Here is an article covering the Kalamazoo reading. Thanks so much to Kassie Charnley for such a thoughtful piece!!
So….I recently did a very fun interview with Craig Lancaster for A Mind Adrift in the West, where we talked about Hustle, teaching, Xanadu, book touring, and the salvation in anthemic punk rock…
Here is a sample Q/A:
You’ve done a lot of traveling in support of Hustle. What’s been your worst road experience? Your best?
This year I was away from home almost constantly between September 2nd and December 1st, visiting bookstores and universities, and doing house readings. Self-funded and self-organized, with advice I got from friends and my publicists. Writers talk about the crazy loneliness of touring alone, but no one can prepare you for the ways it manifests throughout many of the days: waking up in a different place, often under threadbare blankets in an old motel room that reeks of decades of carpet cleaner, so you know it’s hiding some awful history (one room was so bad I slept fully clothed, wearing a hoodie); putting another $35.00 in the gas tank each morning (then getting lost several times while en route); passing all the dead raccoons on the roadside (gross but completely true!); eating salt-soaked fast food and growing rounder while learning the temperament of drivers in each new state (if you don’t go ninety in parts of Michigan, you get run over); the severity of introspection that comes with being alone in a car for hours (salvation comes from singing loudly to anthemic punk rock); that mild relief/panic before opening the door on another motel room (you know if the a/c is on full blast, it’s thinning out some smell); and hoping the reading would go smoothly (which it almost always does). At the same time all of this is quite beautiful, and it was great to stay with friends and family when I could. I knew it would be challenging, but, like most things I end up doing, I wanted the experience.
The events themselves are the best part. So no two readings are ever the same, I do something different each time: I’ve sung Dwight Yoakam as I read, and I’ve sung Wilco songs during Q&A’s as part of an answer. I’ve had audience members read with me. I’ve truly – above all else – enjoyed meeting the many people that I have met along the way. Bookstores owners and booksellers who are excited about Hustle. Other writers and teachers. Book clubs are great. People who have read the book and are nervous to talk about it. People who say they finished the book in a single plane ride or they couldn’t go to sleep because they couldn’t put it down, which really surprised me. People who want to tell me which actors should play which parts in the movie version, if there is a movie version. Someone said Gary Busey for the grandfather, and I thought that was a riot. Also I’ve been able to hand off books to Rhett Miller, the singer for the Old 97’s who appears in the novel at a crucial time in Chris’s life, and to Dorothy Allison, who is a hero of mine. Many times, over the nine years it took to write and publish the book, I thought it would never come out, and I still freak out when I see it on a shelf at a store. Now people are reading it, and I’m reading it to people, and to me that is amazing.
Don’t all roads eventually lead to Kalamazoo?
Kalamazoo, Michigan is known for many things, among them:
1.) The city was established by an “eccentric” man named Bronson who initially named the city Bronson. You know when you hear someone described as “eccentric” it means the person was a little off his rocker. One way to know he was off his rocker is because there was already a Bronson, Michigan just 50 miles away.
A way to know that a city is a little “eccentric” is when it renames itself Kalamazoo.
2.) Bell’s Brewery. Bell’s has some of the best beer in the world, but I learned that no two batches of the same beer are the same. For instance, you can drink an Oberon one day, and it’s fine – a regular beer. The next day, you can drink an Oberon, and find yourself swerving the bicycle home, unsure where home is. That makes the beer “interesting.”
3.) Lake effect snow. Because I’m not a meteorologist I won’t try to explain the causes of this weather. I can say it mean this: You can walk into a grocery store and the ground is starting to dust with snow; you walk out half an hour later, and sixteen feet have accumulated. In this same amount of time, everyone in the city will have forgotten how to drive, yourself included.
4.) The birthplace of Gibson guitars. Also the home of a great music scene, known to many. Luna wrote a song about the town. Many bands passed through recently, including Wilco, The New Pornographers, and Love as Laughter – one of the best bands on the planet. I once had a band here, called Wishek, that you can hear here. Now it is home to my current favorite band, the Minutes.
