Dispatches

AWP 2014 Dispatches: The Final Day

Lela Scott MacNeil

After three days of juicy, nutrient-rich AWP goodness, I needed a break. Time away from the crowds and the recycled convention center air to integrate everything I had learned over the past few days. As writers, this is what we do. We furiously absorb, and then we take time to process, to make meaning.

Luckily, AWP choses some pretty great cities in which to have its conference. Seattle is certainly no exception. For me, it’s been the perfect place to sift through and organize all the ideas and words I’ve been exposed to over the course of the conference.

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In the morning I went for a brisk walk through the pine trees of Ravenna Park with my friend Natasha who works at the University of Washington Press. We talked about the state of modern publishing, the good, the bad, and the ugly. There is so much inspiring literary work being done by small and university presses. On the other hand, commercial publishing’s focus on profitability at the expense of quality is disturbing. The question is, how do you create a sustainable industry around well-made, artistic literature?

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All that deep conversation left us hungry, so we stopped by the U District farmers market. I picked up some dark rye bread, fresh smoked salmon, and a hunk of delightfully gooey local cheese for my lunch. Every time I come to the Pacific Northwest I am amazed all over again by how incredible the local food selection is. Some guy was playing an acoustic version of “Time Warp” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show on his guitar, which was just the cap on the Seattle cake from me.


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After making myself what was very possibly the best lunch had by anyone anywhere on the planet, I took the bus downtown to meet my friend Sara at the EMP Museum. If you’ve never been to this museum of music and popular culture, I recommend that you make a point of going the next time you’re in Seattle. There’s an exhibit on horror movies, which explores why we love scaring ourselves, and an exhibit on Science Fiction that looks at the genre as an allegory the questions we have about our own society. Other exhibits included a study of how Nirvana brought the anarchist spirit of punk and grunge to the masses, a look at Jimi Hendrix’s formative years in London, and an exhibition of famous buildings build out of LEGOs.

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It was the perfect AWP synthesis activity. Being exposed to all of those vastly different types of creativity (Hendrix, Cobain, Hitchcock, Asimov, whoever built those amazing LEGO sculptures) gave me new ways to think about my own writing projects, as well as some of the ideas that have come up repeatedly during the conference: art vs. commerce, staying true to your voice, owning and transcending labels, diversity, and on and on.

After scoring a live vinyl recording of the Jimi Hendrix Experience at the Miami Pop Festival, Sara and I took the monorail (another touristy Seattle thing that’s totally worth it) back to the Convention Center. I helped pack up the UA Press book fair booth, and felt a little sad that these days of literary madness were coming to an end. Luckily, it wasn’t quite over yet. I headed over to the Red Lion Hotel for the Literary Orphans’ AWP Last Call party, where I finally got to meet Joe Clifford, a great writer and the editor of an anthology of Bruce Springsteen-inspired noir fiction called Trouble in the Heartland, which will include my story “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” along with stories by Dennis Lehane, Hilary Davidson and other crime writing greats. (Can you tell I’m excited for that one?)

A quick drink with Joe and then it was back to the convention center for the closing night reading with Tim Egan and Sherman Alexie. Tim Egan read a beautiful, lyrical essay about the upriver path of the noble Pacific Northwest salmon (one of whom I had eaten for lunch that day). I especially loved this quote from Rudyard Kipling, who, after fishing for salmon in the Pacific Northwest said, “I have lived! The American Continent may now sink under the sea, for I have taken the best that it yields, and the best was neither dollars, love, nor real estate.”

And then it was time for Sherman Alexie. While I’ve read and enjoyed many of his books, I was completely unprepared for the warm spirit, x-acto knife wit, and overwhelming charm of the man. “It’s so nice to be here at AWP around so many dorks,” he said before forcing the whole audience of hundreds to double over in laughter with one piece about openly gay NBA player Jason Collins and the intrinsic homoeroticism of basketball, and another about a hopelessly sweet high school senior eating hot fudge sundaes with the parents of the girl who just dumped him at prom. After he was done, he turned to the sign language interpreter and said, “I just think sign language is so amazing. You can say anything in sign language and it looks cool.” He paused, turned to the audience with a mischievous smile and said, “Please, saw my legs off.” Everyone laughed as the interpreter dutifully signed the words. Alexie continued, “I find the man on stage to be exceptionally attractive.” The crowd lost it.

