By Jim Simpson
Where & When: Decatur Public Library Auditorium on January 8, 2013. Sponsored by the Georgia Center for the Book.
Attendance: ~100 people, many of whom were family and friends of the author.
What Claire Bidwell Smith Read: Nearly a dozen pages from her debut book, The Rules of Inheritance, a “grief memoir” as she calls it, about her life from the time she was 14 when both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer, until 2011. (The book was published in February 2012; this reading coincided with the paperback release.) The author, an Atlanta native who grew up in Sandy Springs, would be parentless by the time she was 25 years old. The book jumps around in time covering a period of roughly 18 years and is divided into five parts, following Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief. The excerpt she read takes place in 2003 when she is 25 years old and on assignment in the Philippines for Student Traveler magazine in Los Angeles. She is on her way to the remote island of Malapascua to dive with thresher sharks. This episode is one of many describing semi-dangerous and questionable decisions on Claire’s part (destructive relationships and alcohol abuse, to name but two) that she will later discover are subconscious attempts to bring her dead parents back in order to save her. This diving trip is a climactic event because, as she and her guide are descending into 80 feet of dark, shark-filled water, she suddenly cancels the dive and surfaces. With tears streaming down her face, she sits slumped in the front of the boat heading back to shore. “This is the very place -- with my tear-soaked face, at the front of this little boat in the middle of the great Pacific Ocean -- where I ind a truth that I will test over and over in my life. Nothing is ever going to bring either of them back.” Some parts of the book are almost too much to bear, but you find yourself forging ahead, cheering her on, hoping she will be okay in the end.
Why I Went: Claire and I have both written for the literary collective The Nervous Breakdown for six years, and I have always admired her writing.
Q & A: Questions ranged from those regarding grief (she is a licensed therapist), writing routines, the book title’s origin, to compliments about Claire’s delivery and voice during the reading. I thought she seemed a bit stiff and nervous, but that could be attributed to the hometown crowd and sheer number of family and close childhood friends in the audience; she seemed to be trying to keep her emotions in check, which makes perfect sense.
Question I Didn’t Get To Ask Because Time Ran Out But Asked Her When She Signed My Book: “I’ve never been to L.A., but I imagine there are a bunch of motorcycles around. Do you and your husband, (Greg Boose, a freelance/ghost writer) still go around touching motorcycles that don’t belong to you?” Claire responded, “Danger Touch? Not lately, but we were disappointed that it never caught on.” We were referring to a game she and Greg played during a cross-country correspondence (Claire in L.A., Greg in Chicago, the two meeting as writers for The Nervous Breakdown). He invented a game that involved taking cell phone pictures of his hand reaching out and touching strangers’ motorcycles on the street and sending them to Claire; she in turn would do the same and send them to him, and the person with the most “danger touches” would win the game.
Did I Buy Something?: Yes. I bought the paperback copy of her book. Eagle Eye Bookstore was offering copies of the paperback and hardcover for sale. By the end of the night, they had sold every copy. While holding her six-month-old daughter in one arm, Claire signed my copy: “To Jim -- Danger Touch! With love, Claire.”
Worth Mentioning: This was an emotional signing as it was a homecoming of sorts for Claire. She grew up in Atlanta, and many of her childhood friends as well as friends of her parents were there. Pearl McHaney, Claire’s high school English teacher at the Galloway School here in Atlanta, gave a very emotional and heartfelt introduction, recalling Claire as the school poet, even parsing her name: Claire -- clarity, clear vision. Bidwell -- good will, I bid you well. Smith -- craft, wordsmith. I sat next to an older man who, I would later learn, is Claire’s half brother (twice her age), a son from her father’s first marriage. After the reading and signing, I rode the elevator up to the parking deck with a regal-looking woman in her 70s clutching a hardcover copy of the book, and when I asked her what she thought of the reading she said she loved it, and has known Claire since she was a baby. As the woman and I parted ways, a wistful smile on her face, I felt as though I’d been privy to a sort of family reunion. In essence, I guess it had been.
Editor's Note: Jim Simpson is an award-winning fiction writer and freelance music critic. A native of the wilds of Florida's Gulf Coast, he now resides on the scruffy fringes of Atlanta. He has been at work on his first novel for longer than he originally planned, and if all goes well the book should be in stores sometime before his death. (This is his first posting of what I hope is many more.)