Saturday, February 14, 2009

Guest Blogger Susan Ito on AWP Day Two: Tapas, Tears and a Literary Heroine

Susan Ito, who wrote yesterday about her first day at the AWP Writers Conference in Chicago, is back to bring us up to date on her activities.

Please welcome Susan Ito.

AWP Chicago: Day Two

I think it is going to be tough to beat this day of AWP. It was a standout wonderful day. I started at the great fitness center in my little hotel. I am feeling more and more glad about not staying at the Hilton. Then breakfast with my dear friend Masha Hamilton. The tapas restaurant turns out to make awesome omelets. It was good to have a leisurely morning. I skipped the first two morning sessions, but it was important to pace myself because I had a long afternoon and evening ahead.

At noon I attended Masha's panel, Writing Your Passions: Forbidden Topics. It included authors writing across racial lines, about sexuality and adultery, about writing as a scientist when one is not a scientist, and about the Other, in her case, getting into the mind and heart of a killer. I saw people wiping tears. Several parts of the panel were totally brilliant and all were provocative.

Next I went to Approaches to Historical Fiction. It was structured in a good way: instead of having the four panelists speak one at a time, as usually happens, each panelist first read a brief excerpt from their novels. REALLY brief but well chosen and interesting to hear. Then the moderator asked questions about research, and each answered, ABCD, briefly. Then they moved through other topics, marketing, other details, and the discussion was so dynamic it was impossible to get bored. One tidbit that stood out for me was somebody's notion that a character who is set in the 1940's will have memories of the 1920's, of their youth and growing up, so we must not only research the time they are living in, but the time that they remember. (I groaned inwardly at this.) "Characters ruminate, remember… we are caught in our pasts." Good point, but more work.

After that I hurried up to a reading by my literary heroine, Marilynne Robinson. I had not realized she was going to be here until I arrived this week and I was so excited. Let me explain: her novel Gilead is my favorite book EVER. My husband and I have one tattered copy that we have each read about four times. We pass it back and forth. It has moved us to tears over and over. It's one of those rare books whose sentences are new, and startling, and very moving, every single time. So I was thrilled to hear she was going to read from Gilead. I had heard her speak in San Francisco this year, but it was a conversation/interview, not a reading.

She skipped throughout the book, mainly focusing on passages that evoked a sense of the Midwest (the book is set in Iowa). I started tearing up a bit. Then I realized she was reading from the last two pages of the book, which never fail to break me up. I can't even describe how beautiful it was, the cadence of her voice, how it softened every few seconds, it was the perfect vehicle for those sentences. I had excitedly bought an audio version of the book a few years ago, and it was read by an actor, supposedly to evoke the elderly male narrator. It was SO WRONG. My husband and I listened for about three minutes and had to return it, it felt so not authentic, so NOT what we envisioned when reading.

But Marilynne Robinson's voice was It. I was reduced to a blubbering heap on the floor. I was madly texting my husband about this experience while gathering myself up and walking out the door. My face was completely wet. I looked to my right and who was standing right next to me, but Robinson herself. She kind of looked at me in that "Are you all right?" concern, and I just blurted out how Gilead was my favorite book of all time, how it had moved me so much, and to hear her read it had been just… incredible. She was so gracious and kind. We were the only two people standing there. She thanked me and then we both walked away.

It was hands down one of the best reading experiences I have ever had, and I have been to hundreds of readings. I don't think it can get better than that, and it made this AWP unforgettable and amazing.

I sat around and recovered for the next hour. Then it was time to hop in a cab with nine other Literary Mama writers/columnists/editors for our reading at Women & Children First bookstore (totally awesome bookstore! I wish they would move to California!). We first ate dinner at a fantastic "Japanese country" restaurant, with no atmosphere – just a hole in the wall – but the best food and incredible service. I felt like I was being served by my grandmother.

The reading was wonderful – so moving and exciting to finally meet Literary Mamas I've known for years, but only online. People came from California, Michigan, Alaska, Chicago, Oregon, and South Carolina. It was quite heady and emotional to all be in one room, to hear each others' voices. I was floating. One of my dear friends who moved away years ago was there, and we got to catch up after the reading.

It was a good day. It was the BEST day, and I seriously don't know how it can be topped. And I STILL haven't made it to the Book Fair. Tomorrow, I hope…!

Note from Lisa: Jealous, jealous, jealous. And happy for Susan.

No comments: