Wordstock: Weekend at the Museum

Interviews with Wendell “Bunk Moreland” Pierce and six other Wordstock writers.

Halloween is over, but Wordstock is still undead. After a slow fade leading to its exit in 2013, the fest has been revived by Literary Arts under new director Amanda Bullock—and it's a much bigger, better thing. Portland's biggest book fest has left the Convention Center and is now hosting readings on five stages at the Portland Art Museum and First Congregational Church all day Saturday, Nov. 7. Then, it spreads out all over the eastside in a 100 percent free Lit Crawl (see page 23). That's not to mention pop-up events in gallery rooms, and the fact you get free run of the art museum with your $15 ticket.

"There was still a lot of love in this town for Wordstock," says Bullock of the revival. "We likely wouldn't have started a book fest from scratch." Maybe not, but after 30 years of the Arts & Lectures series, when Literary Arts calls, agents tend to pick up the phone. So there's John Irving and Jesse Eisenberg and Mary Gaitskill and Jon Krakauer all rolling in. We got a chance to talk to seven of the authors (below). Longer interviews are at wweek.com, and full info on Wordstock events is at literary-arts.org.


Jesse Eisenberg

In addition to being the most popular fictional representation of Mark Zuckerberg, and also that kid from Adventureland and The Squid and the Whale, actor Jesse Eisenberg writes plays, turns in the occasional "Shouts and Murmurs" column to The New Yorker and has published a series of extraordinarily dry, witty short stories in his new volume, Bream Gives Me Hiccups. WALKER MACMURDO.

WW: How do you feel about your stories?

Jesse Eisenberg: I have so many various feelings. I wrote one of them in a coffee shop in Portland, which is one of my favorites, called "Thanksgiving with Vegans." I had to kill 4 hours in the rain in Portland so I went to a coffee shop.

Do you remember the coffee shop?

Oh goodness gracious, I have no memory. I was filming in Medford, Oregon and went up to see a 7:30 Blazers game, so I had to kill four hours. I drove up early in the morning and didn't realize you could traverse in the state in 4 hours. I got breakfast at a food truck in Eugene. I think I had the full Oregon experience.

That's most of it. Coffee and food trucks is about 90% of Oregon.

Coffee, food trucks, rain, and an obscure basketball team.

I got to read your stories over the weekend, and I'd like to say that the whole collection was great. You work reminded me of two writers in particular: James Thurb—


James Thurber and Kurt Vonnegut. Who you were inspired by when you were writing these stories?

Yes, I love James Thurber, I love Kurt Vonnegut. I got to stay overnight in the room where he wrote Cat's Cradle. He is fantastic. We read James Thurber in college, I love him. I love Woody Allen, I love S J Perelman. I'm inspired by modern people like George Saunders. I'm friends with Simon Rich.

I'm mainly inspired by the things that I write about, like Carmelo Anthony or the war in Bosnia. When I read about the war in Bosnia I am compelled to write about it. It's a really interesting conflict. Very sad. Its not good to write humorously about it, but If I can use it in some way to talk about the things I want to talk about, then it can be helpful.

What inspired the mother in the Bream Gives Me Hiccups stories, and the frustrated freshman? I certainly hope that your mom was not the mother in bream.

No, no! I write about my mother a lot. and her friends have always had the same reaction, which is "Why do you let him write about you?" She always explains to them that it's fiction. My mother is a nice, underbearing person. If there is a trope in Jewish humor, it's an overbearing mother, often used to nagging effect. She is overbearing in the stories in a way that is not usually seen. She is self-centered and often totally uninterested in her son- who is kind of obsequiously following her- trying to get her attention. The mother is a good device because inherent to the mother/son relationship is a lot of comedy and drama: a young boy running around with a woman who just wants to get rid of him.

The girl, well, I have a younger sister who is such a sweet person, but in her first year of college she would call me complaining with a kind of vitriol I had never heard from her. About little things. "A kid in my class asked for a page from my notebook! How dare he ask for a page in my notebook! Doesn't he know that I only have 198 pages in my notebook?" Just absurd complaints that can only be felt with the anger from someone who has just started a new part of their life.

