The Path to the Spiders’ Nests by Italo Calvino My rating: 3 of 5 stars Hard to judge a novel like this, knowing it’s in translation, not being familiar with Calvino at all. The tone is stark, matter-of-fact. He tells the story of young Pip, an orphan in a devastated Italian town during WWII. His […]
Hard to judge a novel like this, knowing it’s in translation, not being familiar with Calvino at all. The tone is stark, matter-of-fact. He tells the story of young Pip, an orphan in a devastated Italian town during WWII. His sister is the dark whore of the Long Alley, who consorts and collaborates with the occupying Germans, while Pip ends up tagging along with resistance fighters up in the hills. Taking the child’s point of view is an opportunity for Calvino to write some really terse but telling descriptions of the various characters. They run the scale from dedicated communists to self-serving opportunists, and in the middle of it is Pim, who isn’t sure what he really wants. All we know is he can never return to anything like a normal life as his world has been turned upside down.
San Francisco has a lot to offer the visiting writer, from outstanding clam chowder to the renowned City Lights Bookstore. For me, one of the best reasons to visit was the 2020 San Francisco Writers Conference: A Celebration of Craft, Commerce, and Community, held over 4 days in mid-February on the Embarcadero.
Although I arrived at the Hyatt Regency Hotel a bit late on Thursday evening, I was still able to meet my pal George Stenitzer as he finished one of the Master’s Classes. We adjourned to the Lobby Bar for a late dinner, where a number of other attendees wandered in after class. Lively discussion accompanied the friendly get-together of writers from around the country.
Friday began on a positive note struck by breakfast Keynote Speaker Jonathan Maberry, who entertained the audience with the tale of his own journey from night club bouncer to writer across many genres. His message was one of encouragement to “try everything” and never say “no” to anything.
There was much to say “yes” to: The exhibit hall was staffed throughout the conference by representatives of writing and publishing organizations such as Bublish, Ingram Spark, and Smashwords, plus many non-profits. Also on site was the SFWC Bookstore, tables loaded with an assortment of books on craft, and also books by the speakers and presenters, with a schedule of signings. (Even copies of The Ghost of Jamie McVay were available.)
SFWC is one of those “full service” conferences, with presentations, workshops, and panel discussions in several threads throughout the week-end: You can skip around among sessions in marketing/promotions, publishing, and the craft of writing. My Friday choices included talks on fiction: Characterization, Crafting High Stakes, and Terrifying Your Readers, followed by marketing guru Rusty Shelton. Later in the afternoon I had brief one-on-one meetings with Shelton and with editor Mary Rakow.
George and I took advantage of the sunny weather to visit the nearby Ferry Building for lunch. We went back there for dinner, too, having missed the traditional “Dinner With Harvey” and others at a downtown restaurant.
Saturday morning’s keynote speaker was publisher and author Brooke Warner, who spoke on “Embracing Your Publishing Dream”. Warner discussed current trends in publishing and brought up some recent controversies.
Added to the other threads on Saturday was the SFWC Poetry Summit, introducing a panel of local poets and a schedule of poetry-oriented workshops and discussions I attended.
Breaking that up was an entertaining lunch with author Walter Mosley, one of my favorite novelists, honored and interviewed by a local personality. Mosley reminded us to “write every day” as he does. His no-nonsense responses seemed to clear the air about some racial issues – he refused to be baited into any kinds of divisive comments.
I wasn’t prepared to pitch my novel to agents or editors, although many participants pay extra for such meetings, which are scheduled throughout the week-end. However Saturday afternoon, the conference allows one to “Ask a Pro” in an open setting where professionals are available for brief Q & A chats on a variety of topics.
A Saturday night highlight of the event is the Gala Cocktail Networking Party, with a nice buffet and a semi-cash bar, followed by the Poetry and Jazz Party, featuring the all-poet band COPUS and readings by poetry summit presenters. George and I read at the open mic portion, with the talented band providing an awesome soundtrack.
Sunday the conference continued with more sessions on all tracks, while others made their way to a pre-paid scheduled hour of Speed Dating with Agents. This activity gives writers a 3-minute opportunity to pitch their projects with the agents at private tables set around the room. At the sound of the ending bell, writers move on to get in line at another agent’s table. It’s a hectic, crazy experience, but if you deliver a well-composed pitch, the agent may offer some good advice, or even request that you send more pages for review.
Other than the speed dating, the pace of the conference slows on Sunday as participants check out and begin their homeward journeys with much to process: supplemental material (much is available online); lectures and other sessions (which can be purchased on tape); promotional materials from the many vendors; and books from the expansive collection of the bookstore.
