Guest post by: Ann Cameron
Author of Spunky Tells All, Ann Cameron appears at the Wordstock Festival on Saturday, October 8 at 11am on the Knowledge Universe Stage and also appears at the Children’s Literature Reading Showcase at the Central Library on Wednesday, October 5 at 5pm.
Spunky Tells All is a Portland story born from the lives of a real true Portland dog and cat, an idea that I conceived in the Portland Farmers Market. It’s a book that seemed to take off and write itself, which rarely happens for me.
I was walking through the Portland Farmers market one Saturday visiting with my friends Cati Geddry-Pierce and her husband, Dr. David Pierce. Cati and David began telling me about their pets—their caring and very smart Australian sheep dog, Abbey, and their wild and tremendously accident prone cat, Bella. Bella persecuted Abbey in very special ways. Every day she pawed all his food out of his dish onto the kitchen floor and then splashed water from his water bowl on top of the scattered food. Abbey, for his part, tried to take care of Bella when she got in trouble. Dave and Cati have one of those refrigerators with a pull-out freezer drawer at the bottom—and one afternoon when Cati opened the drawer to put some food in, Bella jumped in too—and Cati didn’t see. Kerflunk! The drawer locked shut. Cat in the very very cold and very well-insulated freezer, from which not a single “Miaow!” could escape.
What did Abbey do in this terrible situation? Cati and David told me—and if you read Spunky Tells All, you’ll find out.
More info about Ann Cameron and her books can be found at www.childrensbestbooks.com
Guest post by: Dominic Smith
Author of Bright and Distant Shores, Dominic Smith appears at the Wordstock Festival on Sunday, October 9 at 1pm on the McMenamins Stage.
In 1897, the year my new novel Bright and Distant Shores begins, a family of six Greenland Inuit disembarked from a ship at a dock in New York City while a curious crowd of thousands looked on. They had been shipped to the city under the auspices of the Arctic explorer Robert Peary. Franz Boas, who was then working at the American Museum of Natural History, had asked Peary to bring back a single native so the Inuit could be studied “without fear of frostbite.” The explorer took it upon himself to bring back six Greenlanders instead of one and the Inuit were housed in the basement of the museum. Within a year, four of the six were dead of tuberculosis and the sole survivor, a boy named Minik, was adopted by a museum official. The bodies of the dead were turned over to a medical school for dissection
and the bones were later returned to the museum. The bones sat in a drawer at the museum until 1992, when they were returned to Greenland after a journalist exposed the situation. Minik returned to his homeland in 1909 but later came back
to the US, only to die in the flu epidemic of 1918.
This sort of occurrence is commonplace in history—a tragedy emerges at the interface of famous men, institutions, and everyday lives. But just because we’re accustomed to the bloodshed of history doesn’t mean it lacks the power to shock us. When I heard the story of the Greenlanders my attention went to the boy, to the idea of him going back to his native land but then returning once again to the United States. In what ways was he trapped between two worlds?
It was the Greenlanders’ story that made me want to write a novel about contact between museum collectors and the exotic cultures they study and catalogue. Bright and Distant Shores, in many ways, charts a collision course between end-of-century Chicago and the far-flung islands of the South Pacific. An insurance magnate commissions the world’s tallest building and plans to build an ethnographic exhibit on the rooftop. (Chicago was not only the birthplace of the skyscraper but laid claim to taller buildings than New York for a brief period, until the city of Chicago imposed a height limit.) To stock the exhibition the magnate funds a collecting voyage that will bring back a host of artifacts but also several “natives related by the bonds of blood.” Implicated in this scheme is Owen Graves, an itinerant trader and demolition expert who is trying to get a foothold in the rising classes. Half a world away, a mission houseboy named Argus Niu is flung loose into the world after his Presbyterian minister dies and the Melanesian boy sets off to find his living relatives. I don’t think I’m giving any plot devices away by suggesting that Argus and the collecting voyage cross paths.
