Festival of Books Literary Feast

Feast on this.

Here’s what I’ve noticed about book fans. They’re idolatrous. They search out their favorite authors and gawk and gush and spill out everything they want to say. They see authors as celebrities, albeit awkward ones.

I have a hard time doing this. I can’t just go up to an author and start talking to them without some sort of mediation. Part of it is that I don’t want these people to be idols. I want them to be equals. I want to be where they are, and I know I would be awkward and clumsy in these situations. So I assume they all are.

Sometimes, however, an intimacy with authors can come without even standing face to face with one of them. Tonight’s Literary Feast was one of them.

Pardon me for gushing. It was a great experience. Some of it was dry and boring, but most of it was genuine. Fun. Exhilarating. One of those events that makes me want to grab a notebook and start writing that story I can never seem to get started on.

The South Dakota Festival of Books Literary Feast was a first in the festival’s five-year history, though it’s not a completely foreign idea. After all, all readers dream of that perfect dinner conversation – that flurry of book talk that accentuates the meal and drives thoughts of reality television and Britney Spears from our heads, creating a sense of intelligence – whether true or faux. Eating and reading, in my world, are one and the same – both as essential and as savored as anything else.

So to grab eleven authors together in the spirit of literary readings over a catered dinner is a fusion of great things. Having only been to one literary reading before in my life, I was excited to sit down and listen – to discover new writers and to revel in the voices and the humor and the feeling of those I already knew.

It was good. Scratch that – it was great. A well varied cast of characters made their writings come alive, transformed from black marks to live action; each word coming alive in the voice that penned it, the inner thoughts breaking through the membranes and striking the dining crowd with aplomb.

Pete Dexter’s meek voice didn’t stand up to his brilliant writing, a short story just the way I like them – a slice of simple life filled with the complexities we all take for granted.

Rob Fleder – editor for Sports Illustrated and the guy I followed around during last year’s Festival – helped the cause by reading another of Dexter’s stories, his voice resonating with confidence where Dexter’s sat silent as most writers’ do. Fleder and Dexter are great friends, and Fleder edited a collection of Dexter’s old newspaper columns recently (Paper Trails) – choosing a hilarious romp through the trivialities of breasts to bring the dining crowd to a roaring standstill. No more dinner was eaten – we couldn’t dare eat without fear of shooting it out our nose. I’m not speaking hyperbole – it was really funny enough to cause that fear.

David Romtvedt read a poem about the polar opposites of a daughter’s love – the steadfast adoration for daddy dearest mixed with an almost sadistic defiance – that made me instantly miss Sierra. Meanwhile, Deb Marquart read a piece of her own memoir, playing the opposite side of the card – the rough girl in search of life. They work together often, and came together as a pair of musicians to play an accordion-fueled song about writers called “Monkey with a Typewriter,” a play on the infinite monkey theorem.

Non-fiction struck a chord as David Laskin read a great piece about weather from his book The Children’s Blizzard, and Joseph Marshall III read from The Day the World Ended at Little Bighorn. Marshall made us all stop and think, both lightheartedly (as he discussed how white culture forced the Indians to create words for time – a concept completely foreign to their culture) and seriously (as he talked about the 17 honor medals awarded to white soldiers for their merciless killing of innocents at Wounded Knee.)

Some writers weren’t as dynamic, but they added to the diversity of the night. Carolyn Conahan looked out of place, but as the only non-writer (she’s an illustrator) we all wondered why she was there in the first place, not why she was doing such a poor job. Nyla Griffith read fast enough to be forgettable and Susan Power unfortunately didn’t even show up.

My crowning achievement of the night was introducing myself and shaking Ivan Doig’s hand. I’m nearly finished with The Whistling Season, and the book is wonderful. I’ll save it for the end-of-month column, but I can say he read the opening scene brilliantly, bringing them alive in a way that was so incredibly natural.

And poor Cathie Draine – she came after Pete Dexter and before Ivan Doig, so she was easily forgotten. Her book of her grandfather’s letters was introduced through a very funny poker story, the type of story that brought to light the real voices behind the long lost true cowboy days – open land, cows, boozin’ and gamblin’; the stuff that all of those western movies were about.

The night was begun and capped off by Ken Davis – author of the Don’t Know Much About… books – our Literary Referee for the night. He did a fine job of both announcing the writers and commenting on their validity to the night. He also thanked me (well, all of us) for reading and keeping them (the writers) in business and enjoying their jobs.

The capstone was Sonia Manzano – Maria from Sesame Street. She’s written some children’s books, but all of that was lost as her voice – a voice so familiar I’d have thought it was a long lost relative – came barreling at me over the speakers. I was transported back to my youth, wallowing on the carpet as I watched Maria talk and direct and help me understand everything that was happening on that Muppet-infested street. Her books were good, and she read them well, but it was the voice that did the most for me.

With all of that behind me, I had to come back to my hotel room and get it on the site before I lost the magic of the night. It was a wonderful time – filled with a closeness not seen in a lot of big-time reading venues. And even though I’m alone in Deadwood on a Friday night, not bothering to venture out into the streets in order to live life to its fullest, I still know that I had an experience that I hope will occur again next year in Sioux Falls.

Until then, we’ll just content ourselves with what tomorrow will bring.

This was lovingly handwritten on September 29th, 2007