Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reflections on the inaugural Boston Book Festival

Boston is remembered as “The Hub,” by most anyone that still has any sense of American history. It derives from Boston’s place as a leading economic/commerce, educational, and even intellectual center, as America developed as a nation. Originally coined from an Oliver Wendell Holmes novel, where in 1858, the Cambridge-born author/philosopher referred to the Massachusetts State House as “the hub of the solar system.” Later, residents of the burgeoning metropolis adopted their own self-referential moniker, calling Boston, “the hub of the universe. Sadly, the term is rarely used today, and most have no sense of what it means.

It is only fitting then, in that spirit, that Boston, a city with a long history of books and publishing, a place where America’s first newspaper was founded, as well as firsts for having a public library, and place of the first printing press, would host a major book festival. Boston was once the home of Longfellow, Emerson, and Thoreau. It is home to some of this country’s and even the world’s top institutions of higher learning. It is a place with a rich tradition related to the written word, and understands attention to words—an understanding that words matter.

I was thrilled to be attending my second major book festival of 2009. After April’s thrilling journey to the west coast, and spending a day at UCLA taking in my very first book festival at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, I now had a proper frame of reference for evaluating Boston’s maiden voyage, celebrating books.

Copley Square was a good locale for the first one. The area offered symmetry and form that made logistical sense. As Boston goes, and given that there are areas of the city that are problematic to say the least, from an arrival and departure sense, Copley provided a positive setting to launch this first one.

I have always enjoyed the Copley Square area. The juxtaposition of old and new, historical, and modern, as well as the relative ease of getting there by car, with the Prudential Center garage nearby making my arrival practically painless, were all positives for me when I first considered attending. Then, the festival planners began listing the authors that would be attending; this first run-through would offer plenty of panels filled with A-list authors, thinkers, and funny people. Since it was only a bit more than two hours away by car (or bus/train, which I could have chosen) made this a no-brainer for me. Lastly, the festival offered a plausible excuse for my writer-in-training son taking the train up from Brown to meet me and hangout for the day with his old man.

We met on Boylston, after I exited Prudential Center. Unfortunately, his rural rube of a father had turned left, instead of going right, but a quick conference by cell phone with Mark got me turned around and we met up.

We strolled across Copley Plaza, picking up our program guides, $16 parking pass for me, and free ice cream sample provided by Brigham’s Ice Cream. We talked panel strategy for our day, or better, what three, or four events we’d like to check out.

I wanted to attend "Ties that Bind," featuring Richard Russo, who now lives in Maine, and a writer that I think captures the grittiness of small towns as well as anyone I’ve read. The other panelists, Elinor Lipman and Michael Thomas weren’t familiar to me.

Boston’s Old South Church, where this panel was being held is a magnificent example of what mid-19th century Boston must have been like. While most Congregational churches throughout New England tended to shun ornate construction, opting instead for a simple white, wooden design, and perfunctory architecture befitting their theology of the time, this historically significant building features a Northern Italian architectural design. Featuring a tall bell tower, brown, pink and grey stonework, walls of Roxbury puddingstone, decorative wood carvings, as well as a roof striped with tiles of red and black slate and a cupola or lantern of green and russet-colored copper, the church indicates that when built in the late 1870s, it was for a well-heeled congregation.

We arrived about 30 minutes prior to the 11:00 a.m. starting time, which was a wise decision on our part. The seating inside was about three quarters full, but we nabbed a decent spot about halfway back on the left side of the church.

I found Lipman’s presentation fairly non-descript, and unremarkable. She may be a successful author, but knowing little or nothing about her, I took nothing away from her 10-15 minute talk.

Next up was Russo. He appeared very comfortable in front of a large audience, which I estimated to be around 250-300 people. A 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner for his novel, Empire Falls, which depicted a once thriving mill town, fallen upon tough times—his fictional locale could be any of several communities in Maine, and elsewhere across the United States, as manufacturing dies a slow, painful death. When the book was made into a two-part miniseries on HBO, much of it was filmed in Skowhegan, Waterville, and Winslow, at the suggestion of Russo, who understood how these towns perfectly captured the aura of the fictional post-industrial town in his book.

