Thursday, March 14, 2013

These Are a Few of My Favorite AWP13 Things…

I should feel more organized, having arrived home from Boston and the excitement surrounding a gathering of 11,000 writers three (or is it four?) days ago, but…well, I don’t!  There are too many memorable moments, bolts of inspiration, slack-jawed awe, crazy frustrations, and excellent meals to get them all down here, but I shall try to get a number of them (especially the meals!):

--Metropolis, in the South End.  Guided by Steve’s cousin and wife, we snagged a cute table by the window and were treated to a fabulous beet and goat cheese salad that puts all other beet and goat cheese salads to shame, followed by an amazing, perfectly cooked sole under garlicky crumbs with a fennely broth that got me going double-time with a spoon AND the incredible bread.  Walking back to the hotel, the night took an interesting turn with a dramatic police chase—“I wonder why those guys are running so fast…and why those cars are driving 50 miles an hour in a residential neighborhood…the wrong way down the one-way street!—and a glimpse of recent Top Chef winner Kristen, peering out the door of Stir, where she works, to catch the police chase.  Yes, she’s as beautiful in person as she is on TV!

--Back to the South End for lunch at B&G Oysters, one of those long, lingering, late lunches complete with a bottle of white wine.  We each had half a dozen oysters (from places I didn’t know oysters came from—Marionport, MA! Watch Hill, RI!—and then we shared a plate of fried clams (best I’ve had!) and a lush lobster roll.  I believe we shared dessert, though it was so good we should have had our own:  a “chocolate tablet” with smoked caramel sauce I could have slurped by the glassful.  Oh, you don’t believe me, endlessly going on about how “fabulous” meals are?  Well, Kristen walked in for an even later lunch just as we were about to leave…yes, I’d say that anyplace that’s good enough for a Top Chef is probably pretty dang fabulous!  (Yes, I did wonder if she was stalking ME….)

--The Back Bay and South End areas of Boston are stunningly gorgeous, with scads of Victorian houses and brownstones and expensive shops, including a wonderful chocolate shop, L.A. Burdick, where we bought some amazing caramels (notice a theme?) and some chocolate mice! (If only we’d had the time to have a cup of hot chocolate.) We also liked Siena Farms, a cute little food market with an interesting array of spices, veggies, and delectables, and then, yes, we chatted with the chef doing prep work in Kristen’s restaurant, Stir, which, as it turns out, has a great collection of cookbooks for sale.  (Oops, who’s stalking whom??) And how friendly everyone is:  at Stir, we got the scoop on our evening destination, Drink, a craft cocktail bar that was noisier and more chaotic than those places tend to be, but the drinks were mighty fine.    Plus, it’s not every day you get to watch a bartender saw a clear block of ice the size of a gallon of milk into perfect two-inch squares.  (Yes, he still had all his fingers as we left.)

--Poor Steve had to leave the next day as the blizzard began. He probably ate something at the airport, but I received no reports.

--But the blizzard was actually lovely, especially from my room on the 30th floor of the Westin, overlooking the Charles River, and also especially since the convention center was attached to three hotels through a well-trudged pathway over skywalks and through malls.  You think writers don’t suffer…try walking past Barney’s and Nieman Marcus day after day after day, knowing you’d be lucky to get the price of one cute dress there as payment for your collection of finely-wrought linked story collection!! (I must note the presence of Teavana, a mall tea shop with a 16-page menu of tea. Recommended!)

--The blizzard was slightly less lovely on Thursday night, walking through it for three blocks to the Red Lantern, an Asian restaurant.  Within those three blocks, we were nearly knocked down by wind twice, could not step forward against the powerful wind, caught a couple pockets of “oh, this isn’t soooo bad,” and then had our cheeks slashed to ribbons by the icy snow attacking us horizontally. Truly, this is not an exaggeration.  How happy to see through the storm a red lantern at the end of the block, indicating we would survive the journey!  And how happy to order a gigantic bowl of spicy noodles—all the carbs needed for the walk home.

--While the blizzard had subsided somewhat the next night, it seemed foolhardy to travel too far. (I mean, Pa Ingalls had enough sense to stay put in a snowbank in The Banks of Plum Creek, so didn’t it make sense to stick around a giant mall complex?) So off to Lucca, a dim and vast Italian restaurant one block, many puddles, and much slush away.  Worth the trip for the softball-size flourish of fluffy white bean spread, whipped with olive oil and garlic, that I could have eaten with a spoon, though the idea was to spread it on bread.  Sautéed calamari!  Gnocchi!  Scallops the size of a baby’s fist, beautifully seared!  It makes me sick now to think that I had to pass up dessert…what I wouldn’t give to check out that tiramisu right this very minute…!