With much on my mind and a little extra time to kill, I headed out to the Embarcadero and walked along the bayside enjoying the cool breeze and sunshine, in search of that San Francisco clam chowder. I found a hearty bowl at The Waterfront before my ride to the airport. Likewise, the SFWC served up satisfying, nourishing, invigorating fare.
A great crowd turned out October 5 for the opening of Cosmic Blueprint: Archetypes in Contemporary Art, a mixed-media show on view at Burning Bush Gallery in Wheaton, IL. In addition to many of the artists and their families, I joined a team of writers who shared our poems inspired by the archetypes depicted in the artwork. I was pleased to read my contribution,”Cosmic Blueprint”, accompanying the piece by Mary Yesak that was selected as the show’s title poster. This unique exhibition of various artists was created by Jennifer Hereth, recently of the College of DuPage, based on archetypes. Poets and Patrons group led by Wilda Morris joined the Illinois State Poetry Society in the project. The exhibit will also be shown in March at Benedictine University in Lisle.
I spent part of Independent Bookstore Day promoting my novel The Ghost of Jamie McVay to local shops. I found out not all bookstores are equally friendly to authors. Some owners throw their arms wide with enthusiasm, while others have limited programs with strict guidelines for accepting new works into their stores — and I guess some don’t seem to support local authors at all.
The first store to accept a book right from my hands was the Book Shop Batavia where owner James Stickling has been featuring local writers since the store opened a year ago. Beyond the walls of his small shop, James has sponsored my book launch party at nearby Bar Evolution, and contributed to the founding of an open mic and the Batavia Lyceum, among other literary commitments. James has been handling the library of the late Frank Rutledge, holding numerous sales and benefits for the poet’s family.
Another Fox Valley bookseller of note is David Hunt of Town House Books in St. Charles, Illinois. David is very welcoming to authors, hosting book signings and readings to promote their works. This is an awesome shop in a historic building, with a nice cafe attached. A very comfortable place to shop for books!
A little farther from the scene of the crime, but no less enthusiastic, is Barbara’s Bookstore in Burr Ridge’s Village Center neighborhood. A longtime fan of Barbara’s in Chicago and Oak Park, I am pleased to have my book on the shelves of this Chicago institution.
Other stores that have local author programs acknowledge the great number of requests they get, promising only that they will review the books provided and will decide which ones they can find room for on their shelves. Right now I’m waiting to hear from Anderson’s in Naperville, The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, Harvey’s Tales in Geneva, and Prairie Fox Books in Ottawa, Illinois. I’m also expecting Barnes and Noble in Naperville to order some books soon.
The only disappointing experience I’ve had was at Prairie Path Books of Wheaton, where I was sent off with disdainful looks and condescending remarks explaining that they just weren’t interested in self-published books or even small press publications. The attitude was indignation that such authors, if you can believe it, would probably even expect a book signing or something! Officially, no one ever deigned to return a phone call or email. I felt bad about this missed opportunity, for, as readers know, much of The Ghost of Jamie McVay takes place on the actual Prairie Path, and Wheaton area readers would be most likely to enjoy descriptions of the book’s fictional “Winston” setting. Ironically, this store had a table at the Wheaton Public Library’s recent local author fest. Not sure why.
Overall, though, I’m encouraged by the positive attitude of the independent bookstores in the Chicago west suburban area, and I look forward to selling more books to readers all around.
A loungeful of locals and I enjoyed the fact-crammed presentation on Monday night, October 16 at the Batavia Lyceum at Bar Evolution on River Street. What an excellent opportunity to listen and learn, and have a drink too! A brainchild of bookstore owner James Joseph, the Lyceum offers a monthly forum for the exchange of ideas on diverse topics that touch our lives. This was the second presentation of the season.
Last night it was Batavia history teacher Scott Bayer, shocking the audience with the truth about corporate collusion with America’s enemies during WWII. Bayer supported his notes with a power point presentation and documented his lecture well. Based on the follow-up Q and A, many were amazed to realize the guilty mega-corporations such as Ford, IBM, and Chase Bank continue to thrive into the current day.
Bayer covered a lot of material in his allotted hour, but had no problem holding the attention of the audience. Here’s hoping this new local institution continues to grow. Prosit!
I had the happy experience of hearing author Dan Klefstad last year when he read an excerpt from “Shepherd and The Professor” at Lit by the Bridge in Aurora, Illinois. I think even Dan has some trouble describing the book to would-be readers. But knowing him and his situation lends the book credibility. Dan lives in DeKalb, Illinois, home of Northern Illinois University, where he received his Master’s Degree and has been host of the radio station’s Morning Edition since 1997.
It’s no coincidence that “Shepherd and the Professor” takes place at fictional Otto Kerner University in Northern Illinois. Nor is it any surprise that one of the main characters is a radio personality at the college station. But there are still plenty of surprises in store for readers.
