Meeting Authors at Boston Book Fest

Last weekend was Boston Book Fest. Being a free festival, and me having a Saturday with nothing planned, I drove down to amble among booths with a friend and sit on on a couple of panels.

The best one I sat through was a middle grade panel, The Power of Friendship, featuring panelists Jo Knowles, Ali Benjamin, and Paul Griffin. All three of them talked about some great things: where ideas come from, keeping your child character in danger as long as possible, and the pain of childhood. And the kids in the audience asked some dang good questions at the end.

What hit home for me was when Ali Benjamin (The Thing About Jellyfish) brought up the idea that got stuck in her head that there was an “other world” of writers that she could never be a part of. Now she’s written a book, and is even nominated for the National Book Award. She discovered that there is no other world.

Before leaving, I grabbed a copy of Ali Benjamin’s book to have her sign. When she asked me about my interest in children’s literature, I answered: it’s what I’m trying to write. She got very excited and interested then, even when I brought up the struggle of getting my work noticed, and of comparing my progress with others. “I didn’t get my first book published until I was 40,” she said, and Jo Knowles, sitting right next her, chimed in that it had taken her 10 years before anything happened with her work.

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“Trust yourself,” Ali wrote in my copy of her book, right about a quick sketch of a jellyfish. And I will, whether that means genre hopping (I think it’s time to go back to that contemporary story of mine) or tossing out something old to work on something new. I’m going to keep doing what I think is right, and maybe someday it will be.

Writers Writing About Writers?

I recently finished reading Amy Falls Down, a novel about a writer that I really enjoyed. Now, for obvious reasons, I enjoy reading books with a writer as the main character; whether or not the character is a representation of the author it’s fun for me to get an insight into other writer’s brains. But do other people even care?

In the story I’m working on the main character’s magic comes from her ability to parse words and craft stories, so this is coming from someone who does it herself. For people who like to read, but are not writers, is it actually interesting to read about a writer’s life? I’d like to think it could be, in the same way I’m interested in stories about detectives and athletes and factory workers. These are lives that are so different from my own, and I love to see how they are lived and how they can relate back to my own. But, there does seem to be an inordinate numbers of writers in fiction (I just finished Flora and Ulysses, and the mother is a writer). Am I just noticing it because I’m a writer, too? Is it excessive, or self-indulgent, for writers to place more of their kind within fiction? Do Readers (with a capital “r”) enjoy it — do people who only read occasionally enjoy it — or is it annoying?

I don’t know why I’m thinking about it so much, but I’m interested in what other people have to say about it.

Quick Look: Amy Falls Down

Because of a list of great books about introverts I found (forgot to bookmark it, can’t find it, darn) I took Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willett out of the library recently. Amy Gallup is a 60-something writer living in California. She hasn’t written anything for 30 years, since her husband (her gay best friend) died, though she does teach a writing group. When the book opens, Amy has an interview coming up, but before that can happen she falls and gets a nasty whap on the head, resulting in a concussion and temporary memory loss. During one of those periods she gives the interview, and has no idea what she said, and later discovers that not only did she sound crazy, she managed to make herself popular again. Soon she’s going on the radio, making lecture tours, and, best of all, writing stories again.

Amy Falls DownWhile I sometimes wonder about writers writing about writers (next post) I really enjoyed this story. I just loved Amy, who was pretty curmudgeonly and no-nonsense, but in a wonderful kind of way. Her whole life attitude, where she sets herself up for failure, is something that I worry about with myself to a lesser extent, so I sympathized with Amy the whole way through. And Willett’s side characters, of which there are many, are pretty complicated, too, even the full-of-herself popular writer Jenny Marzen has buoyant attitude and a thick skin in the face of Amy’s super dry humor and even accidental insults.

There are two portions of the book I want to focus on here. First, at the end of the first chapter, when Amy falls down as she carries a potted pine tree:

All was not lost at this point, they said, but a fall was possible, and Amy, over-thinking as usual, realizing that in such a fall the pine might suffer irreparably, focused on cradling it in such a way that it would not suffer, as though she were sixteen years old and lithe and presented with a smorgasbord of landing-position selections, none of which would injure her in the slightest, whereas what she should have done was jettison the damn plant and save herself, but no, and then she had actually lost balance and was pitching forward, her legs and feet heroically striving to speed, and, seeing that all was lost, she began to twist around in order to land on her back, and then her bare left heel slammed down on a sprinkler head and she heard her ankle crunch, but felt nothing because within the time it would have taken for the pain message to arrive in her brain, she had knocked herself out on the birdbath.

The first thing you might notice is that this is all one single sentence. While I don’t believe Willet employs this technique anywhere else in the book, it works wonderfully at showing the fast, jumbled thoughts barreling through Amy’s head in the one or two seconds it actually takes to fall and knock yourself out. It just carries you along like a cart on a track, until you crash into the end along with Amy. Plus, it’s funny, much like the next bit I want to look at.

Willett has a lot of meaningful moments for Amy through the book, and some beautiful writing, but she manages to stave off seriousness with Amy’s bluntness, and Willett’s own sudden bursts of humor. In this bit, Amy has just given a speech at a conference, and the crowd is applauding right before the moderator goes to the audience — and the Internet — for questions for Amy and the other authors:

     “They love you,” said Jenny Marzen.

“No,” said Amy, “they just love that I shut up and sat down.” Already she was picturing that silver morning train, the Chicago Limited, that wonderful three-day lie-down as her bed clicked and swayed past cities and farmland and through scrub and desert and mountain all the way back home to her dog and her house and her own life. She was done.

“And now,” said Tom Maudine, “let the tweets begin!”

“Goddamn it all to hell,” said Davy Goonan.

And then the chapter ends. I laughed out loud.