The living have an odd tendency to want to possess the dead. We’d like to claim them as our own: To discuss them in a way that centralizes our own experience of them relative to others around us. “Oh, I remember when he and I…” That sort of thing.
So I’m trying to be very wary of that impulse. I really don’t want to pretend to know Christopher Hitchens any better than I did. We had only two interactions, once at a cocktail party and once over email. We weren’t friends or anything like that. But starting from when I was about 17, I have read almost every word he published — hundreds of articles and essays, over a dozen books, a volume of output so impressive that it makes every other writer I know seem lazy. I suppose that one could say that Hitchens read every word that I published too, a claim that is factually accurate only in that I have published exactly one book, which he read about a year ago. We are not so much a mutual admiration society as we were two people, the first of whom utterly worshipped the second, while the second seemed vaguely amused by the first on the rare occasion that he was reminded of his existence.
However, over the years I have been lucky enough to get to meet a small handful of my heroes. And every single one of these experiences has been kind of awkward and disappointing and cringe-worthy — with one exception. And that’s the time I met Christopher Hitchens.
So here’s what happened: My novel The Sherlockian was edited by a brilliant man named Jon Karp. As luck would have it, Jon was also Hitchens’ editor. Well, maybe “luck” isn’t the right word, because a big part of the reason I signed with Jon in the first place was that he edited Hitchens. If Jon could make me sound half as smart as Hitchens… That was the thinking. Anyhow, when Jon was finished making my book intelligible, he sent a manuscript to Hitchens to see if he’d write me a blurb. (Little known Hitchens fact: He was a pretty serious Sherlockian. It makes sense when you think about it — the triumph of reason over tyranny, a certain resolute Englishness, etc.) Hitchens then wrote me a blurb that I quoted, ad neauseum, to every single one of my friend for weeks on end. They got pretty sick of hearing about it, but Christopher Hitchens had called me “ingenious,” and that’s basically one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me in my life. (My dear friend Alice, with whom I had spent many hours debating various of Hitchens’ essays while we were in college, in response to my sharing the blurb with her: “This is one of the proudest moments of my life. It’s a complicated pride, but that’s the best kind!”)
Some months later, I was in Washington for a book launch party for my novel. Jon had sadly since left my publishing house, but my friend Tammy knew Hitchens socially, and she invited him for me. Much to my surprise, he accepted! Now, to just briefly touch on the super surreal part here: Because my mother is fancy, this party was hosted by Jill Biden at the Vice President’s residence. Right. So I was there with my family and my agent and my publisher and various DC dignitaries, and I saw Hitchens in the corner finally, and I snuck my way over to him, and we had the most lovely little chat. We talked for a bit about the first book of his that I ever read, and why it made such an impact on me, and he was gracious and funny and kind and wonderful for all the reasons that other people, who knew him far better, have done such wonderful jobs of describing in the last day.
As this was a year ago, he was already pretty sick. He’d found a way to surreptitiously steady himself against a nearby wall or chair without it looking like that’s what he was doing. He seemed tired, but still managed to stay for a few hours. And finally, as the evening was wearing down, I saw him across the room saying his goodbyes to the Vice President and Mrs. Biden. But as he was putting on his coat on the way out the door, he spotted me and dashed over. He grabbed my hand and thanked me for inviting him. And then, in a moment I will never forget as long as I live, he put his hand on my shoulder and said: “Congratulations. I’m really looking forward to seeing what you write next.”
For a young writer looking for inspiration, you couldn’t really do much better.
So here’s to Christopher Hitchens, who, in my one meeting with him was simply kind when he did not have to be. Of how many people can that be said?