Charles Baxter looked around at the crush of people inside Micawber’s Bookstore, a standing-room-only crowd, and he suggested that maybe he should cut his talk a little short. All those people standing, in winter coats and boots, it can’t be comfortable.
Nobody seemed to think that cutting things short would be a good idea.
Baxter, winner of the Rea Award for the Short Story and a finalist for the National Book Award for his novel “The Feast of Love,” was at Micawber’s to launch his new book, “There’s Something I Want You to Do.”
Baxter wrote the book—a collection of ten stories, five about virtues, five about vices—after going through what he called a “dry patch” when he wasn’t writing much of anything. “I started going through some old notebooks,” he said, “and I came across some old pages from 30 years ago. This is how old they were—they were typed.”
The pages were from a story he had started and discarded, and as he read it he thought it was one he could finish now. He changed the locale from Michigan (where he had lived) to Minnesota (where he now lives). One of the characters used the word “loyalty” to talk about his father, and that became the name of the story.
The next story ended up being called “Bravery,” and, “I thought that was very odd,” he said. “I seemed to be writing stories about virtues.” He talked to his editor about writing a collection of stories called “Virtues,” and his editor said, "I think that’s a very bad idea."
In the end, Baxter put together a collection of stories about both vices and virtues. Not all vices and virtues, and not necessarily the most common ones. “Just the ones I’m interested in,” he said.
The title had a different genesis. In “Hamlet,” “the whole play essentially starts because the ghost of Hamlet’s father says, ‘There’s something I want you to do.’" Baxter said. "The same is true for ‘King Lear.’” That request sets things in motion—and the higher the stakes of the request, the more dramatic the story.
Baxter looked out at the crowd and met the eyes of his brother, who was in the audience. “Since my brother is here, I can tell you that that phrase is also one that my mother used, over and over and over again.” And everybody laughed.
When he read, Baxter didn’t first read from the book but from an excised scene from one of the stories, “the equivalent of the DVD deleted scenes,” he said, or the director’s cut of a movie. The scene, originally in the story, “Chastity,” was both funny and poignant, an encounter between the main character of Benny and Benny’s mother, a cigarette-smoking-yoga-practicing woman whose divorce either “liberated or destabilized her, Benny wasn’t sure which.”
It was the following scene—a scene that takes place on the Washington Avenue Bridge, a scene that remained in the story—that was pivotal to Baxter. He read aloud the key sentence: “Irony was the new form of chastity and was everywhere these days. You never knew whether people meant what they said or whether it was all a goof.”
“And that’s the sentence that made me know I had a book,” he said.
And then questions, answers: He discussed that “dry patch” (“I like to think every writer experiences this. It feels a little like depression," he said, when no topic or subject seems appealing to write about. "It just feels like luck when a subject arrives and you think, ‘That’s something I can do. That’s something I want to do.’”) and themed collections (“You write these stories and you find out sort of belatedly what you’re writing about. My second collection, ‘Through the Safety Net,’ was about people who have had the rug sort of pulled out from under them. Though I didn’t realize until I was about three-quarters through it that that’s what it was about”) and about which is easier to write about, vices or virtues (“Oh, vices. Vices are much more interesting. Misdeeds—they interest us”).
The bookstore grew warm, those standing shifted from foot to foot, but nobody wanted to leave. Baxter wrapped things up. He looked out at the crowd, at his brother, his daughter-in-law, his students, his colleagues, his fellow writers, and his friends.
“I’m going to be on this book tour for some time,” he said, “and I just have to say I don’t expect ever to be in a room with so many people I care about. So, thank you. Thank you.”
The crush of people started early: in the foyer of Open Book, through the lobby, up the famous winding staircase to the second floor. Graywolf Press folks hustled past the line, privileged, no need to wait--they were the publishers, after all, of the evening's poet, and they had a lot to do.
"I feel like I'm at a rock concert," one young woman said as the crowd inched up the stairs.
And she wasn't far wrong; poet Claudia Rankine is a literary rock star. Her newest collection, "Citizen: An American Lyric," was a finalist for a National Book Award and is a finalist in two categories (poetry, and criticism) for a National Book Critics Circle award.
Rankine, who teaches at Pomona College, was in Minneapolis on Friday night after spending most of the week at the College of St. Benedict in Collegeville, doing readings and talking to students.
The performance hall at the Loft was at capacity (about 200 people); three overflow rooms held a couple hundred more, hooked up by video and not always reliable audio. Macalester College professor Marlon James, author of "A Brief History of Seven Killings," introduced Rankine.