I started writing, thinking it could be funny to have a blog from the perspective of a young woman who is experiencing anger for the first time with a kind of vulgarity that she didn't even know that she was capable of. It ended up turning into a very sad series of letters to an old guidance counsellor.

Do you think that the psychology that you use as an actor helps you flesh out these characters?

Yes, because as an actor you are trained to think of a character from the inside, which is a pretentious way of saying "think about what drives this person rather than what they present to the world". We judge others by what they are doing and we judge ourselves by our intentions. As an actor you are trained to think about what drives a person's actions. In its most simplistic form, that allows actors to play a villain in a way that the audience can sympathize with. I like writing these nasty characters because it is a more interesting way to earn a reader's sympathy.

I liked the stylized approach you took in many stories, such as the footnote-heavy freshmen pieces and the text conversation-based structure of others.

There is a funny juxtaposition—which is exclusively modern—which is that we talk about serious things through juvenile platforms. My dad is a professor of sociology, and he gets emails from his students with abbreviated nonsense like "LOL" referring to really substantive themes, like "Schopenhauer has me ROFL". We are still talking about this important stuff over the dumbest form of communication.

You've written three plays before writing this collection of short stories. How does the writing process differ between writing plays and short stories?

A lot of short humor pieces need to be written within the day. If they don't, the germ of the idea is usually not workable, or the inspiration for the idea dies. Plays have to be written over the course of months, with the knowledge that they are going to be performed for years to come. So it's a bit of a slower process. The book is a collection of pieces that would take me longer than it would to write a book, but each individual piece is shorter than an individual play.

How have you reacted to the feedback from Bream?

I send flowers any time anyone says anything nice.


No. I try not to read anything about it because it is nerve wracking.

Has there been any pushback from the book world because you are primarily known for your acting?

I suppose so. Any time I do anything in the world, because I do movies, there is pushback. When I was announced to be cast in the Batman movie, there was a week where, if I buy a muffin, it's "Why would this guy eat that kind of muffin?"


Sara Jaffe

Sara Jaffe's debut novel, Dryland, is a coming-of-age story, minus the actual coming of age. Growing up in Portland (ish!) in the early '90s, the book's 15-year-old narrator, Julie, searches for information on her estranged brother, joins the swim team, experiences an attraction to a female classmate and discovers R.E.M. But there's no learning and little changing, only sheer, raw experience. And for Jaffe—known in indie-rock circles as the guitarist for defunct San Francisco post-punk band Erase Errata—that's what adolescence is really about.


WW: You're teaching a workshop at Wordstock called "Resisting Epiphany." What's that about?

Sara Jaffe: The driving question for me in a piece of fiction is, does the protagonist need to change? Especially in introductory fiction classes, the answer is yes. I've always resisted that notion, because it puts this imperative on the plot to follow a certain shape, and it just doesn't seem to be accurate to the grain of experience.

How did you apply those ideas to Dryland?

I was aware of what I didn't want to do when writing a coming-of-age novel. I didn't want to follow that really clean arc where a character goes through something and emerges with this grand self-knowledge that can now allow her to step into society fully formed or something. That just rang really false to me. And I think, also, that I just get sick of reading about young protagonists who are too self-aware. One of the most interesting things about adolescence is we think we know everything but we really don't know very much at all.

It's interesting that the book never explicitly states it's set in Portland, yet every review mentions it's set in Portland.

My editor asked me if it's OK to say on the jacket copy that it's set in Portland. And it is. It's like a fictionalized version of Portland. Or a casually inaccurate version of Portland.


Adrian Tomine

Adrian Tomine first gained notoriety in the comics scene as a teenager in Sacramento, publishing his comic Optic Nerve. With Summer Blonde, Shortcomings and other graphic novels, he's now a cartoon institution, regularly drawing covers for The New Yorker. His latest book is Killing and Dying, a collection of six short, graphic stories. JAMES HELMSWORTH.

