Readers and writers unite

By Timothy Gillis

PORTLAND – It’s six years and going strong for Maine readers and writers, as authors present workshops all weekend on the written craft at the Maine Festival of the Book. There are more programs and free offerings for lit lovers of all ages.

Sarah Cecil, executive director of Maine Reads, the non-profit literacy group which hosts the Festival, is proud of the annual event. “It’s bigger than ever,” Cecil said. “Last year, we had to cut out programs. There wasn’t enough room. Now, we’ve added more, and expanded our space.” The headquarters for the Festival, the book sales, and adult programming will still be at the Ambromson Center, while the youth programs will be at Luther Bonney.

Cecil comes from a long literary line. She had worked with Mary Herman, former first lady of Maine, to get non-profit status for the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, which she left in 2004 to join Maine Reads. She has been with the Maine Festival of the Book since its inception, in 2007, when she collaborated with the Blaine House again, working with Karen Baldacci to get the festival going. “Last year, we were heavy on fiction, by random chance,” Cecil said. “This year, we have more history and biography.”

One of the biggest challenges is how the Festival attracts so many authors, more than forty of them from all over the country. “First, it helps it they have a new book out. Second, so much of what we try to do, and really the strength of the Festival, is oriented around author conversations. It’s a critical piece, to have people who enjoy each other, presenting with each other,” Cecil said.

Charles Shields and Chip Bishop are both biographers, and are friends with each other. Young adult authors Amalie Howard, Elizabeth Miles, and Sarah Thomson asked to present together. Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, Arielle Greenberg, and Steve Luttrell, founder of the Cafe Review, are poets who know each other. Susan Henderson, Jessica Keener, and Leora Skolkin-Smith approached Cecil about presenting together, their talk one on “illness as an opportunity in fiction.”

“For every writer on the schedule, there was perhaps as many people as five times that approached,” Cecil said. “Many wanted to were in another part of the country, or had something else going on. It’s a labor-intensive set-up. You get to learn a lot about their lives.” Sometimes, presenters are joined around a theme, and get to know each other while working on their program.

Debra Spark lives in North Yarmouth with her husband and son. She’s a professor at Colby College and teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Spark presents today with Jessica Treadway about “the consequences of using true events, borrowed dialogue, and friends’ anecdotes in novels and stories.” Spark’s latest work, “The Pretty Girl,” a novella and several stories, is about art and deception. She described her earlier work as more that of a magical realist, but thought it was less so now. She also did not think that Maine was used that much in her fiction, although the excerpt she will be reading today takes place in Maine. “It’s easier for me to write about a place that I don’t live in,” she said.

Peter Behrens, the novelist who splits time between Maine and Texas, will be presenting with his college professor, Clark Blaise. Both will be reading from their new books, and discussing what can be taught and learned about writing. Behrens’ last visit to the Maine Festival of the Book was five years ago. “Actors read from my book, ‘The Law of Dreams,’ and I was worried. The book features the Irish, and I was afraid people would do bad Irish accents, but that didn’t happen,” he said. The novel was set to music composed by Paul Sullivan, also from Brooklin, Maine, and sung by Rosie Upton, in an arrangement called “A Terrible Beauty,” based on a line from the William Butler Yeats’s poem, “Second Coming.” The musical was performed at the Irish Arts Center in New York and the Maine Irish Heritage Center in Portland.

His family loves living in two distinct places, but Behrens said the locales are quite similar, actually. “It’s great for us. Both Marfa, Texas, and Brooklin, Maine, are small towns, surrounded by natural beauty. Sure, one’s a desert and the other a rocky coastline, but there are some parallels. Our son, Henry, gets to be mythic to his classmates in both places.” Behrens new book, “The O’Briens,” is a mixture of fact and fiction.”It’s sort of a novel, and also about my grandfather,” he said. He looks forward to reading from his new work Saturday morning and at the Irish Heritage Center in June.

Heidi Julavits gets to talk about bad people. She is teamed up with Brock Clarke in a program called “I hated these characters,” which is today at 1:30. A while back, Julavits had stopped reading reviews because she found negative criticism tough to take. “People say that they can’t relate to a character, or that they don’t like a character. I guess I never thought of it that way,” she said. “I think someone with more flaws is more interesting.” When the New York Times praised her latest work, “The Vanishers,” and especially its narrator, Julavits said she was nearly in tears. “Finally,” she said. Her favorite antagonists are Frank Bascombe from Richard Ford’s writings, and the narrator of “The Cutters,” by Australian writer Thomas Bernhard.

The Deering High School grad burst onto the literary scene with a scathing essay against “snarky” critics in the inaugural issue of “Believer” magazine, which she co-founded with her husband, the writer Ben Marcus. Now, 88 issues later, “Believer” is still unsettling people with its hip humor and nervy style. The latest issue is the Film special, with a free DVD of “The Wolf Knife,” a film by director Laurel Nakadate. “We were a little unsure about using that film,”Julavits said. “Some people loved it, but others walked out during the first fifteen minutes.”

Julavits balances her fiction writing, magazine editing, and teaching with raising a family. It’s been six years since her last book came out, and Marcus’s “Flame Alphabet” is his first novel in nine years. Teaching at Columbia University has held their collective focus while they raise their two children, Solomon, aged three, and Delia, who is almost eight. When asked if she thinks her kids will become writers as well – if they are showing any early authorial signs – Julavits said “Well, Solomon just runs around and breaks stuff. But at our daughter’s parent-teacher conference, the teacher told us she was an incredible writer. It sort of depressed both of us. We want our kids to excel to be something more.”

Fans of Julavits, Behrens, Spark, and many others would argue that these authors give us more than enough. You can meet your literary heroes this weekend at Maine’s Festival of the Book, held at the Abromson Center and Luther Bonney of the Portland USM campus.

Highlights
Saturday 7 pm – Poetry party at Local Sprouts
Sunday 10 am to 3 pm – Book Arts Bazaar at Wishcamper Center USM
Sunday 7 pm – Longfellow’s Shorts: Morgan Callan Rogers, dramatic reading at Portland Stage Company

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