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Sara, who had the patience to wait in the massively long signing line, said he was every bit as enchanting one on one. What a perfect way to end my first AWP extravaganza.

While it will be nice to get home to the dry March heat of Arizona, I’m already excited for next year. See you in 2015, Minneapolis!

 

Read the Day 1, 2 and 3 dispatches here, here, and here.

 
 
 


Lela Scott MacNeil was born in Los Alamos, NM, same as the atomic bomb. She is the Sales Manager at the University of Arizona Press, teaches at the Writers Studio, and her work is forthcoming from Gertrude and Gutter Books.

 

AWP 2014 Dispatches: Day 3

Lela Scott MacNeil

Well it’s day three of AWP and I think we’re all wearing a little thin. My friend Erin posted on Facebook: “Seattle and AWP, y’all are awesome, but I’m ready to go hide in a cave for a bit now. #somanypeopleeverywhere” Our friend Sarah commented, “I’m hiding in the cave of my hotel room!” Our friend Will said, “I literally just ate 18 dollars worth of French cheese all by myself in Seattle, so don’t feel too bad for being a hermit.”

It’s hard out there at AWP for an introverted writer.

So, with that in mind, I’ve decided to put together a little AWP survival guide for the discerning wallflower.

1. Dress the part. Wear clothes that are comfortable but intimidating. Extra points for super hip glasses and haircuts. This gives you the option of being friendly (people will be so pleasantly surprised that you are nice and not scary that they will feel instantly bonded to you) or cool and aloof (people will assume that you’re someone terribly important that they should have heard of).

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2. Take a time out. Carve out a couple of hours or more each day to explore the host city by yourself. Things I’ve done so far during my time outs: ate seafood bisque in a sourdough bowl, ate a certified genuine Neapolitan pizza (okay, so most of my time outs involve eating), explored a creepy dub-step only music store, bought 37 vintage postcards for a writing project I’m working on, sat in the comfy chairs reading a recently purchased book at the amazing and incredible Elliot Bay Book Company, had a beer and some pickles (we can pickle that!) with an old friend. Tomorrow, I think I’ll blow off the afternoon to visit the EMP Music and Pop Culture museum, which is housed in a Frank Gehry building shaped to look like Jimi Hendrix’s smashed guitar.

3. Keep it loose. When I asked my friend Adam for AWP advice on the first day of the conference, he said, don’t over-plan, and don’t feel bad about getting up in the middle of a panel you don’t find interesting and heading to one that fits you better. Listening to people talk about something you find boring is exhausting.

4. Remember the readings. It’s easy to get pulled in by panels with titles like “Become a Famous and Award Winning Writer in Nine Easy Steps” and “This Is the One Thing You Need to Know to Be Halfway Decent at Writing.” But don’t forget about the readings. The two best panels of my day were the Graywolf Anniversary Reading and the Lambda Literary Anniversary Reading. The writing presented was stunning, and it was inspiring to see two literary organizations with such longevity working so hard for literary quality and diversity. Readings are also somehow more relaxing than craft panels, which makes them a nice way to decompress after a long day/week.

5. Remember the snacks. Being around other people is a lot harder when you’re hangry (so hungry you’re angry). Convention center concessions are inevitably expensive and mediocre, so stop by a local grocery store and pick up some snacks for your AWP tote bag. My favorites this time around have been string cheese, Lara Bars, and blood oranges.

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6. Remember the offsite events. Some of the best stuff at AWP isn’t happening at AWP. The schedule of offsite events is listed on the website, and is stuffed full of good (free) booze and great (also free) readings. Plus, this is an excellent way to explore the bars and basements of the host city.

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7. Remember the Bookfair. The AWP Bookfair is no joke. All of the literary magazines, publishers, MFA programs, and other writing organizations you have and haven’t heard of, in one frenetic, fluorescent-lit place. Make sure to schedule enough time to browse in a careful, relaxed manner. Introduce yourself to the journals and publishers that look interesting. Ask questions. Flirt. (Just kidding, don’t do that). But DO remember that these organizations are here to serve you, so take advantage.

8. Drink enough water and get enough sleep. I know I sound like a Mom at this point, but remember, taking care of yourself is all the more important when subjected to the stresses and stains of conference life.

