After some soul searching on Saturday, I skipped readings by Jonathan Lethem (love him, seen him before) and Steve Almond (love him, seeing him tomorrow) in favor of the panel Literary Lives, featuring Monica Drake, Viva Las Vegas, and Willy Vlautin, and moderated by Kevin Sampsell. The biggest factor in my decision was how much I've been enjoying Wordstock's panels and conversations this year—as I've said a million times, I'm not a huge fan of readings, and the chance to hear authors talk off-the-cuff about their writing is one that doesn't come up very often. It was a good decision.
The packed, Portland-themed panel was about why these writers live in Oregon, and how the region has shaped their work. Sampsell, as a longtime resident/Powell's employee/small press publisher/author was an obvious choice to lead this one, and he kicked things off by noting that though he had no hand in choosing the panelists, he's a friend and fan of all of them.
What followed was funny and too brief. Recappiness after the jump!
First off, I didn't realize Viva Las Vegas has a new book: The Gospel According to Viva Las Vegas, the bulk of which is reprints of articles she wrote during her eight years as editor of Exotic Magazine. It's out today from Dame Rocket Press. (Dear Local Publishers, Please alert local media when you have new books out, we like to (try to) cover them. Sincerely, Alison.)
Kevin opened the panel by observing that when he moved here, felt like "there was an image of the NW writer as being nature poets and people who wrote about fishing and trails and waterfalls and stuff." He asked the panelists how they feel their work relates to that classification.
Willy Vlautin: "I moved to Portland to be around people who didn’t think you were crazy for wanting to read books. I didn’t know any writers except for a writer at the university who had supposedly written a novel. I moved to Portland b/c I was too scared to move to SF or seattle, and I wanted to stay on the west coast. When I first moved to the Northwest, I saw Blue Velvet… I live outside of Scappoose, and… I feel like that was a real movie." [An ongoing theme of this panel was how these authors have been influenced by film, particularly the work of Gus Van Sant.]
Viva Las Vegas: "I thought of portland as a dark place, and that was in inspiring to me. I’m from the Midwest and I don’t see that same darkness… and that is what appealed to me."
Kevin Sampsell: The region's darkness is perhaps represented better in film than in Craig Leslie novels. Not that I have anything against Craig Leslie.
Monica Drake: "I was born into a creative writing program in Eugene—I mean literally, my parents were in the program—so I think maybe I don’t notice that darkness." She says she didn’t notice it until she started trying to sell her books to NY publishers who said, “well, why doesn't your character have a job?” So she went through a process of revising her work to conform more to those expectations: “Part of why Clown Girl, she ended up being a clown, is because they really wanted to see her at work.”
Kevin: how does NY sustain a literary scene? How does work & writing come together? Do you guys have jobs?
Viva: I absolutely live here because I can dance two days a week and write the rest of the time. [She lived in NY for a while—part of the reason she came back was economic.]
Vlautin: I transferred up here with a trucking company, and worked there for years. And I just used to get up in the morning and start writing. And I guess my big break in life was when I became a housepainter, and I could write whenever I wanted to. But he doesn't work anymore: “Between the book and the band, I do alright.” “I don’t have a bunch of kids and an ex wife, I’ve got my gambling problem under control, and my drinking is somewhat under control.”
Drake: "I teach classes now, I teach college. I’ve always worked, I worked at almost every place on NW 23 and at a few places on 21st. I didn’t have that many jobs I was very invested in. I was a mortgage investor when that was riding high… I didn’t have anything to do with that whole crash.
Kevin: Monica, why’d you come here?
Drake: "I didn’t have a lot of direction when I was younger, I had a lot of enthusiasms that were all over the place." (She worked at the zoo, with baby elephants! I would quit this job RIGHT NOW to do that.) "My rent would run 100 or 130 a month, and it was cheap. I just loved it here, I loved the bands, I loved being able to walk around or ride a bike. It’s way more crowded now, but it’s still pretty cheap."
[All my notes say here is, "big shoutout to Tom Spanbauer and Dangerous Writers." Drake was one of Spanbauer's very first students, when he started his Dangerous Writing workshops]
Kevin asks Vlautin about Portland Meadows, where Vlautin used to do a lot of his writing.
Vlautin: I started going to the track because it reminded me of Reno. I started writing out there because no one goes out to the track anymore, and there’s huge tables… No one bothers you. It’s like a more interesting library. And their diner—they have a new chef out there, Chef Dale. You can just write all day, if you get stuck, you just bet on a horse. But the more I go to the track the more conflicted I’ve been about horse racing. I quit going to the track about halfway through Lean on Pete [his most recent novel, set in part at Portland Meadows] between the treatment of the jockeys and the horses. So I got an office in St Johns, which is my favorite part of Portland. It’s not as fun, but I don’t beat myself up over it, either.
Kevin asks Viva if she has a favorite place to write.
Viva: "I do have a favorite place to write, and it is Hubers. My new book is dedicated to Hubers, because it’s a collection of Exotic [magazine] articles— I was the editor of Exotic for 8 years, and I was usually up against a deadline, and I found that one Spanish coffee was [just what she needed to finish an article].
Kevin asks Viva if she ran into any trouble with dancers who knew she was writing about them.
Viva; They all knew I was a writer, I don’t think they were nervous about it. I wrote for them, mostly, in Exotic. I felt like somebody needed to write their stories because they weren’t getting enough ink, locally or nationally.
