Authors descend upon Beaver Creek
“To those who read to remember, to those who read to forget, to those who read to do both: Welcome to the third annual Festival of Words,” she said.
The general mission of the Festival of Words is to bring authors and readers together. That it did. Thanks to the authors, it also gave candid insight into the fact behind fiction (Jodi Piccoult), 12 things writing teaches (Mark Dunn), the habit of art (Claire Davis), the sacrifice writing demands (Dan O’Brien) and taking joy in the gift of words (Leif Enger).
Ultimately, the Festival delivered practical advice to hopeful writers. As Zimmermann pointed out, things aren’t always what they first appear, either in life or on pages.
“We find our heroes in very unusual places,” she said.
Piccoult is the most prolific of the authors, having published nine books in 10 years.
“Jodi writes faster than I read,” said O’Brien.
She’s also the mother of three children. Her secret seems to be being interested in absolutely everything.
“I’ve stopped writing what I know and started writing what I want to know,” she said.
That means she gets a nugget of an idea – perhaps a plot twist, perhaps only a setting – and starts amassing a pile of knowledge and ideas. Her research strategy is simple – total immersion. All in the name of fiction, she’s learned to speak Lakota Sioux, lived with the Amish, witnessed open-heart surgery, gone to jail and studied witchcraft.
The most interesting fact she says she’s learned?: When they perform a kidney transplant, they don’t take out the old kidneys.
She describes fiction as a tightrope – readers want to be whisked away, but it has to be close enough to reality so that they might identify with it. And so her books are all based on reality, or research.
“Research can completely change the direction of a book,” she said.
For instance, in “The Pact,” two teens, a female and a male, make a suicide pact. Only one does the deed, as the second is interrupted. All along Piccoult thought her girl would be the survivor. But she learned through conversations with the police the boy would surely be arrested as an accomplice to murder – not so the girl. Thus, Piccoult’s book changed around completely.
Dunn grew up a couple miles from Graceland.
He remembers serving Elvis popcorn at the movie theater. Of course Elvis took lots and lots of butter.
Dunn recently wowed the literary community with “Ella Minnow Pea,” a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary tale. Translated, that means a book that intentionally doesn’t use particular letters as the story unfolds, all told through missives, or letters.
Dunn was able to encapsulate 12 pieces of advice gleaned through his career.
“Start early,” he said.
His early writing, from age 8 or so, often visited a scene where people were escaping slow but imminent lava flows. He’s broadened his horizons now, allowing for mythical island nations set just off the coast of Georgia.
“It doesn’t hurt interest in your book if your island high council bears a strong resemblance to the Taliban,” he said.
He recommends writing only for your interests and passions, as good literature takes risks.
“Think outside the box,” he said. “Of course, now we’ve misplaced the box.”
Other practical advice: Beware the high concept piece; if you can’t find purpose in the pain of life, pick up the pen; after completing a novel, gird yourself for the long road ahead; it helps to have a great day job; and if you feel your story has been stolen, sue the studio.
In the early 1990s, Dunn wrote a story about a man who, unbeknownst to him, is the star of his own TV show. Both Paramount and Fox read and rejected it. A few years later, Paramount came out with “The Truman Show,” a movie bearing downright uncanny resemblance to Dunn’s own story. For that, they paid.
When Davis spoke, it was as if words were a whirlpool inside and just streamed out, casting their own spell.
“I’ve come to that place in my life where art and life are not separate,” she said.
She calls it the habit of art, the habit of observation. And as words are something to be rolled around on the tongue and looked at from all angles, she also mentioned another habit, nun’s clothing that “announces your faith to the world.”
She let the audience chew on that for a moment.
“Become physically intimate with your world,” she said. “That means when I fiddle with the dogs I notice their hair. Learn the names of things. … Headlines become stories, and it becomes second-nature. The whole world translates to ideas.”
She believes the stories are always there, ready to be seen by those tuned into to the world around them. It’s the artist’s job to develop the discipline to craft it day by day, and the habit of ongoing observation.
“Not only does the world provide material, but you get to understand your own life,” she said. “If you want it badly enough, it will come. The muse is always with us.”
O’Brien has a Web site. The first page that comes up shows two options: click here to talk to Dan, and click here to order buffalo. He lives up in South Dakota, on his ranch. His most recent (and perhaps craziest) mission has been to restore bison to his land for the first time in more than 100 years. Writing is only part of his life – a big part, but only part nonetheless. Despite his eight books, the process still confounds him.
“I’m like a chicken,” he said. “Every day I get up and it’s a new world.”
He wrote for 12 years, and had almost given up when he got a letter in the mail telling him he’d sold a book. One week later, he received another letter declaring he’d sold another book. And he was off and running.
“Our job as writers is to figure out how to write a good book,” he said. “How you do that, I still have no idea. Every one of my books has started at a different place. Every book is different, every writer is different. … There is no trick.”
He was given sound advice as a student in the 1970s: Find a book you’re the best person to write. He gives that advice to his students in graduate school only after he’s tried to discourage them from becoming a writer.
“If a person can be discouraged from writing, they should be,” he said.
It sounds harsh, but O’Brien is full of the realities of an author – it’s difficult to find the time, energy and faith to get out of bed and start writing. Yet he’s certain that writing is the one art form anyone can do if they’re tough enough.
“It’s a roller coaster ride,” he said. “Starting the next book is like the end of “The Graduate’ where they’re sitting on the bus and you hear, “Hello darkness my old friend.'”
For O’Brien, physical labor is key. He’s an advocate for not agonizing over a book when he’s not at the table. Instead, he allows his subconscious to work on problems as he goes about his business. Somehow, they get solved when he sits down a week or so later.
“I’m either writing or I’m not writing; I try not to mix them up,” he said.
Enger is the only member of the group who has five books out of print. He and his brother cranked out a few mysteries together, though neither was passionate about the genre. They were after a paycheck that never seemed to grow. When he decided to give it up and came to terms with the fact that he’d never be published again, he was freed from all expectations. He picked up the pen a few weeks later and wrote only for himself and his family. He produced “Peace Like a River,” which has hit bestseller lists across the nation.
“I’ve written fiction since I was 16, when I realized fiction could be written by living people,” he said.
Enger knows there are many things worth suffering for, but unlike O’Brien, he doesn’t think his art is one of them.
“My suspicion is that it should bring you joy,” he said. “It’s your gift, and we should all take joy in gifts, as we do on birthdays.”
Enger recommends reading widely but not indiscriminately. In this way, you can learn what you like and why you like it. He liked visualizing his novel on a shelf next to his favorite authors.
“Write what you know and love,” he said. “Write what fascinates you. I took everything I loved and put in in my book – old hymns, windmills, Butch Cassidy, cinnamon rolls and strong coffee. The stuff you love naturally serves the story.”
This love naturally carries over to the characters, too. It doesn’t mean they’re not evil or don’t do bad things, simply that an author ought to have affection for all the players in his book.
Perhaps the most practical advice he gave – besides “getting discipline” – had to do with a book’s audience.
“Write something you can read to people who are important to you,” he said. “Writers’ groups are great because they make you write every day, but the others aren’t always thinking about what will be best for you. … It’s good to have a first audience that is on your side.”
For him that was his wife, Robin, and his two young sons. He began reading his book out loud to the entire family, and then listened to what they had to say.
The Festival of Words is the product of 12 months of effort and coordination by the Eagle Valley literary community. The Bookworm of Edwards, Eagle Valley Library District, The Literacy Project, Vail Public Library, Vail Symposium and Verbatim Booksellers all spearhead the project.
Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or phone at 949-0555 ext. 618.