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October 10th, 2012 RUTH BROWN | Books
 

Weekend Reading

Wordstock authors on sex, dystopia and Fifty Shades of Grey.

culturefeature_wordstock_3849Top Row from left: Daniel H. Wilson (photo courtesy Daniel H Wilson), Maria Semple (photo by Leta Warner), David Levithan (photo by Jake Hamilton), Bottom Row from left: Erin Morgenstern (photo by Kelly Davidson), Peter Heller (photo by Michael Lionstar), Doug Fine (photo by Tomas Balogh)
Portland’s annual literary festival, Wordstock, is back and it’s…roughly the same size as ever. For two days, the hallowed halls of the Oregon Convention Center will play host to some 200 visiting and local writers and exhibitors that run the gamut from The New York Times to something called “12 Degrees of Justin Bieber.” And, once again, you can see it all for the bargain-basement price of $10. This year’s themes are dystopia, sex and journalism—a rather disparate group, if you ask us (especially the latter two). Speaking of journalism, we’re covering this year’s festival the same as we have for the past three years: by subjecting guest authors to a Q&A. 

Daniel H. Wilson 

Portland-based writer Daniel H. Wilson has a Ph.D. in robotics, and has made a career out of penning robot-based books, including the nonfiction How to Survive a Robot Uprising, Where’s My Jetpack? and How to Build a Robot Army. His 2011 novel, Robopocalypse, was a New York Times bestseller and is being made into a film directed by Steven Spielberg.

WW: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing today?

Daniel H. Wilson: I went to school to be a roboticist, interviewed for jobs to be a roboticist, but then I forgot to be a roboticist. 

What’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said about your writing?

One reviewer on Amazon said that my book How to Survive a Robot Uprising literally saved his life. Literally.

One of this year’s Wordstock themes is sex. What is the sexiest word in the English language? 

“Tittylate.” I understand that this is not a real word. I’m a rule-breaker.

Another of this year’s themes is dystopia. If you had to pick one future to live in: Brave New World, The Road, Neuromancer or The Hunger Games?

I would live in Huxley’s Brave New World, because I am a fan of sex and drugs. I hear even the Gammas get mad laid.

The top three books on the NYT’s bestseller list (as I’m writing this) are Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. How do you feel about that?

Ambivalent, unless there are robots in those books. There aren’t, right? That’s my territory.


Erin Morgenstern 

In the past year, Erin Morgenstern has been propelled from relatively unknown visual artist to literary it girl with her 2011 debut novel, The Night Circus, which hit No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list. Morgenstern has since sold the film rights to Summit Entertainment, which also brought you a little series called Twilight. 

WW: What was the last thing you read?

Erin Morgenstern: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.

Was it any good?

Absurdly so. Though it made me sad, in that heavy-heart sort of way, I adore her writing style; it feels like music.

Describe your workspace.

My current office is a tiny, windowless room stuffed with art and shiny objects and too many books to fit on the single bookshelf. My desk currently holds my computer, my printer, a small statue of Thoth, a larger statue of a bunny wearing a raven mask, and a pile of lopsided origami stars.

What’s the meanest thing anyone has ever said about your writing?

I have blocked out the specifics, but I’m aware the mean things are out there. Usually on the Internet. Mean people love the Internet. 

What is the sexiest word in the English language?

“Tantalize.”

Brave New World, The Road, Neuromancer or The Hunger Games?

Wait, dystopia and sex? I hope there’s no theme overlap, because that could get complicated. Also, I only want to live in The Hunger Games future if I can live in the Capitol and be insipid and have pink hair. I’ve always wanted pink hair.

A short paragraph from whatever you’re currently working on:

At first I thought it was a dog—a pug, maybe—but now I'm pretty sure it's a dragon. 

I tried asking when it first appeared by the gate but it doesn't talk, it only growls and coughs.

Every third cough or so results in a puff of dark smoke and once in a while the smoke is accompanied by actual flame, so it's probably a dragon.

A very small dragon.


Peter Heller 

Denver-based journalist and author Peter Heller has made a career out of nonfiction, contributing to NPR, Outside, Men’s Journal and National Geographic Adventure, as well as writing three books—Hell or High Water, The Whale Warriors, and surfing memoir Kook. But this year, Heller released his first work of fiction, a post-apocalyptic novel called The Dog Stars.

WW: What was the last thing you read?

Peter Heller: How I Became a Nun by César Aira.

Was it any good?

Oh, yes. Good and weird. He keeps changing the sex of the first-person narrator, which keeps you on your toes.

Describe your workspace.

A lively coffee shop in Northwest Denver. I have a favorite table—it’s the best real estate in the place, facing the door but tucked back against a battered piano. When someone leaves it, all the writers dive for it. I met my wife here, too. I was too shy to talk to her so I wrote her a poem on a napkin.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing today?

