So Day 2 Black Hat Keynote Interview with Neal Stephenson was one of the main reasons I wanted to go this year (besides being there with T to see more of his crazy world!) I’ve been trying to fly through Snow Crash in last minute preparation for this.
I may have mentioned I started off last year reading Cryptonomicon where I realized here is a guy who 1) is very intelligent, enjoys knowledge and comprehending complicated processes; 2) writes a compelling and interesting narrative in itself; 3) positively revels in language and writes with a sort of glee for a well-crafted sentence and clever conveyance of wit. My appreciation for his style grew as I went on to read Anathem, and then more recently with his last book Reamde.
I’m picking up Snow Crash now because T is often referencing the book and I’m embarrassed to not get the references, so hopefully that will change!
It’s so weird to meet someone like that in real life. You’ve created an image of this person in your head, but it’s based solely on their output, not on them as an individual person. It creates an unfounded sense of familiarity, because you don’t actually know THEM, and they certainly don’t know YOU whatsoever.
T introduced me, and I shook his hand and said the most cliche thing a person could say, “I’m such a fan.”
I went back with T and Mr. Stephenson to the meeting room, standing awkwardly at the head of the long table. T then went to get the interviewer mic’d for the keynote, leaving me alone in the room with this author I so admire. Oh jeez!
I was terrified throughout the conversation that ensued, remaining frozen to the head of the table. I didn’t want to ask him anything about writing or any of that, didn’t want to presume to know him as a person, because I don’t. We chatted about the Las Vegas experience, about being a non hacker type at a security conference, about swords, about fencing lessons, about the isolation of working from home.
I somehow ended up telling him about our crows. He told me about some schoolyard crows and a boy who was always getting into trouble, how he was poking at a crow with his pencil so the crow took his pencil and flew off. The boy went on to his math class where his teacher told everyone to take out their pencils for a test. The boy was forced to admit he didn’t have his pencil because a crow took it.
People started to arrive into the meeting room then, so conversation became more focused on the interview to come, so I took my leave and went on to the room where the Keynote would be.
The moments waiting in the ballroom were quite the contrast to the previous day’s Keynote. The room was already filling up, for one. Everyone was a-twitter with excitement, cameras and phones ready in hand, Neal Stephenson books to the ready, everyone referencing their favorite novels and characters and tech elements. Applause when he ascended the stage, and silence during the interview, aside from clicks and flashes from cameras. None of the impatient flipping through papers and texting jokes to one another that I’d seen during the first Keynote. If I could use only one word for the audience reception, it would be “rapt”.
The interview addressed more his writing process and subject matter, so I still got to hear a good bit about that. I enjoyed his description of his research process, of picking things he’d like to use, maybe picking too many things and having to cut selections because it’s just too much random, but fascinating, info.
There was a book signing immediately following. I didn’t have a real book with me, so he signed the back of my Kindle. I don’t know why, but this process was more nerve-wracking than talking to him one-on-one in the meeting room. I was so excited, but at the same time felt so weird about it.
Maybe it’s something about the inequity of the exchange, that here’s someone I look up to, that I hold on a mental pedestal, and I want something of his to “lift” me in some sense. But I’m not giving anything in return, so it ends up feeling like I’m engaged in some sort of vampiric act, to which I feel apologetic. Is that completely bizarre to feel that way?
Anyway, at the end of the day, the whole thing was really more than I could have hoped for. How often to do you get to meet someone who inspires you?
Oh, and having finished reading Snow Crash, I can now legitimately hang with all the other Neal Stephenson fans ;)