--And the last meal:  The Elephant Walk, elegant French-Cambodian food beyond Fenway Park, with a great prix-fixe three-course menu.  I chose spring rolls—so crisp!  And a nice arugula-beet salad (not sure that’s Cambodian at all, but it was exciting to eat vegetables), and a dish called lo-lac (lac-lo?) which was composed of marinated, slightly caramelized beef and a lovely mound of white rice as soft as a down blanket. I love the healthy brown rice that I generally eat, but this white rice was so spectacular, it could have been dessert.

--As for the conference itself, the best candy at the book fair was at Vermont College of Fine Arts: maple sugar maple leaves!  I shamelessly ate three of them, maybe four, and possibly five—but I was having a wonderful discussion with one of their graduates who told me about the benefits of learning how to tell a story by attempting to write a picture book manuscript, so I felt entitled.

--Yes, there was more than food, of course.  While my favorite part of the AWP is always seeing dear friends and catching up with Writers From My Past, I do make a point to attend a couple of panels and/or readings each day.  Nothing I went to was a total dud, and some of the events were genuinely exciting, so here’s a quick taste of what I saw and learned:

--I went to several panels about the blurred lines of late between fiction and memoir and whether we’re in a post-genre world (though as someone pointed out, “Only people at this conference care about that. Readers just want a good story.” Or even know what the word “genre” is, I suppose.).  The bottom line seemed to be to write your story and, of course, don’t out-and-out lie with intention if you’re calling it a memoir, but to remember that genre is a publishing category as much as anything. Be an artist. On this topic, I was especially impressed by the “Genre in the 21st Century” panelists: Stephen Elliott, Nick Flynn, Kazim Ali, Kelly Groome, and moderator Lacy Johnson.  In fact, a number of the panels actually featured a true moderator, who asked thoughtful questions of the panelists; I’m not sure if this is a new thing, or I lucked into panels with this format, but it was a welcome relief from the 20-minute papers of the past.  The point of memoir is about the deeper mysteries, not people caring about your life, someone noted, and “we (as artists) create what people are ready for,” which means don’t be afraid of new ways of expression and new forms. 

--Another great panel on this subject of fiction/memoir included Michael Thomas, Lily King, and Jeanette Winterson, who I had never seen speak before but now would drive through a raging snowstorm to see again.  She was so smart and so inspiring!  You could simply feel everyone in the room falling utterly in love with her.  Accept that you will be misunderstood as an artist, she said, “don’t be a writer if you can’t cope with that kind of misunderstanding.”  With regard to writing about family and such, Michael Thomas helpfully added, “It’s going to be a shitstorm no matter what.”  Jeanette Winterson added, “Live with the questions…live with the difficulty and discomfort [of writing]— in a joyful way.”

--I was so excited to attend a panel about J.D. Salinger that I wasn’t deterred by its 9AM start time.  The stated topic was the 50th anniversary of the publication of Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters & Seymour: An Introduction, but the conversation roamed around Salinger’s life and his influence on contemporary writers.  The panel was smart and included Joanna Smith Rakoff, who’s coming out with a book about the year she spent answering Salinger’s fan mail when she worked for his agent (and, apparently, never snooped around in the manuscript boxes sitting around that may have contained HIS WORK!!) and Thomas Beller, who is writing (or wrote?) a biography of Salinger, and some other smart writers:  Jess Row, Elisa Albert, and Gabriel Brownstein.  I cannot express enough how happy this conversation made me…the impact of Salinger’s war experiences, the attacks on his from his contemporaries in the reviews, mysticism, self-loathing, the fact that Salinger loved watching TV in his later years, and so much more!  It was like a combination of juicy gossip, armchair psychology, fascinating insights, and secrets being spilled.

--I also really enjoyed the reading sponsored by VIDA (who does such good work on tallying the shocking and dismaying disparity between how men and women’s work is reviewed and published in the big journals/magazines).  Elissa Schappell and Meg Wolitzer were smart and bold, their writing powerful and supple.  Cheryl Strayed offered gracious and personal introductions and led a thoughtful discussion of gender issues in publishing.  The perfect finale for my conference!

--And then it was back home, loaded like a pack mule with literary journals and books from the bookfair, words spinning, ideas swirling, plans taking shape…ready to take on the blank screen once again.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.