On a drizzly Saturday morning with coffee in hand, I walked up the crowded steps to Portland’s First Congregational United Church of Christ. The line had started forming an hour earlier; we were all there to see one of the Portland Book Festival’s first and most popular events of the day, George Saunders and Jess Walter in conversation with OPB Morning Edition host Geoff Norcross.
Attendance figures for the festival, put on by Literary Arts, were not available Sunday, but from the crowds attending events in nine downtown venues, it appeared the festival – the first to be held 100 percent in-person since the pandemic – was a success.
With more than 70 authors participating, the festival offered far more than any visitor could take in. My day began with the session titled “Long Live Short Stories,” where Saunders and Walter illuminated the room with their gracious and lively energy.
“If the heat doesn’t rise, you need to take a different course,” Saunders said when asked about the planning process of his new story collection, Liberation Day. His writing philosophy is to try to reduce anxiety for others, he said, and the work itself is simultaneously horrifying and hilarious as a result. After reading a passage from the story Ghoul, he called it, “only as strange as the actual world,” and explained that he usually aims to narratively mimic real-world systems of power and difficulty. As allegories for modern-day struggles, he continued, short stories have the capability to show us how facile our snap judgments can be.
Walter, who read from his new book, The Angel of Rome, started as a novelist and said compiling a short story collection feels more like putting together a yard sale than creating a well-rounded concept album. Though he said he doesn’t write autobiographically, he draws upon his experiences, like living off the literary grid in Spokane, to bring the work to life. Loneliness, he said, strikes him as a truth of living and makes a large appearance in his stories.
Truth is a major theme for both writers, who explore concepts of self, perceived permanency, and the dissolution of ego through the realization of reality, mortality, and hope. Walter, like Saunders, leans toward developing parodies of the devastating bits of our world, forming sparks of hope through wistful, satiric humor and demonstrating unlikely connections among characters to surprise and delight the reader.
Poets CJ Evans and Saeed Jones, on the other hand, feel that hope is a ladder with little stability. They appeared at noon in the Portland’5 Brunish Theatre in a session titled “Intimate Apocalypse,” moderated by Erika Stevens, editor of Jones’ collection Alive at the End of the World.
Evans, editor-in-chief of Two Lines Press and author of Lives, said he is fairly convinced we are living in the last century that will exist. His poignant and timeless poetry is filled with images of nature, storm, and abundance, but emanates from a place of worry. Though the environmental and political devastation of our world doesn’t need to control the poem, Evans said, he can’t help but consider the unseen struggles of friends, neighbors, children, and students, as well as the ever-growing societal fear of mass shootings, while developing his work. He said he still tries to notice the benevolent efforts of others, however, and find beauty in our world today.
Jones said he started small when writing his new collection of poems, later deciding to explore the multiplicities of grief that eventually expand toward what he calls the “end of days.” Like Evans, Jones explores disaster as an attempt to write himself away from it. His poetry collection features personal accounts of grief after losing his mother, as well as larger-scale alarm about America’s human rights issues.
“Dystopia is an entire genre of culture,” he explained. “So who gets to be the historian of it? Whose voice gets to be heard?”
Though his humor is dark and witty — joking that “we’re living in the flop era” and that his and Evans’ poetry collections both “have the same anxiety medication prescription” — he considers himself a joyful person. “Love and pleasure are the twins of grief and loss,“ he said. “It’s important to remember that.”
Between readings and talks by authors, I visited the book market in Portland Art Museum’s Grand Ballroom. More than 50 exhibitors from bookstores, small presses, and universities lined the aisles, which were as packed as a county fair. There were lines to learn about Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon writing programs, to purchase Edward Gorey illustration puzzles as holiday gifts, and to pick up signed volumes from the Powell’s Books table. At Red Hen Press, manned by Publisher Mark E. Cull, Portland poet and essayist Kim Stafford signed copies of his collections Wild Honey, Tough Salt, and Singer Come from Afar.
Later in the afternoon, I made my way to the museum’s Miller Gallery for “Homeland,” a talk by Chelsea Bieker and Morgan Talty, moderated by John Freeman, founder of Freeman’s literary journal and an executive editor at Alfred A. Knopf.
“Short stories are where the geographies of America take flight,” Freeman said in introducing the writers.
For Bieker, author of Godshot and Heartbroke, home is enmeshed with land, produce, and religion. Originally from Fresno and now living in Portland, she finds that her hometown is the only place she can write about. As a reader interested in compressed fiction where the stakes feel high, she writes about low-income households struggling to support their families, in stories that deal with domestic abuse, drug addiction, and sex work.
“There’s a danger at every turn,” Bieker said of her characters. “And for many of them, most of the danger lies in the leaving.”
Talty also writes about home but comes from an ecologically and culturally different landscape. Rather than the dry agricultural valleys of Central California, Talty grew up on the Penobscot Indian reservation in the wet river climate of Maine. His newest collection from Tin House Books, Night of the Living Rez, explores violence as a result of repressed communication and the consequences of colonialism. For Talty, desperation is a plot point from which he can derive both tragedy and humor — sometimes interchangeably — in his work.
For both writers, place is an important aspect of what allows their characters to exist. The places you love but want to leave, both writers agree, are the places that will always draw your mind back to them.