On Meeting Your Heroes

06 Jun On Meeting Your Heroes

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly  7.6.21


Back in 2004, mid comedy tour, we were sitting in our hotel’s bar enjoying what was either a late lunch or an early dinner. I’ve never known what to call this meal – Linner? Dunch? – that you dive into in the hope you will be neither too full nor faint with hunger when you walk on stage at show time.

“That guy over there,” I said quietly to my husband and our tour manager, “looks a lot like Billy Connolly.” Both of them turned to see who I meant, and then Jeremy turned back to me. “Yeah, that’s because it is.”

I interrupted Billy’s pot of tea to tell him we were local comedians on tour, we loved his work, and – unlikely, but rude not to offer – if he wanted to see our show that night in Queenstown, he’d be very welcome, then headed back to our table. Seconds later, he had joined us with a “May I? We’re family! All comedians share the same DNA!” and then spent the best part of an hour regaling us with stories of life on the road, and making the connections between who we’d all worked with over the years.

He is as wonderful – funny and kind – as you hope he would be. Eventually, he muttered something about not wanting to take up too much of our time and returned to his own table while we all tried to look less beside ourselves with excitement than we felt.

The “I once met Billy Connolly” story is one I tell every chance I get. And I’ve noticed there’s always a moment at the beginning when the listener is waiting with bated breath to hear if he was the person we imagine (funny and kind) and then tremendous relief that the answer is yes. We want our heroes to stay our heroes, to be as fine as the person we’ve held in our mind. There is something terribly deflating about meeting (or hearing from someone who has met) a person you’ve long admired and discovering they’re a bit of a knob. It’s like you’ve been tricked.

It is a high risk business, meeting your heroes. You also want them to know what they have meant to you, but without babbling and gushing and coming off like a crazy person. You have fancied that you are already friends and the last thing you want to do is fall out with them at the very moment you finally meet. 

Multiply that anxiety by seven for me when, last month, I chaired a session at the Auckland Writers Festival starring a baker’s half-dozen of New Zealand’s honoured authors. Patricia Grace, Dame Fiona Kidman, Witi Ihimaera, Albert Wendt, C.K. Stead, Brian Turner and Vincent O’Sullivan. They were – phew! – at least as wonderful as I’d hoped – articulate, patient and kind.

It made me incredibly aware of this imaginary relationship we have with the people who have brought us so much over the years – solace, wisdom, insight and entertainment. There are poems by Albert Wendt that I’ve been able to recite since I was at high school, images from Grace and Ihimaera’s fiction that occasionally pop into my head, unbidden, and women from Kidman’s novels and short stories who seem so real to me I can confuse them with family. All seven writers have a played a role in various chapters of my life – first as a student, then later as someone who reads for pleasure.

Some part of you wants to impress them with how they have impressed you. You want to demonstrate that you know things about their work – maybe not enough to go on Mastermind with them as your specialist subject because, come on, that’s going too far and also sounds creepy – but they’ve been such a part of your life, it feels like they should know.

Instead, what you do is try to put them at ease (everyone is always nervous about every public appearance, it’s just that some people fake composure better than others) and let them know where the water is and what to expect of the event because that is in actual fact what you’re here for.

Anyone who knows me could hear the quaver in my voice when I introduced them on stage – and I know this is true because the people who know me told me so afterwards. I believe there are moments in your life when you are both very present as the person you are now, but also the person you were once, before things like this happened to you. That Sunday evening, I was both a middle-aged woman standing on stage at the Kiwi Te Kanawa theatre interviewing a group of writers, and also a twelve year old girl reading their books in her bedroom and wondering how her life would turn out.