John Katzenbach: literary rock star

Author John Katzenbach at the BAires Book Fair

I have been around and about literary life for quite a long time, forty plus years, and I have never seen anything even remotely like I witnessed Sunday evening at the Buenos Aires International Book Fair.

Some background. The Buenos Aires International Book Fair is the largest book event in the Spanish speaking world, held annually in late April through early May. The event attracts over a million and a half visitors, which is worth noting in the book is dead discussions. The Embassy of the United States sponsors an American author visit to participate in book signings and offer a talk or discussion on literary subjects. In recent years these visiting authors have included Tom Wolfe, Annie Proulx, and Junot Diaz.

This year the embassy got two for the price of one, inviting novelist John Katzenbach and his wife, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Madeleine Blais. Katzenbach’s books are certainly popular in the United States, but his popularity in spanish speaking countries is in another league altogether. John writes mainly psychological thrillers; three of his novels have been made into films, including one of my favorites, Hart’s War. He has published around a dozen novels, including The Madman’s Tale, The Analyst, Just Cause, In the heat of the Summer.

I had the privilege of spending quite a lot of time with John and Maddie during the last few days, including hosting a cocktail party for them in our apartment last Friday evening. I was getting to know him, one author to another, one man to another, before … before the deluge.

Sunday he was scheduled to appear at the fair booth of his Argentine publisher to sign books. They guessed he would be popular so designated an unusually long two hours for the signing, then he had to prepare for his main event, a presentation in the fair’s largest meeting room. I decided to pop in to see how the signing was going after the first two hours, and maybe go with him for a coffee before his next appearance. When I approached the area of the signing stand, I kept walking past this seemingly endless line of people waiting; it went all the way around the booth, down a long aisle, around a corner, and into the next room. Everybody was holding one of John’s books. Fighting my way to the signing stand, I couldn’t get near John, but stood with Maddie watching the show. Two hours of signing became three, then four, and the line seemed to be getting no shorter. There were hundreds of people waiting, maybe more than a thousand — for a book signing. Not even Sarah Palin can pull that off.

When there was no choice but to stop the signing so John could get to his main event, it required four guards to get him through the throng. That is the photo above.

The room for his presentation (which was, I can honestly say, the single best author presentation I have ever seen) was filled to capacity, and the presentation was being broadcast on a widescreen TV outside, where many more people gathered.

Okay, maybe for Eric Clapton, maybe for George Clooney, maybe for Madonna … but for an American novelist?  A police escort was required to get him through the mob gathered by the exit and outside to a waiting van after the presentation. Girls crowded around trying just to touch his arm. If I had not seen this in person, I would never have believed anyone’s description of it. (Maddie says that nobody at home is going to believe it, either.)

Who would have known there can be rock star authors?

Who, by the way, happens to be an amiable and flagrantly interesting man, with a brilliant wife, and if they want to come back to Argentina, my wife and I would be more than happy to travel with them to Patagonia, where John and I could do some fishing.


Categories: Books, Literary Life, Writers

9 replies »

    • You are right. There are book fairs in the States from time to time, and authors hang out at their publisher’s booth to sign a few and generate sales, there are author presentations, panel discussions, and the like, but I have never before seen such mobs desperate to get an autographed book, so desperate to be with the author that security guards have to keep them off.

      Here’s the best part. People like this are supposed to have their heads up their asses (I know a few of these), but John is modest, attentive to others, curious about everything, and … well, not to be trite I hope, just a damn nice guy.

      So when this happens to you, Brad, be careful where you put your head.

  1. That is some remarkable treatment. Wonderful to know that it exists in some parts of the world, anyway. Especially interesting in light of this article

    which seems to indicate that there aren’t proportionally many readers in Argentina (although what readers there are would no doubt be found, you know, at a book fair).

    In the comments to that article one person says it is is misinformed, and that Buenos Aires is a very literary city, whatever that means.

    Never read anything by Katzenbach. I’ll have to rectify that. Thanks for posting on it.

    • I’ve seen that Blogspot post before, maybe from you, I can’t remember. I think the rate of readers is relative to where you happen to be. In the areas of the city where I hang out, almost everyone you see in a cafe is reading something, but I live in an upscale and educated section of the city. The book fair venue is two blocks from my apartment, so it is in the same part of town.

      There are more “literary style” cafes in this city than in any other city I’ve been in, including Paris and Vienna. But I don’t know how that translates into literary culture. There are also bookstores all over the place. I wouldn’t hesitate to guess that there are more bookstores in ten square blocks around where I live than in, say, the entire city of Des Moines or Kansas City.

      John K writes psychological thrillers, and in that area he appears to be without much competition in terms of quality. So if you like reading in that genre, you will really like his books.

      By the way, his father is Nicolas Katzenbach, LBJ’s attorney general, the guy who stared down George Wallace to integrate Alabama schools.

  2. Just followed the link from your new web page which certainly looks the business Don. Nicely done, hope it goes well for you.

  3. This certainly sounds exciting for a book author. And I must put out that such turnouts do occur in the US for print works, you just have to know the right convention to go to to see it.

    • That’s heartening to read, but I’ve never seen anything like this, and in nearly 40 years of author wanderings through these events, it is not in my experience. What novelist have you seen attract thousands of fans, who stood in long lines for more than four hours, and even then, half of them never got their book signed?

      At my last book signing in DC, I thought it was pretty thrilling when 16 people showed up. Although only a few of them actually bought the book.

      But then, I am not a literary rock star. I’m more at the pack up and haul out roadie level.