Storyweek Festival of Writers

Every March, the college where I teach hosts Storyweek, a week-long series of talks, readings, and discussions with writers, playwrights, and book industry folks. I was invited to participate in a panel called “The Female in Contemporary American Fiction,” alongside Bonnie Jo Campbell, Christine Sneed, and Nami Mun. Patricia McNair moderated. In the photo above: Bonnie, Patricia, me, Christine, and Randy Albers.

Each of us read for about ten minutes, and then we had our discussion. Nami started things out with a section from her novel MILES FROM NOWHERE. She read from the chapter “What We Had,” which is one of my favorite chapters in the book, and emblematic of the heroine’s suffering at the hand of abusive lovers. I was intrigued by the way Nami read: slowly, in an almost whispery, lulling tone, giving a dreamlike feel to an otherwise harrowing scene. I’m teaching her book in my Asian Am Lit class this semester, and halfway through her reading, I thought, “Why did it not occur to me to invite my students to this?” I probably didn’t say anything because I was reading, too, and I treat my fiction writing as some shameful habit that I don’t bring up in public unless others mention it first, kinda like it’s a previous marriage, or something that I’m dealing with in AA.

The section I read is one of my favorite scenes to perform. My approach to readings is informed by my experiences going to the theater to hear stage readings of plays, rather than fiction readings. I hate to sound like a Benedict Arnold, but I often find author readings quite dull (with the exception of my friends’ readings, which are always scintillating and delightful, of course). That’s why when I read, I treat it as a theater experience, and read it as if I were an actor. Sometimes I’ll do a more traditional reading (like I did at the Brooklyn Fest), but most of the time I pick a scene that’s heavy on dialogue and pretend I’m in a play.

The scene I did was the one where Eun-Mee, Soo-Ja, and Jae-Hwa go to a coffee house, and Eun-Mee sabotages Soo-Ja’s plan to borrow money from Jae-Hwa. I love playing all the characters, and in fact, I’m thinking of starting a service where readers can call me at home and I’ll read to them, although maybe that’s the same thinking behind this cool “audiobooks” concept. But seriously, I feel like part of the reason book tours and author readings are on the wane is because we authors often fail to make them entertaining. The notion that our presence alone justifies the audience trekking to the bookstore doesn’t quite cut it. That’s why I think readings should be more like talks (lectures), or theater. I remember going to Steppenwolf once with my friend Crystal Williams, and watching a performance of a short story by Julie Orringer. The actress was fantastic, and managed to make each line land. She was memorably, charismatic, and totally convincing as the “voice” of that character. So that’s my philosophy toward author readings: a cross between an excerpt from an audio book and a theater performance. And that’s kind of what I tried to deliver at Storyweek, with the help of the microphone and a lovely ¬†audience that kindly went along for the journey.

Christine Sneed read from her book PORTRAITS OF A FEW OF THE PEOPLE I’VE MADE CRY, whose plot sounds so much like my own life back in L.A. (a creative writing teacher has affair with movie star), or wait, actually maybe that was just a dream I had. And Bonnie Jo Campbell read from her book AMERICAN SALVAGE, which was nominated for a National Book Award. Bonnie and I did an event together in Detroit back in October, and it was super fun to see her again. What I like about Bonnie, both in her fiction and in real life, is that she’s unfailingly honest, super generous, and whip-smart. We had dinner together in Chicago a few months ago, and for more on that, looksie here. That, incidentally, is my most popular blog post, which indicates the level of interest in writers eating at restaurants together.

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