A little touch of Harry in the night…

I have two reasons for remembering being in Mobile, Alabama, in the early autumn of 1999, attending the annual SEBA convention as the guest of my American publisher. The first reason is that the event itself gave me my first intimidating insight into how huge the American marketplace is, compared to anything we have in Canada; it’s one of those things you can rationalize and think you understand, to a certain extent, but until you actually go down there and take part in one of their major marketing functions, you can really have no idea just how immense and overwhelming the American marketplace is, no matter what you’re selling.

In this instance it was books. SEBA was the trade name for the South Eastern Booksellers Association, one of ten regional associations, mammoth in size and scope, that covered the entire Continental USA at that time, but I’ve been rooting around on-line recently, looking for updated information on those organizations and it seems that, thanks to all the radical changes in the publishing industry in the past ten years, none of them exists any longer on the kind of scale I experienced.

In its heyday, around the turn of the Millennium, the SEBA annual Trade Fair, like those in the other nine U.S. Continental regions, attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors from a vast territory embracing the Carolinas, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky and East Texas. The space requirements for the affair were gigantic, demanding entire State exhibition grounds, because thousands of delegates attended—publishers, buyers, sellers, distributors, warehousers and, of course, hundreds of authors of every stripe—and all their wares were lavishly displayed for the duration of the three-day event, which was largely open to the public. The only Canadian booksellers’ event I have ever seen that came remotely close to attracting that kind of interest and support, in terms of attendance, was a Francophone publishing fair held in Montreal that left me stunned and awe-stricken at the passionate literacy of Quebeckers.

The second reason for the Alabama event’s memorability amounted to a revelation. I was wandering around the Trade Floor early on Saturday morning, before the doors opened for the day, when I heard my name being called.

“Hey, Jack,” a rep from Scholastic Press shouted. “Have you read Harry Potter?”

I went over to his booth, having had a drink with him the night before, and I assumed he was asking me about another author. No,” I said. “What does he write?”

“He doesn’t,” came the answer. “He’s a book.” He threw me a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, (later changed to the Sorcerer’s Stone) suggesting that I take a look at it because it was “different”. I took him at his word, but made the mistake of opening it that evening after dinner, and I was lost for the entire night. I finished it at 7.00 am the following morning. I had never read anything quite like it, but no doubt about its wondrousness ever entered my mind, since I had devoured the entire novel in a single eleven-hour session.

That was sixteen years ago, and you’d think no one would have much more to say about Harry Potter and his friends nowadays—the legend speaks for itself: the biggest selling fictional series in history; the highest-grossing movie franchise in history. But there are still people out there whining and carping about the putative immorality of endangering our children’s minds and souls by “encouraging” witchcraft and magic.

I’ve seen instances of this kind of guff resurfacing again and again, even in recent months, and I have to shake my head at some people’s failure to perceive the real magic of the Harry Potter tales. The truly miraculous aspect of the original Potter books is that, after decades of lethargy, apathetic disinterest and galloping illiteracy, along came a young woman with a story that suddenly galvanized young people everywhere and turned them into ravenous readers of thick, meaty,  satisfying books they wouldn’t even have looked at sideways before that time. That, to me as a writer and storyteller, was real Magic.

So in my next column I think I’m going to write about another of my very favourite fictional characters. He’s not a towering Literary presence, but he is a big lad and a phenomenally gifted story teller, born with his disbelief in willing and happy suspension, and his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek. His name is Harry, too, and like Harry Potter he, too, is a magician—a bona fide practitioner of magic, living and working in Chicago, Illinois, where he advertises his services openly in the Yellow Pages. His full name is Harry Dresden, and his adventures are chronicled by his creator Jim Butcher in a series of novels called The Dresden Files. More to follow.