8. Know your cave. Figure out what is that specific thing that recharges your batteries and make sure you do it regularly. For me it’s reading a book I just bought in a big, comfortable chair. Or taking Buzzfeed Quizzes. (Apparently Virginia Wolfe is my soulmate).

Do all that and you should make it through AWP just fine. I realize that tomorrow is the last day, so it’s a little late for a Survival Guide, but go ahead and print this post and put it your scrapbook for next year. You’ll thank me.

I’d write more but I gotta go take this quiz to find out which Babysitter’s Club Character I am.

 

Read the Day 1 and 2 dispatches here and here.

 
 
 


Lela Scott MacNeil was born in Los Alamos, NM, same as the atomic bomb. She is the Sales Manager at the University of Arizona Press, teaches at the Writers Studio, and her work is forthcoming from Gertrude and Gutter Books.

 

AWP 2014 Dispatches: Day 2

Lela Scott MacNeil

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My day kicked off early with the Melville House 12th Anniversary reading. But before I get into that, I have a confession to make. I have a total crush on Melville House’s Twitter feed. Here are some recent tweets: “We always root for the whale.” “I will not make jokes about the erotic publishing house Dark Hole Press. I will not make jokes about the erotic publishing house Dark Hole Press.” “Sales tip: To increase a book’s sales by 500,000% pretend J.K. Rowling didn’t write the book and then reveal she did.” So I was excited to see what their reading was all about. And lucky for me, it exceeded my expectations. Jeremy Bushnell read a hilarious section from his new Melville House Book The Weirdness, which totally reinvents the “make a deal with the devil” genre. Christopher Boucher, author of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, read a selection from his novel-in-progress featuring a POV Piano. A POV Piano? You know, it’s that thing where every time you press a key on the piano the point of view in the novel shifts.

Founders Valerie Merians and Dennis Johnson were utterly charming as they introduced the press, saying things like, “We still think it’s important to create books that are beautiful objects,” and “How do we approach digital markets? Very cautiously, like a cheetah approaching a wounded gazelle.” Melville House is an increasingly rare breed in publishing, a trade publisher willing to take a chance on gutsy fiction that no one expects will sell 100,00 copies. I was sold enough to stop by their booth later in the book fair and pick up copies of The Weirdness, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, and Tao Lin’s novella Shoplifting from American Apparel.

Next up was a panel titled “How Many Readers Is Enough?” which featured UA Press author Alison Adelle Hedge Coke. It explored interesting questions such as “Has there ever been a writer who felt sufficiently read, published, appreciated?” And “If a novel doesn’t have any readers, does it event exist?” But one thing I don’t understand about AWP is this habit the panelists have of getting up and reading a prepared statement without looking at the crowd. Whenever anyone breaks form and improvises, as Allison did, the effect is electrifying. Allison argued convincingly that if our writing has radical activist motivations, sometimes it’s more effective to stay mid-list.

Tim Hernandez, Daniel Chacon, and Kristen Buckles

Tim Hernandez, Daniel Chacon, and Kristen Buckles

After that I dipped my toes into the book fair and finally got to face-to-face meet one of my favorite UA Press Authors, Tim Hernandez. His book Mañana Means Heaven retells “The Mexican Girl” chapter from On The Road, taking the point of view of Bea Franco, the real woman behind Kerouac’s fictionalized Terri. Tim is an incredible writer and we’ve been emailing back and forth for over a year so it was a thrill to finally get to meet him.

Mat Johnson

Mat Johnson

Next up was a panel titled “Literary Politics: White Guys and Everyone Else,” with Roxane Gay and Mat Johnson, among others. The room was packed to the gills, and the panelists were engaged and funny. Mat told us that the depressing VIDA numbers aren’t “a problem of men not buying the right books, because men aren’t buying that many books compared to everyone else.” Roxane told the crowd “you have to be relentless, you have to never stop,” and Mat went on to say, “you have more freedom than you think.” I left the panel feeling encouraged about my future as a non-Whiteguy writer.

My final panel of the day was “Designed Instability: Open Endings in Short Fiction,” where moderator Edward Porter gave us this gem: “Open endings are the author saying you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.” Thanks, Edward, for getting Semisonic’s “Closing Time” stuck in my head for the rest of the day.

