Saturday, November 11, 2006

Pee Dee Fiction Festival

Back in the mid-eighties, Ellen Gilchrist did a series of regular commentaries on National Public Radio. Her Mississippi voice had a spacy southern lilt; she drifted lightly and bemusedly through her vivid anecdotes and observations, but the voice held something sturdy and intractable too. When she began to read a story on the first night of the FMU's Pee Dee Fiction Festival, that firmly delicate voice came back to me over the distance of over twenty years. She read well, with humor and a little good-natured profanity.
In the Q and A period, she said that poetry had been a stronger influence on her than fiction, especially the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Robert Frost. Her first publications in the seventies were books of poems rather than the stories and novels she later became known for. This morning, talking about books that have influenced her, she praised Cormac McCarthy and of his most recent, The Road, said, "I've read so many bad reviews of it, I can't wait to read it." She mentioned Welty as a friend and Faulkner as an intimidating model who is so dominant in his influence that "you can't read him within six weeks of writing anything lest you be unduly swayed by his style."

In a colloquium Thursday afternoon and again at his reading last night, Andre Dubus III proved lively, accessible, and engaging. He stressed just the things I like students to hear from writers: write about what you know, revise mercilessly, be specific, read everything. He loves to quote other writers, like Hemingway ("Get the whats, not the whys.") Students were no doubt most interested in his stories and observations about House of Sand and Fog, which many of them have read this semester. We learned from him that he played a bit part as a cop in the movie, that he modeled Colonel Behrani after the father of an Iranian woman whom he loved, and that the story of the house originated in a new article about a woman whose house was wrongfully repossessed in California. We learned that he wrote much of the novel in his car, parked in a cemetery in Newburyport, MA.
In the early seventies, Janne and I visited Richie Arenberg in Newburyport and made grave rubbings at a cemetery there. When I compared notes with Dubus and mentioned the gravestone of the boy who had drowned in the cemetery pond and the woman whose epitaph said she choked on a pea, he said that was the same cemetery. And he told about a few of his favorite tombstones.
This morning he spoke on books that have most influenced him: The Grapes of Wrath and The Stories of Breece D J'Pancake. Afterwards, we talked a bit about Pancake, and I told him I remembered reading "Trilobytes" in The Atlantic and being blown away by it back in the seventies.

I first heard of Dianne Johnson when Nell attended the summer Governer's School in Charleston back in 1989. Dianne taught the American Autobiography course Nell was so impressed with. Soon after, Dianne joined the University of South Carolina English faculty, where she has since been teaching courses in children's literature and writing children's books.
This morning I had breakfast with Dianne, Jon Tuttle, and Joe Kennedy at Venus Pancake House in town. I haven't eaten there since the old days when a group of English faculty regularly met there for Friday breakfast after Thursday night poker games. Dianne talked about her daughter Niani, a 12-year-old dancer who went to California to work with Debbie Allen in July. Dianne took her along on a trip to China in August.
Dianne spoke this morning on books that had influenced her to write children's books. She showed us a book she wrote based on the photos of Richard Samuel Roberts, an African American photographer who worked in Columbia. This afternoon, she showed Powerpoint slides from some of her books and talked about how she wrote them. Especially notable: her recent book about her dolls (selected from her collection of 150) and the forthcoming book about her late husband, illustrator Tom Feelings.
I'm about halfway through Tracy Kidder's My Detachment, which is mostly about his Vietnam experience. He attended Andover, where they advertised "complete freedom tempered by expulsion."

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