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One Night, Three Authors, Two Friends

June 24, 2012

Many months ago, when I heard author Bonnie Jo Campbell was coming to Powell’s on Burnside, I wrote the date in red on my calendar. Campbell is a national treasure, National Award finalist, and author of five books, so I wasn’t going to miss her event. Her latest, Once Upon a River, is the story of sixteen-year-old Margo Crane who learns self-reliance while traveling down the Stark River in rural Michigan in her grandfather’s rowboat.

Two weeks ago, I read that debut author Matthew Batt was coming to Powell’s on the same night, but at the Hawthorne location. I’d been hearing a lot of buzz about his book Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House into Our Home Sweet Home. It’s a memoir about, well, buying and fixing up a house that had once belonged to a crack dealer.

Last week, I found out that an author who had long been on my periphery would be reading at Powell’s Cedar Hill’s location. Yup, on the same night. Francine du Plessix Gray, author of The Queen’s Lover, was going to make a Thursday in June a Portland literary trifecta. How could I miss the chance to meet the great Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer and literary critic? What to do? What to do?

I was committed to the Campbell reading, but luckily, my good friend Deborah offered to cover The Queen’s Lover, taking pics and recording the Q&A with her trusty iPhone. Deborah is a huge reader and patron of the arts, so Ms. du Plessix Gray would be in good hands. My husband, Bob, who was reading Sugarhouse, eagerly volunteered to head to Powell’s on Hawthorne with his vintage Nano recorder and one of his fancy cameras. Nothing was going to get by this group.

Campbell turned out to be captivating beyond my expectations. It was a great reading despite the fact that she pranked me with a message over the PA system, and made me reveal my age in front of the audience. Deborah braved rush hour and, at times, gridlock to reach her destination and pulled it off without a hitch. Bob had so much fun with Matt Batt, he forgot to let me know that he was driving the author back to his hotel after the reading, and would be an hour late picking me up. That left me on a street corner outside Powell’s fending off panhandlers, and wondering if my husband was dead. Yes, he has a cell phone and no, he doesn’t always remember to turn it on.

In the end, it turned out better than expected. We had a fantastic time, and heard some great authors read. That’s what it’s all about. Here’s a rundown of what we enjoyed last Thursday.

BONNIE JO CAMPBELL

Bonnie Jo Campbell arrived armed with temporary tattoos, bookmarks and refrigerator magnets sporting Once Upon a River themes. She stepped out from behind the podium to read, because it didn’t feel right: “It reminds me of, like, Futurama where they have the jars in heads…heads in jars.” She read two poems, Scribblers and a “sex poem” called The Morning After which made the man next to me blush.

Then she read from the beginning of Once Upon a River and  said she had had Huckleberry Finn in mind while writing it. “I wanted to create a situation like that, where she really did have to go out on her own and make her way on the river. We have a real tradition of boys doing that in American literature, so I was interested in creating a girl who was doing that. There’s something you’ll notice–that when we see boys in trouble, like Huck, we see them as adventurers. I wanted to do the same thing with Margo Crane, who is this very vulnerable girl, and again, Huck is vulnerable too, but I wanted to make sure that the book was not about, ‘oh, poor Margo.’ That was a real challenge, because sociologically she is a victim. She does inspire worry, but I hope at least, to some extent, we were thinking ‘How’s she gonna get out of this? What’s she gonna do next to try and find a better life for herself?’”

Campbell said this about why she writes in third person: “The third person past tense is my automatic mode. I think the third person is more trustworthy. That first person, you always have to wonder if you’re being told a story by the person. It’s like a real life person; they could just be leading you on. We always hear about the unreliable narrator and that’s usually a first person narrator. The trendiest thing is first person, present tense.”

About where her characters come from: “I think I’m a method writer. I actually am my characters. It’s surprisingly easy. Like in American Salvage, I have a character who’s bludgeoning to death a tow truck driver and, weirdly enough, I was completely at one with him. I don’t know how to explain that; I’m never going to do that, but I knew exactly where he was coming from, why he was doing it, and how. I guess I’m willing to go to the dark places and be somebody else. I think that’s one of the great pleasures of writing. I find myself rather tiresome. I’m just one person and I have the running loop in my head and then it’s so great to be able to investigate these other people.”

On her next book: “I’m gonna have to write some sarcastic book one of these days, cuz this book is way too sincere…some outrageous bitter thing. Right now I’m working on a novel about mathematics. I used to study mathematics and I really liked it, but I didn’t like it as much as writing.”

Read my review of Once Upon a River.

