Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wild Iris, Wild Goose, and other untamed experiences on book tour

So I’m back from the road. “Book tour” was the word that Peterson and I used to describe our two week trip to Columbus, Ohio; Richmond, Kentucky; Cookville, Tennessee; Gainesville, Florida; and Pittsboro, North Carolina. But given the news media’s complete indifference all the interviews my publicist and I proposed, it ended up feeling more like a road trip, with book events on the side.

I wasn’t chatting to radio hosts—I was floating down the Ichetucknee River in Florida, in a rubber tube, past live oaks and great white herons. I was catching up with old friends. Not maybe the best for book sales, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself!

Book-wise, my best event by far was at Eastern Kentucky University, where a crowd of twenty or so old friends and colleagues came out to see me read at the Crabbe Library. They were thrilled, enthusiastic, and bought lots of books. This response reminded me of the book marketing adage that there’s nothing quite like “connection” to bring people out to an event.

But the other, smaller events were interesting, too. At Westminster-Thurber retirement home in Columbus, a circle of about twelve or so old folks seemed entranced to hear my memories of lions and elephants. At Wild Iris Bookstore in Gainesville—apparently one of only thirteen remaining feminist bookstores in the US—I met Erica Merrell. She instantly became a hero to me because of her work trying to keep literary culture alive in the age of Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook. Who are these people, who love books so much they are willing to work for almost nothing to keep selling books, getting them out into the world? And at the Columbus Barnes and Noble, I met Stjepan, a retired gentleman who now spends most of his waking hours reading—and buying—quality literary fiction and nonfiction. He had read The Jack Bank based on its review in Publishers Weekly. I felt like I’d encountered a kindred spirit.

Then it was off to Wild Goose, the progressive Christian arts festival held near Pittsboro, NC. I had no idea what to expect. I’d never been to Greenbelt, the European festival that served as inspiration for this one. But I wanted to support Peterson in his performance, and I was excited about sharing my story with a new audience—that of “emergent Christians” with an interest in social justice.

About thirty people showed up for my reading, and I read the scene from The Jack Bank where I make my deposit in prefect John’s accounting notebook, where he records our beatings and offers us interest. I was a bit worried about freaking out my listeners with these recollections of mad sadomasochism, but they truly seemed fascinated, and I really loved reading it aloud and re-experiencing all the horror, love, and sadness I felt writing those. This section of The Jack Bank is really the “theological” core of my book, where I meditate on how easily and naturally evil comes to human beings. In other words, how deeply we always are implicated in the things we recoil from. I was hoping this piece would speak to an audience concerned with the big questions about life.

I think it did. They asked great questions about reconciliation in South Africa—I am more cautious in my support than most people imagine. They asked about the role of spirituality in my life journey. I wish they’d bought more copies of The Jack Bank, but I do understand that there was a great deal of competition for their book dollars that weekend, from people who are living legends in this movement. Folks like Richard Rohr and Peter Rollins, fabulous speakers, both.

I discovered new music at Wild Goose. I thought Christian music was supposed to be corny? But two new favorites, from the festival night stage: the moody, angry, charismatic Derek Webb, and the sublimely meditative David Bazan.

This week I teach creative writing summer camp at Susquehanna University. Next week I read at Friends General Conference in Grinnell. If I have another chance to blog this week, I’ll weigh in on the big controversy among my friends at Wild Goose, namely: By including gay and lesbian speakers like me and Peterson in a Christian festival, did Wild Goose strike a blow against what is arguably THE cardinal religious sin of our time, homophobia? Or did the effort to include everyone on this issue—from people who believed homosexuality was a sin all the way through to out-and-proud gay people—make a mockery of the festival’s proclaimed commitment to social justice, at least around the issue of sexuality?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Media events list, for the record

Peterson pointed out to me yesterday that I don't actually have links to my major media appearances--a violation of the cardinal rule of author blogs! For the record, almost all the media work I've done is on my web page under "Interviews and Articles." But for the record, I'm collecting some links here, too:

Here is PBS television's feature on my book and travel writing course. That made me feel like a small scale celebrity!

Here is the radio interview I did with WVIA Artscene with Erika Funk in Scranton. Erika was lots of fun, but I think I talked too much and for too long.

I have done a number of interviews that appeared in print, but some of my favorites were talking to Oronte Churm at InsideHighered and shooting the breeze with Nina Herzog at Lambda Literary.

Most of my reviews are, again, on my web page. Here is one of my favorites, though, that I haven't added there yet.

Last but not least, one of the most entertaining things I've ever recorded is this audio essay about taking middle-class American creative writing students to a rural African village.

Will keep all of you posted--quite literally!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Readings, and the road less travelled.

I've done a bunch of readings from The Jack Bank by now--five, to be precise, with more coming up. See my schedule on my web page. I love reading aloud from my book, and the interaction with readers is wonderful. I know this is going to sound schmaltzy, but I was almost moved to tears yesterday, when something like 70 people, most of them strangers, showed up yesterday to Congregation Beth-El synagogue in Sunbury to hear me. I felt just really honored and grateful.

But the experience of doing all these readings is getting me thinking about we writers, and how we try to connect with audiences. For most literary authors, readings mean bookshops and universities, period. And, fact is, I've loved visiting Virginia Tech, reading at my home institution of Susquehanna University, and reading at bookshops like Midtown Scholar and Atomic Books.

But so far, some of my favorite performances have been in "alternative" settings, especially religious congregations. There's a different flavor to this kind of visit. In bookstores--and, to a lesser extent, colleges--there's a certain sophistication mixed with literary jadedness. So many books, so many visiting authors, so little time! Whereas churches and synagogues are a bit like trading books for eggs at the Sunbury Farmers Market . One is visiting a group of people who don't read literature as a lifestyle, and as a result, I always feel specially privileged--and I feel that, if I make a connection with a reader, I'll perhaps be making a much bigger impact than I would in a traditional venue.

So, for example, at a Susquehanna reading, it's rare I read a visiting author's book within 24 hours of buying it. Yet since yesterday I've already received several emails from people at Beth-El who have finished reading my book and are recommending it to other people. Talk about a dream publicity gig!

This summer, I'm visiting Eastern Kentucky University, Barnes and Noble, and Wild Iris Books. But I'm also reading at Wild Goose Festival, Friends General Conference, and possibly some retirement homes. I'll keep you posted about how all of this goes, but right now, I'm betting that while most of all this will be tremendously enjoyable, some of the most distinctive memories I'll bring back from this book tour will be from places that don't usually get to hear from literary memoirists.