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Books by the Banks

Yesterday I attended the 3rd annual Books by the Banks, an awesome book/author fair put on by the Public Libraries of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. It runs from 10 AM to 4 PM, with panel sessions beginning on the hour every hour, 3 panel sessions at a time. Guess how many I went to? :P I had a great time, met several wonderful authors and ran into a few people I know, and then went home and passed out for 3 hours because I was so exhausted, lol.

Here are the highlights:

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The Author Pavilion, where people can purchase books from 80+ authors (not all of whom led panel sessions, many of whom were local) and get them signed.

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Celebrities! Curious George, Clifford, the Cat in the Hat, and a random turtle I didn’t know all made appearances in the kid’s corner.

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Sharon Draper is a Cincinnati local, former teacher at Walnut Hills, and author of Copper Sun, Tears of a Tiger, and the Ziggy and Sassy series for children. She did a great job tailoring her talk to this particular audience (adults and children as opposed to just one or the other) as well as interacting with and incorporating us. In return, she had some obviously loyal fans of all ages.

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Garth Stein, author of the acclaimed and beloved Art of Racing in the Rain, which is narrated by a dog named Enzo. He began with an impassioned plea for Cincinnatians to pass Issue 7 (a levy for the public libraries) and then alternated between telling funny anecdotes and reading passages from the book. Overall a great talk and a really nice guy. Also, he had incredible blue/gray eyes. The two women sitting next to me might have been a little in love with him.

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Jennifer Weiner, chick lit / women’s fiction author. Her books include Good in Bed, In Her Shoes, and most recently Best Friends Forever. I love that she writes about full-bodied women and isn’t afraid to tell her publicist that the models on her covers need to be digitally fattened with Photoshop, not made thinner. I also love how she is so comfortable with herself, telling Jew jokes and talking about her mom coming out of the closet at age 52. She was hysterical, and genuine, and totally won me over. I will be buying her books in the future. (I didn’t buy any there because they only had the newest book in hardcover, and I’m sorry, I’m way too broke to buy a $27 book right now.) But seriously? LOVE HER.

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Ellen Schrieber is another Cincinnati local, and the author of the Vampire Kisses series. She actually wrote the first book back in 1998, before all this Twilight/True Blood/Vampire Diaries craze, so I give her credit for that. Also, she was very sweet, unique (as you can see), and did a great job fielding questions from her younger, somewhat fanatical audience.

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Me + Garth Stein. Maybe because I was tired, but I felt super awkward going up to the author tables yesterday, so Garth and Jennifer were really the only people I approached. Jennifer left a little early so our conversation was brief, but Garth was pretty nice, chatting about how his career as a documentary film editor contributed to his storytelling sensibilities, taking this picture, etc.

My one regret is that I didn’t ask any questions (during the panel sessions or during these private conversations) about e-books. I felt like the whole how-is-technology-affecting-reading issue didn’t get addressed yesterday.

But whatevs. It was a fun day full of jokes and reading. Plus I got to imagine, “Oh, how will I answer that question when I’m sitting up on that stage?” ;P What more can you really ask for?

Wisdom from James McBride and Maria Semple

Over the weekend I had the pleasure of attending Books by the Banks, an awesome celebration of authors and books and reading and writing, put on annually by the local libraries and my favorite independent bookstore (Joseph-Beth, where Andy proposed).

Previous years have brought some amazing authors like Garth Stein, Jennifer Weiner, and Dennis Lehane. This year was no exception.


James McBride

Author of THE COLOR OF WATER, a memoir about growing up biracial, which I read in college and loved and identified with, despite a few obvious differences. His latest is THE GOOD LORD BIRD, “a novel of caricature” (as he calls it) about abolitionist John Brown.

  • “I just think it’s easier to get to people’s hearts when you make them laugh.”
  • He found it compelling to write about this time period because people were making “real choices that could get you killed.”
  • Regarding John Brown’s letter-writing in prison: “In those 6 weeks, he did more with his pen than he ever did with his broadsword or a gun.”
  • “Every story has several different sides, and the responsible writer tries to present multi-faceted characters so the readers can see [those sides].”
  • McBride says he’s not really an outliner but that he spends a lot of time on characters, because “characters create plot.”
  • He rewrote the foreword and first chapter of THE GOOD LORD BIRD many, many times. “Because you’re competing for readers’ attention in bookstores. It’s you or… EAT, PRAY, LOVE.”
  • Within the “first 2 or 3 chapters, you really have to engage the reader deeply.”
  • “Slavery in America enslaved us all.”
  • “We are all slaves to something.” (Social media and our cell phones were examples he gave, if I recall correctly.)
  • Regarding gentrification, not just of physical areas but also of society: “All these bumps and bruises of American life are being flattened out.” He indicated that he did not think it was necessarily better or worse, but that there was some color/flavor being lost to the smoothness.