WW: Some of the colors in Killing and Dying feel very Western. Are you nostalgic for California color since moving to New York?

Adrian Tomine: There's some sense of being "home" that washes over me as soon as I get off a plane in California. Even if I'm surrounded by hideous strip malls and chain stores, like I drew on the book's cover, I can almost be brought to tears by a pinkish, orange-ish West Coast sunset.

In the title story, a father second-guesses his daughter's interest in standup. Were your parents supportive?

My parents were always very supportive of my art, and I almost feel like I need to make that point very clear based on people's reaction to that story. It has a lot more to do with my own anxieties as a new parent. It took shape when I started doing a little research on open-mic stuff. I couldn't help but think that everyone bombing onstage was someone's kid, and maybe those parents were in the audience.

Has having kids affected your relationship with comics?

Having kids has broken down my snobbery in a lot of ways and allowed me to appreciate things I never would've looked twice at in the past. I mean, to be fair, there's plenty of stuff that I expected to be awful, and it was actually even worse.


Mary Gaitskill

When I called Mary Gaitskill, she was literally in midsentence—she asked to finish before talking. When she returned to the earpiece, the famed author of disturbed and intense short stories—along with two previous novels—talked about her new novel, The Mare, about a young Dominican New York girl, Velvet, who visits affluent upstate New Yorkers and falls in love with horses. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.

WW: So how did you decide to write about a Dominican girl and her horse?

Mary Gaitskill: I had not read National Velvet or seen the movie, but I happened to see a film clip that arrested my imagination. I thought of a particular girl whom I really loved. I liked the idea of her triumphantly riding a horse like that.

Did your characters end up surprising you?

Well, the story did become darker than I first imagined. I also realized as I was working on it how much I didn't know about the characters. At times I felt daunted and discouraged about being able to represent Velvet and her family accurately, and describe her neighborhood accurately. You can have the same issue in a short story, but you can kind of elide it better because you don't have to show as much.

You wrote an essay after Michael Jackson's death I found very affecting. Did you have a special connection with him?

Lots of people really like Michael Jackson; I didn't feel a special connection. My favorite song was "Dirty Diana," which was a pretty minor song. He seemed like such a poignant figure and dramatically misunderstood, just someone in an impossible situation. And he did something heroic with it, even if you don't like his music. Whatever his problems were, whatever weird things he did in private, he created something that affected so many worldwide, in a situation that must have been horribly distorted and lonely and almost impossible. I felt a lot of admiration for him that I hadn't thought about.


Amy McCullough

Former Willamette Week music editor Amy McCullough retired from journalism by getting on a boat and sailing away with her boyfriend. She documented the trip in her new book, The Box Wine Sailors, in which they sailed to the Sea of Cortez, fueled by cheap hooch and Little Caesar's. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.

WW: Just how unprepared for the ocean-faring life were you?

Amy McCullough: The boat was 27 feet long. Most people who give you recommendations on sailing say that you shouldn't go on the ocean in anything less than 30 feet long. Ours was more like a weekend cruiser, something you'd take out on the bay. We just got the boat we could.

Did you always plan on writing a book about it?

I didn't. We were cutting ties with anything we did before, and writing was my job. But after we completed it, we had all these idiosyncratic and strange stories. I've read a lot of sailing narratives, but few like mine. We had no aspirations and no urge to be one with the sea.

So why sail if you have no romance with the sea?

The way we decided on sailing was, we found out you could get a sailboat cheap enough to live on pretty cheap if your standards aren't high—a few thousand dollars. Along with that came sacrifices in food and drink. Ramen noodles, peanut butter and jelly. We didn't think we were going to drink because it wasn't something we thought you could afford. But then we discovered the extreme value proposition of box wine.


Vendela Vida

Vendela Vida is a founding editor of The Believer magazine and author most recently of The Diver's Clothes Lay Empty. She is the winner of the Kate Chopin Award, and two of her novels have been New York Times Notable Books of the Year. She also collaborated with her husband, Dave Eggers, on the screenplay to the 2009 movie Away We Go. She will be part of the "Lost & Found: Fiction on the Threshold" panel. She was kind enough to speak to me over the phone about travel and motherhood, and then follow up with me via email once my niece, whom I was babysitting, started crying in the background. LIZZY ACKER.

