Thank God for Alex George.
I have never believed in any god, but were I to believe, I would say whatever god I believed in smiled on Alex George this past weekend.
A Bit About Alex
I don’t remember what blog entry it was that brought me to Alex’s blog years ago when it was a basic WordPress install with an image [I think] from Maine as the header, but six or seven years ago, I started chatting with Alex online. I had no idea that his last book, A Good American, would eventually be published — or that he’d do an interview on The Juggling Writer after its publication.
And I’ll confess to being humble enough that I was not only surprised the day Alex sent a friend request my way on Facebook, but I wondered if it was a mistake! (It wasn’t, and for years I’ve chatted with Alex online.)
When Alex announced he was thinking about starting a book festival in Columbia, Missouri and wondered if anyone would show up, I told him I’d be there — figuring if nothing else, he could at least say, “We have people coming from as far away as Texas!” I’m happy to report people came from farther away than Texas, and that any fears Alex had were not unfounded (it was a scary leap of faith), but definitely swept aside by a very successful weekend.
I initially planned to spend Friday night in Kansas City, visiting some people I’ve chatted with online for years, but never met in person. (Erik Lundy and Paul Lamb.) I spent summers in the area, and lived up there in sixth grade. Alex mentioned that (at the time) he couldn’t tell me what was happening on Friday night, but that it would be good to be there on Friday, instead of Saturday. So I canceled the Kansas City stopover and went straight to Columbia.
I’ve been lucky enough to see some great authors speak over the years. I’d put Friday night up there with the night I saw Ray Bradbury speak at Southern Methodist University in the early 90s, when I first began taking writing seriously. These days, I’m not writing comic books, so the Ondaatje talk spoke to where I am as a writer today in the same manner as that night almost 25 years ago when I met Ray Bradbury and talked about growing up in northern Illinois.
The talk was heartfelt and humorous, and while I’m not a gay man who grew up in a small town in Missouri, I was a clunky geek when I was younger. I was 22 years old when I returned to Missouri to stand beside my father’s bed as he looked me in the eyes and took his last breath. Like Hodgman, I’m a big guy with glasses who does well-enough masking his insecurities, despite the things I have accomplished in life. Obviously, I don’t know George Hodgman, but through certain mannerisms that we seem to share share (that seem common among nice, big guys), I at least felt a bit more in common with him than any other guest author.
Hodgman’s talk was worth the drive up from Texas!
Of course, the day was just beginning…
I only know Bob Shacochis through his travel writing in Outside. (And I was happy to learn he has a collection of his travel writing coming out in June.)
I love that people like Shacochis exist — the kinds of people who can write journalistic pieces that matter, put you in another place in their travel writing, and regale a crowd with life stories. Because I’ve not read his fiction, I can’t speak to that, but I look forward to reading The Woman Who Lost Her Soul.
A Short Walk
After Shacochis’s talk, he mentioned that he was signing books in the ballroom of Lee Raney Wood Hall. He invited me to walk along with him and Ibtisam Barakat. I ended up letting them talk, and spent most of my walk chatting with the festival volunteer assisting Shacochis.
Obviously, something like a book festival does not happen without volunteers. I arrived for the Shacochis talk early and chatted with a couple volunteers while waiting. On the walk to the ballroom, I learned the volunteer I chatted with works with autistic people. I mentioned that I used to work with developmentally disabled adults in group homes, so much of the talk over was about helping people.
In its own way, that’s one of the feelings that came through in every aspect of the festival: people helping people. The volunteers were just as excited to be there as I was. The entire event was run remarkably well, thanks in large part to the people in the background.
One of the talks I really looked forward to was Shann Ray. I’ve read excerpts from his novel, American Copper, and heard what other authors I respect have said about the book. (When Jess Walter and Sherman Alexie praise something, I’m there!) But…I didn’t make the talk!
I hadn’t really eaten much and had something coming up shortly after his talk, so I wolfed down a Clif Bar and met my wife back at the hotel.
I did, however, get a chance to chat a bit with Shann a little before 1:00 a.m. Sunday morning…when the hotel fire alarm sounded and I ended up standing beside Shann and Mark Doty. The talk was about what was going on (the fire evacuation); I didn’t say, “Hey, I meant to attend your talk, but didn’t…but I have a copy of American Copper in my room I’d love for you to sign.”
He seemed nice enough that he very well may have waited in the hallway when we all went back up, but I wasn’t about to test that hypothesis.
The First Page Rodeo
I committed to attending the Unbound Book Festival long before they announced The First Page Rodeo.
The First Page Rodeo was a call to the public to send in the first pages of their novels or novels-in-progress. The chosen 10 entries would have their first pages discussed by a panel. (For the sake of time, they ended up taking only five first pages.) I submitted the first page of A Magic Life — and I was happy to hear it was chosen.
I was even happier when my entry came up and George Hodgman asked to get the first crack at the discussion. The trip without The First Page Rodeo was more than worth it, but hearing Hodgman talk about how much he liked the opening made it all a little better. And to hear him talk about its quirkiness being a strong point meant the world to me.
Most rejection letters I’ve received go roughly like this:
Hey, I really enjoyed reading this. You write well, and your ability to create a sense of place and strong characters is apparent. However…this is a bit quirky, and I’m not sure how I’d market it. But I look forward to reading more of your work in the future. Good luck!
I understand the apprehension. While someone described the last thing I wrote as Twin Peaks meets Northern Exposure and Fargo — and that seems like an easy sell — I know it takes a deep love for a story in order for agents and publishers to take that chance when it’s not a book that has easy sale all over it. I’d be cautious, too, if my income relied entirely on what I make from selling clients’ books.
A Magic Life is the most mainstream thing I’ve written, which is funny, because it is very loosely based on a character from my first novel — a humorous coming-of-age story about a family traveling cross-country in a possessed station wagon. That is a quirky book.
No matter what ultimately happens with A Magic Life, this past weekend was a reminder that waking up early and writing with purpose before the day job wakes up and demands attention matters for many reasons. The two discussions following the session made my month! (George Hodgman really is as kind as I thought he was, and chatting about circus stories with Margaret Sutherland Brown was another highlight of the festival for me. Eleanor Brown saying she stopped to appreciate the prose didn’t hurt one bit, either…)
My Favorite Thing…
There is no denying the First Page Rodeo made the drive up from Texas worth it, but I knew that telling Alex I’d be there mattered before it was clear that he and everyone else involved was on to something special. It’s easy to say, “If you build it, they will come,” but it’s another thing to spend years building the myriad smaller things needed to carry enough weight to pull something off even better as planned.
It’s not just that Alex pulled it off, but that he pulled it off with friends.
There’s a line on the last page of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore about friendship that is one of my favorite things ever written. Kindness, working together, and friendship — as hokey as it sounds — matters. There have been times in my life that it was the only thing that kept me alive; it’s not something I take lightly.
In the end, my favorite thing about the Unbound Book Festival is that it worked: a packed theatre Friday night, packed sessions all day Saturday, and new friendships made along the way for so many people.
I’m not sure there’s any definition of success better than that, and I’m happy for everyone involved who have made something special in the middle of Missouri.
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Some random photos, because why not…?