Well, as I feared, the winter weather is upon us. It arrived late Wednesday and continues as I type this early Friday morning. While the conference seems perfectly crowded, I have to suspect that many conference goers suffered delays or cancellations of their travel plans. After all, it's not just Boston that got hit but the whole northeast portion of the United States. UCA's own inaugural class of MFA students is here, and they are staying two hours away. Yet so far they have been able to fight through the snow to reach the city and enjoy themselves. "Enjoy" has included visiting Charles Bukowski's favorite old hang out--not that far from the Convention Center, it turns out--and getting brand new Boston-based tattoos. They've also been extremely helpful with manning the Toad Suck Review book table in the Book Fair hall. Thanks, guys. I must say part of my suspicion about cancelled or delayed travel plans is that the Book Fair itself seems less jammed than usual. Now, TSR is in the second floor Book Fair hall, whereas about 65% of the other tables are on the ground floor hall, and this might have something to do with the light traffic we were getting on Day One. But even the ground floor Book Fair hall seemed hardly so no-elbow-room-busy as in years past. We'll see today. This state of affairs could change overnight.
Some highlights from Day One: I went to two sessions yesterday, both reasonably interesting. The first session was one of those classic AWP overly-crowded-into-a-tiny-room affairs, with scores of listeners spilling out into the hallway. Hey, AWP, somebody wasn't thinking right when they scheduled the room for that session. The subject? Fairy tales in adult fiction. Maybe that seems esoteric, but plenty of writers were eager to hear about it. The panel included, among others, Jane Yolin, Kelly Link, and Kate Bernheimer, a rather star-studded group, to be sure. I was especially happy to see Kelly Link, a writer whose work I've long admired but who I've never met in person. In my opinion she was the rock star of the panel, although her manner is anything but. In fact, she tended to defer to the other panelists, more than I think she should have. It was a well run session, with lots of time left for audience questions, and there were some smart ones. One interesting issue, for which no real answer was given, was what to do when you are employing a non-western fairy tale but writing for a western audience. How can the audience pick up on the multiple levels of meaning and of story that you are embedding by consciously employing such a tale? The short answer is that they can't, but I don't think that's the kind of fully thought out response that the asker was looking for. An interesting bit of information that popped out: up until just last year, the National Book Foundation, which awards the prestigious National Book Award every year in various categories had forbidden books based on myths, legends, or fairy tales from being considered for its fiction prize. What? I know, a head scratcher. Apparently, many National Book Award judges were unaware of this prohibition as they had indeed considered and honored various fairy tale/myth based books in the past. But even so the rule is clearly in violation of the spirit of creative freedom (to say nothing of aesthetic wisdom); yet it was only removed last year and only because of a conscious petitioning effort spearheaded by Kate Bernheimer.
The second panel, cutely named "All the Young Dudes," featured three youngish male writers who had recently published short story collections with small presses. It was sort of a combination reading/how to session, as in "How did you guys get your short story collections published?" I must say that the questions that followed their reading were fairly amateurish and even stupid ("What do you do if your girlfriend gets mad at you for writing so much instead of spending time with her?"). And this from MFA grads, no less. (The obvious answer to the above question, delivered by one of the panelists: "Get a new girlfriend.") I shouldn't be surprised at my disappointment with the questions. It's been my experience at AWP that any session that professes to deliver the "secrets" of how to publish tends to be attended by desperate sounding and desperate seeming people. They tend to be among the more unseemly aspects of any otherwise interesting convention. The readings were okay--just okay--with one reader and one story clearly shining: a dramatic monologue written by Jared Yates Sexton of Georgia Southern University and included in his new volume An End To All Things (Atticus Press). It was a smart story and well-performed. We chatted afterwards. His department, an independent writing department, is trying to found a MFA program. Since we just did so, I figured I might be able to offer some information and perspective.
Some more Day 1 highlights: 1) The journal Unstuck, which promotes "surreal, futuristic, and fantastic literature," was running an interesting writing conference-specific writing contest. On the back of the instruction sheet for the contest one was supposed to write a short story--and only on the back; it could be no longer--and then return the sheet no later than the close of the day today (Friday). In other words, you couldn't send them anything you've already written. You have to do it here. What's more, the sheet included a list of characters, a list of settings, and a list of items. One element from each list had to appear in the finished story. I picked alien invasion, funeral urn, and saloon. (Believe it or not, it's a serious story.) I composed it while I sat at our not-terribly-busy TSR book fair table, with some guidance from the folks at the next table on what drinks to choose for my particular protagonist. It was fun and fairly quick and I hope they like it. To "win" the contest is simply to have your story selected for inclusion in a special issue of Unstuck. 2) I visited with the kind folks at the journal Versal. This is an American-staffed magazine that is housed in Amsterdam. Created ten years ago by expatriates for the local expatriate community in Amsterdam, it's now an international journal that comes every year to AWP and even sometimes sponsors readings and panels at the conference. They will be publishing a chapter from my Van Gogh novel in the next issue, and the invited all contributors to stop by their table for a taste of good Dutch gin. I'm not a big gin drinker, but I have to admit it was strong and smooth. 3) I ran into Louise Harper, the wife of Graeme Harper, an Australian writer who directs the Great Writing Conference in the UK. It was good to catch up with her. She and Graeme kindly hosted us for dinner back in 2006 when Great Writing was in Portsmouth, then Graeme's home university. I remember fondly taking the hovercraft over to the Isle of Wight and enjoying a beautiful supper and great conversation in their home. Our kids were with us on the trip, and Louise kindly kept them the next couple days while we attended the conference. Fantastic to see her again. As I always tell people, AWP is all about seeing your life as a creative writer flash before your eyes over the course of three days. It's started happening already.