What It’s Like to Read at Powell’s

It's such a rush to stand at that fabled Pearl Room podium.

It’s such a rush to stand at that fabled Pearl Room podium.

This essay is a more personal response to our Jan. 7 Brave on the Page event at Powell’s City of Books.

I close my eyes. The lighting is that good golden light, the kind of evening glow that’s hard to photograph, but when it’s done well, the pictures convey an in-the-moment intimacy. There are voices, lots of them, engaged in lots of conversations, saying hello to old friends, waiting for more chairs to be unfolded, and telling stories about what brought them out tonight, on a rainy Monday in January.

We are up on the top level of Powell’s City of Books. The city of books. Powell’s downtown location is a city-block long, and a city-block wide. The largest independent bookstore in America. Where the most powerful authors come to read their work aloud in front of their fans in the Pearl Room.

Tonight we are the readers and the panelists. Ten of us are waiting for our turn at the microphone. Some of us are sitting in the front row on carefully taped reserved signs. Others are in the audience, positioned on the aisles for easy access to the front, where Powell’s book-shaped podium features two green-covered copies of the book I edited and published through my new micro press.

From left, Yuvi Zalkow, Joanna Rose, Jon Bell, Gigi Little, Robert Hill, Laura Stanfill, Kristy Athens and Scott Sparling. Gina Ochsner and Kate Gray not pictured.

From left, Yuvi Zalkow, Joanna Rose, Jon Bell, Gigi Little, Robert Hill, Laura Stanfill, Kristy Athens and Scott Sparling. Gina Ochsner and Kate Gray not pictured.

I asked Powell’s for this opportunity. I asked these published authors to come and join me at the front of this crowd: Kristy Athens, Jon Bell, Kate Gray, Robert Hill, Gigi Little, Gina Ochsner, Joanna Rose, Scott Sparling and Yuvi Zalkow. To be brave with me to create an event around our book, Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life. I brought at least some of this crowd out on a Monday–with calendar listings in the Portland Mercury, the Oregonian, Portland Monthly and Willamette Week, which chose us as a WW Pick of the Week. Of course Powell’s did a lot of promotion too–we were in their January calendar, both online and in the stores, and they even created a Facebook event page, which showed about 50 people had RSVPed yes.

There are more than fifty people here. Kevin Sampsell, a Portland author and Powell’s staff member, has more chairs coming out now. The people keep arriving. It’s not just rainy, and a Monday in January, but it’s the national football championship game tonight.

This is my dream, painted by Diane Delarme.

This is my dream, painted by Diane Delarme.

Funny about the lighting. It’s the same intimate, golden lighting captured in a painting by my friend Tamara’s mom, who years ago painted the front of Powell’s City of Books in the evening with my name on the marquee. It’s not called Powell’s in the painting, but that’s what it is, and tonight, on the way up to this crowded room, which is getting more crowded minute by minute, I think about all those months and years of working on my novels, hoping to be invited to stand up here, at this book-shaped podium.

I am not here because of my fiction. I am here as a publisher, with these nine other authors, and beyond them, the Brave on the Page contributors who came out tonight to support us, plus our writer friends, and our friends’ writer friends, here to talk about the creative process. Behind us, there’s a story. On the walls. Pages of a graphic novel by Nicole Georges tell their hand-drawn story as Kevin gets up to introduce our event.

I have my pages and I’m wearing my vintage red velvet dress. I am ready, and even if I weren’t, people are clapping and I have to get up and stand there at the podium with these pages. My explanation of the book and my introductions of five authors are longer than the tiny flash essay I’ll be reading later. It’s time to smile. I smile. I have been nervous all day, but looking out at the crowd, painted shadowy gold, faces I know and so many I don’t know, they are here to listen and learn and support and encourage, they are here to connect and ask questions, they are here to see their friends and to listen to us, and I adjust the microphone, push my pages up the podium where it’s easy to glance down at them and then look out at the audience, I begin.

This is me stepping into that painting. Wearing a red dress and smiling. And when I turn the page to the next page and realize my introduction is really three double-spaced pages, not two, I make an endearing remark (let it please be endearing!) about how I’m now going to grab the rest of my speech, and the audience laughs, or laughs and claps, I can’t remember now, but it’s warm and accepting, and here I am, making a mistake in front of an overflow crowd of 150 people on a rainy January night, and it’s okay. There’s Kristy Athens, handing me the piece of paper I need to keep going. I am here tonight because of these forty-two authors who shared a part of themselves with me in contributing to Brave on the Page, and we are all in this together.