MATTHEW BATT

Matthew Batt’s writing has appeared in Tin House Literary magazine, on The Huffington Post, he’s been nominated six times for the Pushcart Prize, and received a grant from the NEA. Currently, he teaches English and creative writing at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. With his first book, Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House into Our Home Sweet Home, he’s hit the ball out of the park. The story chronicles the journey he took with his wife, when they bought a house in a “significant state of disrepair,” through the despair of trying to fix it up and make it their dream home. Batt and his wife had no background in home renovation, but took on the project because they had no money. Since my husband and I have bought four of our own versions of the neighborhood crack house, and have always had more time than money, this book held a special attraction for me.

Batt read the beginning of Sugarhouse, and then talked about the process of writing it.  He’s kept a journal since he was in middle school, so he took meticulous notes throughout the renovation and said his wife “is a really good documentary kind of person, so she took a lot pictures, and did a lot of the more objective coverage. Whereas, mine was more like Jack Nicholson’s character from The Shining. ‘Oh my god, what have I done? All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’”

The book got its actual start when he realized on a Sunday night he had to have something to present at his Monday night writing workshop. He went to his desk that was covered with “power tools and scraps of wood” from the renovation, and started writing. That weekend he’d attended a hardwood floor installation workshop that was “completely demoralizing. The guy who teaches it has so much facility with it, he doesn’t even teach it any more, he just goes through the motions, and we all nod and smile as though we understand what he’s doing. So, that’s where it all started, trying to explain the demoralizing and emasculating feeling of that lovely Saturday morning.”

He said writing about the experience was “kind of a way to deal with everything that we had to do and, also, figure out why it was worth doing, which then ended being a pretty reflective and reflexive process about writing, too. I think I learned as much about writing as I learned about renovating a house. It’s cheesy, but it was very transformative.”

Batt’s working on a collection of essays called The Enthusiast. He said it’s about the kind of obsessive personality he has when he “gets into something and I can’t let it go, whether it’s something like rock climbing, cycling, long distance running, or even more domestic stuff like sourdough bread baking. It will be interesting to see if I can bring these things together because they’re not conspicuously related, but that’s what I like about non-fiction. You can take things that don’t seem to have any relation to each other, and with a little bit of belief and a lot of hard work, make the connection.”

Read my review of Sugarhouse.

FRANCINE DU PLESSIX GRAY

Francine du Plessix Gray is 81, and on book tour. I think that’s amazing. She’s making the rounds with The Queen’s Lover, which is her second novel. She’s also written histories, biographies, and a memoir. She was a finalist for a Pulitzer in 1998 for At Home with the Marquis de Sade: A Life, and is a regular contributor to The New Yorker. I can’t believe I didn’t get to meet her, but at least my friend Deborah did.

In this historical fiction novel, the queen is Marie Antoinette and her lover is Swedish nobleman Count Axel von Fersen. Du Plessix Gray researched their love affair to the Nth degree so it’s a history lover’s dream, as well as, wildly entertaining. This spectacularly intelligent and tragic romance, that takes place during the French Revolution, is full of dastardly plots, villains and lots of details, and is all based on historical fact.

Du Plessix Gray talked about where she acquired her knowledge of Marie Antoinette and what she was like. She said, “People at court wrote extensive journals. Journals were very much in vogue. Dozens and dozens of noblemen had described her manners, her walk, everything else. All the details come from reading many books by many witnesses. The original journals are kept in Stockholm in the Royal Archives, and many of them have actually been published. All the basic facts are based on historical witnesses.” Du Plessix Gray said she went to Stockholm and looked at the original journals, but Marie Antoinette’s letters to von Fersen were destroyed by “an idiotically puritanical great nephew.” Luckily, her correspondence with others has been preserved and published.

Gray posed the question, “Why was Marie Antoinette so much more famous than all the other queens of Europe? I think it has to do with that imponderable thing – her style. She had charisma. A kind of magnetism.”

When asked how she felt about Marie Antoinette after writing the book she said,
“I liked her much more than I did when I began, because I think I had been led to think how criminal she was. I didn’t realize how loyal she was to the king. I didn’t realize what a wonderful mother she was. I didn’t realize her sweetness and gentleness. We get a more brittle version of her in stupid movies by the Coppola girl which really perpetuates the frivolous fashion icon image.”

She said when she started writing The Queen’s Lover she “thought it would be in the third person, but it wanted to be written in the first person.” Deborah’s favorite quote from du Plessix Gray came when she explained why she decided to tell the true story as a novel: “I didn’t decide, the story decided. Stories are like animals–they have a life, a mind, appetites of their own.”

About her next book: “I can only tell you that it will take place in Nazi-occupied Paris, but I really can’t say anything further about it because it’s sort of bad luck to talk about a future book before you’ve written it.”

I will definitely catch Francine du Plessix Gray on her next book tour.

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