Lobster fishing offshore. It was my favorite job as a young man.

What’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said about your writing?

I just got an email from a 26-year-old kid about The Dog Stars. Indulge me while I quote it. It’s so touching: “I will write a book like this one day. Not like this, of course. But a book so beautiful that a 26-year-old boy will rush home from reading at Starbucks to email people he cares about that he has found a book that enriches and emboldens him.” Damn.

A short paragraph from whatever you’re currently working on:

This is my new home. It’s kind of overwhelming how beautiful. And little Peony, funny name for a village out here. Nestled down in all this high, rough country like a train set. The North Fork of the Gunnison runs through it, a winding of giant leafy cottonwoods and orchards, farms, vineyards. A good place I guess to make a field of peace. To gather and breathe. Thing is I don’t really feel like just breathing.


Doug Fine 

Doug Fine is a goatherd in southern New Mexico. He started his career as an investigative journalist, and published his first book, Not Really an Alaskan Mountain Man, in 2004, in which he lived in a one-room cabin in rural Alaska for an entire winter. His latest book, Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution, tackles America’s war on drugs.

WW: What was the last thing you read?

Doug Fine: I just reread The River Why (an Oregon book!) by David James Duncan.

Was it any good?

One of my favorites. Lyrical and about true love in a beautiful Cascades setting, set in the time just before cellphones.

Describe your workspace.

The key feature of my workspace is the (Oregon-made, Oregon Country Fair-purchased!) violet blown-glass hummingbird feeder hanging outside my window. Ultimate horizon change when I hear those buzzes, which are nearly continuous this time of year. Sometimes the hummingbird will meet my eye and appear to say something like, “Thanks for the travel juice—off to Costa Rica.” I know the feeling.

What was your favorite book as a kid?

The Lord of the Rings.


What is the sexiest word in the English language?

“Yes.” But it matters when it is uttered. I’m referring to the moment when the shyness is overcome, the fear is transformed into shocked exhilaration that both are really on board, and the word is uttered, almost by definition, breathlessly. We don’t get too many of those “very first times” in life, and so they remain sexy by virtue of the magnifying power of nostalgia and novelty.

Brave New World, The Road, Neuromancer or The Hunger Games?

Haven’t read The Hunger Games, and suspect I might choose it if survival by wits and hunting in a rural setting are involved, but otherwise Brave New World, because it seems escapable. Keep in mind I live 40 miles from the nearest store and generally see as many goats as people on a given day.



Kim Barnes

Born and bred Idahoan Kim Barnes has dedicated much of her oeuvre to the potato state, including her 1997 debut memoir In the Wilderness—for which she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize—and novels Finding Caruso and A Country Called Home. Her latest novel, In the Kingdom of Men, however, is about a young couple from rural Oaklahoma living in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s. 


WW: What was your favorite book as a kid?

Kim Barnes: Not a single book, but a series of books: the children's classics that came with the set of encyclopedias my parents bought from the traveling salesman on a monthly payment plan. Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, Shakespeare for Children, Little Women—it's not only the stories I remember but the intoxicating texture and smell of those leather-bound volumes.


What's the nicest thing anyone has ever said about your writing?

"I'm a gay, Jewish man from New York, but when I read your memoir about growing up in the isolated logging camps of Idaho, I felt you were writing about me."


What about the meanest?

"At its best, Barnes has given American literature its first cowgirl classic. At its worst, we have softcore porn for English majors." (Actually, this could also be the nicest thing.)

A short paragraph from whatever you’re currently working on:

My father carried me on his back across the river. I remember this, at least.


David Levithan 

New Yorker David Levithan has written a large number of books for young adults, including his 2003 debut, Boy Meets Boy, about gay teenagers in a queer-friendly small town, and Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which was made into a film in 2008. His latest book is Every Day.

WW: What was the last thing you read? 

David Levithan: A.S. King’s Ask the Passengers, which is out in a couple of weeks. 

Was it any good? 

It’s extraordinary—one of the best YA novels I’ve read about finding identity and fighting to define yourself instead of being defined by others. 

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written? 

I’m sure some of the poems I wrote in high school. I liked shattered-glass imagery. A lot. 

What was your favorite book as a kid? 

Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

What’s the meanest thing anyone has ever said about your writing? 

Well, some conservative websites had some not-nice things to say about Boy Meets Boy. But they also admitted they hadn’t read it, so it was hard to take the criticism seriously. 

What is the sexiest word in the English language?

Really? That counts as a theme? I happen to find the word “caramel” sexy, but pretty much entirely because of the Suzanne Vega song of the same name. 


Kurt Andersen 

Known to many as the host of public radio show Studio 360, Kurt Andersen is also the co-creator of Spy magazine, the former editor of New York magazine and a former columnist for the New Yorker and Time. His 1999 bestselling novel, Turn of the Century, was a social satire set in a futuristic year 2000, while 2007’s Heyday was set in 1848. Andersen’s latest novel is True Believers.

