold Robbins was an extremely well-known writer.
Years ago I heard him tell a story on TV about something he liked about being a writer. He was sitting in the lobby of a big Las Vegas Hotel when a phone call came in for him. This was decades before cell phones, so what hotels would do is send a Bellhop through the lobby calling out the person’s name. If the notable was identified, the Bellhop would either escort the person to a phone or (if it was a very progressive hotel) plug in a wired table phone near the person’s seat so they could take the call.
As Robbins was sitting in the lobby, a Bellhop came through, calling, “Phone call for Harold Robbins. Telephone for Mr. Harod Robbins!” Robbins said he could see all the people in the lobby looking around. They knew the name Harold Robbins, but no one could identify him. He was famous but could still keep incognito if he wished it. He liked that.
I suppose, except for people like Stephan King or J. K. Rowling, the same is valid for authors today. I can identify many mystery authors because I’ve met them personally, but there’s a whole host of authors I’ve read and admired, but whom I couldn’t pick out in a crowd.
I’m far from famous, but I have had a few experiences like Robbins in Las Vegas. Once I was recognized in an airport (but people were flying home after a mystery conference, so maybe this shouldn’t count). I’ve been recognized a few times in a bookshop and twice in a library (but maybe these shouldn'tcount, either?). Once I was in Tokyo attending a dinner for the classes of my wife’s Taiko drumming teacher. She mentioned I was there (as my wife’s spouse) and added I was the author who wrote: “Death in Little Tokyo.” Someone in the 50 or so people there said, “So he’s the one,” out loud. I don’t know if that was surprise or condemnation, but it was recognition. And once at a large dinner hosted by the Japanese American National Museum the MC mentioned I was sitting at a table. As with Robbins, several people looked around. Perversely, I just raised a hand instead of standing up and most people couldn’t identify who I was.
Like most writers, I test as an introvert on psychological tests, but I must confess these crumbs of recognition were enjoyable.
Unfortunately, even my level of recognition has some unpleasant aspects. During my first two years of writing, I had two stalkers.
One was a reader who started showing up at my signings or other public appearances. At first, I just thought she was an enthusiastic fan. Soon it was apparent that she was more than a fan and her pushy presence started to get uncomfortable. The few times I’ve talked about this with other writers, more than one male asked, “What did she look like?” My answer was Glenn Close in the movie Fatal Attraction looked good, but I don’t want to come home to find a dead bunny in my kitchen.
I started distancing myself from this fan and, eventually, she stopped showing up at my events.
I know another writer that had a similar experience. The details of her experience are for her to tell, but basically, her stalker started by writing letters to her from jail. When he got out of prison, he started showing up in person at her events. Finally, when this stalker showed up at an out-of-state event, it justifiably freaked her out and she sought help.
My second stalker was more difficult because it was a fellow writer. This person started showing up at signings “just to say hello,” and soon I was shocked they were sitting next to me at a signing. The same thing happened at the next signing, and I expressed my surprise that I was paired with this person because our books were very different. The confused bookstore owner told me that the other author called him and said that I insisted we should sign together!
If you’ve ever been to one of my signings, you’ll know I attract a small (but usually enthusiastic) crowd. I don’t draw a crowd big enough to make it commercially attractive to sign with me. The invitations (not taken) to have a drink after the signing took on a different aspect.
I started making sure who (if any) I was signing with. And at mystery conferences, I started reserving my room at a name other than Dale Furutani.
I don’t think I’m a Troll, but I’m not a Robert Redford or Brad Pitt. I like to joke that young women fight to carry my bags at airports (!), but only in Japan was I ever told I look like a movie star. And that was over 40 years ago.
So as authors, we can aspire to have enthusiastic readers. Still, the purpose of this blog is to provide a cautionary tale that even a tiny bit of recognition can result in unexpected and unwelcome consequences.
By the way, if you get as famous as King or Rowling, please don’t let my story inhibit you from inviting me to sign with you. I promise I won’t stalk you.