Sunday, July 20, 2014

If You're Stuck, Read a Book: Anthony Doerr and Elaine Ambrose

Tony Doerr with Bonnie Jemmett, of Salt Lake City, Utah.
 Bonnie wowed everyone at the retreat with her gift for 

quick response writing and her story and dialogue 
of an aged woman:
 "Not only has the world left you forsaken in its wake...
you are not who you once were and the question is, when will it be over?"
While trying not to hold my breath until my flight crosses the Atlantic back to Skye, I often walk downriver to the streetcar and head to Powell's Bookstore, claimed to be the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world. I think it may be considered the largest in general, at least, based on shelf space. 

In any case, it is a blast hanging out and looking at everything from (new and old) kid's books to (new and old) cookery, and I've discovered a treasury in the Japanese form, manga, which I'd never even known existed - how can that be? you may well ask...and Graphic Novels...Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother is hysterical, and there is much more of her. My ignorance astounds even me.

I was disappointed when I missed the chance to make a reservation to see Diana Gabaldon. Though not an author I've read, after the first chapter of an Outlander book, she is very popular and successful as a writer and it's always fun to see one of those in the flesh. 

So - deep breath - when I saw that Anthony Doerr was going to make an appearance to promote his latest book, All the Light We Cannot See, at Powell's City of Books store in downtown Portland, I made sure I was there, tea and crumpet in hand. (For Doerr's bio, see bottom of page.) Silly me forgot my camera, but I cheated and used above photo I had taken previously.

Three years ago, I spent a day with Tony, at a beautiful cabin on the South Fork of the Payette River in Garden Valley, Idaho. Being the spoiled writer for the local county paper, I was invited to attend the informative and joyous week-end writer's retreat, Write by the River, hosted by humor writer Elaine Ambrose. 

Saturday afternoon's workshop with Tony Doerr kicked me into a different writing reality. He is the master of the non-cliche and he beat it into our heads, imploring the writers to "shake up your habits!" regarding cliches and to "convince your readers they are 'not reading but there'". 

An example of the latter, set by Tony himself, was described when he recently was asked, by Tweed's Magazine of Literature and Art, whether it was daunting to write as his blind, young female character and how she would experience the world around her (in All the Light We Cannot See).

The author replied,  "...I found it more challenging to try to render other aspects of her life: that she is French, that her father goes missing, how she would think and speak. That said, there were hours when I was working hard on Marie-Laure’s chapters and I’d look up from the desk and forget that I could see."

On the evening Tony appeared at Powell's, again he powered the room with his punchy and efficient mode of speech. He exhibited the intensity that I remembered - along with the dedication that we as writers have to have to create. He said, in answer to someone's query about when did he know he was a writer, "Everybody's a writer who goes to her desk every morning and works."                          

Now all of this is fine but to read his work is to find the beauty, the rhythm and grace that is formed at his desk...well, not just at his desk, but in every fiber of his intuition and investigation. All of the electricity, the travels to sites, the delving and searching of heart and mind and science and metaphysics and history and every aspect of life that can be inspected, contribute to the special stories he serves to the reader.

Anyway, it was gratifying to see his vibrant self again and to suck a little more wisdom from a teacher. He left us with a quote by poet, Wislawa Szymborska, from her Nobel Lecture in 1996:

Granted, in daily speech, where we don't stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like "the ordinary world," "ordinary life," "the ordinary course of events" ... But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone's existence in this world.


Some Books to get high on...

Elaine Ambrose, at Millpark Publishing, has a knack for publishing solid, entertaining books and her own are always a tickle in the ribs. I haven't seen her latest, Midlife Cabernet – Life, Love & Laughter after Fifty, but I've read enough of her essays on the subject to know that this is something I have to pick up and actually read. The book has just grabbed the Silver Medal for Humor in the annual Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) competition that honors independent authors and publishers worldwide. More than 6,000 entries were judged in this year’s competition to recognize and reward independent spirit and creativity in publishing. 
   New Book by Idaho Author Wins National Humor Award           

Midlife Cabernet was published by Mill Park Publishing of Eagle, Idaho, USA, which Elaine founded to publish works by local women writers, and she donates proceeds to local charities. This is the company’s second IPPY award, and the author's other books also have won a national humor award from ForeWord Magazine and five awards from recent competitions sponsored by the Idaho Book Extravaganza.

Elaine says they are thrilled to receive another award to acknowledge quality books from Mill Park Publishing: “The success of Midlife Cabernet proves there are millions of middle-aged women who would rather laugh than break something, preferably while holding a bold Cabernet."

Though recommended by the tipsy authors, I never filled a glass while reading this book and my favorite chair was my morning throne, with the sun or cloud cover lighting the pages—but for a couple of weeks, this was my reveille, because my soul rises to meetings with intriguing women and intelligent literature, and I got my daily dosage each time I re-opened Drinking with Dead Women Writers.

 Elaine Ambrose and AK Turner must be commended for the concept and title—and who knows how many books never make it past the edge of the shelf because of uninspiring covers. This book looks great and feels good in the hands.

Whether contrived or not, all of AK Turner’s stories are written in the present, while Ambrose meets her spectres at a time already locked into the past. These playful rendezvous take the reader alternately across the mist of time. Turner successfully plays with our suspension of disbelief, because we want desperately to believe that Virginia Woolf is here with us, hair still wet as though she just arrived from her dip in the river. Her women are in the flesh. We are at the table when Dorothy Parker tells Turner to drink up, and we feel woozy after the second bottle is gone.

Elaine Ambrose passes through that mist away from us and keeps her writers where they rightfully belong—dead and buried—they are shades who beckon her to a contemporary meeting place but we get the story after the curtain has closed again behind her. When Edna St. Vincent Millay tossed the cork over the banister, we could all appreciate it as we would a bard’s tale—but we didn’t get to smell the cork. When Ambrose sweated and drank margaritas with Erma Bombeck in the Old Town Tortilla Factory, the reader enjoys one funny woman with another as through an open window to a dream. Was it yesterday that Louisa May Alcott ranted about toy mice wearing Civil War costumes? Seventy-five years ago? Ambrose keeps her dead women at bay from us—she is allowed intimacy and shares it with us, but we are distanced and we have no illusions about the dead being dead. This is delightful fantasy.

Ambrose’s humor and Turner’s straight man-with-a-prod quips keep the chortles coming, and I could only holler for more. So I bought Drinking With Dead Drunks. Ho - boy...have fun with this one.


Books by Elaine Ambrose and Millpark Publishing can be found on or 

Anthony Doerr is the author of The Shell CollectorAbout GraceFour Seasons in RomeMemory Wall, and the New York Times bestselling novel, All the Light We Cannot See. Doerr’s fiction has won four O. Henry Prizes and has been anthologized in The Best American Short StoriesThe Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, and The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. He has won the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, the Rome Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, the National Magazine Award for Fiction, three Pushcart Prizes, the Pacific Northwest Book Award, three Ohioana Book Awards, the 2010 Story Prize, which is considered the most prestigious prize in the U.S. for a collection of short stories, and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, which is the largest prize in the world for a single short story.  His books have twice been a New York Times Notable Book, an American Library Association Book of the Year, and made lots of other year end “Best Of” lists. In 2007, the British literary magazine, Granta, placed Doerr on its list of 21 Best Young American novelists.

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