WW: I've read that this book, and a lot of your writing, is inspired by travel.

Vendela Vida: Now I usually end up taking my kids with me. They're now an age where actually I can travel with them and go to places I want to go. Most of the time they are safe enough places that I can bring the kids. So, yeah, I do get to travel. It's something I really love doing and something I want to expose my kids to as much as possible.

Do you think you'll write any books about the experience of being a mother?

I think that the theme of motherhood comes through in a lot of the books I've written. And Now You Can Go was about a mother, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name was about a mother who wasn't so great. The Lovers was about a woman who has grown-up children, so it was kind of about motherhood. And the last one was about someone who gives birth to someone but isn't a mother. In some ways, they've all been about motherhood, but not directly. I don't know if I'll ever write directly about motherhood, but you never know when you sit down to write a book exactly what it's going to reveal itself to you to be.

Was this book always meant to be in second person?

I wrote the first paragraph of the book in second person and I never looked back. I knew I wanted to experiment with the malleability of identity, and the second person seemed the best way to do that. The second person still continues to fascinate me: I love how it can be accusatory, or can be interpreted as the character talking to herself. When it's most effective—like in Lorrie Moore's short stories or in a recent French novel I love called Viviane—it can put the reader immediately in the protagonist's place. When I finished a first draft of The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty, I realized there was another advantage to using the second person: The protagonist switches identities several times through the course of the book, but because she's simply, always "you," the reader doesn't have to keep track of all her names and incarnations.


Wendell Pierce

You best know Wendell Pierce for playing William "Bunk" Moreland on HBO's The Wire. But his memoir centers on another performance: a 2007 live staging of Waiting for Godot in a flood-scraped lot in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. Pierce's book, The Wind in the Reeds, meditates on that show, along with soliloquies on jazz, healing and cops. We asked him about those things—and his namesake sandwich shop. AARON MESH.

WW: What made you realize there was a book to be written about staging Waiting for Godot in New Orleans?

Wendell Pierce: It was in the middle of this play, I had one of the most cathartic moments of my life. It connected me with the community of people who'd gone through the worst disaster of their lives. I was standing on hallowed ground, where hundreds of people had died, and said one line in the play. "At this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us. Let us do something while we have the chance, before it is too late." And it wasn't a play, I wasn't a character. I was a man communing with New Orleanians, people from my neighborhood and my city—black, white, rich, poor, from disparate walks of life, who had gone through horrific pain. It was a reminder of why I became an artist, a reminder that art is not trivial.

In the book, you quote your father as saying, "However far you roam, you can't get lost in America."

That was one of the greatest things my father has ever given to me. He was giving me a philosophy about life. The American experience is one of true freedom, of uninhibited sense of abandonment. Not just wanderlust but a curiosity of life. An intellectual pursuit, and a spiritual pursuit, to find one's true and authentic self and express it to its full potential. You can't get lost there.

What did you learn about African-American police officers while filming The Wire?

The research just led me to understand why African-American men and women become police officers. They know that the crime that is in their neighborhoods is done by a small portion, maybe one percent, and is not reflective of the good people they grew up with and know in their communities. They were of the communities they were trying to protect. And that was the thing that inspired them to be police officers. I hope now, in the time where criminality is on display by the people who wear that badge, that they and all police officers should be the first ones to express that outrage at dishonoring the very commitment that they're making. To allow someone else to come into their ranks and bring a cancer and a poison that we see now because of the immediacy of videos. They should be the first to be outraged. That's the silence that haunts me right now.

I wanted to finish by asking you—were you aware that there's a sandwich shop in Portland named after Bunk Moreland?

No, I did not know that. Now I know where to go when I come to Portland. I will be there.

GO: Wordstock is Saturday, Nov. 7, at the Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave., 226-2811, literary-arts.org/wordstock. 9 am-6 pm. $15 includes art museum access.