Wordstock, Part One: Dodging raindrops on the Park Blocks

Neither rain nor long lines kept the latest incarnation of Wordstock from its delightful rounds


After a two-year break, Portland’s Wordstock book festival made its reappearance Saturday, now re-cast as a one-day-only event at the Portland Art Museum, under the umbrella of Literary Arts. Those who came equipped with rain gear, a tolerance for long lines, and a willingness to search for the small pop-up events scattered all over the museum couldn’t help being exposed to book talk at its best.

Editor’s note: In Part Two of our Wordstock coverage, Brian Kearney reports on Jesse Eisenberg, Simon Winchester, Mary Gaitskill, Claire Vaye Watkins and Kathleen Alcott, among others.

Sadly, not everyone got that chance. I’ve heard from two different friends who each took a look at the long line of people outside in the rain and turned around and went home. And yes, there were lines everywhere—to get admission wristbands; to get kids into and out of the children’s play area; to get into the big author panels; to buy books; to get books signed by authors; to get something from the food carts in the courtyard. Lines.

Yes, the rain fell on the lines at Wordstock./Angie Jabine

Yes, the rain fell on the lines at Wordstock./Angie Jabine

Speaking as a former book fair organizer (LitEruption, in the 1990s), I have to say: lines at events like this are inevitable. Some might argue that Wordstock’s previous locale, the Oregon Convention Center, was better laid out for crowd management, but there were always lines there, too. It’s the nature of the beast. If you’re going to be stuck waiting, well, at least you’re waiting at a BOOK FAIR, where you are surrounded by a bunch of other book-lovers who are probably even more introverted and agoraphobic than you are. And give me a Belluschi-designed art museum and a venerable old Masonic Temple (now the museum’s Mark Building) any day over the bland fluorescent box that is the Convention Center.

I was not quite awake when I eased into Saturday’s affair with “Kitchen Confidential,” a 10 am panel discussion featuring four local chefs who have written or co-written cookbooks. Cookbook author Liz Crain, as the moderator, grilled restaurateurs Elias Cairo of Olympia Provisions, Jenn Louis of Lincoln, and Adam and Jackie Sappington of Country Cat on the culinary highlights of their lives, whether in the Swiss Alps (Elias Cairo) or an Italian village (Jenn Louis). My main note comes from Jackie Sappington, who said of her husband and business partner, “Adam was a grandma in a past life.”

Promptly at 11 am, Andrew Proctor, the director of Literary Arts, welcomed the crowd inside the First United Congregational Church of Christ, across the Park Blocks from the museum, to what turned out to be one of the highlights of Saturday’s talks: an intimate chat between Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, and his good friend Barry Lopez, best known as the author of Arctic Dreams—a book that Krakauer said made him understand that a work of nonfiction can be a work of art.

Krakauer framed his questions around an essay called “Sliver of Sky” that Lopez wrote for Harper’s Magazine in 2013, in which Lopez revealed he had been sexually abused as a boy by a middle-aged predator. Deflecting any sense that he feels more victimized than most people, Lopez said, “Every person in this room could tell you a story that would break your heart.”

Jon Krakauer and Barry Lopez converse at Wordstock 2015./Photo by Angie Jabine

Jon Krakauer and Barry Lopez converse at Wordstock 2015./Photo by Angie Jabine

Lopez for his part asked Krakauer why he wrote Three Cups of Deceit, a short book in which he took Greg Mortenson to task for gross financial mismanagement of his foundation, which builds schools for girls and boys in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Krakauer replied that, having personally supported the foundation and publicly encouraged others to support it too, he felt a moral responsibility to alert people to it, when he learned of Mortenson’s deceit. “He’s a tragic figure,” Krakauer conceded, “but he’s raised $80 million and only done $5 million of good.”

