A report from South Dakota: Cool Writers, A Controversy and a Rock Star
Deadwood, South Dakota is 385 miles north of Denver. You shoot straight through Cheyenne, parallel the eastern border of Wyoming and watch trains tugging their long snakes of coal. The road climbs east through the Black Hills. In late September, gold aspen trees dot the high country.
Deadwood is clogged with casinos. The conference hotel for the South Dakota Festival of Books is reached only by walking past the slot machines and blackjack tables and finding an elevator in the back corner. All of downtown, in fact, is loaded with hotels and gambling tables. There isn’t one grocery store in town, although there are plenty of places to eat. And drink. The entire town is listed on the National Historic Register. Other than the slots, it has an old-west vibe.
During a jam-packed weekend, however, the festival transforms the town. Some 70 writers offer presentations in such places as the town library, the elementary school gymnasium, Deadwood City Hall and upstairs in the creaky-floor grand ballroom of the Martin & Mason Hotel (built in 1893). The festival also coordinates a series of programs in nearby schools and universities, all part of a busy few days in celebration of books and writing and reading. The words “books” and “festival” belong together, don’t you think?
William Kent Krueger was the star this year (Sept. 24—27). He was the keynote for RMFW Gold in 2014 and, of course, just as affable and easy-going in Deadwood as he was when he came to Denver. His book Ordinary Grace was the pick for the “One Book South Dakota” program. Kent was everywhere and was easily spotted every morning in a hotel alcove, writing away. On Saturday night, he was interviewed in front of a huge audience by South Dakota’s own Sandra Brannan. He stayed with writing his kinds of mysteries, followed his own path, and the work paid off. Ordinary Grace blew up.
I met Harold Johnson. He’s from La Ronge, Saskatchewan. That’s 1,200 miles straight north of Denver. He traps and hunts and lives off the land. He also has a Master of Law degree from Harvard (with no high school diploma). He served in the Canadian Navy and worked in mining and logging. He gave an interesting presentation on the power of story that challenged the notion of what’s real and what’s not. Fascinating. His latest book is Corvus, which “examines the illusions of security we build through technology and presents a scathing satire of a world caught up in climate change denial and the glorification of war.” Thoughtful guy, extremely likable. He smoked a pipe. His father was Swedish. His mother was Cree.
At the book signing area, I sat next to Garth Stein. Garth wrote The Art of Racing in the Rain after watching a Mongolian documentary about dogs and reading a poem by Billy Collins, “The Revenant.” The Art of Racing in the Rain was on the New York Times best-seller list for 156 weeks. That’s about three years. He sold precisely 1.2 bajillion books. Garth said he had no problem writing the follow-up book, based on a new idea. He’s a writer. Writers write. One really kind guy. He said when he started The Art it was different, but good. He had a hunch it would do well. So did his wife.
I met Ann Weisgarber, from Sugar Land, Texas. She’s friendly, easy-going, warm. She couldn’t interest any publisher in this country to put out her first novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. Then a publisher in England picked it up and she was short listed for England's 2009 Orange Prize and for the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. In the United States, she won the Stephen Turner Award for New Fiction and the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction. (Many other awards, too.) New York is now paying attention. So is Hollywood. Viola Davis optioned the book (JuVee Productions, her company). Ann Weisgarber—a picture of class. Take a minute. Go to her page. Check those wonderful reviews.
My panelmates at City Hall were Sandra Brannan (South Dakota’s own favorite crime writer) and Tom Bouman, whose Dry Bones in the Valley won the Edgar Prize for best first novel. It doesn’t get any bigger in mystery writing land for new writers. Tom read a passage he prepared—and transported us all to the early morning woods on a hunt in Pennsylvania. He concluded by pointing out there is no perfect story, no perfect book. And that’s why we love it—we get to keep writing. And trying. Kent Krueger sat in the audience for our panel and asked thoughtful questions. Ann Weisgarber, too. Sheesh.
On the first night of the festival, the organizers held a reception for authors at the nearby Opera House in Lead. (That’s “Lead” like “need” not “Lead” like the tip of your pencil). Fielding questions while sitting on stage, writers and poets talked about what inspired us to write. One long-haul truck driver (Rod Hoffer) said he wrote young adult stories for his grandkids. He said he wrote during the times when his trailer was being filled—or emptied. Writing was a passion. He smiled a lot.
Then Charles Shields pulled the pin on a stink bomb. He’s a biographer. He wrote a biography of Harper Lee some years back.
Here’s what he said—that he starts every project only after a clear evaluation of whether it will make money.
You could feel the room tense up.
William Kent Krueger rose in defense of those who write, you know, without money in mind.
Here’s the tail end of what Kent said:
“And I think that in the end it’s not going to matter whether you become rich and famous because you will have spent your life following your passion. But what I also believe is this—if you do that, eventually, you will discover the writer you were always meant to be and you will write the stories you were meant to write and the doors will open for you.”
Eloquent? Very. Listen:
Yeah, the applause was pretty strong. And music to my ears.
I’m sure Charles Shields is a nice guy too but I’ve never met a fiction writer who thought in those terms.
The minor controversy didn’t impact the terrific weekend. There were more writers to meet—Minnesota’s upbeat Faith Sullivan, Colorado’s own Pam Houston, South Dakota writing mentor Linda Hasselstrom, and California’s quite smart Ron Carlson (Five Skies, The Signal, Return to Oakpine, Ron Carlson Writes A Short Story; one of my favorite writers in the country).
And then Robert Plant showed up. I didn’t see him. He was there to see Kent Nerburn (13 books on spirituality and Native American themes). Robert Plant, yes, came to Kent’s panel.
(The Led Zeppelin cover band “In the Led” are due to play the same conference hotel on Oct. 16; wonder if Robert Plant spotted the poster in that hotel elevator! What would he think??)
I drove home not thinking about money. I drove home thinking about writers and all their many varied passions.
The South Dakota Festival of Books is one ultra-friendly conference that pulls in lots of talented writers.
Bet on it.