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NC Literary Festival: A reader’s feast, with a Southern flavor

In books, reading, storytelling, Tangents on May 1, 2014 at 5:35 pm

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.

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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.)

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checking out the funky chairs and stylish vibe at the Hunt Library

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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.

Writers talking

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
James McBride

James McBride

 

  • 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

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  • 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

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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

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In short, this year’s festival was a great event in a beautiful space: Well-done.

Read a kid’s take on the Festival. 

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Remembering joyful finish lines

In #races, running on April 17, 2013 at 10:46 am

When I heard about Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who was killed by one of the bomb blasts at the Boston Marathon, the first thought that crossed my mind was that he may have been there to cheer on one of his parents.

As it turned out, that’s exactly why Martin and his family (his mother and sister were gravely injured by the blast, but survived) were there – they were waiting to cheer his dad across the finish line.

This struck a chord with me because of my joyful experiences cheering and being cheered across a finish line over the past several years. It was hard to imagine such a happy milestone turning to horror as theirs did.

In the spirit of counting blessings and honoring the importance of finish line reunions (which we can take for granted most of the time, thankfully), and in honor of the Richard family, I wanted to share two short stories-via-snapshots of the two joyful finish line moments I shared with my daughter not long ago.

Finish Line 1 [aka, ‘You can teach a middle-aged dog new tricks’]

Early one Saturday morning in November 2010, my daughter and I headed across town so I could check a huge item off of my Life Ambition List: Making my status as a  “real”/bonafide runner official. (For me, this meant being someone who actually enjoys running, does it regularly and can run well enough to sign up/run races).

Since August, I had been slogging, sometimes painfully, through a great 5K training program called No Boundaries (you can try it, too; Fleet Feet Raleigh and New Balance offer it several times a year). I couldn’t believe I made it through the whole program without my lungs exploding – or without quitting. That morning, my fellow trainees and I would cap off our many training runs by running a race together: A charity 5K raising money for lung cancer research.

Here is the story through my then-9-year-old daughter’s eyes as she chronicled my first 5K:

My girl captures my race start...

My girl captures my race start…

… then snaps a photo of me coming into view at the end, with my training program running buddy just ahead of me and my Marine Corps barker right beside me.

... and she kept snapping as I passed by her and the rest of my support team.

… and she kept snapping as I passed by her and the rest of my cheering section.

... and finally, my biggest supporter was captured as she snapped a photo of me crossing the finish line.

… and finally, a friend managed to capture a photo of my biggest supporter as she snapped a photo of me crossing the finish line!

Afterward, we were both as happy as if I had run a marathon ...

Afterward, I was as happy as if I had run a marathon, and my girl told me over and over how proud she was of me. She high-fived me for running the whole way without stopping to walk (I wasn’t sure I’d pull that off earlier that morning). She knew this program had been a long, hard road for her non-athletic mom.

Finish Line 2: My ‘Girl on the Run’

Several months later in April 2011, the tables were turned, and it was my daughter’s turn to run her first 5K as the culmination of an amazing, inspiring program called Girls on the Run (please take a minute and read more about GOTR here). Her dad was her running partner that day, and I was the photographer and cheerleader.

Capturing the official start, ready to look for my girl in the crowd...

Capturing the official start, ready to look for my girl in the crowd…

Found her!  (I have blurred the faces of other kids in most of these photos if they're looking directly into the camera; don't think it's my place to post recognizable photos of other parents' kids).

Found her!
(I have blurred the faces of other kids in most of these photos if they’re looking directly into the camera; don’t think it’s my place to post recognizable photos of other parents’ kids.)

My favorite moment of the day: Girls who had finished made a welcome arch for their fellow runners as they approached the finish line.
My favorite moment of the day: Girls who had finished made a welcome arch for their fellow runners as they approached the finish line.

Final sprint to the finish line...

Final sprint to the finish line…

A hug from one of her amazing Girls on the Run coaches ...

A hug from one of her amazing Girls on the Run coaches …

During a team photo, my girl examined her medal with an awe no less intense than if she had won a gold medal at the Olympics.

During a team photo, my girl examined her medal with an awe no less intense than if she had won a gold medal at the Olympics.

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