Though I was compelled by the historical story of the Greenlanders and the graphic image of them living in the basement of a New York museum, I found myself re-staging the central conflict in my novel. Instead of New York I gravitated towards Chicago, where I’ve spent many hours touring the living relics of its 1890s architecture. And instead of coming from the Arctic, my indigenous folk come from Melanesia, a chain of several thousand islands to the east of Australia. I grew up a few hours’ plane ride from that territory and it has always fascinated me. In fact, my parents met on a beach in New Guinea and were married in Port Moresby in the early 1960s. Though this region is very close to Australia, it is largely unknown to most Australians—Japan is infinitely more understood than, say, New Guinea or Vanuatu.
As the novel evolved beyond its basic premise, I was faced with the task of having to build two distinct worlds—Chicago after the World’s Fair of 1893 and the islands of the South Pacific at the end of the 19th century. One of the things I’ve learned about historical fiction is that you have to excavate your way to the bedrock that holds traces of life. History textbooks are largely useless except as an introduction to the major events and personalities. The truth and “thingness” of any age is to be found in the cultural artifacts that were created during its life span: newspapers, plays, novels, letters, journals, photographs. In many ways, the historical novelist is prospecting for nouns—what did people eat, wear, ride around in? What were their houses like? What was in a typical living room or kitchen? How did they think? What were the catchphrases of the day? What might they write in a birthday card or say in a eulogy?
Nothing quite reveals a period like its language. Consider, as one small example, that great gem from the 19th century—antifogmatic—whose general gist is a morning glass of liquor to brace oneself before going outside to work in bad weather. It’s a kind of tonic against fog and drizzle and rain. A word such as this may not reveal everything about a character or a moment, but it does reveal the 19th century’s lingering interest in humors and tonics, in constitutional remedies that made one ready to face the onslaught of the workaday world. Words contain worlds, as William Gass once said.
Chicago is particularly blessed when it comes to archives overflowing with the nouns of bygone days. At the top of the heap is the excellent Chicago Tribune digital archive, which is available online and dates back to 1852. Say I want every reference made in 1897 to Marshall Field, department store tycoon and major donor for the Field Museum. The keyword search allows me to retrieve every mention of Field, view a list of headlines and leads, then select full articles to view as PDFs. This is the equivalent of time travel for the historical novelist. Similarly, the Chicago History Museum has untold treasures, not the least of which is the bed Lincoln occupied when he took his final breath. More useful for my direct purposes, though, is a series of architectural blueprints that reveal not only skyscrapers that were built in Chicago and have not survived to the present day, but also designs for buildings that never broke ground. Among this collection are several designs for buildings that seem, by the standards of the late-19th and earlty-20th centuries, radical, ethereal, and futuristic. Historians, like novelists obsessed with the past, are greedy. We want to gather up the stuff of everyday life but we also want to know about the beautiful failures and near misses, about the hair-brained schemes that were shot down by the prevailing common sense. It turns out that the failures and aborted plans of an era reveal as much about the collective psyche as the crowning achievements.
E. L. Doctorow once stated in an interview that the job of historical novelists is to “lie their way to a greater truth.” As someone who’s tested the roily waters of historical fiction twice that strikes me as sage advice. And if there’s a dictum I’ve discovered for myself it would be “don’t lie about the nouns.” In other words, it may be narratively prudent to occasionally tweak a historical location or time frame, to fudge a strategic detail about a personality of history for some larger novelistic effect, but don’t have someone answer a Bakelite telephone in 1902. That forerunner of modern plastic wasn’t invented for another five years.
Details about Dominic Smith’s latest novel as well as a slide show of research images can be found at http://www.dominicsmith.net.
Guest post by: Molly McCloskey
Author of Circles Around the Sun, Molly McCloskey appears at the Wordstock Festival on Sunday, October 9 at 4pm on the Wieden+Kennedy Stage.
My first job in Portland, after graduating from college in Philadelphia in 1986 and moving back to the city where I’d grown up, was at the The Oregonian. I worked five nights a week in the sports department taking high school box scores over the phone. I was thrilled to be inside a real newspaper office but my job—do I need to point this out?—contained not a single stimulating moment. What I wanted to do was write—not sports, but … something. I didn’t know what.