Joanna Rose introduces the panelists in front of a crowd of 150 attendees.

Joanna Rose introduces the panelists in front of a crowd of 150 attendees.

The rest of the evening flows too fast. Our words and observations, once unstoppered, just keep pouring forth. I write nothing down, because I am too busy listening to the authors and how the crowd reacts. I hope my husband is taking pictures somewhere behind me. We begin with five of us reading our flash essays from Brave on the Page. Kate Gray reads her beautiful meditation on avoiding distractions that’s a poem disguised as a gentle command to focus on one’s craft. Gina Ochsner, one of my literary heroes, shares her thoughts on cynicism and the writing-related epiphany that strikes at a wrestling match–in writing, she reminds us, we reach beyond the self, and there’s so much permission in that realization.

The audience makes all kinds of sounds during Gigi Little’s “Mentor,” reacting with sighs, gasps and laughter, as she recites an unsettling experience with a high school English teacher. It’s a roller-coaster sort of response from the crowd, a rolling up-and-down reaction I’d expect in a theater, not at a reading. That’s when I realize: the audience is right with all of us, every word, every moment, and no matter what happens next, we have a good thing happening. A really good thing. And it’s happening right now, as I sit in the audience and breathe and listen and breathe some more.

Robert Hill’s piece on how he writes out loud sweeps us right into stories that were told and retold to him as a child, and we are there with him, listening, and then it’s my turn to stand up and share my flash essay about trying to get my daughter to sleep so I can work on my novel. I take each word slow, because this is about slowing down and going to sleep, and I linger on the sounds of Vosges Valley village, because somewhere in the crowd, there’s Tom Spanbauer, a legendary Portland writing teacher, and he is listening to me up here all by myself, and I’ve only read for him once before, as a student in a weekend workshop, and I was terrified.

Joanna Rose was a natural choice to moderate our panel discussion

Joanna Rose was a natural choice to moderate our panel discussion

I am not terrified tonight. I hit the last line just the way I practiced. I step back from the podium and listen. Applause. I have read my work at Powell’s, and now I have the great honor of introducing Joanna Rose, one of my mentors and an obvious choice to lead a panel discussion on the creative process. At the Pinewood Table, with Joanna and Stevan Allred teaching an assembled group of writers, I learned the meaning of community and finally found a creative home. I joined the table in 2002, and ten years later, here we are, at Powell’s, Joanna about to stand up from her reserved spot in the front row, Stevan in the audience, lots of other Pinewood writers listening, and two of them about to come up and grab a microphone.

Jon Bell and Kristy Athens are the two nonfiction authors on the panel. The two Pinewood Table novelists are Scott Sparling and Yuvi Zalkow, and Joanna begins the panel by reciting an anecdote about Scott bringing in a piece of work about a woman squatting when peeing in the shower, and one of the other writers calls him on the squatting business. I am buzzing with adrenaline, the way the music boxes in my novel transfer the energy of sound into their wood cases, and I think peeing? Did I hear that right? And then the audience is laughing and responding, and Scott talks about the benefit of bringing every page of his novel to that critique group. He also admits to having one stick of dynamite blow up a building… until Stevan corrected him by offering a more accurate number.

In almost every photo I took of Scott Sparling and Yuvi Zalkow, they are laughing and fully enjoying the moment.

In almost every photo I took of Scott Sparling and Yuvi Zalkow, they are laughing and fully enjoying the moment.

I take no notes. I am mesmerized by how smart these authors are, and how well they talk about their craft up there under the lights, passing two microphones back and forth, eloquently answering the questions Joanna poses. This is my writing community, under the spotlight, these four writers one slice of the Portland writing community, and they are amazing, and they are saying these things because this event has brought them together, and Joanna has wisely chosen to ask about using fact in fiction and storytelling in nonfiction. Yuvi talks about having a colonoscopy in his book until someone pointed out that his character already doesn’t have a colon… and that became part of the book, the editor character pointing out that flaw in the manuscript.

Kristy Athens holds up a tiny cow.

Kristy Athens holds up a tiny cow.

