Report from the Virginia Festival of the Book

Shortly after I moved to this part of Virginia I began to attend the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. I would sit in audiences at the Barnes & Noble or the library or the New Dominion Bookshop and imagine what it would be like to one day be an author on one of the panels, talking about my books. Eventually, after the publication of my first book in 2009, that dream became a reality, and since then I have either been on a panel talking about my own work or have moderated a panel featuring other authors every year. This year I moderated two fiction panels, and I continue to be delighted to be part of the festival.

Fractured Characters Panel featuring me (moderator), Jessie Chaffee, Noley Reid, and Lauren Sanders

We got off to a rocky start this year, though, as weather affected the festival’s first day. Where I live, 40 miles west of Charlottesville, in the Shenandoah Valley, we had between 6-8 inches of snow that day, so I spent the afternoon shoveling my driveway instead of attending book discussions (many of which were canceled, anyway). By Thursday, however, the roads were fine and I had no trouble getting over the mountain and to the Noon session I was moderating. The title of the program was Fractured Characters and featured fine novels by Jessie Chaffee (Florence in Ecstasy), Noley Reid (Pretend We are Lovely), and Lauren Sanders (The Book of Love and Hate). We had good attendance, the authors were prepared and eloquent, and everything went smoothly.

I then went over to Tilman’s, a new restaurant on the Downtown Mall, for a private event with Lisa Ko, author of The Leavers, the first “Carol Troxell Reader”—supported by a fund to which I’d contributed named in honor of the late owner of the New Dominion Bookshop. That was fun and I enjoyed chatting with Ko and hearing her speak about her excellent book (which I had read the previous week in anticipation of meeting her). As if I hadn’t had enough book talk for the day, I hurried home for the monthly gathering of my book club. The book club (a mostly non-fiction club called Reading Liberally) meets in a restaurant that has a habit of screwing up the reservations I make, so I wasn’t surprised when the staff had no record of my reservation for 14 people! We waited while they made up a table and I fumed, but then we went on with our dinner and discussion about a collection of anti-Trump books. (We mostly agreed that we are sick of talking about Trump and so will read other sorts of books in the future.)

I had no Festival duties on Friday, but there were several panels I wanted to attend, starting at noon. That was a panel with Jon Pineda—a versatile writer who has published books of non-fiction, poetry, and fiction—and Wiley Cash. I know Jon, who teaches in the MFA Program at Queens University of Charlotte and had previously met Cash, but it was fun to hear them talk about their new books. I already had Cash’s novel, The Last Ballad, but Jon’s book, Let’s No One Get Hurt, had just been released so I picked up a copy of that. This panel was done in an interview format and the charm of both authors came through. Then there was a panel on International Stories featuring Annabelle Kim (Tiger Pelt), Katia Ulysse (Mouths Don’t Speak), and Adrienne Benson (The Brightest Sun)—books set in Korea, Haiti, and Kenya, respectively. I enjoyed all three of the authors’ remarks and got copies of their books. Although I was tempted to squeeze in another panel at the end of the day, I had made plans to see a play that night at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, so I headed home. (The play, a rarely performed play by John Marston called Antonio’s Revenge, was excellent. And bloody.)

Saturday is the Festival’s biggest day. In addition to literary programs in all the usual venues, the Festival’s Crime Day and Publishing Day happen at the Omni Hotel, along with the annual book fair. I did a quick pass through the book fair and then started my day back at the library for a panel on “Epic & Audacious” Fiction, i.e., fat books. This program featured Elizabeth Kostova (best known for her novel The Historian but now out with her new book, The Shadow Land), Martin Seay (who went to the same MFA program I did and has published a novel called The Mirror Thief), and Brendan Mathews (who was my suite-mate when we were Scholars at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2006 and has now published his first novel, The World of Tomorrow).  They all gave fascinating talks about their work and, naturally, I bought their books. They’re big ones, though, so I’m not sure when I’ll get around to reading them! I then gave myself some time off for lunch because there is a new Korean restaurant on the Downtown Mall I wanted to try. It’s good. I expect I’ll go back. After lunch, I decided to attend a panel on suspense thrillers. I can’t say it was terribly helpful to me as it is far from what I write or read. I was hoping the authors would talk about the craft of writing suspense, but it was mostly about what it’s like to actually work at the CIA. Interesting, but not terribly helpful. Then I decided to attend the program on the new-ish biography of Elizabeth Bishop by Pulitzer Prize-winner Megan Marshall, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast. That was fascinating and I was glad to come away with a copy of the book.