I took a trip back east that summer and ended up writing a lighthearted, off-the-cuff piece about the patronizing attitudes of east coast people towards those of us on the west coast. I showed it to Norm Maves, one of the sports reporters I sometimes went for after-work beers and pool games with, who showed it to the very gentlemanly Stan Chen, an editor in the Forum section. I recall as clearly as if it were a snapshot on the table in front of me the sight of Stan’s back as he led me into his office, the print-out of my piece in his hand. He was going to publish it, and actually seemed excited to be doing so. It was my first publication.
I kept the night job up for a while, and cooked at a chain restaurant in the mornings; afternoons I waited tables at a gay-friendly pizza parlour, where the men called me Mildred and we ate a lot of that exciting new thing: pesto. I kept submitting stories and ideas, and I kept playing pool after work, and I kept making friends with people who taught me things. Steve Duin was a sports columnist at the time. Too cowed to strike up an actual conversation with him, I left a note in his box telling him how much I admired his writing. He responded by taking me for a cheeseburger, and I felt like the luckiest young wannabe journalist on earth. He has been a friend for twenty-five years, as has Rick Bella, who showed me all the interesting nooks and crannies of Portland and encouraged me when I sought out stories that made me uncomfortable—like writing about women who worked in strip clubs. I wanted to understand if my own preconceptions held water, and he got that. Everything I was discovering—about writing and about the city—he seemed as fascinated by as though he were only just discovering it himself.
When I left my night job at The Oregonian, some of the guys in the sports department went in together and bought me my own pool cue, complete with carrying case, which I still have in my house in Dublin.
I can’t recall how it came about, but around 1988, I took a six-month unpaid internship with Willamette Week, which pretty much put to rest any notions I’d entertained that I might become an investigative reporter. I admired what they did, but I was too introverted and unsure to do it myself. I didn’t last the six months—despite the best efforts of DK Holmes, who took me to films and drank lots of Widmer with me and once woke up on my sofa. I can still see him looking up at me, rambling about Tarkovsky or some such, before he’d even sat up. Mark Zusman didn’t make me feel inept when I said I wasn’t going to stick it out—I think he knew by then I hadn’t the necessary neck. Very decently, he published and paid me for a gentle expose I’d done on some talk radio shock jock, even though I had broken our agreement and written it as an unpaid intern.
During my time at Willamette Week, Jim Redden took me around a few times, assigned to show me the ropes. We went to Gus van Sant’s apartment. This was before Gus broke through with Drugstore Cowboy, and his apartment was roughly equivalent to my own at the time. Jim was working on a story then about the rise of neo-Nazism in Portland, and Gus was researching something on a similar theme. I tried to pull my weight, to think of something edgy to ask —it was all very noir: the rain, the conversation, the view of the Safeway across the road, Gus himself—but I was (surprise, surprise) too intimidated to say much.
Jim also brought to meet Katherine Dunn at her apartment in Northwest. Katherine was the first actual, real, bona fide novelist I’d ever met. Larry Colton came over when we were there, and he became the first actual, real, bona fide non-fiction writer I’d ever met. This was about a year before Geek Love came out, and a few years before Goat Brothers. I remember three things very clearly about Katherine. The first was that she was welcoming and kind, even though I was a lowly intern at a weekly where she had big-time clout. The second was how she really went on about this amazing book that Larry was working on—the generosity of her plugging his work like that when her own big novel was just around the corner. The third was when she was talking about being a writer, and she said, ‘I’ve given up a lot for this.’ She said it very matter-of-factly; she didn’t sound the least bit disgruntled or martyred. I got the point, and it was the first time I realized that if you want to be a writer, you need to make very clear and conscious choices about what you need in your life and what you don’t; what you’re willing to give up (especially in material terms) and for how long, but also what you may gain in return: freedom of movement and of imagination, and, most importantly, time to write. I can still see her sitting on her sofa and saying this, plucking at her sleeve as she did. It’s a point I’ve passed on to writing students since.
Most of these people I haven’t seen since I left Portland in 1989 to come to Ireland. A couple of them I’ve kept in touch with, and they fill me in on the others. They all feel to me like some extended family from my formative years, though some of them don’t even know they’re in this family, and a few wouldn’t even remember having met me. It doesn’t matter, because they were my formative years, and what matters is what I remember. Those small gestures of reassurance and assistance, the people who treated you decently when you had nothing on your resume, who wanted to educate you and give you a leg up, who said things that stuck with you and that still hold true.
