“The plain truth of each other”

49 Writers invaded the Pi Lounge at the Embassy Suites in Anchorage last night, a great venue (thanks to Kathleen Tarr for suggesting it) that facilitated lively conversation and good fun. We learned of old books from new authors (new to us, anyhow) and new books in the works from old friends. We promised an off-the-record event, but we’ll post all the news as it becomes official.

Over 100 guests attended the UAA Summer Reading Series (officially the Northern Renaissance Arts and Science Series) event that precipitated and preceded last night’s gathering, with readings by Judith Barrington, David Stevenson, and Sherry Simpson, all on the faculty of UAA’s low-residency MFA program.

Barrington opened the evening by reading from Lifesaving, a memoir which she described as a process of discovering the story under the story, exploring almost entirely unconscious feelings of unacknowledged grief connected with the simultaneous drownings of her mother and father. In striking, resonant prose laced with humor, she transported the audience to a feudally-organized Spanish village where she worked as a tour guide many years back. At the home of Dolores, a bottling-plant worker bearing some resemblance to Barrington’s mother, son Paco is presented as a marriage prospect, worthy not only because he’s a good man and a hard worker, but also (Dolores’s trump card) because he’s tall, like Barrington. “Dolores, I really don’t think I’ll get married for a long time,” Barrington admits. Touching Barrington’s arm, encompassing both the failed prospect and the untimely deaths of Barrington’s parents, Dolores replies, “Que lastima – what a pity.”

In her introduction of the next reader, Jo-Ann Mapson described David Stevenson as “a sort of towel boy for our YWCA,” referring to the all-female faculty of the program he now directs. From outside his usual genre of mountaineering nonfiction, Stevenson read a flashback from the end of his novel-in-progress, a novel that according to Mapson features boxing, Mexico, Vietnam, subversive politics, and beautiful women. Expelled from catholic school (a “mutual understanding,” he calls it) and then from public school, Eddie’s friend Slip is confined to an insane asylum, “at least one boy who wouldn’t come home from Vietnam in a box.” Out on a pass, Slip dies one night, becoming “a statistic, one that couldn’t be saved from himself.” “We’ll pray later,” says Crow as his friends dump Slip’s body on the lawn of the asylum. Beyond the edgy narrative, Stevenson captivated listeners with lines like “Kidney, liver, heart,” which he explained as a mantra for boxers punching bags in the gym.

Introduced by Stevenson as level-headed, funny, and self-effacing, Sherry Simpson ended the evening on a fully resonant note with the gutsy choice of “Fidelity,” my personal favorite from her collection The Accidental Explorer. “Only a few times in life are you asked to surrender completely to a moment,” she writes of a bear approaching her camp. Simpson juxtaposes repeated bear encounters with ongoing tensions in her marriage. “There was no place to camp where bears would not be – we knew that,” she writes. She and her husband fight. “They scraped us clean, those words. They stripped us into silence.” By the end of her intimate and deftly woven narrative, Simpson writes, “I felt kindly toward those bears” for showing “how we all should believe in the plain truth of each other,” a fine note on which to end the evening.

The UAA series ends tonight with a presentation at 8 p.m. in Rasmuson Hall featuring the collaborative art and poetry project of Frank Soos and Margot Klass. As for the next 49 Writers gathering – well, stay tuned for that.

6 thoughts on ““The plain truth of each other””

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Wonderful summaries of three great readings — thanks for refreshing my brain, which is still reeling (or wobbling) both from the intensity of the event and the wine that followed it. It was an awesome night that frankly made me envious of the UAA faculty and students for the experience they are sharing. What a group!

  2. Me too on the reeling, and wobbling. I loved Sherry Simpson's analogy for the program – that it started out as a gravel bar, subject to shifting currents, and now it's a peninsula with continental aspirations.

  3. Just wondering on titles, and how "Accidental Explorer" begs a similar title of an Ann Tyler classic.

    When titles are chosen are they done in a perfect artistic vacuum? Or is one obliged to take into consideration all that has come before?

  4. Sherry Simpson

    Thanks for the write-up and the support! It was great to see you all in the audience.

    Daniel asked a question about titles. I actually hated that title (my original title was A Nuisance to Myself and Others, but the editor and agent didn't like it–too vague). When The Accidental Explorer was suggested, I googled "Accidental ____" and sent them a huge list of similar titles and phrases: Accidental Tourist, of course, and also Adventurer, Hedonist, Satyr, Oenophile, etc. etc.

    The editor told me that for their purpose, they didn't mind if it recalled other books. I was entirely unsuccessful in dissuading them, and sadly I did not have a brilliant idea to substitute for it.

    I learned a big lesson about publishing and marketing with the title and with the cover. As it turns out, the author has much less influence on these decisions than we think…..

  5. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Incredibly cool to get an instant answer to that question, straight from the author's mouth. Thanks Sherry!

  6. Great to hear the scoop on titles directly from the author. All I can add is that someone in publishing (I wish I remembered exactly who) told me that titles aren't technically copyrighted, though I suspect there could be infringement with appropriating a title for a similar work if a case were made that the concept was being mimicked or "stolen" in some manner.

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