Eric Lorberer was so thrilled to be introducing writer Joy Williams at the Twin Cities Book Festival on Saturday that he could hardly believe it was true.
“So somebody tweet it so I’ll believe it,” he said, a joke, of course, since Lorberer is not on social media—not on Twitter, not on Facebook, only occasionally on e-mail.
But there was Williams, in black cowboy boots and sunglasses, smiling broadly, standing up, reading her classic story, “Escapes,” which was the title piece of a 1990 collection and is now included in her new book, “The Visiting Privilege.”
“Writers pretty much line up to praise the grace and mastery that she brings,” Lorberer said. He wasn't’t the only one in awe of Williams; British novelist Rupert Thomson, himself a featured author at the event, was in the front row, and later he tweeted (because he is on Twitter), “Would not have missed Joy Williams reading ‘Escapes’ for the world @TCBF15.”
Williams is 71, thin and wiry. Her stories are “quirky and ominous,” said the New York Times; the “dark at the end of the tunnel.”
The characters are children in danger, children who are abandoned or neglected; people on the edge; and animals, always animals.
“We don’t rule the world as much as we think we do,” Williams told the festival crowd. “So much of it is inhuman. An animal blesses the story for me. Every story needs an animal.”
Williams writes short stories, novels, and essays—her essays, she says, are not balanced or measured, but fierce. “I don’t care about them being balanced. I don’t care about them being subtle,” she said. “I want to produce rage in the reader.”
Even less technologically adept than Lorberer, she writes not on a computer, but on “old typewriters,” she said. “I have five or six Smith Coronas that weigh a great deal. I can’t take them on a plane.” Novels take a long time—it takes her ten years to write a novel, she said—and they require stability. “You have to be in a single place. A novel doesn't’t like to be packed up and moved.”
She took no questions, but Lorberer said she would be willing to chat one-on-one with folks at the book-signing table.
The line there was long.
Rupert Thomson, the author of 10 novels and a memoir, was at the festival to read from his latest book, “Katherine Carlyle.” Before he and his wife married, she asked him if he would want children. He was headed off to Rome to write, and she was headed to Belfast for work, and he promised to think about it.
He wrote down the pros and the cons. Cons: less sleep, less freedom, less sex (presumably), more anxiety, more financial burden, more responsibility.
“The other side seemed elusive,” he said. He wrote one word in the Pro side: Love. And added a question mark.
In the end he said yes. “Saying no to a child would be like saying no to life itself,” he said. And he and his wife began difficult and dangerous IVF treatments. In the end, they had a daughter (and the question mark after “love” was erased forever: When she was born, he said, “I felt this love pour into me, this hot, scalding love”).
And her birth was sort of the beginning of “Katherine Carlyle,” a novel about a young woman who was an IVF baby. “The book came very suddenly, while I was in the middle of writing another book,” he said. “I wrote the first draft in about 36 or 37 days.”
He sat on the book for another six years; his wife didn’t want him to finish it because, she said, “you’ve written books before where things you write have come true,” and she did not want harm to come to their daughter.
But it is lucky for us that he did finish it, eventually, and with a different ending (the daughter is protected!): It is a beautiful, intelligent novel, with a riveting plot and a fascinating main character.
The festival had so much more going on – a book fair, and constant signings (long lines, two writers at a time), a funny and wise panel discussion on what it means to be a Midwestern writer, with Lauren Fox, Lin Enger and Faith Sullivan (“I’m not sure we do know what Midwestern novels are,” Fox said. “I think of Jane Smiley and then sort of drift away after that.”) (“Look at the publishing houses, the Loft, the libraries—there is a culture of books and writers here, no question, that works in our favor,” said Sullivan.); and a conversation between Star Tribune theater critic Rohan Preston and novelist Jabari Asim; and a funny, warm talk by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (while fund-raising, the senator said, she once “raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends. As my husband points out, that’s not an expanding base”); and so much more.
It was like a mini-AWP—so much going on simultaneously that you could be sitting in one presentation, riveted, and then hear laughter or applause from the presentation over yonder and wish for a moment that you had chosen differently.
But truly, with the Twin Cities Book Festival, you cannot choose wrong.