For more about Molly McCloskey and her novel go to www.mollymccloskey.com
Guest post by: Nancy Rommelmann
Author of The Bad Mother, Nancy Rommelmann appears at the Wordstock Festival on Sunday, October 9 at 5pm on the Oregon Cultural Trust Stage.
What are you reading now?
Beer in the Sun, a book of short stories by Walt Foreman, which will be published by Dymaxicon, who I also publish with. And I am about to start an advance copy of Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend
Who is your favorite new author?
How about, new to me: Charles McCarry, a former Cold War intelligence officer who writes about political espionage. Reading his novel, The Miernik Dossier, I actually felt several times that I was being ravaged, it was that shocking and original. I just bought The Tears of Autumn, and want to lock myself away with it.
What is your favorite book of the year?
A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan.
Favorite book of all time?
Impossible for me to answer, there are too many, but at one time it was Voyage, by Sterling Hayden. Yes, the actor.
Which writers have most influenced you?
Joan Didion, Mary Gaitskill, William Langewiesche.
What are you working on now?
To the Bridge, a work of nonfiction about Amanda Stott-Smith, who dropped her two young children off a Portland bridge in 2009. This incident received a lot of press coverage, but the story was not told, at all. I hope to be finished by October 2012.
What is your favorite website for writing/literature/etc.?
Don’t check any with regularity, but I like The Rumpus.
What is your favorite food?
Pretzels, preferably fresh, hot, fat and salty.
For more information about Nancy Rommelmann and her novel The Bad Mother (March 2011) and nonfiction book about Los Angeles, Forty Bucks and a Dream (November 2011), both published by Dymaxicon, here.
Guest post by: Maile Meloy
Author of The Apothecary, Maile Meloy appears at the Wordstock Festival on Saturday, October 8 at 2pm on the Knowledge Universe Stage and Saturday, October 8 at 4pm on the Knowledge Universe Stage.
What’s The Apothecary about?
It’s set in 1952, during the Cold War, and it’s about a girl named Janie Scott who has to move from Los Angeles to London because her parents are on the Hollywood blacklist. There she meets a boy whose father is an apothecary—but not an ordinary apothecary—and gets drawn into their world. The characters live in real post-war London, still recovering from the war, but the book has a fantastical element, too.
What are you reading now?
I usually have an audiobook going, because I live in Los Angeles, the land of cars, and sometimes the book is so all-consuming that I don’t want to do anything but listen to it. That’s true now with George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (the one that starts with A Game of Thrones). I’m almost finished with the fourth book, A Feast for Crows. I feel like I live in the Seven Kingdoms. This is an amazing map of Westeros.
On paper I’m reading The Fatal Shore by John Hughes, about the founding of Australia, because I’m going there for The Apothecary in the fall. Recently I loved My Korean Deli by Ben Ryder Howe and Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon and Skippy Dies by Paul Murray.
Who was/is your favorite children’s book author?
I revere Philip Pullman. Recent kids’ books I’ve loved have been When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead and Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan. The puzzle-mystery The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, is one of my all-time favorite kids’ books. I loved it as a kid and just re-read it and loved it again.
Which writers have most influenced you?
It’s different for every book. For The Apothecary, it’s all of the John LeCarré spy novels, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials but especially his Sally Lockhart novels, the Trixie Belden girl-detective novels I read as a kid, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, for the way it takes the existence of magic for granted. Magic spills out of that book, in the plot itself and also in a thousand different stories in the wonderfully abundant footnotes. I would love to be much more influenced by that book.
What are you working on now?
I don’t want to jinx it, but I think I’m working on a second book about Janie, Benjamin, and the apothecary.
Have you been to Portland before and, if so, what is your favorite thing about it?
My brother Colin and my sister Leah both live there, so I’ve been a lot, and I was at Wordstock last year (when Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It was the festival’s book club book—thank you, Wordstock!) I love Portland. Clyde Common is one of my favorite restaurants anywhere. I can’t wait to be back!
Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It was the Wordstock Book Club selection for 2010, and she’ll be back this year. Her first novel for young readers, The Apothecary, will be published on October 4, 2011. You can read more about her writing here: www.mailemeloy.com.