New York writer Julian Tepper served Philip Roth at a deli on New York’s Upper West Side and, seizing the moment, offered the author a copy of his first novel:
He was seated alone at a table, reading on an iPhone and awaiting his check. I approached Roth with less trepidation than I had anticipated, given that in past years, the author’s presence had been enough to make me physically ill and render my hands so shaky that I would drop plates, spill coffee, trip on air. He looked … well, he looked like Roth: ruddy skinned, dark eyes stoical, bushy eyebrows untamed, shoulders back in a noble posture. Against my boss’s orders (I’ve actually signed a piece of paper that said I wouldn’t write about patrons or bother them with things such as my novel, the consequence being my termination … I hope I have a job tomorrow, the child will need diapers!) I keep copies of the novel in a knapsack under the waiter’s station just for moments like these. I tucked one under my arm. With every table in the dining room occupied and me, the only waiter, neglecting the needs of a good fifty patrons, I approached Roth. Holding out Balls as a numbness set into the muscles of my face, I spoke. “Sir, I’ve heard you say that you don’t read fiction anymore, but I’ve just had my first novel published and I’d like to give you a copy.”
His eyes lifting from his iPhone, he took the book from my hands. He congratulated me. Then, staring at the cover, he said, “Great title. I’m surprised I didn’t think of it myself.”
These words worked on me like a hit of morphine. Like two hits. It felt as if I was no longer the occupant of my own body. The legs had gone weak, the ears warmed, the eyes watered, the heart rate increased rapidly. Barely able to keep myself upright, I told him, “Thank you.”
Then Roth, who, the world would learn sixteen days later, was retiring from writing, said, in an even tone, with seeming sincerity, “Yeah, this is great. But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”
I managed, “It’s too late, sir. There’s no turning back. I’m in.”
Nodding slowly, he said to me, “Well then, good luck.”
After which I went back to work.
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