Jon Bell shared a story he had to keep out of his book–colorful details about his meeting with activist Tre Arrow–and Kristy Athens held up the tiny plastic farm animals she brings to all her events and explained where they came from. Jon’s book features lots of reporting cushioned by his personal recounting of one trip to Mount Hood, while Kristy’s features personal stories about her country living experience filled out with research and interviews with other people.

Somehow, some way, the panel is over already, and Joanna is calling me on stage again for the Q and A. This unscripted bit makes me nervous, but there has been so much goodness already that I feel ready to call on people. The first question is about having family members read what you’ve written.

“Wait until they’re dead,” Kate Gray quips, and everyone laughs, but we also sense the emotional truth behind that, and the laughter is also an acknowledgement of her honesty. Yuvi, who has written a novel about a novelist named Yuvi, shared what his father didn’t like about his book, and acknowledged that maybe he should have showed his family before it was published. (Among other things, his father was bothered that the protagonist Yuvi’s father drinks one martini a day; Yuvi’s actual dad drinks two.)

We talk about the benefit of writing groups. It’s clear how much the Pinewood Table means to many of us. I even have the audience raise their hands if they have been in a writing group with me, and I see so many hands bathed in that dim golden crowd light–there’s Brian, Amber, Liz, Christi, Kathleen, Julia, Diane, Jackie, Steve, who I single out because he brought me to the Pinewood Table, and I wouldn’t be standing here if it weren’t for him.

Someone asks about writing what you know. Someone answers, or a few people do, about telling a story to get to emotional truths. Is it here when Robert speaks up about writing a novel about his parents, from their point of view, including a sex scene? There is a lot of groaning. I talk about my first two novels–small-town first person stories that resonate with my own life as a newspaper reporter–and how freeing it is to step outside that by writing historical fiction.

Jon Bell answers a question about his nonfiction book.

Jon Bell answers a question about his nonfiction book.

Finally, we talk about being brave on the page in response to Scott Sparling’s son Zane’s well-thought question. Jon Bell says he doesn’t find what he does brave; he’s a journalist and freelance writer. Gigi Little says something beautiful about how it doesn’t bother her to be honest on the page and to share embarrassing moments. And when the writers are done answering this important question, I check the clock and it’s time. Our hour, and a bit more, is gone. I seize the opportunity and thank these writers for being brave up here with me, because it’s one thing to write in front of the computer and another thing to stand up in front of an overflow crowd, at Powell’s City of Books, and talk about the private act of creation.

What’s left, now, several weeks later, is these memories, still so fresh and bathed in golden light, Nicole Georges’ black and white art behind us, telling her story, and then there’s that painting above my desk. Diane had faith that I’d be reading at Powell’s someday. She imagined me there. And now, thanks to the gracious staff at Powell’s and all the Brave on the Page contributors, I can look at that painting and remember standing there, at the podium, with something to say.

Here are some more blog posts by people who participated or attended our Forest Avenue Press Powell’s debut. Check them out, because that’s sort of how story works–we were all there, and what we remember and want to share is a little bit different. And I am so honored and humbled by everyone’s positive responses to this event. I appreciate being given credit for bringing everyone together, but it was the authors on stage with me, and everyone in the audience, who made our Powell’s event truly magical.

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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8 Responses to What It’s Like to Read at Powell’s

  1. Jan BAross says:

    excellent. Thanks for letting us in on the experience. Jan

  2. Laura, I think you are so lucky to have been surrounded by the love and the process of the book … the world of the word and those who enrich our life with theirs. Not to mention … that’s a slammin’ sexy dress 🙂

  3. jmmcdowell says:

    What a great recounting of the event. Thanks for sharing your journey with us!

    • Thank you, jm! It was fun to do; my original recap was more a summary of the event, and then when I got talking with a friend she wanted to know what it was actually like, being there at the podium. And ta da! A reason to sit and think and write about it.

  4. Oh, yes, that wonderful feeling that the audience is watching and you look down and part of your speech is somewhere other than where it should be.

    We’re always so afraid of audiences, but they’re almost never as frightening as we imagine. They’re usually pretty forgiving (as we would be, after all 🙂 ).

    • Such a great point about audiences, Anthony. I tried to reassure my friend, who has a big social moment coming up, that it’ll be fine, and they will love her, but it came out all wrong, because I told her that it’s okay to be panicked beforehand but she needs to let that all float away when she’s in the room with real people, these people who want to meet her and support her. Of course I think all she heard was “panicked.” You said it much better by talking about forgiveness.

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