Wordstock Day 1: Readers and Writers Talking Dystopia

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Ruth Feldman moderates a panel on historical fiction for children along with Katheringe Schlick Noe and Karen Cushman at Wordstock 2012.Ruth Feldman moderates a panel on historical fiction for children along with Katheringe Schlick Noe and Karen Cushman at Wordstock 2012.

Ruth Feldman, Katherine Schlick Noe, and Karen Cushman on the History for Young Readers panel at Wordstock 2012.

Wordstock, the Northwest’s largest festival of books and reading, is taking place this weekend in Portland, Oregon. If you are at all interested in the craft of writing, this is an amazing place to come and surround yourself with books, authors, and workshops on a wide array of topics. It cost seven dollars for one day and ten for two, and all the proceeds go to support creative writing in the schools. Usually, I had at least three different workshops, conversations, or author presentations I wanted to attend at the same moment in time. I will be writing more on some of these authors in the future. Briefly, here is a rundown of the rich and diverse conversations and author presentations I was able to attend.

One of the major themes for Wordstock this year is dystopian literature, so my day opened with a panel discussion titled, “The End of the World As We Know It.” The panel featured Katie Kacvinsky — Awaken, Peter Heller — The Dog Stars, and Daniel H. Wilson — Robopocalypse. The moderator was David Oates —The Natural History of Now. The conversation was quite interesting, with Oates and Heller focusing on their view that we are in the midst of what Heller called the “sixth great extinction.” Kacvinsky and Wilson focused on technology and the ways in which it can create a dystopian future. Kacvinsky made clear that she feels that technology may be invading too quickly into the way we think and communicate. When pushed, she agreed with Wilson’s statement that her work was a cautionary tale.

Oates, in particular, was very pessimistic about our environmental future and was finally challenged by Wilson, who argued that while environmental change of a great magnitude might be underway, the Earth is a resilient system which has stood such shocks in its past and will quickly fill the biosphere with new and different life. Wilson clearly was the optimist on the panel who argued that change, even apocalyptic change, was inevitable, and we as humans are better off investing our energies into asking what new possibilities the future holds than looking back and allowing that change to keep us stuck in the past. (Even the older Oates recognized the generational gap between his wizened worry about what is being lost and Wilson’s more optimistic look at the future.)

From a writing point of view, the clear star of the panel was Heller who read heartbreaking and beautiful passages from his novel, The Dog Stars. His story explores the life of a man who has survived a flu which wiped out 99.7 percent of the world’s population. He lives in an abandoned airplane hangar with his dog. Heller explores themes of coping with loss and learning how to go on living when things have changed. His book is also said to be “laugh out loud” funny.

Next on the docket was a presentation by Sara Levine, author of Treasure Island!!!, which revolves around the attempts of a 25-year-old to change her life based on the lessons she has learned from reading Stevenson’s work. (A quick word of warning: this isn’t YA fiction. It is adult in theme and content. Levine felt that older teens who are comfortable with sexual themes and content would be OK.) Several things intrigued me in Levine’s work. First, in a culture which seems obsessed with personal transformation, Levine writes about the practical difficulties of making the lasting personal changes we might want to make. Also, her work is interesting to me because she intentionally forced her protagonist to find her path within the context of a family she did not want to deal with. Levine wanted to avoid more traditional heroes journey narratives in which protagonists lift themselves by their own bootstraps. This book intrigued me because in my own writing I explore the connections and relationships which both hinder and allow us to change and grow as individuals. I am also skeptical of our penchant for stories in which heroes grow on their own, seemingly without social fabric or intimate connections surrounding them.

After lunch, I introduced myself to one of my favorite children’s authors, Mac Barnett. If you are not familiar with his work, Jonathan Liu has reviewed several of his books including one of my favorites, Chloe and the Lion. I also got a chance to be introduced to the work of Jon Klassen, including I Want My Hat Back, which has an ending not typical to most picture books.

After that, it was on to the main course for the day. Portland local Stephanie Snyder conversed with Erin Morgenstern about her book The Night Circus, which follows an international traveling circus in the Victorian era. Snyder, the Curator and Director of the Douglas E. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery at Reed College, tended to try to elicit erudite responses on the literary themes in Morgenstern’s book. Morgenstern parried every question, preferring to talk about her story elements instead. For a few minutes, the conversation became a friendly and amusing game of thrust and riposte.

Morgenstern was much more amenable to talking about the influences both literary and other which influenced her work. A couple of Morgenstern’s comments made clear why The Night Circus has been such a success. First, Morgenstern chose very carefully both the voice for her book and, more importantly, the colors of the objects in her world. She wanted her circus to be a very black and white place in which shades of gray are always intimated by the color scheme. In this way, descriptions of color stand out as important throughout the book, drawing the reader to pay attention when they appear. Morgenstern also piqued my interest in her book when she stated that she preferred magical worlds embedded in a more realistic world, “as if they could appear in your back yard.” In this light, she referenced Dr. Strange and Mr. Norrell, a personal favorite.

Finally, the day ended with a wonderful panel presentation on writing historical fiction for children. This panel was well moderated by Ruth Feldman, author of The Blue Thread, about the campaign for women’s suffrage in 1912 Oregon. Feldman’s book is interesting because after a straight historical fiction opening it veers into a bit of fantasy. On the panel was Katherine Schlick Noe, whose recent first novel is Something to Hold. Aimed at ages nine and up, Schlick Noe’s novel tells the story of a young white girl growing up on the Warm Springs Indian reservation in Oregon. As she grows, she comes to understand how many of the white teachers and adults in her community subtly, and not so subtly, think of the Native American children as inferior. The other member of the panel was Karen Cushman, Newbery winner for her book The Midwife’s Apprentice.

I enjoyed listening to the authors’ answers to my question on the difficulties of not whitewashing history when presenting it to middle grade audiences. All three authors on the panel acknowledged the problem and felt that they struggled with it each time they wrote. Cushman said that she felt that as long as she was struggling to present the most accurate picture possible within the constraints of middle grade fiction, she was doing the best that could be expected. She said that her work had often been criticized by those who felt that it was a little too crass in its portrayal of the past and by other critics who felt that it was doing a disservice for its lack of accuracy.

By this time, my brain had become a slightly gelatinous puddle of intriguing possibilities for things to read and inspiration to go and write something myself. It was a satisfying walk back to my car. I am looking forward to doing it all again today and bringing you the results down the road as am able to fully review some of the fabulous books I discovered. If you see me on the convention floor, don’t hesitate to say “Hi.”

Photo: Erik Wecks.

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