Kevin asks Viva if she felt like she had to prove herself to the writing community.
Viva: "I never felt like I had to prove myself as an intellectual. I know that I’m classified as a stripper first, but even in those circles… I’m a National Merit scholar, I’m a preacher’s daughter, they think that I’m a good girl because I don’t swear… even in high school [she was always seen as a good girl trying to be a bad girl].
[And now we start talking about writing groups, I forget why.]
Drake: writing group is a great way to keep a live sense of audience. If you know you’re going to go read your work to a group of people who you respect, it’s going to shape your work along the way.
Vlautin: [took university night classes in writing before he moved to Portland but has never been in a writing group.] I’m just in love with the novel. "I was so in love with just trying to be a writer.... I didn’t show my work to anyone because I worried if people said it wasn’t any good, I wouldn’t want to do it anymore." Tells a story about how the first "real writer" he met was because he got a job painting her kitchen. " And she became a friend of mine, Kate Bernheimer. And she was the first writer I met until my book came out. But no, I’m too insecure and too sensitive to be in a writers’ group."
Drake: "I do think being in a writers’ group does take a lot of backbone, and I’m not saying you [Willy] don’t have backbone, but there are days when you bring in work you think is going really well and it has a lukewarm reception." People often talk up the supportive/ awesome parts of being in a book club, and forget about how difficult it can be.
Vlautin: "I had this drinking buddy and—I thought he would be here—he’s a reader but he’s a very lazy reader." Willy would give him a draft of the book, and the friend would have it for a few weeks and never get past page 70, and Vlautin would realize that that was the point in the book he needed to sharpen up.
Viva: A writing group is like a giant Spanish coffee—it inspires you, keeps you motivated. A book is a long time coming… it was very important for me to have those people to keep me on task, through a breakup or cancer or whatever.
Kevin: Talks about an informal salon he's in with his fiance Frayn Masters, Arthur Bradford, Pauls Toutonghi, Michael Dickman. [Or may it was Matthew. I get those Dickmans mixed up.]
Kevin: is there a local writer who writes about Portland that you particularly like?
Vlautin: Katherine Dunn's Geek Love, Chuck Palahniuk
Drake: "Of course I like Geek Love, I really like the movie Dugstore Cowboy. The other one is, Pete Rock wrote a book and set it in Portland." Pete was was her neighbor, and he'd moved here from out of state, and it wasn't until he wrote his book that she thought, "Hey, why don’t I set a book in portland? I’ve lived here forever."
Viva: Gus van sant. Richard Meltzer, Walt Curtis, Michael Hornburg
I think at this point Kevin opened it up to questions from the audience, and someone promptly asked a two-part question about process.
Vlautin: When I first started, I asked somebody how long a novel had to be, and they said, about 120 pages is about the shortest you could away with, so I wrote a story until it was 120 pages, and ended it there. I’ve always wanted Harry Dean Stanton to be my father, the guy from Repo Man, so I wrote a novel about that… [he writes lots of books, throws away the bad ones.] It wasn’t until Northline and Motel Life that he figured out how to say what he wanted to say. I’ve written a couple of bad ones since then too. I just keep working on ‘em.
Kevin: Didn’t your house get broken into and some stories stolen?
Vlautin: "You can always write another one, is the way I look at it. I wrote a car salesman book I thought was really funny, I started even dressing like one of the guys in it, but then my editor said, “just… don’t show that to anybody, it’s horrible.” And I was really depressed for a couple days, I just laid in bed and drank beer and watched movies, until I thought, hey, I’d kind of like to move to Arizona, so I wrote a story about that."
Viva: Her memoir took her 4 years. Memoir is hard b/c you have to impose a narrative structure on real life. The book's narrative structure wasn’t clear until she’d written 450 pages.
Drake: Clown Girl took 10 years. "As a writer, my impulse to write has always come from just moments that interest me, it’s always that impulse to build something out of moments that satisfies me." After years of writing short stories, she wanted to work on something bigger. She pent four years writing the book, then 6 years of rewrites. The final version is very different from the first version. Talks about how she kind of wants to release the first version, but there are still scenes from the first one. “When I read Clown Girl, it’s kind of like archaeology, b/c I can see all the books layered in there.”
The lady with the process question apparently felt it wasn't sufficiently answered the first time, because she repeats it.
Monica Drake very curtly notes that she writes when she has time, because she's very busy. Watching her shut down questions she thinks are dumb is a thing of beauty.
Viva: By the way, we should never write for New York agents. They told me my book would be better if I regretted the stripping… and that would kind of preclude the cancer memoir (something she'd mentioned as a possibility earlier), because I went back to dancing after a mastectomy, because I love it.
Question: When you're writing, do you ever feel like your characters get away from you?
Drake: I really think the character is there to serve the story, so… you’re in control there. (Bam!)
Kevin asks about other Northwest artists who inspire them.
Vlautin: Fred Cole of Dead Moon. I think Fred Cole is one of the great songwriters, and he’s been an inspiration to me since I found out about them in 1993 or whatever.
Drake: there are so many people here that inspire me. being in the culture of creative people is great. I don’t know that I could pin it down to one single person.
Viva: Seconds Dead Moon, Gus Van Sant, Richard Meltzer. Portland is great that way, we can all scratch each others backs. There’s maybe not an infrastructure to take us to the stars, but… these people are all so humble and accessible, and we’re so lucky to have them.
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