Birthday Present

June 16, 2015

Last Wednesday was my birthday, and the universe gave me a present. To tell you how it happened, I need to briefly walk you through the day.

When my wife and I woke up, the novel I’m reading was on my mind. It’s Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, who is my favorite novelist of all time. This book was a sensation when it came out in 2013; this is actually my second reading. As with everything of Atkinson’s, I’m getting a whole lot more out of it the second time through.

My #1 very favorite novel of all time is Atkinson’s first: Behind the Scenes at the Museum. (I wrote a little bit about it here.) It is the most sweeping, intimate, hilarious, poignant, breathtaking chronicle of one person’s life, opening at the very moment that its hero, Ruby Lennox, springs to life as a single fertilized egg cell (and since the whole book is told in the first person, from Ruby’s point of view, that is quite a neat trick) up through its conclusion with Ruby in her forties.

As I said, on my birthday I awoke with Atkinson on the brain. Her latest book, A God in Ruins, is a sort of companion novel to Life After Life.

A God in Ruins

It came more than a month ago, but before I tackled it I wanted to reread Life first, so it would be fresh in my mind.

Ana and I had breakfast, loaded the car, and drove to New York City for the day. Ana had some meetings scheduled to do some work for Brandon Webb’s Red Circle Foundation, which provides support to the families of Special Operations vets. (Ana’s on the foundation’s board of directors. More about that in future posts.)

I was there to meet with a publisher about a book. Not just any publisher, though; it happened to be Hachette, a major international publisher with whom I have never worked before.

That afternoon I walked into the offices of Hachette Book Group for the first time in my life, and there among dozens of other books on the reception wall display stood A God in Ruins.

Of course! I hadn’t put it together until that moment. Kate Atkinson’s publisher, Little Brown, is a Hachette imprint. The people I was there to see, who were going to publish my book,  were also the ones who published Kate Atkinson’s books. Amazing! Although, as it turned out, not yet amazing enough.

We went into a smaller office and had our meeting, at 3:00. My coauthor wasn’t feeing well, so we concluded business fairly quickly and broke a little early. I walked out of the little office and out into a larger room …

… where a crowd of employees stood milling about, chatting. The atmosphere was convivial, even festive. A few people had little plastic cups of champagne in their hands.

Clearly, I had walked into the middle of a party.

But a party for what? Or whom?

Turned out, where I stood was at the end of a line that meandered clear across the room. We were in line, I was told, to have books signed. Turned out, this was a book-signing party — not for the public, just for Hachette employees. I was welcome to stay if I liked.

So I did.

Someone came over and asked for my name, which they wrote down on a sticky note. They put a copy of the book in my hands, attached the sticky note so the author would be able to read it and inscribe the book accurately. I got to the head of the line.

And there sat Kate Atkinson.

Signing books.

“I have to tell you,” I said, “Museum is my #1 very favorite novel of all time.”

She smiled. She said that was delightful to hear. I told her how much I appreciated her sitting here, signing books for us. She thanked me back. She was utterly charming, and I was not at all surprised.

I did not mention to her that the reason she was there, and that Hachette had decided to hold this impromptu gathering, more than a month after the book’s release, and to hold it at 4:00-ish on a Wednesday afternoon, was that it was my birthday. But there you go.

I was one of the last in line. Within minutes after she signed my copy of her book and we had our briefest of chats, the event was over.

It was the best birthday present I could have imagined.

What a universe we live in!



  1. Beverly Bellmore

    Happy Birthday John and congrats on the very cool gift! Great story.

  2. Fiona Ashe

    Fabulous! A great story, brilliantly told. I’m delighted that you received such an amazing birthday present, John!

  3. Adrian

    And another Birthday present–the huge H outlined in white on the bookshelf in your picture stands for “Heroes Among Us”!

  4. Laura Steward

    Happy birthday to my fellow Gemini! What a lovely gift. Only you would not mention your birthday nor mention you were there to sign a book deal either!!! You are a true rockstar my friend



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