Published October 22, 2011
Literature , Short Story , Writing
Tags: American Boy, Dwight Allen, Larry Watson, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Milkweed Editions, Montana 1948, The Green Suit, The Typewriter Satyr, University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin Book Festival
Larry Watson at the Wisconsin Book Festival 10/19/11.
Opening night of the 10th annual Wisconsin Book Festival featured a lively reading/Q&A with Milwaukee-based novelist Larry Watson (Montana 1948, American Boy) and Madison novelist and short story writer Dwight Allen (The Green Suit, The Typewriter Satyr) at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Novelist Mary Gordon, who was scheduled to join them, had to cancel due to an airline delay, although it was promised that she’d be at the festival for a reading the following evening. Watson read from his just-released American Boy (Milkweed Editions), a coming-of-age novel set in fictional Willow Falls, Minnesota in 1962. The title might suggest a Young Adult novel, but American Boy isn’t so easily categorized. It’s suffused with the volatile sexual tension and barely suppressed violence that mark Watson’s best work. (I’ll be reviewing the novel in an upcoming issue of Wisconsin People & Ideas.) [Update 1/31/12: my review of American Boy is now posted on the Wisconsin Academy website.]
Dwight Allen at the Wisconsin Book Festival 10/19/11
Dwight Allen read the opening pages of his mordantly funny short story “Succor” from The Green Suit, a collection first published in 2000 and just reissued, with an added story, from the University of Wisconsin Press. “Succor” concerns an unlikely friendship that develops between Allen’s recurring character, Peter Sackrider (whose perfect name manages to suggest both a lewd euphemism and the mopey bemusement with which Sackrider views the world), and a disreputable force-of-nature named Larry Hale, who may or may not have stolen a necklace belonging to Sackrider’s wife. Props to Allen for mentioning during the Q&A that he recently read and enjoyed David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King. He also candidly admitted an inability to get beyond the first three-hundred pages of Wallace’s woolly-mammoth masterpiece, Infinite Jest, a novel which, Allen felt, exemplified “the limitations of brilliance.”
The summer 2009 issue of Wisconsin People & Ideas has scored a fascinating interview (unfortunately not posted online) with Lorrie Moore on the eve of the September release of her new novel, A Gate at the Stairs. Interviewer Alison Jones Chaim, director of the Wisconsin Book Festival, opens the proverbial can of worms by confronting Moore with, “You have a history of declining to discuss whether certain elements in your work are autobiographical, even though people often want to know.” Moore of course cleverly proceeds to evade and dismiss the subject, while Chaim to her credit doesn’t back down. The result is a crackling, sometimes tense give and take on the topic of how fiction writers transmute lived experience into literature. Discussing her role as a creative writing professor at the University of Wisconsin, Moore is unexpectedly revealing:
I’m sure as a teacher I’ve entered into biographical musings myself. The best students know what is interesting about their lives and know how to use it. But sometimes students are avoiding what is most interesting because it is also the most difficult. Sometimes, as a teacher, I’ve attempted to say to a student, “Here’s what I know is interesting about your life and what you might want to think about when embarking on a fictional tale.” But these are dangerous waters …
Also worth checking out in the issue is the first-place winning story in the magazine’s annual fiction contest, “Deference,” by Nancy Jesse. It’s a sharply written Vietnam-war era story about a mother and son struggling to keep a family farm running in northern Wisconsin. The draft board beckons. The son has literary and academic aspirations. Mom has other ideas. Creating a twist ending that is both surprising and plausible isn’t easy, but “Deference” manages a “Gift of the Magi” double-reversal that satisfies on both counts.