Russo spoke about autobiography and imagination. He told a story about his friend, author Pete Dexter, who was upset when a reviewer referred to his latest book, Spooner, as autobiographical.

Apparently, many fiction writers bristle at having their work labeled autobiographical, because Russo intimated that it is thought to indicate a lack of imagination on the part of the writer. I thought Russo did a fairly good job of explaining differences between mere recitation of personal stories finding their way into a fiction writer’s work, and the kind of work that a good writer does with shaping and structuring experiences they have, and still being able to plausibly operate on the fictional side of the writing world. In fact, Russo mentioned that “life has no shape; shape is what we imagine and structure is what we (the writer) assign.”

Following Lipman and Russo, Michael Thomas stole the thunder on this panel. A gifted speaker, with obvious charismatic qualities, and someone that looks more like an NFL cornerback, than the stereotype of a writer, he may have the best “guns” I’ve seen on the author’s circuit.

With a recent IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in tow, for Man Gone Down, Thomas spoke about dealing with and processing memory, particularly in his context, growing up in Allston, and never feeling like he had an identity.

I haven’t read Man Gone Down, but the reviews indicate that it deals squarely with the issues of race, disillusionment, and the marginalized in America. Booklist characterized Thomas’ first work as a “rhapsodic and piercing post-9/11 lament over aggression, greed, and racism, and a ravishing blues for the soul's unending loneliness.”

Throughout his talk, Thomas dropped references to T.S. Eliot, and didn’t shy away from literary references in clarifying his thoughts, like referencing Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues in explaining his own take on the two sides of the black experience (Thomas is African-American).

I was particularly taken by his own inclination of being a “prodigal,” and how that urge was stronger for him, than to be “home,” as he phrased it.

Since the next event we planned to take in was in the same location, we just moved around the sanctuary and found a little better spot in the center and prepared to wait for Tom Perrotta, interviewing John Hodgman.

I read Perotta’s The Abstinence Teacher (which I reviewed here), and I was impressed by his ability to nail the born-again experience so well, having never gone through it in the first-person, according to interviews I’d read.
Perotta took on a persona of self-deprecation, talking and joking about his own failures to get published. Hodgman, who described himself for the audience as a “famous minor television personality,” was laugh out loud funny, and had some fun at Perotta’s expense.

The two elicited a good give and take, with Hodgman doing most of the talking. While he was funny, and didn’t stray too far from his public persona, he did spend some time speaking honestly about his own evolution as a writer, which is how he says he self-identifies.

A graduate of Yale, he initially wanted to be a short-story writer, and wrote an “exquisitely crafted short story,” which was published in the The Paris Review. He did emphasize he wrote only “one,” however.

After college, he worked as a literary agent, which while he described this experience as a “failed” one, it did lead to his column at McSweeney’s Ask A Former Professional Literary Agent, which then led to his first book, The Areas of My Expertise, his satirical almanac.

A couple of my favorite anecdotes from Hodgman; he told the audience that when he originally began writing, he didn’t think you were allowed to be funny. Once he began to understand humor, and the importance of being funny in his own writing, it opened up a wealth of opportunities, and he’s continued to ride that wave with a great deal of recent success. Hodgman in fact said that he sees humor as a “form of short story writing.”

He also described how he continues to be amazed by how often wildly successful people come up to him and want to know how to get a book published. He said it seems to be universal that almost everyone has that “one book” that they want to write before they die.

While my success as a writer/publisher is chump change when juxtaposed with Hodgman’s, but I’ve also been amazed how often other successful people warm to me when they find out I’ve written a book, as well as launched my own independent publishing company.

