Thoughts on the 2008 SD Festival of Books

This year’s South Dakota Festival of Books landed during a busy time of weddings and prior engagements, so I was unable to make the most of the weekend. However, in addition to the Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me taping, I was able to ramble around downtown Sioux Falls enough to gather a few thoughts on writing, publishing and new books to read. (I’ll bold the authors, so you can skip to what you care about.)

Friday Night

Friday night’s panel featured Carl Kasell as moderator to Louise Erdrich, Kenneth Davis, Otto Penzler and Spring Warren as they spoke about the writing process and how they found their way into writing and reading in the first place. Several mentions of the importance of Bookmobiles led to each author (and editor – Otto Penzler is the Grand Puba of mystery/suspense literature) talking about their favorite books.

The thing I always forget is that writing is storytelling. It’s that simple. It’s not just writing, it’s animating and creating. The language of life. Spring Warren put it simply by explaining that when you’re young, you don’t think of authors as storytellers. You just think of the stories. The authors are invisible – they’re not writers as much as they’re just a name on the book. The stories are all that matters, and the style of writing is transparent, revealing the characters and plot and action in a way that seems natural, like each story was just sitting there in nature and someone found it, picked it up and published it.

Saturday Morning

Saturday morning’s breakfast featured Kim Ode, author of Breakfast with the St. Paul Bread Club. She talked about bread – both the art of baking and the pull of community that occurs as a result – and it was inspirational in the way that everyone probably ran to the store (as Kerrie did the next night) to purchase wheat germ and rye flour. But what stuck out wasn’t the speaker, but the way everyone in the audience had their own story, their own techniques and history. Every baker is touched in some way by the calming nature of kneading and mixing and baking. It’s a true community event.

We headed over to the Orpheum to catch Carl Kasell again, who hasn’t written a book but writes news every day. He talked about his life, we asked some questions, and that was that. He’s a humble man with ties to some major players – he gave Katie Couric her first job. Most surprisingly, South Dakota Public Broadcasting introduced him with an excerpt of my post on Kasell, without my knowing ahead of time. As in, “Here’s a post by Corey Vilhauer…” (I sheepishly raise my hand) “Oh! He’s here!” Weird, kind of cool, very humbling in its own right.

Thrity Umrigar’s break out session on finding the root of the story turned into more of a discussion on how she writes about what she knows. As a woman from India now living in the United States, she has seen her focus go from primarily Indian characters to fully American characters, her time away from her native country leading her to lose confidence in the validity of her characters. As for tips, she said that her career as a journalist helped her write on a deadline and write concisely. She has a sense of ethos on writing – it’s a job, not an art form (admittedly, an artistic job that requires creativity, but not the artistic mindset of “I’ll get to it when I’m inspired”) so roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Saturday Afternoon

A panel of authors (Brian Bedard, Ron Carlson and Kent Meyers) gave suggestions on how to stay on track when writing short stories. First, know the forms. Know what can be made into a short story, and what needs a full novel. It’s intuition and instinct, the natural ability to know what is valid. Surprise or reversal is a key element in a short story – you have short time span, and readers come into a story with expectations. Don’t meet those expectations. Do something different, and it will be remembered. Finally, reading is not writing. Reading is turning on a light. Writing is being in the dark, where you’re unsure of the final destination. Stay committed, and you’ll make your way through the dark.

Finally, I had the honor of seeing Pete Dexter again. He’s a kind, big-hearted man with a subtle, sarcastic sense of humor. He’s a weird guy at first glance, one of those eccentric author types, but he’s straight forward and grounded in what can seem like an industry filled with egos and pretentiousness. Dexter talked extensively about how Norman Mailer had the gall to claim righteous damnation on whichever writers he felt were “minor writers” (Mailer, of course, is a major writer, in his humble opinion). Dexter also took several questions about his screenplays, both those that were successful and those that seemingly took years off of his life through stress and Hollywood politics.

Overall, another success for the South Dakota Humanities Council, with everything coming together in an organized manner and a wide array of interesting authors and events. The Festival of Books has certainly come a long way from five years ago, when I first saw it as a bunch of tents in the middle of the street. It’s legit, now – an event worth waiting for.

And I’m not just saying that because I’m supposed to.

This was lovingly handwritten on September 29th, 2008