Monday, November 26, 2007

The Ghost of Wordstock (Recently) Past

It has been over a while now since Wordstock. The words have long settled and the authors are all back in rooms of their own, writing the next great American novel (or screenplay or essay or poem). Or maybe they are just procrastinating – wasting time on the Internet reading Go Fug Yourself or The Onion or trolling chatrooms for chicks. I really don’t know. All I know is that they are no longer here.

It is an interesting business, this opportunity to meet and/or hear someone you admire in print speak in person. In some cases their generosity makes you love their work even more. In others, their lack thereof somehow dims their glow. It is always disappointing to find out that someone you admire is cranky, rude, subject to petty fussiness or even just human. Like anywhere else, some people are fabulous, while others are complete tools. Half the fun of going to these events is that you get to see who is who.

Originally, I was a little underwhelmed when I saw the 07 speaker schedule. While there were a few individuals who truly did interest me, there were also a lot of names I didn’t recognize. This did not make for the same level of anticipation as in years past. Maybe I've just grown spoiled living in a city where you can't spit without hitting a great visiting author - not that I would spit at an author. So, great authors of the world, feel free to come to Portland. You have my patented no spit guarantee! Spitting aside, despite the initial lack of excitement, the prospect of hearing Wesley Stace, Harry Shearer and Steve Almond speak did generate enough enthusiasm for me to get dressed in time to hop a Max train to the Convention Center to meet up with some friends and soak in all the literary genius.

It was a gorgeous day for it. The absence of rain probably means that I should have been outside communing with nature instead of getting my nerd on, but I am not one to let what could be the last sunny day before an interminable rainy season keep me from spending the day indoors swooning over books. Besides, I did my part to make sure I don’t end up looking like Igor by soaking up a good 15 minutes of sun by walking to the Max station and waiting for the train. On the way over, I even had an interesting, light-missing conversation with the guy who was filming the anti-war protestors who show up weekly outside of Lloyd Center Mall. (I do love Portland, if I haven’t mentioned it recently!)

Even better, while waiting for the train I was treated to an (overheard) conversation (monologue, really) delivered by a woman behind me. Her crackpot theories included the idea that her cat is trying to dominate her because he is male and senses via animal instinct that she is female. Not one to be oppressed by the furry yoke of tyranny, her solution is to hit the cat on the nose any time he displays too much machismo. Frankly, if I were her cat, I like to think that I too would whack her one for being such a dumbass. The woman obviously needs a firm paw if she thinks it’s appropriate to hit an animal. Luckily, I got to stand by her on the train ride too, which allowed me to hear a number of her other theories as well. There were enough of them that I was pretty ready to get off the train by the time we got to the Convention Center.

This year’s Wordstock was a much more stationary experience than my past visits to the event. Instead of wandering from stage to stage, the schedule saw to it that we pretty much spent all but lunch and the last session (Steve Almond and Poe Ballantine) watching the literary hijinx ensue at the Powell's stage as we listened to Wesley Stace, Lauren Weedman, and Harry Shearer. All in all, it was kind of a mixed bag.

Wesley Stace

Up until a few years ago, Wesley Stace had been mainly known as his musical alter-ego, singer John Wesley Harding. I know this because I had a friend back in college who LOVED him and therefore dragged me along with her to many a concert in the basement of McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Los Angeles. In time, I too became fond of his music. As a result, I was pretty curious when his first novel, Misfortune, came out. It did not disappoint. In fact, it was fabulous in all its gender bending brilliance – like a Jane Austen novel laced with folk music and hermaphrodites.

So, when I heard Stace would again be speaking at Wordstock this year, I ignored my acute ventriloquism prejudices and picked up a copy of his newest novel, By George, which features a picture of a dummy on its cover. Because I have read a whole chapter of the book and am therefore an expert on it, I know that it is partially narrated by the dummy, who also happened to be on stage with Stace for the reading. And wouldn’t you know it? I forgot to bring the book along for an autograph (which is probably for the best considering it was a library copy). Somehow the reading went on anyway.