Hodgman concluded on an optimistic note for anyone getting started. Rather than lament the death of the book, or publishing’s dilemma, he said it’s a great time to be creative. He compared the internet to New York City, where so many writers traditionally would go to get their start in publishing. He said that there is no certain geographic place to go, today. In fact, he told one of the questioners during the Q & A session when asked for advice about getting a book published, to “move to the cheapest place you can find,” touching on his final thoughts that technology allows creative work to be done anywhere.

I didn’t have any preferences for events after Hodgman/Perrotta. Mark was interested in an afternoon panel titled, “Something Different.” The program guide mentioned that the featured authors would focus on quirky characters. The actual panel swerved slightly from that description. Jessica Anthony talked about her character, Rovar Pfliegman, a Hungarian butcher, a dwarf, who lives in a bus full of meat for sale, which seemed quirky to me.

Other panelists included Paul Trembley, author of The Little Sleep, who talked less about Mark Genevich, the South Boston PI who suffers from narcolepsy, than about his own sleep problems, and how this led to the surgical removal of his uvula.

The third panelist, R Sikoryak (real name, Robert), is a comic book artist who creates comic adaptations of classic literature. Mark and I both agreed that he was the most interesting of the three. He talked about his process, but I was particularly interested in his thoughts on taking what he considered literature, and “dumbed it down” or made it more accessible via the comic book process. His Wikipedia entry represents this as “a mashup of high and low cultures.”

The panel was hosted by Jennifer Haigh, who has won several PEN awards for her fiction. Afterwards, I glanced at several books at the author’s table, and was interested in her book, Baker Towers. I’m considering reading it, as it looks like an interesting read, detailing rise and fall of a western Pennsylvania coal town in the years following World War II, particularly given my interest in people and places, particularly small town America.

Just like at the LA Times Book Festival, I found sitting through three panels can be exhausting. Mark and I talked about whether we wanted to hit one more, or call it a day. I know that I wanted a free cup of coffee offered by Green Mountain, so I stood in a lengthy line for one. Mark headed for the book tent in the square where The Book Symposium was offering books for $1.00 each.

I got my cup of coffee, and Mark made off with 20 books for $20. We then headed for the car, with plans to check out Tavolo, in Dorchester. Since we hadn’t eaten anything more than an ice cream sample since breakfast, Italian food sounded great. After a great meal at an eatery I’ll definitely visit again, we hit the highway, bound for Providence, where Mark is enrolled in Brown’s MFA program for fiction writers.

My wife, Mary, had packed a tote bag of things for Mark, and he had requested that I bring a pair of boots, and his winter jacket to Boston. I had offered to drive him back earlier in the week when we spoke. I used the guise that it would be too difficult to schlep all this stuff back on the commuter train. Mainly, I was looking forward to conversation with my son that I miss, now that he’s grown up and on his own. I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Our 45 minute trip was filled with talk about writing, mainly the craft. Mark is leading a workshop for fellow writers next week. He was interested in “dry periods” for writers, and asked me about my own experiences. Just like the bond that we once shared via baseball, we now have a different kind of connection with books and writing. I also played some songs off my new Joel Plaskett CD for him, sharing my appreciation for the Canadian singer-songwriter.

Then, I headed for home, slogging through moderate to heavy rain on my three hour journey back to Maine.

We have plans to do it all again next year.

[Early morning at the Boston Book Festival]

[A MFA student can never have too many books]

[Book crowd enjoying some blues courtesy of Berklee student musicians]


Friday, October 23, 2009

Books in the Hub-Boston Book Festival 2009

I'm excited to be headed off to Boston, tomorrow, for this year's Boston Book Festival. Actually, the festivities kick off tonight, in Copley Square, with Boston Out Loud. This is the opening night event when Boston's beautiful and important will come out.

