I was squeaking through high school, I went with friends to see the movie the whole world was talking about: The Exorcist. As a former altar boy who'd been taught by nuns, the story jolted me. I squirmed in my seat each time we were taken into Regan's bedroom where "that thing" was.
Over the years, as I pursued my own writing, learning more about the story and the story behind it became a minor obsession of mine. I read everything I could find on the subject. I'd read The Exorcist over and over. Thought it was beautiful, lean where it needed to be, sophisticated in all the right places, compassionate, and downright scary.
I thought the author, William Peter Blatty, was a genius.
He called the book a "supernatural detective story." I thought that his portrayal of all of his characters—Chris, the anguished mother; of Karras, the self-doubting priest; of Kinderman, the humble, sharp-eyed detective—was moving, even poetic at times. The book stood for fifty-seven weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Blatty also won an Academy Award for his screenplay for the movie, which received ten Oscar nominations and grossed $441 million on a $12 million budget.
He was the father of a global sensation.
For me, he was an ascended master, worthy of the Mount Rushmore of storytelling gods. This was a guy I admired for his talent, but let's face it, a guy that I, a mid-lister who grew up in small town Canada, would never actually meet.
That all changed in 2010 at Book Expo America in the Jacob Javits Center in New York City.
One of the features of BEA, as it is known, is author signings of forthcoming books in "the chute," a very popular section of the conference center. Long, narrow chutes, akin to those used in stockyards, are divided by ropes and lead to a riser where authors sign free ARCs, or finished copies, to give away to those who line up. The chutes are set up side by side and can number over two dozen. Along with struggling newbies, there are the big names. Authors usually appear in one-hour time slots listed in the program.
In 2010, I was fortunate to be slotted for a chute signing. As I checked my time in the program, I froze when I saw that William Peter Blatty was among the authors signing at the same time.
About fifteen minutes before the signing, authors, along with reps from their publishing houses, gathered in a curtained area to the side that serves as a green room. While there, I saw among the authors and reps an older man in a jacket, sitting quietly with a younger man, across in a far off area alone.
"I think that's William Peter Blatty," I told my rep.
"You should go talk to him," she said.
Being shy and afraid that I'd embarrass myself, I hesitated.
"You might never have this chance again," she said.
She was right.
I stood up and approached him, my eyes locking on his conference badge, and the three names to be sure I had the right author.
He turned and gazed at my badge, then up at me
I introduced myself and his eyes twinkled: "Oh, I've heard of you."
"I'm sure you haven't," I smiled right back. "Sir, I admire your work and all that you've achieved and I just want to say it’s an honor to meet you."
"Oh, stop it," he held up both hands playfully. "You're too kind."
"Maybe I can drop by your slot," I said, "and get a signed copy of your new one?"
"Please do," he said as we shook hands.
I was buoyant as things got underway and I went to my slot. Blatty and I were separated by about fifteen authors. The time passed in a flash. When my chute signing was nearly over and my line, which was never more than a steady trickle, all but done, I slipped down to Blatty's, which was still going strong. He was poised to sign a book for a man who was insisting he make it out to "Sally," when Blatty held up his hand to the man and turned to me.
"Rick. Good to see you." Blatty then started personalizing a book for me to the frustration of the man waiting.
"No, I need you to make it to Sally!" the man insisted.
"Please," Blatty cautioned him, saying: "I'm making this one to my friend, here." And he gestured to me.
"Sorry," I smiled to the waiting man as William Peter Blatty signed his novella to me.
I shook his hand and thanked him.
I never saw him again after that.
But on the flight home I reflected on The Exorcist, and how, as a high school teen, I'd felt the goose flesh rise on my arms along with the little hairs on the back of my neck when I watched the film and when I read the book. I never for a moment thought that I would meet the man responsible, that he would be so kind, so generous, and possess such exquisite, devilish charm.
Rick Mofina is a Canadian author of crime fiction and thriller novels. His next novel, Into The Dark, is due out in June 2013 from Harlequin MIRA.