Bread Loaf, day 2 (for me)

Friday, August 14, 2009

The morning lecture was with Thomas Mallon, titled, “Epistler in Chief: Six Presidents in Their Letters.” He is such an engaging speaker, charming and funny and composed. I always love hearing him speak. And his topic was fascinating—presidential letters and diaries. Something that we (sadly) won’t have anymore because the concerns of subpoena and litigation are so real these days that presidents don’t dare keep diaries or write personal letters.

Mallon started the lecture with a funny anecdote about revisions. Said he had already revised his title (to five presidents—to fit the time constraints) and cited a Mel Brooks gag where Moses arrives with a stack of three stone tablets and says, “The Fifteen Commandments!”—then shuffles his grip causing one tablet to fall to the ground and shatter—so he calls out, “The Ten Commandments!”

I loved the intimate glimpse into the lives of these great men from history. Oh, and the one thing that really stuck with me was when Mallon spoke about telegrams and their forced pithiness and quick delivery as being very much like the emails or even text messages of today. We tend to think that we’re the only generation to have this method of “instant delivery” and of “terse messages” meant to convey as much as possible in as few words as possible. That really woke me up in an “of course!” sort of way that will be useful when writing my historical novel.

Later, I attended a panel on publishing prose with Miriam Altschuler and Julie Barer (both agents), Fiona McCrae (Graywolf) and Judy Clain (Little Brown), both editors. It was interesting and enlightening, although also confirmed a lot of what I feel I already know about the publishing and agenting process. Much was said about how important a good agent is for an author both in terms of career and sales.

There were three Fellow readings in the afternoon. The readings were enjoyable, and also instructive—especially in terms of things I want to remember to do when I read (be personable, make eye contact, thank the host).

For dinner I had the veggie option: grilled veggies in a curried coconut milk sauce over basmati rice. A little spicy, but just the right amount, followed by a yummy dessert (squares of cake that had been cut into triangles, and half iced with chocolate, half with a caramel icing and then and reassembled into a square for a sort of yin-yang effect) and coffee. The waiters gave great service—really knew what they were doing and didn’t look nervous. Perhaps this means more aspiring writers these days are having to wait tables and so are experienced. Although, damn, I hate to even say “aspiring.” A bunch of the waiters this year have agents, and forthcoming books, and all sorts of awards under their belts. Holy cow the competition for those spots must be fierce. Really glad I got in under the wire. 🙂

The evening reading was Maud Casey and Ted Conover. Maud read from her new novel, an historical one, based on a real psychiatric patient from 1886—a man who walks and walks and walks and has various other problems, but mostly he just can’t stop walking. It sounds like a very interesting and entertaining book. And Ted Conover read non-fiction from his new book about Roads. That man is fearless in pursuit of material! I bought his book New Jack from the bookstore earlier in the day (a book that explores the prison system from the inside—he became a guard at Sing Sing to do research). I can’t wait to read it.

The second scholar reading was amazing. Wonderful stuff. From there, I went to the waiter party in the male waiters’ quarters below the Barn (the Garage Mahal). Honestly, after a long day, I was done with NOISE and having to strain my voice to talk and my ears to hear, so I stayed for maybe ten minutes then left at midnight and walked back to my dark dorm, wiped off an Adirondack chair and sat in the dark, staring up at the amazing quantity of stars that one can see so far away from any city lights, and caught three or four meteors zipping across the sky (it’s the time of year that the Perseid meteors enter the atmosphere and burn up, sometimes as often as one every three minutes). Last night most of them were right over the handle of the big dipper, which itself seemed huge, immense, and close enough to touch.

Finally, I forced myself to go up to my room, opened and read the first few pages of Josh Weil’s first novella (from his book The New Valley) and then unable to keep my eyes open (no offense, Josh), turned out the light (it was very, very late), and slept.