I'll be joining the hoi polloi, tomorrow, from 10:00 to 6:00, attending events with authors the likes of Tom Perrotta, Richard Russo, Cornel West, and many others (including Alicia Silverstone, who I am not planning to see). Actually, if Boston's festival is like the one I attending in Los Angeles, back in April, the authors I tend to favor will have events that I should be able to get into. The celebrity writers, like Silverstone, will have events that are mobbed and impossible to get into.

I will attend Perrotta's event, where he'll be interviewing John Hodgman, resident expert on The Daily Show, which may attract a larger crowd, since if you are on TV, then that automatically makes you semi-important. I'd have preferred Perrotta in a setting where he was talking about his own books, as well as discussing craft. Oh well.

This is only my second such festival event celebrating the written word, and I plan on putting up a post afterwards, capturing my thoughts and observations on the day.

Oh, yes--I will be accompanied by Mr. Everyday Yeah, who is now part of the literati, MFA student and administrator of the Official Brown MFA Blog #1.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Inspired, or disciplined?

Are writers born, or can one attend to, and develop their craft through toil and perserverance? That seems to be an age-old debate that continues to rage in writing circles.

Glimmer Train, a great literary publication featuring many new voices, sends out their magazine on a quarterly basis, and includes Writers Ask, along with it. Writers Ask deals with many of the craft aspects of writing, and it has always been a favorite of mine for advice on bettering myself as a writer.

I happened to be perusing an older issue (#42, Winter 2008), which discussed the topic of inspiration vs. discipline. The commentary and back and forth between the GT writers and the writers interviewed seemed to be split between a sense that a skilled writer had some inherent ability, but there was an obvious nod to the understanding that work ethic was also important.

Here are a few highlights from the issue:

Jay McInerney (interviewed by Victoria Blake)-

I used to idealize those people who made it seem all the work of inspiration, who seemed not so much to work as to channel the muses....I was wrong to imagine literature is a divine gift. A career of writing entails a lot of hard work, but if it were only a question of hard work, then anybody with enough of a work ethic who's ever enrolled in a creative-writing course would presumably be Phillip Roth. Whether it's ninety-nine percent perspiration and one percent inspiration, I don't know. The predisposition and the innate talent can't be willed into existence. I think Jane Austen was in some sense was born Jane Austen.

Mark Winegardner (interviewed by Robert Birnbaum)-

If they (aspiring writers) have no talent, no matter what their work ethic is they will recognize that their talents lie elsewhere.

This is my twentieth year teaching...the most talented undergraduates, you can write them off. They'll never be writers. They don't have a chance. They are freaked out that they just did it. People who are brilliant at nineteen freak out. They don't know what to do with that, "How'd I do that? I don't know." And also, early praise is damaging. We live in a culture that thinks the entire country is above average. C is a bad grade now. C is what F used to be. So everybody gets this fatuous early praise and it ruins everybody who receives it. So they are all destroyed by it. People who are a little further along, blossoming later, even then I would bet on the person who shows up at the computer every morning, rather than the one who has a world of talent and no discipline.

So there you have it. Talent matters, but working at your craft cannot be overemphasized. I've touched on this in the past, referencing Stephen King's excellent book, On Writing.

If you want to be a writer, then you need to write. It's a simple fact, but one that many wannabe writers seem to miss.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Garth Stein and a dog's voice

Back in May, our 14-year-old Sheltie passed away. My wife and I were devastated by the loss. Bernie had been a central figure in our family, and our house, occupying space, much like a human. With Bernie gone, and our son on the west coast, the house seemed dreadfully empty.

Animals have the capacity to enhance the quality of our lives. Dogs in particular have an innate ability to be whatever it is that we need them to be for us. For those fortunate to have had, or who have a special canine, they provide an unconditional support to us that no human is capable, or self-sacrificing enough to render.

In Garth Stein’s latest novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, the story is narrated by a dog, who on the eve of his own death, looks back over his life, and takes you on a rewarding journey that will have you laughing, crying, and reflecting on those special dogs you’ve had the privilege of knowing.

