Sixteen years ago when i first moved to Australia, one of the very first things i did was walk down to the local library and take up membership. Being in a strange, foreign land was challenging enough, without having the comfort of books. I had walked in and stared around at the modest collection sitting neatly on the shelves, and my heart sank. It did not seem like an overly comprehensive library. Back in those golden days , I could finish a book in two days, and at that rate, i felt i would soon exhaust the tiny supply of books this library had to offer. Nonetheless, it was exciting to borrow books in a new country and i began my slow search for the ideal choice, beginning with the letter ‘A’. My eyes swept the titles, and slowly i began to realise that although the library seemed deceptively tiny, it did in fact house some of the best works ever written. I walked past the beloved Jeffery Archer and Agatha Christie books which i had read and re-read years ago (no point borrowing a book i had already read a million times!). The same with the Mary Higgins Clark ones….done and dusted. Down the alphabet range i walked, eager and hopeful. It wouldn’t be long before i found the perfect one. I am a fussy reader. Although i do not insist on the cover being an attractive one, i need the little summary at the back of the book to be one that leaps out and grabs my attention. As i picked up some books that seemed vaguely hopeful, i would put them back just as fast after having read what they had to say at the back. This search was now becoming a tad tedious. Were there no good books left that i had not read already?
I kept walking, past Rona Jaffe (whose Class Reunion and After the Reunion) had entertained me endlessly when i had first read them back in India. Past Sheila O’Flanagan (whose books i was to read voraciously a few years later). Before i knew it i was approaching the section ‘V,W,X,Y,Z’ and i felt close to tears. There is nothing worse than going back home from a library without a single book. I was just beginning to contemplate turning back and re-beginning from the first alphabet when my eyes fell on this thick book with the image of a young woman wearing a huge and stylish red hat. Something about it tugged at me, and i picked it up from the shelf, peering at it closely. ‘Penny Vincenzi’ it said in big red letters and under it in smooth italics were the words ‘Windfall’. Until then, i had never heard of this author, but that has never stopped me from reading a good book. Picking it up, I turned it automatically to see what it said at the back. The story of a woman who is left a fortune by her godmother and how that one simple deed affects the heroine’s marriage intrigued me. Armed with that one solitary book, i marched back to the customer service desk and borrowed my very first book in Australia.
I could not put the book down. Spellbound, i kept turning the pages (it is a thick book indeed) and when i finished the last sentence, i was left feeling bereft. Also i was now hooked for life. I could not rest until i had read every other book that this wonderful author had written. Over the next sixteen years, i read every single word Penny Vincenzi had ever written. Whenever anyone asked me ‘Who is your favourite author?’, I never had to pause to think of the answer. And then yesterday, I finally met her.
I stood looking up at the imposing ‘Four Seasons Hotel’ and walked in, my heart beating in anticipation. The young man at the reception pointed me to the room where the literary event was being hosted. There seemed to be about fifty people milling around outside, clinking frosted glasses of white wine, and chatting amiably amongst themselves. Gee, there seem to be a lot of people here, i thought. I walked to the corner where a rectangular table draped with a white cloth was laid out with copies of Penny’s latest book ‘The Decision’. I bought a copy ( it seemed heavier and thicker than all her books before and that’s saying something). Accepting a glass of orange juice ( I wasn’t in the mood for wine), I walked into the function room. There seemed to be countless tables there, and another hundred people sitting at these tables. Wow. This was turning out to be one big affair. A lady holding a clipboard ticked my name off the list and told me to make my way to table number 17. As i approached 17, i saw two sweet little old ladies with snowy white hair sitting at the table, and a man who looked about eighty sitting tall and erect in a crisp black suit. There were ten chairs, and i walked around until i found my name tag. It happened to be right next to the strict looking old man. On each chair was placed a copy of that day’s Sydney Morning Herald. Looking up from the paper he was reading, he nodded at me briefly. I sat down, and smiled at the two ladies who were across the huge table. They held up their wine glasses in greeting. ‘Hello,’ I smiled. ‘Have you read all of Penny’s books?’. It seemed to be a natural ice-breaker, considering we were here to hear Vincenzi talk.
‘Never heard of her’, one of them said firmly. ‘We are members of this literary club, and thought it seemed a good way to spend the afternoon’.
I was taken aback. It had never occurred to me that there would be people here who had never heard of my most favourite author in the whole wide world.
I turned to my neighbour. Quickly scanning his name card i said, ‘Hello, I’m Nim. Have you ever read Penny Vincenzi?’. He folded the paper neatly in half and taking a sip of wine, said in a hoarse voice ‘Never heard of her, ma’am’. I sat back astonished. This was bizarre. I quickly looked around the room and saw that majority seemed to be retirees. Probably out for a social afternoon with their friends, enjoying a few glasses of expensive wine over a delectable meal. If they got to meet a famous author (albeit being one they had never heard of before), it would be a bonus. The lovely lady on my right did turn out to be an avid fan so that was some measure of comfort. I had a brief glimpse of Penny sitting a couple of tables away, lunching with editors and other luminaries. Lunch was scrumptious, comprising of Duck two ways – confit and ragout, fondant potato and red braised cabbage. This was followed by cheesecake with raspberry gelato in raspberry tea, and then gorgeous coffee and handmade chocolates. Delicious though the lunch was, i could not wait for Penny to begin talking, for that after all, was what i was here for.
Finally an hour after i had arrived, and once the lunch plates were cleared, Penny walked up to the stage. Watching her talk was like a dream come true. She spoke about how she had first got the ideas for her many novels. Each time she mentioned a novel, i could recall with vivid clarity the names of all the characters. I found Penny to have a lovely sense of humour, often saying things that had the audience roaring with laughter. It was interesting to hear anecdotes about how she created different characters (how familiar they sounded to me) and how the characters sort of developed themselves as the plot got thicker. I listened in rapt silence, awed by the presence of such a great talent. Then it was time for questions and answers. Unfortunately, only a handful got to ask a question, and before i could raise my hand to ask my two-bit, it was time to wrap up the session. I felt disappointed. I would so have loved to have a conversation, however brief, with this wonderful, talented writer. We were told that Penny would now sign books and that we were to line up outside the room. I was out in the blink of an eye, being number seven in a queue that was fast forming. Clutching my copy of ‘The Decision’, i waited with bated breath. Now at last was going to be my moment in the sun, when i finally was face to face with my favourite author. When it was my turn, she looked up at me with a smile. ‘Hello Penny’, i squeaked and then cleared my throat. ‘I am an aspiring writer and i have always heard that a writer should write about what he/she knows. Would you say that is true?’. Penny nodded vigorously, saying that yes, an author must write about what she knows, otherwise it comes out all false. That was rule number two, she said. Rule number one was to ‘just write’. She explained a bit more about these two golden rules of writing, and i listened with a kind of fierce concentration that my school teachers had never witnessed. And then with a flourish she wrote in my copy of her book: ‘For Nim. Good luck with the writing’. My parting words to this great author were: ‘I have read every single book of yours, Penny. And loved every single one of them’. She nodded her head graciously and thanked me for having come today.
I stepped out of the hotel, feeling as though i was walking on air. My heart was singing. Down the passage of years to come, I will always look back on this day as one of my favourite memories. An avid fan had finally met her heroine!