Then it was time for one of my favorite events of the Festival—the Authors’ Reception. Good food, wine, and mingling among the Festival authors who were still in town.

On Sunday, I had one more event to attend—the panel I was asked to moderate with Chris Offutt and Janet Peery, both of whom have new novels out–Country Dark by Offutt and The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs by Peery. Before I got there, while I was strolling around the Downtown Mall, I ran into Peter Ho Davies, a former teacher of mine, so we got to chat a bit. (I’d also seen him at the AWP Conference in Tampa the week before, so there wasn’t much catching up to do.) The program at New Dominion got off to a bit of a rocky start when it turned out Chris had not received my email with my outline of the program. The only email address for him was the one given to me for his publicist at Grove Atlantic, who may not have forwarded my message to him. So he was not prepared to say much or read anything from the novel, as Janet was, having assumed the format would be strictly an interview and conversation. Fortunately, I did have plenty of questions prepared, so Chris improvised for a few minutes, then Janet spoke, and we launched into questions. It actually went rather well, I thought, but I was relieved when it was over.

The books I picked up during the Virginia Festival of the Book

That was the end of the Festival for me. And now I’m ready to get back to my own work! Dates for next year are March 20-24, 2019 (the week before AWP in Portland). (I guess it’s too early to worry about, but the two events will next coincide in 2022 when AWP will be in Philadelphia. How can I be in two places at once?)

Report from AWP18

After the 2017 AWP Conference in Washington D.C. (AWP is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs and holds an annual conference in a different city each year), I vowed I would not be attending the 2018 Conference in Tampa. There were several reasons for that decision.

First, I had no interest in visiting Tampa. It’s not particular easy to get to from where I live in rural Virginia, and Florida does nothing for me as a destination (I get enough sunshine at home in the summer). Second, the conference itself is problematic on several levels. It’s expensive (registration, airfare, hotel, meals—it adds up to a hefty sum if you are an independent writer without institutional funding). Presentations are of disparate and unpredictable quality. It has become something of a young-writers’ gathering, and I have felt increasingly out of place in recent years. Plus, efforts to improve the organization’s gender diversity record have resulted in a conference that is dominated by women (a significant majority of presenters are women—nearly two-thirds). There may be good reasons for all of these developments, but it makes the conference feel less relevant to me. And third, I did not have a book come out in the past year, so I had no new publications to sell at the book fair.

But as the deadline for registration (not to mention travel and hotel reservations) grew closer, I felt my resolve slipping. Many friends made plans to go and urged me to come. Press 53, publisher of my two books and two anthologies, expected to have a large presence, including almost 30 of its authors. And I realized that it might be valuable to touch base with some of the small presses in attendance to stir some interest in a completed novel manuscript that needs a publisher. There is nothing like the AWP Bookfair for making those connections—800 exhibitors ranging from tiny magazines to large publishers all in one football-field-sized space.

In the end, I changed my mind and decided to go. This, then, is my report of my AWP experience and a few lessons learned.

