Monday, March 15, 2004


The South Carolina Book Festival (Feb. 27-29) is, alas, now a blur. There have been too many events in too short a period of time for me. Instead, a few shiny shards of reflected light continue to cycle through my brain--a brain now frantic to return to the novel and also start planning for the England trip planned for April 7 - April 19. Still, I think I'll take a stab at a report on the festival. What the hell...

I do recall the pleasant shuttle ride to the hotel in Columbia, South Carolina--Ann and I shared it with Stella Suberman (The Jew Store), Sara Lewis (multiple mainstream literary novels, laced with humor and featuring female protagonists), and Ibrahim Fawal (both a novel and a history of the piss-poor situation in the Middle East from the Palestinian point of view). Ibrahim liked to entertain, and interspersed stories about the great energy and intellect of John Barth and John Gardner with the tale of his one moment of true and certain fame: a small role in Arnold Schwarzenegger's first movie (in which he played a college professor and for which he continued to get $20 residuals to this day).

Once at the festival, we hurried down to the literary meet-the-authors gala, where Jeff and Lynn Ford and Michael and Jeri Bishop were already waiting--along with the truly spectacular Felice Picano, who we had previously met in Minneapolis. An open bar at a writers' gala is about as wise as a buffet at an Overeater's Anonymous meeting, and soon everyone was pleasantly or unpleasantly buzzed. One of the great ironies of the Atkins diet for me is how it has driven me from mixed drinks to hard liquor. Still, the scotch was excellent, although it drove me to larger and larger tips, the bartender's grin growing wider as the evening progressed.

Afterwards, we went out with Vicki and Kevin Parsons and a friend of theirs, Tripp Reade, who is working on a novel. Vicki Parsons is the organizer of the festival, and Kevin had been helping her out. A long time ago, in a distant galaxy, Kevin and I had worked together at the software company that still employs me to this day. It was a lot of fun seeing them again, and spending time downstairs in a bar with live music--covers from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s that all sounded exactly the same: like grunge--blaring above us as we ate one of the only things they had left on the menu--spiced meatballs. By this time, I was extremely drunk, but very happy. With any luck, all Ann, Vicki, Kevin, and Tripp picked up on was the "happy" part.

We got back after 1am and went our separate ways, me to a half-delirious sleep in which I had one of my recurring dreams: that I'm driving a supermodel to the corner grocery store in a pickup truck to get some milk and eggs. Then I drive her back and she gets out. End of dream. A relatively useless dream, really.

But unable to sleep for more than five hours, I got up at 6:30 and in a state of wretched guilt and some discomfort sought out the gym, where I proceeded to lift weight and ride a stationary bike for a good hour. There, I thought, that will help. And maybe it did--since I managed to last through the day, although at one point Ann, and possibly Mike Bishop, became alarmed when my face and neck turned bright red half-way through the afternoon.

We got to the festival before 10am so we could see Felice on his panel, The Art of Memoir. It was a memorable panel--in part because I managed to stay conscious during it despite the fact that a Hangover was clearly beginning to have its way with me. I was at this point not in any particular pain, more of a fog, with a kind of itchiness permeating my body, a kind of twitchy scotch-induced distance. I began to feel somewhat guilty--after all, I was supposed to moderate a panel from 2:30 to 3:30--A Fantastic Voyage: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing, fellow panelists being Jeffrey Ford, Karen Joy Fowler, and Michael Bishop.

By this time Ann had already discharged her duties, doing a very nice interview with John Saul on one of the main stages. Several times Saul's head had whipped around to stare at Ann due to the very precise and researched nature of her questions. Perhaps somewhat disturbing, however, was a revelation from the crowd: one couple claimed to read nothing but John Saul, and when they finished reading his entire oeuvre, they would go back and re-read it until his next book came out. I don't think any writer could live up to such constant, monotonous, pile-driver-type reading, and yet this couple seemed perfectly happy. I was happy for them. What a state of bliss to live in. What a state of certainty and stasis. I was almost certain their house must be the center of some nexus of Time Interrupted, some place that Proust would eventually have gotten around to investigating, had he lived long enough.