The two writers agreed that they felt a personal responsibility to address, as writers, the environmental calamities that are threatening much of life on Earth. Krakauer noted that he is more inclined to write books than magazine articles now because our dilemmas are too complex to be confined to a magazine-length story: “You have to work so hard to get things right,” he said, and there’s not enough time or space allotted for a magazine story to do justice to the topics. He remarked that this sort of writing doesn’t exactly pay a lot, either. “And the people who are getting paid aren’t writing the stuff you want to read,’ interjected Lopez, which got a big laugh.

Back across the Park Blocks at the Whitsell Auditorium, a noon panel discussion on “Unconventional History” featured three nonfiction writers whose topics were basically unrelated to one another. I will say the accompanying slide show was a lot of fun to watch, featuring as it did historic photos of the seedier side of 19th-century Paris, various 20th-century depictions of Sherlock Holmes, and illustrations by one of the authors, Lauren Redniss, who was there to talk about her latest graphic book, Thunder and Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future.

Having quickly looked up Redniss and discovered she had published a graphic biography of Marie Curie that was a finalist for the National Book Award, I thought she was there to discuss THAT book, and I simply couldn’t fathom how her winter visit to the Global Seed Vault at Svalbard in the Arctic was connected to Curie, or what compelled her to design a completely new typeface for her book. One of the hazards of reporting on the fly: anyway, the book looks fascinating.

Portland Monthly editor Zach Dundas, who wrote The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes, described his own extreme encounters in researching his book. When not stalking the actor Benedict Cumberbatch (TV’s latest Sherlock), Dundas dragged his five-year-old son and very pregnant wife to England’s Dartmoor in some historically bad weather so he could experience first-hand the atmospheric moors that inspired “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” (“Great copy. Still married,” he added.)

The moderator, Rob Spillman of Tin House magazine, grilled the authors, possibly to “inside baseball” lengths, about how they organized their research and writing. (Then again, it WAS mostly an audience of writers and would-be writers.) The third author, Luc Sante, said he resorted to index cards and a “combination of rigor and woo-woo” as he arranged the text and images for The Other Paris, a book-length essay and pictorial history of the bohemian side of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Paris. “I left out at least 40 percent of my notes,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be a doorstop.”

At the audience Q&A, things began to go south, as audience Q&As so often do. A woman at the back of the crowded room asked if the authors would each describe “their current relationships with words and images.” After Spillman tried a couple of times to make sense of this request, she finally said, “What are you all reading?” But by that time it was too late—the authors were already trying to form some sort of coherent response and it was with great relief that I slipped out with a friend for a cup of hot chocolate at nearby Cacao.

Feeling guilty about having used my media badge to skip the long lines for Krakauer and Lopez, I meekly joined the queue for Stacy Schiff at 3 pm. She’s one of those authors I’ve been meaning to read, especially her biographies of Véra Nabokov and Cleopatra, the queen of ancient Egypt. Her interlocutor, Karen Karbo (best known for her “Kick Ass Women” bios), noted that Schiff’s latest book, The Witches: Salem, 1692 is currently number two on the New York Times bestseller list. This elicited an enthusiastic round of applause. It’s always fun to talk about a book that a lot of people are reading, or at least buying.

Schiff began by reading a short passage that made it clear she knows how to turn a phrase and evoke a bygone era in terms that will resonate inside 21st-century ears. European witches were known for doing quite spectacular things like turning men into frogs, whereas the New England witch might simply prick an innocent girl’s arm with invisible pins. “Even in her transgressions,” Schiff wrote, “she was Puritanical.”

The balcony at Wordstock was well populated with book fans./Angie Jabine

The balcony at Wordstock was well populated with book fans./Angie Jabine

It was all very cozy and a little strange, sitting there in a 19th-century church with the rain pouring down outside, while two women talked about the episode in American history that forever seared the term “witch hunt” onto the national psyche. Based on the patently crazy assertions of eight or 10 young girls, the investigations swept up hundreds of women, men, and even children and dogs; ultimately 24 people were executed or died in prison. As some of The Witches‘ reviewers have noted, Schiff, like previous researchers, had precious few actual primary sources to draw upon—the trial records were destroyed and there were no newspapers at that time; mainly there were individual diaries and other contemporaneous writings that offered a sense of New England life in the 17th century. As for WHY this hysteria happened, and just as importantly, why it finally stopped a little over a year later, Schiff opined, “Terror burns itself out.”

