I’m on a roll with writing 3/4 of a blog post that’s intended to be timely and never is by the time I get to the final 1/4. But in my parenting/work-juggling life, it’s too painful to toss out 3/4 of a blog post, so I hope this one falls into the Old But Not Yet Stale news category.
I spent many hours over two days at the NC Literary Festival, which was put on in early April at my new favorite place — the wildly colorful and inviting James B. Hunt, Jr. Library at NC State. (If you aren’t familiar with the namesake of the library, look up the former governor and education advocate; he is one of North Carolina’s finest people.)
I’m sure there are many detailed, lofty and insightful accounts of the festival that you can find.
I’m afraid this is not one of them. But if you like stream-of-consciousness coverage, my festival take might be just your speed.
As a writer/editor sort and as a lover of stories, hearing writers talk about their work and tell their personal stories never gets old for me. I steal away to Quail Ridge Books for author appearances whenever I can, sometimes bringing my daughter and her homework along if a big favorite is coming to town on a school night.
The literary festival brought a two-day feast of writer talks to town — so many great ones were on the schedule that I was a little depressed that I have not yet found the holy grail I wish for often in my single working parent life: The ability to be in multiple places at once.
I wasn’t willing to give up on seeing everyone I wanted to see, so I decided to be strategic; I would take in the first 2/3 of one session and then slip out to take in the final 2/3 of the one that started later. This borders on rudeness, but I hope the writers forgive those of us who have a hard time choosing.
A good plenty
There were some big names on the marquee for the festival, but I did not end up hearing any of the ticketed event speakers, which included Lev Grossman, Junot Diaz and Richard Ford. This was due in part to the timing of the talks and in part to the fact that I didn’t make it by Quail Ridge Books to get the advance tickets (which were free).
Meaning no disrespect to these authors, I don’t feel as if my festival experience was diminished in the least, which is a testament to the lineup.
Here’s the menu I ended up with:
- James McBride, National Book Award Winner, The Good Lord Bird
- Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun and the new memoir Under Magnolia
- Wiley Cash, A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy
- Lee Smith, Guests on Earth and too many others to list
- Allan Gurganus, Local Souls and too many others to list
- Michael Parker, The Watery Part of the World and All I Have in This World
And here are a few random notes and fragments I scrawled in a notebook because they resonated with me in some way — these are not verbatim quotes, as my reporter’s note-taking skills are not that sharp these days, and I often have trouble reading my loose handwriting.
~ Frances Mayes, in conversation with Elizabeth Hudson, Editor-in-Chief, Our State magazine
- We all carry stories and details … how do we mine ourselves for those details to tell a story?
- The light in the South is powerfully evocative, as is the fragrance (nothing like a Southern night)
- If you lose a parent when you (and they) are young, it makes you fatalistic … afraid you will lose someone else (like Mayes, I lost my father when I was 7 and he was 48, and I could very much relate to this)
~Lee Smith in conversation with Wiley Cash
- The two read from their latest novels, and Smith noted that they both like to write in first-person — adding that 85 percent of first novels are written in first-person, which I found fascinating.
- First-person means you aren’t responsible for knowing all of the other characters’ thoughts.
- Smith recalled growing up around storytellers … trying not to fall asleep too early as a child so she wouldn’t miss the end of a story. Now, her stories always come to her in a human voice — often that first-person voice of the character telling the story.
- Cash said his stories start by knowing the characters before knowing what the plot will be.
- The voices of his characters are borrowed from people in his childhood – or, as he warned the audience, from anyone he happens to be sitting within earshot of … given the excellent things I have … overheard … at coffee shops, etc., I was glad to hear this. It makes me feel slightly less ‘Gladys Kravitz’ (if you don’t know what that means, don’t run to Google it; you’re too young and a Wikipedia explanation won’t do.
~Allan Gurganus and Michael Parker
This was a great conversation, with many quotes from each of these NC writers that were keepers — I’m not going to try to make sense of which of my scrawled notes should be attributed to each writer, or I will never finish this post.
Gurganus was probably the source of more of them simply because Parker had prepared a lot of thoughtful, interesting questions for him.
- Everyone is eloquent on one topic — their lives
- Gurganus: My job is finding the genius in every character
- We care about the music of the prose
- Today people think of prose as the means to an end; in fiction, we think prose is an end.
- Novellas: Gurganus loves the form and wants people to believe in it; tells a story about his Hillsborough, NC, neighbor, the above-mentioned Lee Smith, going to talk to a third-grade class and fielding a question from a child: “Is a novella a novel written by a girl?”
- The length of a novella is perfect – you can start it at dinner time and finish by bedtime
- Gurganus pointed out that Parker now splits time between Greensboro and Austin, and the two talked about how landscape affects prose … NC is “vernal, crazy, green.”
- Singing the praises of writers Mavis Gallant (who they noted had not gotten the credit/attention she deserved) and Alice Munro; Gurganus says he will pick a Munro short story arbitrarily and read it when he is feeling stuck.
- Gurganus pointed out that the word ‘empathy’ did not exist until the 20th century, which I found interesting, as I have always found this to be a powerful word/concept … but unfortunately, I failed to write down the context this fact
- ‘honoring the buried song in someone’ – this tied in with the discussion of empathy … somehow.
- Fiction is a force of memory
- We are all walking around with encoded stories inside of us.
- Another random note, I believe from a sidetrack about place and changes in place/surroundings: Gurganus discussing how mobile homes that were once modest and actually were “mobile” have now ‘swelled up like giant ticks’ … huge and immovable. Instant mental picture.
- Both spoke of re-reading books a lot
And for any avid reader parents who are despairing that their kid may never develop a love of reading, Gurganus and Parker should give you hope: when my 12-year-old daughter, an avid reader, worked up the nerve to ask them a question, it was “What did you read when you were growing up?”
The answer? They didn’t really read when they were growing up. Gurganus said he was too busy running around outside and playing in the woods (something he thinks kids today have missed out on) and only became a reader when he was stationed on the USS Yorktown during the Vietnam War.
Parker recalled how the first books that drew him in when he was a teenager were rock star biographies, something that gave him brownie points with my 12-year-old music lover.
Parker’s novel, The Watery Part of the World, is the only book I bought at the festival. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time, so I broke my vow to stop adding to my embarrassing “TBR” pile until I start making more progress.
You can catch Parker in a “solo” appearance at Quail Ridge Books, my favorite bookstore, today, May 1st: http://www.quailridgebooks.com/event/michaelparker
In short, this year’s festival was a great event in a beautiful space: Well-done.