Wordstock, Part Two: Some comedy, misdirection, and seriousness of purpose


It’s been a rough few years for Wordstock by the sounds of it. There’s been trouble with management, trouble with venues and a history of financial woe that led to the Portland festival taking 2014 off. But if the 2015 festival, which took place in and around the Portland Art Museum last Saturday, was anything to go by, it looks like the dark times are over.

Part of the reason this year’s festival was so massively enjoyable was that unlike previous years, this time the event was packed into one very full day, with three main stages offering nine consecutive hours of high-quality literary chat. And consecutive they surely were. To be fair, the events were kept diligently on time, but if your next chosen event was on a different stage, that left only a couple of minutes to push through the crowds and duck between buildings to catch it from the start. It did give the day a real momentum, but combined with the art museum’s handful of restrooms it also meant that anyone determined not to miss a thing had to choose between punctuality and their bladder. But it’s a small complaint, and nothing a few Honey Buckets won’t remedy next year.

Editor’s Note: Angie Jabine was also on hand for Wordstock and caught an entirely different lineup of authors. Read her report here.

So who was there? Simon Winchester for a start, resplendent in a tan sports coat and jeans, talking to OPB’s Geoff Norcross about his new non-fiction book, Pacific. The Wall Street Journal hates it apparently, but Mr Winchester didn’t seem too put out.

“Now all I want is for Bill O’Reilly to hate it,” he said, and to judge by the giggles from the audience there’s no major overlap between the Fox crowd and the book crowd. Winchester, it seems, knows something about everything and spoke engagingly on plate tectonics, weather systems, the militarization of the Pacific, the origins of surfing, nuclear testing in the Bikini Islands, deep sea mining and more besides. And it was remarkably bright and breezy for a talk with such key points as the inevitable decline of the United States and the possibility of total human extinction in the next 500 years.

If either of these prospects got you down, you did well to stay put by the OPB stage to hear actor Wendell Pierce read excerpts from his memoir and talk about the indomitable spirit of New Orleans. Me, I revere Pierce as Bunk from The Wire and didn’t know one other thing about him, and I got the feeling that a lot of the audience were coming from the same place. We held our collective breath until about two-thirds of the way through when interviewer Dave Miller, outsized shoehorn in hand, squeezed Detective Bunk Moreland into a question that was basically an excuse to say that name. Once the hooting died down, we were placated with tales of the real-life Baltimore detective Bunk is based on. Which was totally great, but it did make me feel for Pierce, sitting there in a room full of white people who had come to see him do his Bunk routine, when what he was more interested in talking about was the insidious power of racism, the prophetic function of art and how his mother died in his arms.

You have a novel in you

Jesse Eisenberg over at the Cole Haan Stage was a very different experience. I find a lot not to like in the kind of snot-nosed characters Eisenberg routinely plays on screen, and my previous attitude towards him had formed accordingly. Eisenberg was talking with Oregon writer Jon Raymond, and responded to his questions with that same methamphetamine rapidity of speech and that same eye contact avoidance that is his trademark in the movies, rubbing his leg and wringing his hands like an anxious child. At first I presumed he was putting this on to make fun of his onscreen persona by exaggerating it. But it appears that if anything, Jesse Eisenberg on-screen is reining it in.

What I didn’t know, however, is that Eisenberg is a natural comedian, and very funny in a self-deprecating, self-aware way. He told Raymond the reason he can’t write in the third person is because he can’t lift his eyes from the floor long enough to describe things. “How did you know to look at the ceiling?” he asked the other writer. One of the audience questions was about what he wanted to be when he was a child. He didn’t skip a beat. “I wanted to play for the Phoenix Suns,” he said. “Little did I know my height at that age would be a final one.” I also didn’t know that Woody Allen tried to sue Jesse Eisenberg when he was sixteen.

Without a doubt, my vote for the most riveting hour of Wordstock has to go to Mary Gaitskill, Claire Vaye Watkins and Kathleen Alcott on stage with Allison Frost under the title “Unexpected Family: Finding Home.” The discussion was excellent, with three highly intelligent writers dead serious on some of the topics closest to them. They talked about families and their tertiary benefits, what aspects of the American family have changed beyond recognition and what aspects refuse to go away; they talked about their ambivalence towards motherhood, mothers as public property and the miraculous shift in perception from whore to Madonna that happens when a woman has a baby in her arms. But as much as what they talked about, it was how they talked about it that was interesting. I tried to describe the interpersonal crosscurrents at work in this panel, but what I wrote came out as grossly offensive to all concerned and probably libelous too. So all I’ll say is, if you are remotely interested in any of these people, keep an ear out for the OPB podcast of the event later in the year.

Other Wordstock highlights included Ursula K. Le Guin talking about the condescension of the term genre—“the word only the French can speak,” she called it, in a low growl that was very pleasing to hear come from a birdlike 86-year-old—and Willy Vlautin talking about just about anything, although my favourite line of his was describing why he became a writer: “I wanted to live on a wrecking yard with my uncle and barbecue and steal cars, and I couldn’t find a book that did those things so I just made one up.”

So yes, the festival was a very palpable hit. It made me hold my urine for five hours. I can think of no higher praise.

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