Annie Proulx

Annie Proulx

Rounding out a day overflowing with literary goodness (panel fatigue is a real thing y’all) was the AWP 2014 Keynote Address by the one and only Annie Proulx. She was every bit as charming and dryly funny as you’d expect, covering everything from the how Amazon and other corporate interests have changed the book business to how writing is a sort of “addiction to beauty.” As one @AdrianXTristan said on Twitter: “Just listened to keynote speaker, Annie Proulx, on why writers write. Definitely not 140 characters or less, but loved the adventure #AWP14.”

Interestingly, all of us here at #AWP14 were responsible for making that the top trending hashtag on Twitter today, which just goes to show how powerful all of us introverted scribblers and keyboard tappers can be when we get together and decide to do something. Like tweet. Speaking of which, you can follow me @lscottmacneil.

Now I’m off to quickly stop by the official AWP party before pouring myself uptown and into bed.

 

Read the Day 1 dispatch here.

 
 
 


Lela Scott MacNeil was born in Los Alamos, NM, same as the atomic bomb. She is the Sales Manager at the University of Arizona Press, teaches at the Writers Studio, and her work is forthcoming from Gertrude and Gutter Books.

 

AWP 2014 Dispatches: Day 1

Lela Scott MacNeil

Is it me, or is air travel getting worse?

Just getting to Seattle for this year’s AWP conference was something of an epic journey. After 10 hours, two very delayed flights, an airline change,
and one truly remarkable Reuben sandwich in the San Francisco Airport (shout out to Max’s Eatz & Fresh Bakery near Gate 20) I finally made it to
SeaTac.

But harrowing as air travel is, it’s never without its moments of color. Like when the guy sitting next to me at SFO had to explain to his girlfriend that the Borowitz Report was not real news, that no Arizona lawmaker actually said, “We had no idea that gays had money and bought things just like regular people do.”

Having safely arrived, I checked in at the Express Shuttle Desk. It just so happened that everyone on my shuttle was a woman and headed to AWP. “Hey look, it’s the Ladies Limo,” said a woman with a hip haircut and glasses
(oh wait, that’s EVERYONE at AWP).

On the shuttle ride downtown, the Ladies of the Ladies Limo chatted about various things, including the recently released VIDA Count, which tallies the gender disparity in major literary publications and book reviews, and is always a little depressing.

“Maybe it’s just a question of subject matter and audience,” said one of the Limo Ladies. “Some people think children are boring, that motherhood is boring.”

“Well I don’t think war poems are boring!” replied her Lady friend.

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I made it to the Convention Center just in time to help the University of Arizona Press’ Acquiring Editor put the finishing touches on our booth, before wandering out into the damp Seattle night. Outside I ran into one of my MFA Professors.

“It’s funny, normally at AWP the writers really stick out,” she said, “but in Seattle, everyone’s got the beards and the glasses.”

After that, it was time to take the bus north to the “U District,” as the locals call it, where I am crashing with a friend of mine who works at the University of Washington Press. It was kind of fun to ride a busy Seattle bus in rush hour like a real commuter. Except for the bright green lanyard on the AWP name tag I forgot to take off.

After settling in, I was able to check two of my most urgent Seattle to-dos off my list. First, I had amazing sushi at Village Sushi on 12th Ave and 50th St.—worth the trip for those of you looking to get away from the chaos of downtown AWP. When you live in the middle of the landlocked desert as I do, visits to the Pacific Northwest become a contest to see how much (fresh, never frozen) fish you can manage to eat during your trip.

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Then, I ran across a used book and music store, and took the opportunity to add to my vinyl record collection—something I had a feeling Seattle would be good at. I was not disappointed. What can I say? I think most of us who work in the book business have a soft spot for analog technology.

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When I put together my tentative AWP schedule on Monday I ended up triple- or quadruple-booked for every time slot. We’ll see how much of that actually happens. But one thing is certain: it sure is fun to be a part of so many writers stuffed into one city.

 
 
 


Lela Scott MacNeil was born in Los Alamos, NM, same as the atomic bomb. She is the Sales Manager at the University of Arizona Press, teaches at the Writers Studio, and her work is forthcoming from Gertrude and Gutter Books.