#VaBook – Gone but Not Forgotten

Virginia Festival of the Book is aptly named, but after this, my third year of attendance, I think it more apt to title it “Virginia Festival of the Book–and Writers and Readers.” Though considerably less populated than the 12,000-person AWP Conference just two weeks before, the enthusiasm about books and their authors was just as intense. In truth, you don’t get many “readers” at AWP, but #VaBook (its Twitter hashtag) is the rare opportunity for writers and readers to mingle. In some cases, you’re a writer for one panel’s presentation then a reader for another. It’s a great showcase for writers across the country who have or whose books have Virginia roots.

My festival started on Wednesday evening with “The Ties That Bind: Family in Fiction.” Authors Wendy Shang, Lydia Netzer, Camisha Jones, Mollie Cox Bryant, and Cliff Garstang combined a discussion of this year’s The Big Read book, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, with their own works. I read that book before it was a best-seller on the recommendation of a co-worker, who is Asian and said it was as if Tan had written the friend’s biography. I found it a fascinating glimpse into a culture I knew little about, but the sometimes bizarre behavior of mothers was something I completely understood. The authors on the panel compared and contrasted how Tan used family to their use of family in their own works.

Thursday’s only session for me was “Fiction: The Art and Craft of Short Stories,” which I wanted to attend because I keep trying to convince myself there’s a future for short stories (why I’ve published three volumes of them). The panel members–Robert Day, Cliff Garstang, E. J. Levy, and Kurt Rheinheimer–are convinced the short story is undergoing a revival. Their various definitions of a short story were compelling:

“A short story is a piece of geography that spawns a character.” (Rheinheimer)

“A short story is a bomb going off.” (Levy)

“A short story focuses on a moment in time with a zoom lens.” (Garstang)

“A short story is a piece of prose fiction that has something wrong with it.” (Day)

The latter was intended to show that even short stories are never finished in the sense of revision and rewriting. The panel went on to discuss the writers who influenced them, the how and why of linked short stories, first person versus third person, and if an MFA helps your progression as a writer.

Friday was a full day for me, beginning with “Fiction: Forbidden Attraction.” Authors Maryanne O’Hara, Erika Robuck, Margaret Wrinkle, and Bill Roorbach discussed how they used captivation in each of their novels or were captivated themselves by the subjects they wrote about. In Robuck’s case, a photo of a young, Cuban girl on a dock where Hemingway hauled in his fishing catch prompted her to write Hemingway’s Girl. For Wrinkle, it was literal captivation–a novel about the taboo topic of slave breeding in the ante-bellum south. A wonderful discussion and great insights.

Next was “Fiction: Parallel Stories,” featuring authors whose novels involved two different but related timelines. I particularly wanted to attend this panel because a novel I have in rough draft involves stories in the present and in the World War II era. Dana Sachs, Tara Conklin, and Sarah McCoy discussed what compelled them to construct their works this way and the joy–and pitfalls–of research.

“Fiction: Journeys” was a panel on novels featuring road trips or metaphorical journeys by Sharon Short, Sheri Reynolds, Kathleen McCleary, and Kimberly Brock. They discussed the apparently insignificant germs of thought that inspired them, and the chemistry among these authors during discussion was fascinating and hilarious.

Unfortunately, I had to miss two other panels on Friday (“Science Fiction and Fantasy,” featuring the phenom Hugh Howey of Wool fame, and “Crime Wave: Friday Night Thrillers”) because I needed to go home and pack for an unexpected trip to Northern Virginia for a funeral. That also meant Saturday’s panels and the Book Fair I missed as well, but friendship supersedes all.

I was back Sunday in time for the only panel on which I was actually a participant–“The Magic of Words,” which was the launch event for the Blue Ridge Writers 2013 Anthology. My story, “Mourning,” appears in the anthology. Rita Mae Brown was the keynote speaker, and she gave an amazing off-the-cuff, quarter-hour dissertation on language. Fascinating. Then came the time for readings. I was fourth on the schedule, so enough time to work up a good set of nerves. Fortunately, Brown had been amusing as well instructive, so when I got a laugh out of her at the first comedic point in my reading, I relaxed. After the event, Brown came up to me and said, “Please tell me you’ll continue to write.” Yeah, floated a few inches above the ground all the way home.

I came away with a lot of good information and way too many books. Add them to the stack I brought home from AWP, and I’ll still be reading them by the end of the year. But that’s a good thing.

I can’t wait for #VaBook14! And who knows, maybe there’s a panel out there with my name on it!

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