Monday, October 27, 2014

Texas Book Festival - Part Two

As promised, here are a few thoughts on the author presentations that made the strongest impressions on me during the 2014 Texas Book Fest.

James Ellroy
James Ellroy
I heard acclaimed crime fiction writer James Ellroy speak for the first time on Saturday, and I was a bit taken aback by the way he began his presentation.  Yes, I've read enough of Ellroy's fiction to know what kind of language he so effectively uses in his books (and I am certainly no prude), but I have to wonder at the wisdom of him greeting the audience as if we were  a bunch of characters from his books.  

Ellroy welcomed us by "category," categories that all began with the letter "p" and included such groups as "peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks, and pimps."  That initial burst went over well enough and drew the laughter that Ellroy was after, but it seemed that he didn't know when to quit. He went on for another paragraph or two during which he referred to his own apparently astounding male anatomy at least twice and dropped an F-bomb.  The author still got some laughs, although considerably fewer than those his first sentence drew, but the laughter was of the nervous variety and, frankly, many seemed to be rapidly growing bored with the canned patter.  I particularly felt bad for the ten-or-eleven-year-old girl sitting near alone near the front who had for some inexplicable reason decided to attend this festival session.

Once Ellroy finally did turn the conversation toward his new novel, Perfidity, and where the book fits into his LA series of novels, things got interesting and stayed that way.  It's all about persona these days, so I probably should not have been at all surprised by any of this.  Let's just say that Mr. Ellroy does not have a future in stand-up.

Joyce Carol Oates
Ms. Oates has been a favorite of mine since about 1980 and she was really the only "can't miss" author of the weekend for me.  She is, of course, one of the most prolific writers the world has ever been blessed with, and at age 76 she shows no sign of slowing down.  (I have just over 100 of her books on my shelves now - almost all of them being first edition hardcovers or advance reader copies - and I am nowhere near being a JCO-completist.)
Joyce Carol Oates

Speaking of "persona," Oates has an intriguing one of her own.  She comes across in public as a tiny, gentle woman of astounding intellect (she is a Princeton professor), maybe a little shy, but someone always listening to what is being said around her.  She keeps her dark side so well hidden that no one would guess, meeting her for the first time, that she is capable of writing the dark, disturbing novels that characterize much of her work.  I learned years ago never to underestimate the potential power of anything this woman writes.

All of that said, an off-the-cuff remark she made during the discussion of the "abortion story" in her latest collection made me smile.  Ms. Oates, like most of us, be we liberal or be we conservative, is constantly surrounded by people who think like her and believe the things she believes.  Thus, the remark that "of course, everyone here is pro-choice" (perhaps not the exact words she used) popped out of her mouth at one point during the story discussion.  For her, this is a given fact because she probably knows so few people who are on the other side of that issue.  (The question that spurred that remark was whether or not, when writing a story touching on something like abortion, she worries about offending half of those who will read the story.)

I was lucky enough to speak with the author after her presentation and to have her personalize my first edition copy of her 1969 novel, Them (along with my copy of her latest short story collection, Lovely, Dark, Deep).

Elizabeth Crook
Elizabeth Crook
I was already familiar with Crook's Monday Monday, a fictional account of that fatal day in 1966 when Charles Whitman, from the 28th floor of the tower on the campus of the University of Texas, used his rifle to kill sixteen people and wound 32 others.  I read the novel several months ago and I highly recommend to any and all readers.

Until this session, however, I was unaware of how much primary source research Crook managed to complete before sitting down to write the novel.  According to Crook, she was astounded to find so many survivors of that day still living in Austin - and willing to talk to her about the experience - and that she already knew several people personally touched by the murders.  I walked away from this session having moved Elizabeth Crook up a notch or two on my personal writer-scale and looking forward to reading more from her.

Kevin Kwan
Book festivals always embarrass me into realizing just how many authors there are out there whom I have yet to discover.  Before Saturday, Kwan was one of those people.


Kevin Kwan
Kevin Kwan moved from Singapore to Houston with his family when he was 12 years old.  He is a graduate of the University of Houston and, despite spending his formative years all over the world, he sounds like he is from Houston.  His debut novel, Crazy Rich Asians, did very well for him and he has a sequel in the works.  Admittedly, this is not the type of novel I would normally read (comedy based on the spectacular wealth of Kwan's own family), but the author's short reading was such fun that I just might give it its shot.  

This is a case of being so impressed with an author's presentation and, yes, with his "persona" that he is now firmly established on my radar screen as someone to stay aware of.

There you have it.  The Texas Book Festival is one of those annual treats to which I start looking forward weeks ahead of time.  I'm already anticipating next year's event, so thanks to all involved with making it happen - and Special Thanks to Laura Bush who started the festival way back when she lived in Austin with the governor of Texas, George W. Bush.





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