Stace arrived at the lectern seeming a bit disappointed with the turnout of 33 people (I counted). There was a moment before walking onto the stage when he genuinely looked like he was considering flight. It is a shame, because if he had read at Powell’s store on any other day, I’m sure there would have been higher attendance. From his vantage point, I suppose the small groups intermittently dotting the seats really did present the “strange vista” he proclaimed us to be, but, really, I think the situation was accentuated by the overabundance of chairs. There were far more chairs set up than were ever going to be needed – not just for Stace but for pretty much any of the authors who were not Harry Shearer.

Unfortunately, even though I felt a little sorry for the author, I also got the vibe that he was feeling a little put out by the lack of attendance. I would think it was just me reading too much into things (I like to do that because I’m a supersensitive, Piscean!), but my two companions arrived at the same conclusion. Honestly, it somewhat tainted what could have been a much better reading.

On the other hand, it also inspired a lot of giggling - especially the phrase “the ottoman he used to display his boys on first presentation”. The words refer to the way in which the dummy maker liked to introduce his creations to customers, but filled my head with a sudden immature and perverted glee. For some reason the description reminded of that episode of Golden Girls where Rose explains about the St. Olafian wedding tradition wherein the new groom presents his junk to the bride on a ceremonial platter on their wedding night. Apparently, I am subject to brief interludes of being possessed by the spirit of a 14-year old boy with octogenarian tastes in 80’s television.

There was also some out loud speculation among my entourage (that’s right, I have an entourage!) over what it would take for an author to become embittered enough that he’d storm off the stage and straight to the Red Robin bar across the street, biding his time until he could stagger back to interrupt Harry Shearer’s reading with an embittered, drunken diatribe. That was, however, really only theoretical speculation and is in no way meant to imply that Stace was in full hissy fit mode. He just seemed a bit perturbed.

After reading his blog, I wonder if it might have also had something to do with his great Trimet adventure, which somehow took him not to the Convention Center (where the book fair was happening) but to the Expo Center (and not via the MAX train either!). More importantly, however, I am delighted at the thought of Mr. Fancypants author and his dummy tooling around town on the bus. I wonder if all the authors had to take public transportation to the event?

Lauren Weedman

Such a different mood from Stace’s reading! From the moment she got on stage and proclaimed herself “super flattered” that we were all there, Lauren Weedman cultivated a playful, self-effacing tone that stood in sharp contrast to that of the previous reading. If this woman took the bus to Wordstock, it was definitely a party bus. I can see her now, hanging out the window doing rock horns, screaming “Whoooooooo!”

Listening to Weedman riff on everything from her involvement in The Daily Show to the abandoned interpretive dance segment that kicked off her early readings (so awesome!), you’d have to be dead to not be entertained. She is genuinely funny and so obviously feeds off the response of her audience – so much so that it took quite a while for her to actually get to the business of the day – reading from A Woman Trapped in a Woman’s Body, which was a nice, light and silly pick-me-up after the first reading.


Burgerville. I was SO good it will make you cry! I actually turned away from delicious Burgerville spread and lovely orange sweet potato fries to eat one of the many salads that have resulted in my six pound pre-Thanksgiving weight loss!

Harry Shearer

Because of his prolific career in as an actor, author, and radio host (to name a few) as well as his involvement in projects like The Simpsons and This is Spinal Tap, Shearer is one of those names that brings in an audience. He is why Wesley Stace was faced with a small sea of empty seats. Maybe next year, to settle the score, they could engage in a literary smackdown, using only the hardcopy editions of their debut novels as weapons.

Even without the excitement of a duel, Harry Shearer is famous enough that he attracts a lot of listeners, including the enamored laughers who populate all readings. They are those die-hard groupies who will chortle at everything that comes out of a presenter’s mouth (whether funny or not) simply because they admire him. That is not at all to say that Shearer is not interesting or even entertaining, just that his “Shearerness” supersedes any single project or performance. This is probably why his time on the Powell’s Stage was such a hodgpodge of topics.

Shearer read from his 2006 novel, Not Enough Indians, answered questions about his radio show, and fairly graciously (if not enthusiastically) acceded to requests for Simpsons voices.

