Okay, so: I once wrote a letter to Kurt Vonnegut, and Kurt Vonnegut responded. In my letter I explained why I was writing him: I’d been instructed by an English teacher to pick someone I’d always admired and send her/him a letter, expressing my admiration and gratitude. I told Kurt that I had intended to write Carl Sagan, but sometime between putting pen to paper, Carl had died. I told Kurt that with Carl’s passing he had moved up my ranks and was thus receiving my letter. I discussed in the letter some personal things about my life that had taken place that past year – the passing of my younger brother and my house burning down, among a few other things – and said his work had helped me get through the tough times, and I appreciated him for that. To make sure Kurt actually got the letter (it had to go through his publicist at DoubleDay) I included a thank you card to his publicist. I never expected to hear back. However, three months later I went to visit my mother at our house in Arlington, Texas (I was living in Denton at the time) when she handed me an envelope with no return address. I figured this was someone wanting me to apply for a credit card or something. But instead it was a single piece of paper, and on it, there was typed:
Find here my thanks for your friendly and wide-open letter. You are smart and brave and I hope you stay okay.
He signed the letter with an asterisk, and if you know the novel BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS, you know what that means. Also, he drew a picture of himself smoking a cigarette.
I was OVER THE MOON with joy. Today the letter is framed and hanging in my office at the university where I teach, PLU. You should come by and see it.
So, why am I writing about Kurt Vonnegut? Because I recently got to walk in his monstrous footsteps by participating in the annual GET LIT! Festival in Spokane, Washington, hosted by Eastern Washington University. He too read at GET LIT! a few years ago and I almost went but could not because of grading. I knew at the time his health was poor (was he ever healthy, smoking 40 packs a day?), and he did pass away soon afterward. Anyhow, it was amazing and humbling to now find myself taking part in a festival in which he took part, just a few years ago.
And what an amazing event it was. This year, other readers included Susan Orlean, Colson Whitehead, Steve Almond, and Jess Walter. I got to do a panel on setting, moderated by Jonathan Frey, at North Idaho College with Lori Ostlund, author of THE BIGNESS OF THE WORLD (whose dialogue is incomparable – untouchable, it is so precise) and another great writer K. L. Cook (who speaks of craft with an eloquence I’ve rarely seen in any writer, definitely not from someone so young). I read with Christina Garcia and taught an in-depth workshop on setting with about twenty-five students. All great. All great. The reading was kind of my favorite part, admittedly, because I thought of Kurt. The experience was transcendent. Also, it was fun to see Gabrielle Calvocoressi read (filling in for Ted Kooser, who couldn’t come out because of weather/flight issues). Gabby’s most recent collection APOCOLYPTIC SWING is like taking a grater to your soul, it is so stirring and wonderful and surprising. And finally it was wonderful to hang out with Jonathan Johnson and Melissa Huggins, my former PLU student, who is now organizing the festival. Talk about coming full circle. And really-finally, thanks to Melissa Opal at Auntie’s for making sure HUSTLE was available, and thanks also to Wendy Call. Rock on..
Here is an article on the panel that Joyce Hargrove wrote for The Sentinel. The article does a really good job of capturing our different thoughts and approaches, and it reminded me of the very smart thoughts and advice on setting that Lori and K.L. offered up. Also there are pictures of badasses doing tricks on motorcycles, so there’s that to entice you. Here’s the link.
What I’m currently reading: Aeneid, Virgil
What I’m currently listening to: Master of Puppets, Metallica