I was drinking coffee with a friend in Los Angeles, in an adorable cafe that also happened to sell books. On a whim, I decided to see if they had any of mine.
I made my way to the w’s, and there it was—my first novel—on the shelf. I felt happiness followed immediately by anxiety. Why had nobody purchased it?
I opened the book and realized it was a used copy. There was the inscription: “For Sarah—I hope you enjoy my twisted little book!” Followed by my signature and the date.
I went through a mental Rolodex, trying to figure out who Sarah might have been. I knew many Sarahs—it must have been one of the most popular girl’s names in the early seventies. I pictured first the writer Sarahs, several of whom I respected greatly as my peers or my same-age betters. I tried to remember whose names ended with an h and whose didn’t.
I wanted to impress these Sarahs. I wanted them to find my work as valuable as I had found theirs. It pained me to imagine one of them deaccessioning an inscribed copy of my first novel.
I had dated a Sarah once too. I tried to remember whether she had come to any of my book events. Yes, she had been there at the publication party. She had been so supportive in those college years. When was that party? I tried to remember the date. Had it really been that long ago? I was back in her parents’ house, showing her some pages, and then I was in the bookstore, wondering how it had taken so many years to write a couple novels. The habit of writing books has a way of simultaneously compressing and expanding time.
I looked at the inscription again and noticed that the date was earlier than the book’s publication date by a month. Odd. Then I remembered the book festival. My publisher had provided early copies for my appearance on a fiction panel.
I had been paired with two high-profile debut novelists and an award winner. Many people showed up to the panel, and quite a few lined up to buy the books afterward. (I thought it would always be like that, but in subsequent years, the only other time I saw a crowd of similar size was when one of the panelists was the son of a famous novelist.)
The Sarah of this copy had likely been in the audience at the festival. Maybe she had liked the book, maybe not. Maybe she had felt pressured to buy books from all four panelists. I was liberated. I felt no pain, bore no grudge.
Nevertheless, I asked for a pen at the counter. I crossed out the inscription, replaced it with “for YOU,” and signed and dated it.
Months later, I got an email from a writer I knew vaguely whose work I admired very much.
“I bought a copy of your book,” he said, “and it was already inscribed to me!”
Antoine Wilson is the author of the novels Panorama City and The Interloper.