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]



Blogger Mark said...

nice write up
good to see you this weekend

8:25 PM  

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