Enzo, a yellow lab/Airedale mix, watches television, which his owner, Denny, leaves on for him when he’s at work. Enzo knows what is next for him. He’s seen it on TV, in a documentary about Mongolia—when he is finished living his life as a dog, his next incarnation will be as a man. Enzo has always known that he’s different than other dogs, and he is quite sure that his soul, stuffed into a dog’s body, is very human.

Denny is Enzo’s owner. He is a race car driver, trying to claw his way up from the lower rungs of racing’s ladder. By day he works as a parts manager at a high-end repair shop for expensive foreign, mainly German automobiles. His real passion, however, is his racing.

When we first meet Enzo and his owner, Denny is soliciting sponsors to buy a seat in a Porsche 993 Cup Car, to race in Daytona, during the 24 Hours of Daytona race, which will be sponsored by Rolex. Denny ends up gaining the seat, and as life would have it, the weekend that he is racing is when his wife, Eve, who entered Denny and Enzo’s lives earlier, gives birth to their daughter, Zoe.

Eve was seen by Enzo as an interloper at first, someone that would come between him and Denny. Initially, he was cautious in handing her his affection. Over the first year of their marriage, however, Enzo had warmed to Eve.

Eve had insisted on a natural childbirth, and as she is giving birth, Enzo hears her screams and realizes she is in pain bringing the new life into the world. As Eve lays in bed, nursing her newborn, Zoe, she asks for a minute with her baby; the midwives seek to shoo Enzo from the room, but Eve stops them and Enzo is puffed up with pride realizing he had a special dispensation with Eve that he had been unaware of. Eve reaches down and wiggles her fingers calling for Enzo. He bumps her hand with his snout, and Eve, still crying, and nursing little Zoe looks into Enzo’s eyes and asks him, “Will you promise to always protect her?” Enzo had found a place to begin with Eve.

Parents often drive wedges between themselves and their married children. Rather than accepting that their adult child has found someone that they want to spend their lives with, some parents spend inordinate energy in their state of overprotection doing their best to sabotage marriage and love for their child. Eve’s parents, dubbed “the evil twins” by Enzo, feel that Eve could have done much better than Denny.

Life takes on new meaning for Enzo, with Zoe around. For most of the first year, Eve stays home with the new baby. The apartment in Seattle is full of life, and noise, and action. Then Eve returns to work, mainly for the health insurance that their young family needs and Denny, working for a small employer, can’t pick up at his work.

At first, Enzo is lost, alone in the apartment, wandering from room to room. Denny begins leaving the TV on for him again, telling Enzo that he’s counting on him to “be responsible.” Of course, Enzo, in his narrator’s voice indicates, “I am responsible!”

Stein, clearly knowledgeable about the bond that exists between a dog and its owner, must also be a race fan. While I know little about racing, and tend not to care much about it as a sport, I found Stein’s tidbits about world class drivers like Ayrton Senna, Jackie Steward, Michael Shumacher, and the other drivers mentioned interesting, and I found racing to be an intriguing metaphor to use in telling this story about dogs and humans.

Dogs, at least one as intuitive as Enzo knows when bad things are about to happen—he smells something bad happening in Eve—the dog is always the first to know.

The Art of Racing in the Rain alas, is not a feel good story. Bad things happen to good people. The perfect cocoon of family that existed for Denny is sent into a spin, like a race car whose tires lose their grip on wet pavement. Is Denny a skilled enough driver to know how to steer out this spin, or will he ultimately crash?

I’m not sure if this book would have been as interesting if Stein hadn’t have employed Enzo as his voice in telling the story. Ultimately, The Art of Racing in the Rain is a book about the triumph of the human spirit, as it overcomes the misdeeds and calculations of other humans, acting in their own self-interest, claiming to want what’s best, but ultimately seeking to destroy the life of another.

I highly recommend it, especially if you have a soft spot for animals, and in particular, if you consider dogs, man's best friend.