Sunday, September 30, 2012

Fobbit Tour: Notes From the South Dakota Festival of Books

"I am sockless in South Dakota."

That's what I tweeted Friday morning when I unpacked my suitcase in my Sioux Falls Holiday Inn hotel room and discovered, heart wilting, that I had neglected to pack anything with which to clothe my feet for the five days in South Dakota and then in Minneapolis.  I'd been so busy working at the Day Job right up until my departure for readings at Montana State University and Elk River Books in Livingston, Montana, that I'd thrown armloads of clothes and toiletries in the suitcase like I was in some sped-up scene from a Laurel and Hardy movie.  Stress and poor time management can really fuck up your life, ya know?

In truth, I wasn't literally sockless.  After all, I did have the pair of tube socks which I'd first donned Wednesday morning and worn on the plane ride to Sioux Falls.  They would have to last the weekend because, to the further collapse of my spirit, I discovered (after walking six blocks in all compass directions) there were no clothing stores near the Holiday Inn.

At the South Dakota Festival of Books' opening reception for its authors, I faced a fashion dilemma: do I "dress down" and wear jeans and (by now) moldering tube socks; or do I put on a pair of nice dark blue dress slacks, snazzy black shoes, and....white socks?  I opted for the latter, hoping I wouldn't have to sit down during the evening or perform a high-kick demonstration, thus exposing my sock-white shins.  I stood the entire evening, taking little mincing steps as I moved around the room to greet fellow authors.  No one looked anywhere south of my knees--or if they did, they were too polite to say anything.

Besides, there was too much going on north of the neck at the book fest.  Brains were humming in that room of authors.  Flesh was being pressed, backs were being slapped, and everywhere the air was spritzed with words like "writing," "reading," "books," and "have you tried the goat cheese canapes?"  It was a good start to a promising weekend, fashion faux pas aside.  Just take a gander at a partial list of participants: Pete Dexter, Kent Meyers, John Dusfresne, Elizabeth Berg, Leif Enger, Sherman Alexie, and Roy Blount Jr.  Like I said, that's just a partial list.  My contribution to the festival consisted of a reading from Fobbit and two book signings (at which I shared a table with Ms. Berg, Ellen Baker, and historian Jeff Barnes).

Here are some random notes from the three days I spent in South Dakota....

*     *     *

There are two great things about attending festivals like this.  One, you connect with readers, getting to know them on a more personal level.  Because Fobbit is still fresh in the world, there's still a relatively small number of people who have read it.  But I was so gratified to meet two enthusiastic readers, Rich and Patrick, who talked with me about Fobbit and our shared passion for the poetry of Brian Turner (Here, Bullet).  Then, on the second day, an older gentleman passed me in the lobby, did a double-take when he saw my nametag, and reached out a hand to stop me.  "I read your book three weeks ago--got it from the library--and I really enjoyed it.  You certainly have a different take on the war.  I never been in the service or been close to combat, but I could appreciate what you were doing with that book."

These are the small moments authors catch like fireflies, cup them in their palms and then later, when no one's looking, open their hands to enjoy the glow.
*     *     *

The other wonderful thing about book festivals is the author-on-author action.  In South Dakota, I finally had the chance to meet Karl Marlantes--who is just as smart and kind and engaging as readers of Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War and What It Is Like to Go to War might suspect.  Karl was kind enough to contribute a blurb for Fobbit early in the publication lifecycle of the book and the feeling is certainly mutual since I consider What It Is Like to Go to War one of the most IMPORTANT books of our young century.  It should be required reading for every member of the armed forces, highest rank to lowest rank; as well as: members of Congress, housewives, career women, stay-at-home dads, stockbrockers, bricklayers, college faculty, Taco Bell fry cooks, hawks, doves, and everyone else in between.

It didn't take long for Karl and I to bond over a steak dinner in downtown Sioux Falls.  We talked about what we're going to talk about when we talk together at University Bookstore and Powell's in October.  We also talked about the trajectories of our lives, our kids, coastal Oregon, book reviews, and discovered we had a mutual love for French cinema.

Here's another trio of authors I'm now honored to call my friends: Joshilyn Jackson, Ellen Baker, and Wendy McClure.  None of us knew each other before arriving in South Dakota (though J. J. and I were Twitter friends--"Twends"?).  The four of us also bonded over food--a unique South Dakotan dish called chislic.  I'm happy to say it tastes better than it sounds.  It is, essentially, deep-fried meat.  And you eat it with toothpicks.  This is South Dakota, after all.  Though Joshilyn, Wendy and Ellen mocked me for ordering a "girlie" drink with "frosted cake vodka" and lemonade, I showed them a thing or two when I popped a whole hunk of meat in my mouth at once and unleashed my Inner Caveman with a grunt-n-growl.