Also during the afternoon came the revelation that one of the famous authors had a stalker. This stalker, in a chiffon dress, had actually bumped into me the other day and kind of backed up weirdly and done a half curtsey, while mumbling about "pardon me sir." I hadn't thought of her as being insane, but it had seemed odd. In any event, this was someone who, while on her meds, was perfectly nice, but not on meds would accuse the Famous Author of stealing her words. The Famous Author therefore had this bizarre relationship with the stalker, whereby he would get off stage after doing his shtick and she'd be waiting there, and he'd say calmly, "Hi. How're you? I guess I'll be seeing you on that cruise I'm doing next week." Apparently, her rich husband gave her the freedom to follow the object of her fixation everywhere he went. It was an odd situation, half funny and half rather disturbing. The Famous Author had a half-sympathetic shadow. Ann or someone teased me about the possible transference of the stalker to moi. I pointed out that authors who make less than $30k a year rarely are able to generate any passion in the heart of a stalker...

Then came the fantasy panel, which went very well--except for the point at which the panel revolted. This point came when I relayed a quote M. John Harrison had made about how the best fantasies don't come with maps, after which Jeff Ford more or less leapt in with "Bullshit!", as did Michael, and, perhaps less adamantly, Karen. This amused me no end, although my hangover-influenced face may not have conveyed much more than shock, since I had given Mike, Jeff, and Karen the questions ahead of time and asked them to let me know if there were any they didn't want to answer or which were stupid. But, in the end, it opened up the panel and made it much more organic, and that was a good thing. Still, I thought it was pretty funny. So much for prepping ahead of time!

We had great attendance for the panel--I think on Saturday over 4,000 people visited the festival and we had a large room with most of the seats taken; possibly the crowd was between 100 and 200, very hard to say, especially since I was still being managed by my hangover. The questions from the audience were great, although we finally had to disburse when one gentleman said, "Given that we're all going to be cyborgs soon, how will that affect how you do characterization?"

Afterwards, we went and signed, with respectable lines for all of us. I'd read the erotic font note as part of our introductions and City of Saints sold out in the dealer's room as soon as the panel was over. I felt somewhat guilty. After all, the rest of the book was nothing like the font note. Still, I didn't feel that guilty.

Then, after perusing the dealer's room a bit more, it was time to return to the hotel and have some down time before the author shindig for dinner: delicious barbecue in a building that had once been a synagogue. Throughout the entire event, I have to say that Vicki Parsons and her staff took good care of us. The event was well-organized, well-run, well-attended, and just a success in every way.

The barbecue building being a little too loud to hear ourselves talk, Karen, Jeff, Lynn, Ann, and I retired to the hotel lounge to talk about bad movies and late fees and some of the Oscar nominees. A discussion of New Weird and the Interstitial was mercifully short.

The next day, I was feeling much, much better--just in time for the flight home. We'd had a great time, had a chance to meet some very different kinds of writers and also pick up their books, while taking advantage of Vicki and Kevin's splendid hospitality.

Later, I asked Kevin what some of the highlights were for him, and this was his reply:

"My personal highlights for the weekend include:

"Jeff Ford's description of grabbing and throwing his son's Snickers bar away to avoid a potential bear attack.

"Aaron Gwyn's, a short story writer, answer to the audience question: 'Who is your favorite short story writer and where is your career headed?' His response: 'Flannery O'Connor and down.'

"Karen Joy Fowler's publishing advice to Tripp Reade: She pointed out that the Science Fiction magazines and journals not only publish a lot of stories but they pay pretty well. Tripp replied that his stories weren't really science fiction. Karen replied: 'Well, Tripp, you told me that you had one story with a talking weasel in it. That would make it a science fiction story. So all you have to do is put a talking weasel in all your other stories and start sending them out as science fiction.' "

And on that note, even my artificially extended memory of the festival again becomes murky, although I cannot think of one non-pleasant moment that was due to anything other than my inability to properly metabolize scotch...


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