Maria Semple

Former TV writer (for Arrested Development and Mad About You, among others) and now author of WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE, a comedic novel about an unhappy wife in Seattle. Confession: I only read this because my book club chose it, but I ended up loving Bernadette so much that I bought copies for each of the two friends who hosted me during my recent trip to Seattle.

  • To my surprise, Semple revealed that BERNADETTE is in many ways autobiographical. She gave up her successful career in LA to move to Seattle, and became deeply unhappy there. Instead of looking inward, she blamed the city and the people. When a friend told her that she was becoming “a menace to society,” she thought that was a delightful idea and decided to write about it.
  • “You’re not just a storyteller; you’re a story-withholder.” In other words, writers need to think about what they’re not revealing to the reader, as much as what they are.
  • When asked about the relationship between her screenwriting and her novel-writing, and what writers of each discipline can learn from the other, Semple said that in both, “Scenes are the building blocks of story-telling.”
  • Also: “I don’t think enough stuff happens” in fiction.
  • Sometimes she actually asks her students, “Do you know what action is?” (Presumably because they are turning in stories where people just sit and talk about their feelings.)
  • As a writer, “you want to be out living life, seeing things, and meeting people.” Otherwise you’ll have nothing to write about.

THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain

Please note: My “Reading Reflections” are not reviews. They are simply my thoughts in response to certain passages.

The Paris WifeTruth be told, THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain is not the type of book I would have picked up on my own. A “biofic,” it might be called. But after seeing McLain at Books by the Banks last year, I wanted to know if her eloquence and enthusiasm translated to the page. (IMO, it did.) The story is told from the point of view of Hadley Hemingway, Ernest’s first wife, and focuses on their years together. As a woman in a committed relationship, I did connect with Hadley, but to my surprise, I found myself drawn more strongly to Ernest himself. Despite his boorish behavior at times, he was a writer, an artist above all else, and his absolute, uncompromising conviction stirred a lot of emotion in me.

(As did his insecurities. And Hadley’s.)

As I read, I wondered if Andy would identify with Hadley to some degree too. They’re both highly sensible, yet with enough of an artistic sensibility to connect with their creative partners, and they both have to deal with supporting — indirectly enduring? — the unstable, untraditional path of a writer. Granted, I don’t get drunk or fight bulls like Hemingway did… but still. I know it isn’t easy.

Anyway, I highlighted the HECK out of this book, and it was extremely hard to choose which quotes to feature here. I may end up having to do a couple short follow-up posts, actually, but these will do for now.

The whole time he talked fast about his plans, all the things he wanted for himself, the poems, stories, and sketches he was burning to write. I’d never met anyone so vibrant or alive. He moved like light. He never stopped moving — or thinking, or dreaming apparently. (15)

I remember showing my writing journals to Andy for the first time. How vulnerable and exposed I felt, because here were all my innermost ideas, laid bare to be read, possibly judged. Each hastily scribbled line was a seed; whether it would bloom or not, I had no idea. This was not a beautiful garden so much as a vast field that I tended and watched with tentative hope.

Fortunately Andy didn’t say much. He just flipped pages slowly, taking it all in, taking me in, with a kind of reverence that I noticed and appreciated.

His mood was pretty low during this time. He’d gotten several more rejections on stories he’d sent to magazines, and it hurt his pride. It was one thing when he was writing part-time and having no success. But now he was devoted to his craft, working every day, and still failing. What did that mean for the future? (67)

Oy, do I feel this. When you’ve put everything on the line — your reputation, your fortune, your heart — you can’t help but feel it. I am so lucky and thrilled that I could afford to quit my job and pursue writing full-time. But I’m terrified too.

In our circle, everyone believed things would hit for him, and that it was only a matter of time. “You’re making something new,” Pound told him one day in his studio. “Don’t forget that when it starts to hurt.”

“It only hurts to wait.”

“The waiting helps you boil it down. That’s essential, and the hurting helps everything along in its way.” (127)

Patience really is the hardest part. Thank god for the people who believe in you.

Now, switching from the writing focus to the relationship bits…

“Let’s always tell each other the truth. We can choose that, can’t we?” (47)

I feel like that’s a good motto in any relationship, but in a marriage especially. The truth may not always be easy or pretty, but it’s the only foundation you can build anything long-term on.