5.) Lots of good writers live here or have lived here recently. Among them, Adam Schuitema, Arnold and Debbie Johnston, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Brad Land, Darin Doyle, JD Dolan, Jaimy D’Agostino, Jaimy Gordon, Jonathan Johnson, Kellie Link, Kelly Wells, Marcel Brouwers, Nancy Eimers, Peter Geye, Ricahrd Katrovas, Steve Feffer, Stuart Dybek, Thisbe Nissen, William Olsen. And the amazing teacher and poet, Herbert Scott.
On November 29, I traveled out to Kalamazoo to do a reading with Melinda Moustakis and Elizabeth Knapp. I too have lived in this city. From 2001-2005 I did my doctorate here. I chose WMU because I wanted to study with Stuart Dybek after having studied with him at the Prague Summer Seminar in 2000 and learning he is hands down one of the best teachers on the planet. I can say the lake effect snow did not agree with this Texas boy. I once shoveled the driveway at the huge blue house where I lived with my partner Jen, and I piled three-foot hills on both sides of the entrance. This is a really stupid thing to do, because it freezes and makes obstacles for the entire winter. She never let me shovel again. Kalamazoo is also where I finished the first draft of Hustle, writing the four final chapters in Jaimy Gordon’s workshop. I took a practicum with Stuart Dybek, and so almost everything I know about teaching I learned from working directly with him, in this aspect. Now, who gets to say that?
So, after traveling with Melinda from Tacoma, we met with Jaimy Gordon in the Detroit airport, and the three of us ventured on to Kalamazoo, touching down in the evening to fields of scattered snow, and me remembering that I had not flown into Kalamazoo since February 2005, on a plane trip where I got the message from the chair of the department at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma – where I’d gone for a job interview the week before – offering me a position, which I would accept, and I still hold. On this evening in November, we were picked up by the current Assistant Coordinator of the Creative Writing Program, Dustin Hoffman, who drove me to the Holiday Inn, where they have a hot tub that sits in front of the glass windows of the hotel restaurant/bar.
The next day – December 1 – was packed. It began for me at 2 pm, when I went into the studios of WIDR radio to do an interview. There I was greeted by my former student and now the director at WIDR, Johanna Kelly. She guided me to the booth, where I sat down across from Emily Short. This was my third radio interview. There are reasons the first two are nowhere to be found. But I think I did a better job this time, except when I was playing a Centro-matic song (yes, I got to DJ for one song!) and I accidentally made the song go back to its start, halfway through. Still – it was a blast. This was mainly due to the amazingly relaxed atmosphere and Emily’s great questions. Thanks so much to Johanna and Emily!!!!
That evening, I went to dinner with my co-readers, WMU professors, and several alumni. I admittedly had not been so nervous about a reading in a while. Probably because this event was my last in this stint, and because the hometown crowd can be the strangest. As I say that, I think back to having read three months earlier in my actual hometown, in Arlington, Texas – what a strange passage of time this has been.
At the reading, I got to sit near my former teacher Jaimy Gordon. What Stuart didn’t teach me about teaching, Jaimy pretty much did. Not to mention all that I learned from her about writing: everything from how to nurture ideas to how to lay out a sentence. Thus it was amazing, after my good friend Melanie Crow gave me a phenomenal introduction (wherein I think she hinted to the possibility of me having participated in criminal activities at some point…), to get to see Jaimy up front. I dedicated the reading to Melanie’s and my former bandmate Ike’s daughter, Adeline, explained how certain chapters were written while in Stuart and Jaimy’s classes while at WMU, sang Dwight Yoakam, and ended by toasting the crowd, and saying, “Thanks, y’all.” Which felt surprisingly very Texas.
Now I am headed to Massachusetts to continue research for my new project.