"I can't tell you how quickly I responded to that e-mail that said did I want to introduce Claudia Rankine," James said, chuckling, calling himself one of her biggest fanboys. "Even at its most boldly confrontational, 'Citizen' grabs us with its big heart. It's the pre-Ferguson book that feels post."
Rankine, quiet, thoughtful, measured, talked about the beginnings of her book. "I went to friends and asked them, 'Will you tell me a story where race entered the room?'" she said. They did, and she listened. These stories found their way into the first section of "Citizen," story after story, written in the second person the more to involve the reader, written plainly and nearly without emotion, but story after story, one building on another to devastating effect.
A friend ("you" in the piece) went to her first therapy appointment at the therapist's house, and the therapist screamed at her to get out of her yard.
Rankine ("you" in the piece) asked a friend to babysit while she went to the movies. On her way home she got a call from a neighbor, warning her about a "menacing black guy" in front of her house, casing the joint. Don't worry, the neighbor says; he's already called the police.
And when the menacing black guy turned out to be Rankine's friend who had stepped outside to make a phone call while babysitting her children, she suggests to the man that in future, he stay in the back yard. "He looks at you a long minute before saying he can speak on the phone wherever he wants. Yes, of course, you say. Yes, of course."
The crowd at the Loft was perfectly silent as she read this piece, and then Rankine looked up and said, "That's the tortuorous and complicated and sick thing about racism. I want to protect you from my neighbor, and my way of protecting you is to curtail your rights. It's insidious."
For another part of "Citizen," Rankine asked her friend Rupert, an attorney in Los Angeles, to tell her about the times he had been pulled over by the cops. Rupert and his wife came over to Rankine's house, and "one of the things that surprised me was that she had never heard any of his stories," she said. "And as he told them I could see him getting angrier and angrier."
She read some of Rupert's stories in her quiet, strong voice: "Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. I must have been speeding. No, you weren't speeding. I wasn't speeding? You didn't do anything wrong. Then why are you pulling me over? Why am I pulled over? Put your hands where they can be seen. Put your hands in the air. Put your hands up."
After the reading, the audience questions came slowly at first, as though everyone needed some time to absorb the words they had just heard. One man had no question but merely wanted to thank her for reminding him that he is not alone.
A woman asked about Rankine's emotions as she was writing the book. "There were things that distressed me," Rankine said. "The piece about the therapist really shocked me." But when she was writing, she was concentrating more on the language than the feelings behind them. "Sometimes it takes weeks to figure out the right order of the words, or the words themselves," she said.
A teacher asked how to respond to white students who read "Citizen" and feel defensive. Rankine suggested that defensiveness is only one way a person can respond, and that the teacher might consider asking her students to look for other ways, too.
"We are all struggling around this," she said. "The only chance we have is engagement."
The spring season of Club Book--the free writers series that brings nationally known writers to libraries and community centers all over the metro area, mainly outside of the core cities--kicks off on Feb. 12. This season's lineup is diverse and strong, including Quan Barry, Sonia Nazarrio, Jonathan Odell, and Garth Stein. March is particularly busy, with five of the nine events that month.
Here's the lineup:
Peter Heller. 7 p.m. Feb. 12, Stillwater Public Library, 224 3rd St. N., Stillwater. Heller is the author of "The Dog Stars" and "The Painter," and he has written extensively for National Geographic, Outside Magazine, Men's Journal and other magazines. The Star Tribune called "The Dog Stars" "a heart-wrenching and richly written story," comparable to the work of Cormac McCarthy.
Amy Quan Barry. 7 p.m. March 4, Northtown Library, 711 County Road 10 NE, Blaine. Barry is a poet and novelist, winner of the Donald Hall Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker and Ploughshares as well as other journals and magazines, and her new novel, "She Weeps Each Time You're Born," will be published this spring.
Nadia Hashimi. 7 p.m. March 11, Highland Park Community Center, 1974 Ford Parkway, St. Paul. Hashimi is the daughter of Afghan immigrants to the United States, and her novel, "The Pearl that Broke its Shell," is the story of two Afghan women. Hashimi, a pediatrician, is working on her second book, which is about Afghan refugees in Europe.
Jonathan Odell. 7 p.m. March 17, Prior Lake Library, 16210 Eagle Creek Av. SE, Prior Lake. Odell grew up in Mississippi and now lives in Minneapolis. His novel, "The Healing," published in 2012, was a local bestseller and named an Indies Next pick by the American Booksellers Association. His new novel, "Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League," about the relationship between a black woman and a white woman during the American civil rights movement, will be published this month. (It is a reimagining of his first novel, "The View from Delphi.")