One thing that struck me in listening to the questions the audience posed for him was the influence of The Simpsons is so huge on our culture that it must be difficult to be Harry Shearer and get people to listen when you want to talk about something else. I suppose that is one of the dangers of success.

My favorite part of Shearer’s performance (I know this, because it’s the only part I bothered to jot down in my notebook), was his two rules for writing his novel:

1. Write every day, no matter now long or how short.
2. Don’t go backwards (i.e. no editing as you write).

It’s not rocket science and it’s certainly not anything I haven’t heard before, but it’s always good to be reminded that the basic process is the same. No matter who you are, you have to sit your ass down and do the work.

Steve Almond & Poe Ballantine

This was by far my favorite reading of the day. And to think that I almost missed it! By the time Harry Shearer ended, I was starting to think I might be Wordstocked out. The readings so far had been good, but there was nothing had really gripped me in any kind of significant way. Luckily, I hung around so long looking at the publisher and bookseller displays with Jen and debating whether I wanted to stay or go that it became so late that it would have been silly not to hang around to hear Steve Almond, whose writing I genuinely do like (if you've not yet read it, you owe it to yourself to read "The Evil B.B. Chow", which is one of my favorite short stories).

Almond ended up sharing a slot with Poe Ballantine, who was a new name to me. As it turns out, he was really great. I enjoyed the selection he read from a piece called “Meth for Dummies” enough that I am curious to experience more of his work. And Steve Almond was just as charming in person as he is in his writing. He read about seeing his idol, Kurt Vonnegut, participate in a panel and also gave us what he called “the gift of his shame” by reading about his experiences as an adolescent lothario at summer camp.

Despite having participated in a long day of workshops before they ever hit the stage, both authors good naturedly entertained questions, poking fun at themselves and offering a perfect mix of reading, general discussion with the audience, and advice on writing (“Essays race to a truth that almost always leads to a shame”, “the job of a writer is to love his characters, whether fictional or non-fictional”, “Writing is not about applause, it’s about humiliation”, and, my favorite “babies are like Glenn Close in fatal attraction – they will not be ignored”. Ok, that last one isn’t about writing, but it is funny!).

This last reading was such a contrast to the first one we attended. Stace skipped his Q&A session, ostensibly with the worry that no one would ask anything. Almond approached his by opening the floor for questions with the affable warning that due to time constraints we were going to have to dispense the traditional initial awkward silence followed by the authors standing there like losers while the audience stared at them and jump right into the questions.

And that, my friends, was my 2007 Wordstock experience. Some of the offering were a little different from what I’d expected, but all in all, I’d say we’re pretty lucky to have such an event in our city. A lot of towns don’t have Portland’s appreciation for books. In the end, it was Steve Almond who best summed up what I move love about events like Wordstock – they celebrate the “shrinking minority of people who take seriously the literary arts and the internal.” Hopefully, they also help to expand the community of readers too. And that is why I am already looking forward to next year!


anne said...

We had Steve Almond come to our book club the day we read Candy Freak. It was really interesting to have the author present- and he got candy out of it!

Elge Premeau said...

I hadn't heard of Poe Ballantine either when I saw him read last year. He was so funny that I immediately went to the the Hawthorne Press booth and bought both his books. Need a good laugh? Read "God Clobbers Us All."

Jen said...

Lovely! I wish it were happening again this weekend.

I saw Poe Ballantine last year too -- I'd never heard of him before and thought he was wonderful. (and quite a change of pace from the guy he was reading with last time -- I think if he had to share a stage, Steve Almond was a good guy to do it with.)

Martina said...

Anne: I bet that really WAS cool. I am a big admirer of his work. Did having him present hinder or encourage discussion? He doesn't seem like an intimidating presence, but I could also seeing myself not wanting to unleash one of my more crackpot theories in front of the author either!

Elge: He IS awesome, isn't he? Thanks for the recommendation. I've been trying to figure out where to start with his work. I'll check out "God Clobbers..."

Jen: Thanks, man! Me too! I really do enjoy going to these sorts of things. It's the one thing I miss about grad school!