One of the major bottlenecks of Wordstock was getting people in and out of the four main lecture venues. Although audiences were encouraged to file out quickly so the people outside could file in, no cattle prods were employed. I opted to keep my seat in the church’s balcony and thus had the pleasure of seeing Wild author Cheryl Strayed interview 66-year-old marathon swimmer Diana Nyad about her epic 2013 swim from Cuba to Florida—the first such swim without a shark cage.

Nyad has just published a memoir called Find a Way, but the book was barely mentioned in the two women’s rollicking hour on stage. Decked out in a trim gray jacket, cropped plaid pants and what looked like plaid Keds on her feet, Nyad described the formative moments in her childhood that led to her adult swimming exploits—her dad told her she was, literally, a naiad, after all. She offered enthusiastic thanks to the team of 44 people who made her 53-hour Caribbean swim possible, including the divers who took turns swimming BENEATH her as shark lookouts. She also disclosed that she kept herself sane in the water with a lot of baby-boomer music, including “The Needle and the Damage Done,” as unlikely as that sounds. “Neil Young was always there for me,” she said. “That falsetto.”

Whatever kind of robot you might expect such a self-punishing athlete to be, Nyad was anything but, and Strayed graciously confined herself to a few wry interjections as Nyad described a humiliating experience touring with her 1980s workout book. The book came out the same day as Jane Fonda’s workout book, which became a global best-seller, a veritable icon of the 1980s. Nyad found herself on tour at the same time as the leotard-clad Fonda (here Nyad endearingly mimed Fonda’s famous legs-in-the-air pose), following or preceding her at all the morning shows for six weeks. Due to a horribly timed neck spasm, Nyad made most of those appearances in a neck brace. Is it any wonder we all gave her a standing ovation?

OPB's Dave Miller interviews novelist John Irving at Wordstock 2015./Angie Jabine

OPB’s Dave Miller interviews novelist John Irving at Wordstock 2015./Angie Jabine

I remained in my upper balcony pew for the last “big” event of the day, author John Irving. It was now 5 pm and while the church was full, for the first time all day there appeared to be room for everyone who wanted to be there. Dave Miller of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud” was his interviewer, and this hour was taped to air later on OPB radio.

Irving, best known for The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany, is touring with his 14th novel, Avenue of Mysteries, the story of a Mexican brother and sister who grow up working in a garbage dump and then a traveling circus. I gather from reviews that it’s as raucous and bumptious as any previous John Irving tale, but the man himself appeared serene and self-contained. He used pregnant pauses to great effect, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that he did a lot of stage acting in his youth. “I always wanted to be Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, and they always made me Tybalt, who was such a nasty little shit,” he noted. “They cast me as Richard the Third for the same reason.”

As a novelist, a screenwriter, and an erstwhile English professor, Irving not only knows his craft, he knows how to make it intelligible to others. Some of his comments echoed those of Barry Lopez earlier in the day. Lopez said that when he wrote about having been sexually abused, the biggest challenge was one of tone: “finding the right distance—neither too close nor too far.” Irving is equally alert to tone. He recalled an acting teacher who told him, “You’d better know what your voice sounds like when you say the last things you’re going to say.” For that final voice to have any effect, Irving went on, it has to start in a different place. “Richard the Third starts out whining about the ‘winter of our discontent,'” he noted. “In the end, he’ll be pleading, he’ll be begging….These novels I write—they’re disaster stories. I have to know the architecture, the part I’ll keep putting off.”

Fortunately I don’t feel any obligation to employ a novelist’s craft, so here I end my safely chronological approach to the mega-event that was Wordstock 2015. I took it “bird by bird,” as Annie Lamott would put it. Lines, rain and all—I loved it.

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