Anthony Marra. 6:30 p.m. March 19, Chanhassen Public Library, 7711 Kerber Boulevard, Chanhassen. Marra, winner of a Whiting Writers Award and a Pushcart Prize, is the author of "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena." Set in Chechnya, the book was longlisted for the National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize for emerging authors.
Marisa de los Santos. 7 p.m. March 31, Roseville Public Library, 2180 Hamline Av. N., Roseville. De los Santos is a poet, young-adult writer, essayist, and the author of three New York Times best-selling novels, including "Falling Together." Her new novel is "The Precious One."
Jon Ronson. 6:30 p.m. April 13, R.H. Stafford Library, 8595 Central Park Place, Woodbury. Ronson is a journalist and the author of "The Men Who Stare at Goats," later made into a movie starring George Clooney. His most recent book is, "So You've Been Publicly Shamed."
Garth Stein. 7 p.m. April 20, Galaxie Library, 14955 Galaxie Av., Apple Valley. Stein is the author of the best-selling "The Art of Racing in the Rain," which was on the New York Times best-seller list for three years. His new novel is a ghost story, "A Sudden Light."
Sonia Nazario. 7 p.m. April 27, Southdale Library, 7001 York Av. S., Edina. Nazario is a reporter who has worked for the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. At the Times she won the Pulitzer Prize for her serial narrative "Enrique's Journey," the true story of a young Honduran boy who was attempting to cross the border into the United States to find his mother.
Club Book is funded through the state's 2008 Legacy Amendment. All events are free and open to the public, and since 2014 have been recorded and are available as podcasts on the Club Book website. Doors open 45 minutes before the event, and each event will be followed by book sales and signings by the authors.
This fall's English @ Minnesota series will bring in novelist (and jazz musician, and memoirist, and ...) James McBride, who will talk about "The Good Lord Bird," winner of the 2013 National Book Award (and soon to be a major motion picture, starring Jaden Smith) (and produced by McBride himself).
"The Good Lord Bird" is a funny, poignant novel about a young boy (nicknamed Onion) who travels with abolitionist John Brown in the months leading up to the Civil War.
McBride will be at Coffman Union Theater at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 8.
The program will also host:
Jeff Sharlet, Edelstein Keller visiting writer and the author of "Radiant Truths," "The Family," and other books of literary journalism. 7 p.m. Oct. 2. Upson Room, Walter Library.
Stacey D'Erasmo, author of "Wonderland" and other books. 7 p.m. Oct. 14, Weisman Art Museum.
A conference on John Berryman at 100, the weekend of Oct. 24-26, at the Elmer L. Andersen Library. Poet Berryman, who died in 1972, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and taught at the University of Minnesota.
Hunger Relief, with Jess Row. This will be the seventh annual hunger relief benefit, organized by Charles Baxter. Jess Row, author of "Your Face in Mine," will join the English Department's faculty raising money for Second Harvest Heartland. The benefit will be at 7 p.m. Nov 3 in McNamara Alumni Center. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5.
Jamaal May, Edelstein Keller visiting writer and author of "Hum," will read at 7 p.m. Nov. 12 in the Upson Room of Walter Library.
The series runs from July 11 through July 20 and is free and open to the public. All events will be in Room 110E of the Giddens Learning Center on the Hamline Campus, except for the keynote address, which will be in the Anne Simley Theater of the Drew Fine Arts Center.
Here's the schedule:
Ron Koertge, Marsha Qualey, Laura Ruby: Friday, July 11, 6:45 – 8 p.m.
Clare Vanderpool: Saturday, July 12, 3:00 – 3:30 p.m.
Gary Schmidt, Jane Resh Thomas, Marsha Chall: Sunday, July 13, 6:45 – 8 p.m.
Gene Luen Yang, Anne Ursu, Phyllis Root: Monday, July 14, 6:45 – 8 p.m.
Swati Avasthi, Claire Rudolf Murphy, Jackie Briggs Martin: Tuesday, July 15, 6:45 – 8 p.m.
Ricki Thompson, Alicia Williams, Melinda Cordell: Wednesday, July 16, 6:45 – 8 p.m.
Sara Kvois, Mike Petry, Katie Knutson: Thursday, July 17, 6:45 – 8 p.m.
Maria Macioce, Araceli Esparza: Saturday, July 19, 6:45 – 8 p.m.
Vera Williams: Sunday, July 20, 3:30-4:30 p.m.,Drew Fine Arts Center, Anne Simley Theatre.
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