Here's a bonus benefit of meeting authors at events like this: you buy their books and discover some great writing you might have otherwise missed.  Here are the first lines from the latest books by my new BFFs:

I was born in 1867 in a log cabin in Wisconsin and maybe you were, too.
The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie
by Wendy McClure

My daughter, Liza, put her heart in a silver box and buried it under the willow tree in our backyard.
A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty
by Joshilyn Jackson

Violet set out from the little white house walking, but, when the pains came, she was brought to her knees.
I Gave My Heart to Know This
by Ellen Baker

*     *     *

[Notes jotted on an index card during John Dusfresne's presentation on the writing process]

"You won't know everything about your book when you start out.  For instance, the first chapter of my current work-in-progress has five corpses on the floor and I spent at least 279 pages trying to find out who did it."

First notice everything:
The stain on the wallpaper
of the vacant house,
the mothball smell of a
Greyhound toilet.
Miss nothing. Memorize it.
You cannot twist the fact you do not know.
--from "Let Me Tell You" by Miller Williams

Dufresne:  "The first act of writing is noticing.  Writers see what others don't.  The world is full of provocations and your job is to be sensitive to those provocations."

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

--from "For the young who want to" by Marge Piercy

Dufresne pulls his smartphone out of his pocket and tells us that he likes to surreptitiously take photos of interesting people while pretending to be talking to someone on the phone.  He takes photos of people and places he thinks might someday end up in one of his stories or novels so that he'll have a visual record of them when the time comes.  Smart.

The talk roamed far and wide and included comments about shitty first drafts, the myth of writer's block, revision, how to shape plot, conflict ("you write about people at the end of their ropes"), and how he unapologetically "steals" from Alice Munro and William Trevor--the two writers he most admires.

I especially liked this statement he made near the end of the hour: "The sad thing about life is that death is the central fact.  But the nobility of it all is that we keep on loving and caring about things in spite of that inevitable death."

*     *     *

Clyde Edgerton was on-stage at the Orpheum Theater singing about a glass eye and the audience was cracking up.  Sadly, the audience wasn't all that large (less than a dozen of us in that wide, deep auditorium), but we were cracking up nonetheless as he strummed his guitar and sang "How Does a Glass Eye Work?" from his play Lunch at the Picadilly:

What if it fell out in bed?
What if it rolled out your head?
Do they make something like Poli-Grip
For false eyeballs so the thing won't slip?
How does a glass eye work?

Mr. Edgerton proved to be as down-home funny as I suspected he would be, given the sly, smart humor of his Southern novels like Raney and The Night Train.

Using a sound file on his laptop computer, which he held up to the podium's microphone, he played for us the most amazing 30 seconds of music we were likely to hear all year.  From San Francisco Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas' MTT Files on American Public Media, came a mashup of James Brown's "Please Please Please" and Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."  By interspersing the two, Thomas showed how the "pulse" of both pieces of music was the same.  It was flat-out amazing and exhilarating and I pity you for being unable to sit there in the Orpheum and have your brain bent in new directions.

Then Edgerton read passages from his next book, Papadaddy's Book for New Fathers, which is coming out in May 2013.  I am sorry to report that I was unable to write down some of those parental bits of advice (on how to help your wife through a C-section, on how to install a baby's car seat, on how to childproof the home, etc.).  I was laughing too damn hard.  Trust me, you'll want to get this book when it comes out next year.

*     *     *

And finally, I'll leave you with a virtual photo album of some of the beautiful sights around Sioux Falls--most notably, its SculptureWalk.  On every block of the city's downtown, you'll find specially-commissioned bronze statues (which change every year and are available for purchase).  They alone are worth pulling off the interstate the next time you're passing through South Dakota.

"The American Farmer"
Not a sculpture, but I like how the telephone line
perfectly kissed the top of the cross

The Falls, tumbling over stair-stepped levels of red Quartzite

My favorite, festival-appropriate sculpture

Inscribed on the ring around her are titles of children's classics
like Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Borrowers, etc.

"Sleeping Grizzly" guards the book I just purchased
at Zandbroz Variety (a superb indie bookstore):
The Everyman's Library edition of Dostoevsky's The Adolescent,
translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky


  1. Thank you for capturing the festival so well! I loved meeting you and all the other writers - what a great weekend!

  2. I strongly second Thea's comments! And now I think the Sioux Falls Convention and Visitors' Bureau may want to add you to their staff ... in spite of your pointing out the dearth of places to buy socks downtown!

  3. Knowing its effect, the "older gentleman" is now quite pleased he took the time to comment. And having read this post now wishes he'd taken the opportunity to visit earlier and longer.