I also liked to look around at the houses surrounding the park and wonder about the people who filled them, what kinds of marriages they had and how they loved or hurt each other on any given day, and if they were happy, and whether they thought happiness was a sustainable thing. (92)

Do you ever play this game? I know I do. I speculate about couples at restaurants and on the bus, about celebrity couples, about couples I actually know. It’s as if I think figuring out their problems will help me solve — or avoid — my own.

But the truth is, we can’t compare our relationships to anyone else’s. There’s so much that goes on within each person’s heart, head, and home that we never see.

It gave me a sharp kind of sadness to think that no matter how much I loved him and tried to put him back together again, he might stay broken forever. (100)

I felt that way about someone once. I don’t love him anymore, not in that way, but I still think of him from time to time, and wonder about him, and hope for him.

“Sometimes I wish we could rub out all of our mistakes and start fresh, from the beginning,” I said. “And sometimes I think there isn’t anything to us but our mistakes.” (220)

Learning from Dennis Lehane

Every October, a conglomerate of Cincinnati libraries, bookstores, and universities puts on Books by the Banks, a convention for readers and writers to come together and discuss their favorite thing: books.

This year I went with Stephanie and Sarah, and between the 3 of us, we attended 4 different panels. The first was with Chris Bohjalian, who had a smooth patter of stories and jokes. He made me laugh with his anecdotes, then cry (almost) with his poignant reading.

The second panel featured Brock Clarke and Paula McLain, who were more off-the-cuff, and who gamely tried to connect despite their books (and their personalities) seeming quite different. I enjoyed Brock’s sarcasm and self-deprecating humor, as well as Paula’s girlish enthusiasm and passionate ramblings.

Then, for the final panel of the day, Steph and Sarah went to see a group of YA authors we like (discussing whether teen lit is “too dark”) while I went to see Dennis Lehane.

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You probably know Dennis’s work, even if you think you don’t. He wrote Mystic River, Shutter Island, and Gone Baby Gone — all critically acclaimed films now. In fairness, I’ve never read his work either, but when I was a senior in college, he came as the English Department’s end-of-year speaker, and I had to miss it (as I did every year) for my dance show. Everyone said he was great, though, so I was determined to see him this time around. And I am so, so glad I did.

Earlier in the day, I had passed Dennis at his booth, signing books, playing Scrabble on his iPhone, and generally looking kind of tired. Assuming that this was part of a grueling promotional tour, I sympathized, but to be honest, I also worried that he might flame out on the panel.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

For the first few minutes he did say “um” a lot, but once he warmed up, his body and his words filled with Writerliness. You could almost see the change, and you could certainly hear and feel it. He read us part of his new work, which was gritty and clever, and then he took questions from the audience. Below, paraphrased, is some of what he shared with us.

  • “As a writer, it’s important to slam doors in your own face. It forces you to create windows.”
  • He likes to write in the morning, “before the world is too much with me,” when he’s still a little bit in the dream state. The older he gets, the more he needs a non-modern feel to his environment (like an old Underwood typewriter he keeps nearby). Reassuringly, he also said he’s gotten a lot more disciplined over the years — in part due to having a family and thus more responsibility, less time to himself.
  • “Maybe you’re just not a writer. This isn’t a cruel thing to say; it’s a reality.”
  • Growing up, all he wanted was to be a baseball player. He worked 5 times as hard as everyone else, he said, even practicing in the dead night in February, causing the loss of a few teeth. But no matter what he did, no matter how bad he wanted it, he didn’t have the athletic ability. Eventually he came to peace with that, and he found something else.
  • He told us the genesis of Shutter Island, which I found fascinating. It involves the Patriot Act, a drunken night out with friends, and the unexpected hospitalization of his mother.
  • “I’m just a student for the rest of my life.”
  • He doesn’t worry about being literary or commercial. He’s not trying to please anybody — though of course he hopes to please readers. Above all he writes characters. He wants to take you on their journey. And he wants to keep getting better.

I enjoyed Dennis’s talk so much that I seriously considered asking him if he wanted to have dinner with me (and Andy, who I thought would really like him). Instead I settled for getting him to sign a book and take a picture.

That night I went home feeling rejuvenated, infused with literary energy and learnings. Even writing this recap has ignited a kind of spark in me. All I can say is, if you have the chance to go to this event or anything like it — maybe an author reading at your local bookstore — do it.

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