WW: What was the last thing you read?

Kurt Andersen: The New York Times this morning, but I guess that doesn’t count. The last book I finished was a new collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s letters, edited by Dan Wakefield.

Describe your workspace.

The desktop is a 25-year-old blond birch-wood veneer, about 3 feet by 5 feet, with a slightly curved front edge and a single drawer. It’s the only piece of furniture I’ve ever had made. The office—on the third floor of my house in Brooklyn, overlooking the street—is painted dark green and very cluttered. 

What was your favorite book as a kid?

Excluding children’s books, it’d be Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which I read when I was 13.

What’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said about your writing?

Lots of people have said extremely nice things. But Pico Iyer telling me my novel Turn of the Century reminded him of Don DeLillo was probably the purest jolt of pleasure—because it was my first novel, because Pico is a friend and a great writer himself, and because I’d been a DeLillo fan for 20 years.

What is the sexiest word in the English language?

It all depends on the context, doesn’t it? The word “yes” in Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses is for me about as sexy as language gets.



Michael Koryta

A former P.I. and newspaper reporter with a degree in criminal justice, Michael Koryta made the logical leap to mystery and crime writer in 2004, with the first book in his on-going Lincoln Perry series. Koryta's latest novel, The Prophet, is a thriller set in the world of high school football in small-town Ohio.


WW: What was the last thing you read? 

Michael Koryta: The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper.
  

Was it any good?   

It is a fantastic novel. Spooky, thought-provoking, and elegantly written. 

What's the worst thing you've ever written?   

Going for noir at a young age after reading Hammett for the first time: "Alan grabbed the keys, raced into the garage, and leaped behind the wheel of his mother's Oldsmobile." Don't think Bogart would've played that role. 


Brave New WorldThe RoadNeuromancer or The Hunger Games?

The Road would be my pick because I loved the film soundtrack. If Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are always on in the background, I could deal with that bleakness, sure!   

A short paragraph from whatever you’re currently working on:

When she saw the children in the dream they were silent, and somehow that was worse. In reality they’d been screaming, even over the hoses and the fire she could hear their screams plainly, they had shrieked for her help, and it had been terrible, at the time she could not imagine anything worse. Then came the first dream, their silent eyes on her through the smoke and the flames, and that was a far more powerful pain, always. Scream for me, she wanted to tell them, scream as though you believe I will get there. 

But in the dream they already knew she would not. 

That was why it was so much worse. 


Lisa Zeidner

The director of the the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey, by day, Lisa Zeidner is also the author of five novels and two books of poetry. Her latest novel, Love Bomb, is about a suburban wedding taken hostage by a woman in a wedding dress and gas mask.

WW: What was the last thing you read? 

Lisa Zeidner: Strangely enough, Maria Semple's sharp, spirited novel [Where’d You Go, Bernadette]—and I'm doing a Wordstock event with her. I enjoyed it very much. Also loved Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins, and he's also at the festival. 

What was your favorite book as a kid? 

If anyone knows the author or title, please alert me: It was about a workshop of artistic angels whose job was to invent animals for God. (Many of the animals didn't make it off the drawing board.) 


What's the worst thing you've ever written? 

As an effort to disprove the "write what you know" edict, I once spent two years trying to write a novel about an elderly rich male Pittsburgh steel magnate. It didn't go very well. 


What’s the meanest thing anyone has ever said about your writing? 

In a review of my second novel, which was about a woman who falls in love with a guy after he date rapes her, I was accused of single-handedly setting back the women's movement by a couple of decades. Not everyone appreciates my sense of humor. 


Maria Semple 

Maria Semple is a Seattle-based novelist and former screenwriter who has written for Ellen, Mad About You and Arrested Development, for which she was twice nominated for a Writers Guild of America award. Her latest book is Where’d You Go, Bernadette. 

WW: Describe your workspace.

Maria Semple: I work in a sterile studio apartment that looks like an IKEA showroom. I like to keep it free from any indicators of my real life. It makes it easier to slip into the writing bubble.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written? 

This Q&A is getting up there. I mean, how can you even slip into a writing bubble? 

What was your favorite book as a kid? 

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing today? 

Not trying to resist the impulse to binge-watch every episode of Breaking Bad. I’d just be watching it.   

Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed on the NYT bestseller list: How do you feel about that?

They’re not my kind of books. But any book that is good for books is good in my book. OK, now it’s official: This Q&A is the worst thing I’ve ever written. 


GO: The Wordstock Book Fair is at the Oregon Convention Center, 777 NE Martin Luther King Jr Blvd., 10 am-6 pm Saturday-Sunday, Oct. 13-14. $7 one day, $10 both days, $5 for groups of 10 or more, free for kids under 13. See wordstockfestival.com for more info.
 
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