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:
On November 12th I once again left the Pacific Northwest, this time bound cross-country for Florida to do research for my current project, a book about my father. I homebased in Navarre, a strip of beachtown tucked between Pensacola and Destin. It lacks many restaurants but has surfing and several places to run, which I do, and I did and was nice. Due to the constant slamming of doors at 6:30 – a norm in hotels, I’ve learned over this autumn – I was typically up early. But this was the sunrise from my window.
As I kid, I spent parts of many summers in the Florida panhandle and in eastern Alabama, visiting the criminally-minded Skipper half of my family. Mainly great aunts and uncles. They grew up in the quaint, balmy town of Cottondale, Florida during the twenties, until their father – a railroad worker – was shot in a card game and his body thrown overboard. It wasn’t until many years later that this was discovered; to the family of six, he simply never came home. My great aunt Lois – who would later become the first female realtor in Florida – took care of everyone and moved them further south. The four younger kids grew older, married off, and my grandfather Buster became heavily involved with criminal activities. Having recently learned where my father’s half of the family came from, I ventured out to Cottondale, where they now sell Bonzai trees for $20.00 at wooden stands on the roadside. I’ve always wanted a Bonzai tree – despite the fact I decimate every plant I touch – and I was tempted to get one. But this was early into my travels and I had two more plane rides ahead; I couldn’t see myself getting on a plane and sitting with this tree in my lap, or how I’d explain it. So, instead, I stopped off at an antique store and bought these wooden salt and pepper shakers for Jen. As they proudly announce, they are magnetic:
Tuesday I drove east to Panama City, where my aunt Lois lived. Every summer that my two brothers and I visited we were promised a trip to Disney World, using coins she’d collected in a large glass jug over the year. We would spend a day counting and rolling the money, then take it to the bank. Only we never went to Disney World; instead we went to Pensacola and blew the money on arcade games. To this day, I still love skee-ball, collecting the gazillion tickets, and selecting whichever ashtray or switchblade comb these gazillion tickets can buy. Years later, I learned that my aunt had not actually collected the coins over the year, but had in fact bought them at the bank just prior to our arrival and made us spend a day counting them, so she could work.
On Wednesday I headed west to Alabama. Here, I visited Atmore and the house where Buster and my father once set up an operation to run roofing scams (similar to those discussed in Hustle), where my mother flew in from Massachusetts to meet up with my father, before they married. As I neared the small town, passing acres of cotton fields, I happened upon a radio show on FM WYDH 105.9 where people call in to try to sell their things or name what they want to buy – a sort of radio classifieds. The most interesting was a man who had fifteen feet of ribbon, and he wanted to pay someone to tie the ribbon into bows for his Christmas tree. Here’s a picture of the house where Buster and my father slept on the porch:
Then I went to Mobile to see the courthouse where my parents married – only to learn from a police officer (who gave me a weird look) that the courthouse was recently torn down. To culminate the day, and the trip, I drove out to Theodore and visited the property where they had their first house, a trailer, and I was promptly engulfed in a swarm of mosquitoes while trying to take pictures.
As the sun set, I headed back to Navarre and I decided to not eat at the Chinese buffet where I’d been eating, because – though it was the only place to get vegetables with my food – going alone to buffets is a sad affair. I personally don’t care, but it’s that look you get when people pass by… examining you for the reason you are eating at a buffet alone. Instead I stopped at a place called Daddy’s for BBQ, where I was the day’s final customer. Afterward I went back to my hotel room, where I did laundry, and I was reminded by the first load why I don’t use powder detergent..
All in all, a good trip, despite some minor hiccups along the way. It might sound a bit dosconcerting unless you’re me, but it wasn’t until my next trip (to the Miami Book Fair) that I realized, just before going to do a radio interview, that I’d not had a face-to-face conversation with anyone that lasted for over five minutes in approximately nine days. This means loneliness, but also something kind of wonderful, especially when you’re trying to get to know the people your parents were when they were in their late teens and early twenties. I am happy I get to say I’ve done this, even if I went a little bonkers at times.
Currently Reading: Arcadia, by Lauren Groff
Currently Listening To: The Minutes, by The Minutes