Our American culture’s obsession with everything new hardly needs to be documented. Especially online — but certainly now in the broader sphere of the arts — it’s difficult to remain relevant outside of a single publicity cycle. And the time it takes for a publicity cycle to elapse is rapidly shrinking. Movies are barely current three weeks after they’ve been released. Books have a little longer to sell — but even that window seems to be getting shorter each year. And blogging? Why blog about something that isn’t happening at this very moment?
But, four weeks ago, I went to The Mazama Festival of Books. It was one of the most lovely two day events I’ve ever attended, and being there as an invited author was terrific. Over the course of two days I listened to six hour-long conversations between various authors — and Katherine Lanpher and Lauren Cerand. I can’t tell you what an exhilarating experience it was — to see these folks working through many of the same questions that have interested me over the years.
And the setting was truly wondrous, as well. The mountains towered over us, five thousand feet tall, craggy and white-topped, rising high above the valley floor. The tent for the festival was set up in a meadow — a meadow that had only recently been mowed — and half a mile away, the river meandered by, glimmering in the hot summer sunlight.
Here are the highlights from the interviews and presentations:
From Mazama Festival Founder and Director, Art Gresh, and his introduction: “Some of my fondest memories are of being read to as a child… And so, this festival is about celebrating the magical properties of books in a magical place.”
From Washington State Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken, in conversation with Lauren Cerand:
On the experiences behind her lauded collection of poems, Plume — which concerns her childhood at the Hanford Nuclear Site, in Richland, Washington: “We trusted the authorities — and the authorities were us.”
Flenniken described returning to tour Reactor B at Hanford, which was the first full-scale nuclear reactor in the world — and the place where the plutonium was refined for the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On writing her early poems: “I’d stir a pot of spaghetti with a child on my hip — and write a poem with my free hand… It took me a long time to feel a sense of legitimacy — for a long time, since I was a scientist, I worried that writing was almost my dirty little secret.”
On her work as poet laureate: “It’s exciting to watch children learn how to construct metaphors. Part of my job as Washington poet laureate is an educational component. And so I travel, working with 3rd, 4th, and 5th-graders. watching them move through the stages of learning. It’s exhilarating.”
Next was the novelist Jim Lynch, in conversation with Katherine Lanpher. Lynch’s new novel, Truth Like the Sun, in a meditation on the history of Seattle, and is a novel set in two different times — 1962 and 2001. The book has been getting terrific reviews, with Janet Maslin calling it, “enveloping and propulsive,” in The New York Times.
Lynch said: “I wanted to write an urban novel. Many novels go through Seattle, but few of them really explore the city.”
On Seattle in 1962: “There was this sense of, ‘The fair is coming. Clean the streets and shine your shoes. The fair is coming.’ … The theme of the World’s Fair in 1962 was technology, and how it would help us live — how it would make our lives so much more glorious and easy. But the world was, in actuality, perched on the edge of the Cuban Missile Crisis, on the edge of destruction.”
On working in journalism before writing fiction: “We’d get a newsroom coach who’d say: ‘We’ve got to get it to read like fiction!’ But I was writing fiction on the side, and I thought: ‘No, they want it to read like bad fiction.'”
Next was Colleen Mondor. Mondor’s book, The Map of My Dead Pilots, is a memoir about her time as an employee of a company that dispatched bush pilots throughout the state of Alaska. She read short sections of the book — but then spoke at great length about the emotionally difficult process of writing the memoir — which is, in many cases, about men who died.
On pilots in Alaska: “Guys would come in the door with the idea that you had to take risks… There have always been myths about Alaska, and, as an author — you have to be willing to counter those myths… There’s nothing glorious about dying for Pepsi, crashing into a mountain with a load of soda in your plane… But you can’t stop most of them. You can’t stop them from finding that mountain. If they’re going to find it, they’ll find it.”
Mondor received an MA in Northern Studies from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. She also trained as a pilot. On why she, herself, wasn’t flying: “I’m not good enough for that environment. The thing about flying is — you have to be ahead of the airplane. There’s a lot of pilots who shouldn’t be flying. They’re behind the plane, habitually. And so what happens is — they get behind, and an emergency happens, and then they can’t catch up, and they have ten seconds, and then they’re dead.”
Next was Lidia Yuknavitch, whose novel, Dora: A Headcase was just published by the terrific Portland press, Hawthorne Books. Yuknavitch talked about her memoir, The Chronology of Water, and the process of writing both fiction and non-fiction.
“Memory isn’t stable,” Yuknavitch said. “I wanted to highlight the idea that you just can’t — that it’s totally impossible — to tell a chronological memory.”
On what binds us together as people and as writers, she said: “Grief is a large story, and we all participate in it.”
Then — there was me — Pauls Toutonghi.
And finally, the terrific short story writer and novelist Ryan Boudinot was the clean-up hitter for that day’s conversations. Boudinot’s wild new book, Blueprints of the Afterlife, has received terrific reviews in dozens of periodicals. The New York Times said Boudinot possesses: “A fierce literary imagination… Duct-tape yourself to the front of this roller coaster and enjoy the ride.”
On life: “We can be in a moment of intense personal crisis — and something ridiculously funny can happen.”
On children: “When my first child was born, I realized that people learn how to laugh before they learn how to speak.”
On why he writes: “If I can engage with the world through the process of loving writing — then this will not be a failed life.”
The next day — the second day — featured three terrific young-adult and children’s book writers — Blake Nelson, Danbert Nobacon, and Erik Brooks. They spoke at length about the different ways they all ended up writing for children. Brooks showed the audience his process — sketching some characters on an easel at the front of the stage.
The question now — having finished this long summation — is: What will they possibly do to top this next year?