Clever and funny – I guess one could say it’s tragicomic — the book is presented as the manuscript of Susan Shepherd, gulf war veteran and community cop, a single mom forced into desperate circumstances. She’s been shot on the job, taken advantage of by her peers, and faces suspension or worse; her daughter has taken up with a drug dealer; campus police are dealing with a school shooting controversy and scandal in the university administration. Her former lover, the “Professor”, a convert to Islam, becomes entangled with her in the middle of the mess.
And that’s not the half of it. To make matters more interesting, parts of Shepherd’s story are narrated at times by the Professor, the reporter, and a possibly deranged student. Fast-paced, with short episodes and quick shifts of scene, it’s a quick read without sacrificing depth of characterization and a plot of complex situations. There’s a lot going on but it’s not hard to follow. There are plenty of surprises along the way, in spite of the comfortable feeling as you get to know these stressed-out characters in a small Midwestern college town. For local readers, the setting will seem familiar. For any readers, the story will seem new and fresh.
After a multi-day conference of any kind, a person requires plenty of time to process it afterwards. So I’m still thinking about my experiences at the U of W Writers’ Institute in Madison, WI April 12 – 15. The institute was organized along the parallel tracks of writing and publishing, which gave the four days special significance to me and my friend George Stenitzer, who had invited me to join him in Madison.
George is seeking an agent for his book Gist, a business how-to based on his many years in corporate communications. I have been querying agents and small publishers to get interest in my YA novel The Ghost of Jamie McVay. We both attended all four daysand did our best to get all we could from the conference.
Panel discussions and presentations on writing skills ran concurrently all week-end. Much of the conversation about publishing considered the pros and cons of the traditional agent-publication route with the several options for author-self publishing. In addition, the Writers’ Institute offered contests, critique sessions, and master classes on craft. We started on Thursday with a helpful talk by literary agent Jeff Herman: “Why You Don’t (Yet) Have a Book Published.” Over the next few days, here are some of the other presentations that kept my attention:
“Write a Sex Scene That Fits the Occasion” Dave Thome
“Turn the Page! Writing Techniques Guaranteed to Improve Yourt Pacing”, Ann Voss Peterson
“Nine Magic Spells That Will Make Your Characters Come Alive” Peggy Williams
“Mistakes Were Made – 5 Lessons Learned” Mark Chiarkas
“The YA Market: Everything You Need to Know” Kristin Van Risseghem
“How to Get an Agent” Lucy Sanna
Each day began with a large-group general session, followed by the concurrent schedule of activities and presentations. Social events livened up the days. Lunchtime arrangements encouraged writers to gather under the banners of their chosen genres. On Friday evening we had the run of the ballroom with a cash bar; and Saturday night many of the participants entertained us with readings of their work. We were pleased to see our friend Chris Reid won a prize for her poetry reading. Looking back, I’m sorry we didn’t hang out in the hotel bar a bit. But the truth is we were pretty tired after the full days of the conference. Neither of us seemed to have the energy for late-night socializing.
Agent pitch sessions are highlights of conferences like this, with marketing/publishing emphasis. At least seven literary agents were on hand this year, speaking at public sessions and responding to pitches in private meetings with writers attending the institute. George received some positive feedback with requests for further information.
My one pitch to Dawn Frederick of Red Sofa Literary didn’t go very far when she dismissed my book as “more of a mystery” than YA ghost story. Guess I need to work on my pitching skills, or the “leadline” as they call it. I will say that I was surprised there wasn’t more than the one agent with an expressed interest in fiction for YA audiences. Definitely room for improvement there, UW.
If publication depends on luck, though, I should keep trying, because I am a lucky guy. Sometimes I win stuff, anyway. During the conference, for example, my name was drawn at random to win a $500 value book cover from Adept Content Solutions, a book production company. I talked to Lori Martinsek at their booth and she has already followed up with me as their designers work on graphic concepts for The Ghost of Jamie McVay.
Crappy weather all week-end kept us from straying too far from the Concourse Hotel venue. Otherwise it might have been nice to stroll the streets of downtown Madison in the evening. This year’s Institute suffered at the end from an unseasonable snowstorm that sent some participants scrambling home early; others were stranded an extra day as roads and flights shut down.
All in all, the Writers’ Institute in Madison provided a full schedule of events for writers of all genres and levels of accomplishment. They don’t do this for free, of course. The cost of the full conference was $375, with lodging additional. Pitch sessions and some classes were extra, so it’s possible to customize the week-end as you see fit. A number of local attendees came only for one or two days. Every profession has its costs, if you want to invest in it. This event could be especially helpful to new and unpublished authors, and invaluable to anyone looking to network and socialize with other writers. I’d definitely consider going again.