  1. Travel/Hotel. Book early. Because I waited too long, my best flight option was to fly from Roanoke VA to Chicago to Tampa. (One blessing is that I used frequent flier miles, so at least it didn’t cost anything.) Because my flight out of ROA left at 6:23 am, I had to leave home at 3:30 am. That was no fun. I have no idea how one gets to Portland OR (site of AWP 2019) from here, but I’ll definitely book the trip earlier than I did for this year. And my hotel was pretty funky. It didn’t bother me much that it was a mile away from the convention center—I love to walk, especially when the temperatures are mild—but being closer is potentially convenient and better. I’ll try to book the main hotel for next year.
  2. Panels. I didn’t attend as many panels as I thought I might, but the ones I did go to were pretty good. Like many writers of literary fiction, I’m torn between plot—which I struggle with—and style. So I attended several panels on structure and plot and one on style, and I think I learned a few things, although I’m still torn. Plot is important—readers expect something to happen—but sentences are just as important. So I got something out of the panels I attended. However, looking at the schedule of panels, I was astounded by the number of panels that were made up entirely of women. And I’m not talking about subjects that are only of interest to women, whatever those might be. I would have thought that AWP would want to see diversity on its panels, but only 31% of panelists this year were male, down from 33% the year before. As noted above, maybe there are good reasons for this imbalance, but if the goal is equality then we’ve taken a wrong turn, in my estimation. Because panelists get some advantages—discounted registration and early access to conference hotel reservations—I have resolved to participate in panel proposals for 2019, against the apparent odds.
  3. Offsite Events. At AWP, there are the regular panels and the sanctioned evening events, like the keynote address (this year delivered by George Saunders). For some people—perhaps the people who didn’t have panel proposals accepted?—the “offsite” events are just as important. I usually stick pretty close to the main events, but this year I ventured out and attended a few things, such as an Authors’ Guild party and a reading at an Irish pub by alums of the Indiana University MFA program. (I didn’t get my MFA there, but I did get an MA in English there, plus one of the readers has contributed a story to the anthology I’m editing and I wanted to meet her.) Another event I wanted to attend resulted in a rather bizarre evening. I made my way in the rain to the venue listed in the program, a wine bar several blocks north of the convention center. It was loud and busy and no one there knew about the reading. Puzzled, I paced on the sidewalk outside wondering what to do. I was sure I had the right place, although the program listing mentioned a second floor space, and this wine bar clearly did not have a second floor. Just as I was about to give up, a manager came out and told me that she didn’t know what the mix up had been, but the reading had moved to another location, and she named a bar. As it happened, I’d seen that bar in my walks between my hotel and the convention center, so I knew where it was. I got there, ordered a drink, and waited. Eventually, the event organizers arrived and started to get things set up with the management, except that it became clear that the bar was not prepared for the event. The organizers reached a conclusion: there would be no reading. Instead, we were invited to a pub across the street for a drink on their dime. So we headed en masse across the street, had a drink, and then disbanded. But a few folks wanted to find dinner, so six of us—people I’d never met before—went to a Vietnamese fusion place not far away—and asked for a table. While we waited outside for the table to be ready, three of our group gave short readings on the sidewalk. So the reading happened after all. And then we had a pleasant dinner together.
  4. Bookfair. For me, the best part of AWP is the bookfair. Some years, when I’ve been actively submitting short stories to journals, I enjoy visiting their tables or booths and talking to editors. This year I was more interested in learning about small presses who might publish a novel manuscript I have available. I had even gone to the trouble of checking out these presses in advance and had made a list of the publishers I wanted to talk to and also the places I’d already submitted the book so I could follow up with them if they were in the fair. I printed the list out, and then forgot to bring it with me! But no matter, having done the work, I remembered most of what I needed to know. As a result, I had several productive discussions. Also I got to spend some time with the folks from Braddock Avenue Books who are bringing out my novel next year (in time for AWP in Portland) as well as my current publisher, Press 53 and visitors to their booth. I also bought a load of books and was also given a few books, making my suitcase way heavier for the trip home.
  5. Friends. AWP is one big reunion. I was able to see old friends from my MFA program, from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, from my publisher’s stable of writers, plus other writers I’ve met over the years. I also got to see several of the authors from my anthology series, including the new one that comes out this fall. I even had drinks with a friend from high school! (That was a long time ago.)

As noted above, I have some concerns about AWP and wonder if the conference is still relevant to me. I’ve committed to attending next year in conjunction with the launch of my novel, but if it weren’t for that, I doubt that I would go.