After the research portion of my trip, I flew south to Miami for the International Book Fair, which is a huge honor for me to be invited to this year. I deboarded and was immediately blanketed with humidity, and my Pacific Northwest eyes could barely handle the piercing sun. I have been to many places in my life, but I realized never this far south. Colorful and vibrant, but it took some acclimation. Acclimation: the theme of this trip.
After checking into my hotel – the Bayside Continental, located downtown – I headed for the Bookfair, where Dorothy Allison was giving a talk. I sometimes speak of her short story “River of Names” as having inspired me to start writing literary fiction. Its characters are people I know, and the narrative design opened my eyes to fiction’s possibilities. Nothing was the same for me after I read it; funny what can happen in about thirty minutes of reading a story. So…I was thrilled that I might actually see her in person. I got lost for a while on the Miami Dade campus, trying to find the building in the dark, but finally I made it to the brightly lit, air-conditioned lecture hall. Her talk was mostly about the need for more of what she calls “mean fiction,” and she spoke of writing initial drafts that come from a place of anger, and how the revisions are about understanding the source of that anger. Then she did a booksigning. Even though I have copies of all her books, I got a new copy of Bastard Out of Carolina for her to sign. I was nervous, but I felt it necessary to speak to her and tell her what her work has meant to me. Waiting in line, I had to write down what I wanted to say, and when I finally did meet her, she held my hands across the table and let me babble on. I got choked up, and it was strange because I was afraid to look her in the eyes, but she’s like a Jedi. I don’t give away many copies of Hustle, but I gave one to her, and she asked me to inscribe it. To write, “For Dorothy – “ Wow… nothing on Earth compares.
On Saturday I did a radio interview, and ten minutes into it – sitting in a dark closet-sized room, speaking to the interviewer via the internet through a laptop – I realized, when I said “sells shrimp from the side of the road” for the third time, that this was the first conversation beyond ten minutes that I’d had with a person in over a week! I’d all but forgotten how to talk. When I was done, I got to hang out with Carolyn Bass, moderator of the groundbreaking online show “LitChat,” who wrote an amazing review of Hustle this summer.
Right afterward, I went to the lecture hall where I was scheduled to read with Nathan Larson, author of The Dewey Decimal System, and Yan Lianke, who is one of China’s most acclaimed and controversial contemporary writers. We took questions from the audience, and I was asked if I felt a certain burden to find myself within the long history of Southern writers, and if I felt a burden with Hustle being labeled a “coming-of-age” novel. Also, our introducer, Chauncey, asked how we managed to stay at writing novels, particularly in the age of blogs and social media. All very fun and challenging to consider.
That night, I attended a reading by Chuck Palahniuk, who threw out blow up dolls and read a story that led to someone passing out. There I met the friendly and uber-talented memoirist and poet Sandra Beasley, author of Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl and I am the Jukebox. She is currently touring relentlessly in support of her two books, and as we drove in her car to the fair’s author party we talked about the difficulties of spending so much time on the road, as well as its payoffs.
On Sunday, I was lucky to spend some time with my former professor Jaimy Gordon, who won the National Book Award for her novel Lord of Misrule, and friend John Dufresne, who I pretty much believe to be one of the best writers on the planet; in fact, I always keep multiple copies of his first collection The Way That Water Enters Stone on hand to give to my students. It was amazing to be at the fair this year, with my book just out and me participating in a fair with them, as a writer. Though the weekend did have its moments of weird, awkwardness – that feeling of being the new kid in school, going to your first big party – it was a thrill, all around. And it looks like I will be returning to Florida in May to do a conference, teaching and giving a reading. And I’m looking forward to seeing Jaimy in Kalamazoo next week, when I do my final reading of the tour in Kalamazoo.
Here’s Jaimy, reading:
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