Wednesday, October 03, 2007

ODU Literature Festival- Day 2!

Tuesday I had office hours, then went to Janine Latus’s reading. She’s a journalist and essayist. Her new book, If I Am Missing or Dead, was the story of two women (Latus and her sister Amy) and the abusive relationships they experienced. I really want to buy that one and read it, maybe during Christmas break. Latus touched me from the start: “I am an author. I like to say I am an author, because… I like to say ‘I am an author.’” This made the audience laugh as she explained she started saying it as a five-year-old. Only after her first book was published did she really feel it was true.

Latus also gave her top five writer tips: 1- Marry someone with health insurance. 2- Pay attention. The best stories are often in your own life. 3- Help each other. Share your contacts in the industry. Help each other revise. Give encouragement. 4- Practice your craft. Find the perfect verbs. Remove all modifiers. Caress your sentences. Linger. 5- Persevere. Eighty percent of Latus’ submissions are rejected, and she’s a successful author. 6- Be brave.

Latus also outlined the process of creating If I Am Missing or Dead, from proposal to drafting to publishing. She also took the time to inform the audience about domestic violence. After reading If I Am Missing or Dead and talking to Latus, the National Network to End Domestic Violence changed the name of its Direct Assistance Fund to the Amy's Courage Fund. According to the organization’s web site, “Amy’s Courage Fund provides emergency financial assistance of up to $2,000 to victims of domestic violence and their children to meet their immediate needs after escaping an abusive home.”

Some of Latus’ family members were enraged at her for publishing family secrets. They didn’t want to believe the abuse she and Amy faced, but the fund helped soothe those wounds. It helped the family feel the tragedy wasn’t all for nothing, and Latus’ book wasn’t published for selfish reasons. Of writing, she advised: “Tell the truth. That is the writer’s challenge, gift and opportunity.”

A few hours later, I had the opportunity to hear Sabina Murray read. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. She’s won a bunch of fancy awards. Her writing is rich and intriguing, but it’s also very idea-based. I think it would be interesting to read one of her books and get to pour over it. Listening to it was a little challenging. Some texts are like that. You have to see the words on the page to really get immersed in the book’s world.

Murray’s characters often talk about ideas, and not everyone gets it. “Some people say to me, ‘No one I know talks like that.’ And I think to myself, ‘You should get smarter friends.’” That made everyone laugh. Murray is half Filipina. She says one thing she loves about it is that the Filipino community doesn’t expect her to just write Filipino stories. They want her to write a wide variety, showing that Filipino writers can write about anything. Her publishers weren’t so sure. They wanted her to be the Amy Tan of the Philippines. She wanted to write about white male widowers in Forgery and a young, female cannibal in A Carnivore’s Inquiry. Luckily, her first book of stories, a few of which were based on her grandmother’s life in the Philippines, was so highly acclaimed that her publisher kind of had to let her do what she wanted. Heh.

Next was my first go at hosting a reception. I put some finishing touches on the room, was a liaison between the program director and the catering staff and made sure the authors were happy. It’s also when I started getting to know Sabina. We chatted for a while. I also started to make friends with some of the MFA girls, especially Leslie, Dana and Mary.

Next up was William Henry Lewis’ reading…or as we call him, Hank! Hank is a prize-winning short story writer. He started off by reading a poem by my teacher (and his former teacher), Tim Seibles. Then he read his own poem inspired by Tim. It was great. Then he read a powerhouse short story. I wish I’d known about him when I was teaching, because I think my students would have connected well with his work.

Hank writes slowly, just a handful of stories each year, and he’ll often write 20 drafts. Unreal! He joked, “I’m not very smart, so it takes me a while to get to know the characters.” He said he became a writer because “I wanted to engage language in a beautiful way.”

That night I went to the after-hours gathering. It was so much fun. I ended up chatting with Sabina and Mary and her husband Roberto for hours. It was great! Before I knew it, it was time to go home and hit the hay.

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