AUSTIN: It was cold in that basement.
MEGHAN: But I love how Charlie was like, “This isn’t cold. You want cold, come to Minnesota!”
I was freezing, even though i had a coat on, but when he started reading I just dropped into his stories. They were mesmerizing.
AUSTIN: Usually when I sketch at readings, and even when I just sit and listen at readings, the author loses me, and I start thinking about what we’re going to eat, or what we just ate, or what things I might have to do the next morning at work. With this reading, even though I was trying to get his face and his fluttering eyelids right, and I didn’t bring a pen, so I was using pencil, I really fell into the dream–the way his voice was so wonderfully paced put me inside the minds of those characters.
I remember you said, “It’s like bedtime reading.” And I thought that was perfect, because we read THE FEAST OF LOVE before bed.
MEG: His books are like fairytales for adults–they’re worlds that are just slightly more fantastical and magical than our own, but that we intuitively understand. He has such a gift for describing small moments and people so that you can just see his stories unfolding in front of you–I think he must be a visual person. His stories don’t need illustrations, they are illustrations.
Fairytales were always deliciously horrifying to me as a little kid–the witch in Sleeping Beauty–and Baxter has ordinary villains that are absolutely terrifying.
AUSTIN: In BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE, he’s very outspoken about villains, and how we need to have them. I think a perfect example of the villain you’re talking about is “The Bat,” Oscar’s dad, in FEAST. Terrifying and yet ordinary.
But getting back to fairy tales, Ben Marcus writes about childhood bedtime reading: “Faking sleep after a story ended was the only way to have private time, an afterlude of silence so the story could bloom inside you, and not get ruined by explanations and claims and arguments.” So there we were, letting the story bloom in the post-reading silence, and then the Q & A begins, and some grad student has to bring up reoccuring metaphors and Freud and then starts into a feminist critique of the male idolization of the female body image!
I didn’t even care who saw my eyes roll…
MEG: I thought that was rude, actually. It’s like you’ve been to a delicious meal at someone’s home, and at the end someone forces you to eat something really disgusting and it just ruins the mood. Everyone was so entranced with the reading, and then this woman starts ranting on about feminism– which I found offensive, since Baxter writes the female voice in such a sensitive way. His female voices are some of the truest I’ve read of any author – male or female.
Then, to add to the nonsense, a man in the audience said that the character in the story was “very unusual” in wanting to be her husband’s everything.
Every woman wants to be her lover’s muse.
AUSTIN: I think he showed his teaching stripes handling that one. He listened patiently until she was finished, commented as best he could, and then he tried to steer the discussion into some kind of constructive and informative direction. But she just wouldn’t let up.
All this makes me wonder if readings aren’t in the wrong order. Maybe it’d be better if an author came out, fielded all the silly questions for 20 minutes, read for 30-40 minutes, and then left the audience to stumble out to their cars in awe, with the stories fresh in their mind for the ride home. I mean, you never see a rock band give a blistering encore then stick around onstage to field lame questions. Why fiction writers?
MEGHAN: A good fiction reading is all about the audience losing itself in the story. When someone reads out loud to you, there’s not the distraction of the type or the paragraphs or the page – it’s just sheer story. It’s pure storytelling. To ask those dry, prickly academic type questions afterwards seems to deny that the reading spoke to you at all.
AUSTIN: I think it denies that you’ve just experienced some magic, and that magic is best left unexplained.
When I go to a reading, I’m looking to connect with the writer as a person. I have his work at home, I’ve read it, I’ve let it live in my mind, but now I want to meet its creator. I want to know what he looks like, I want to know what he’s reading and what he’s thinking, and I want to hear him read his work from his own lips.
Now, going into any performance with set expectations is dangerous, because your expectations will either be met and/or exceeded, or they won’t. And I also believe that fiction is just ink on paper. Transforming it into a spoken performance is an art all of its own. Some authors can do it, some can’t. Disappointed or not, what you have to do is remember that the work still belongs to you, it’s still lived in your mind and taken a place in your life, even if its creator turns out to be not so hot a reader or a complete jerk.
MEGHAN: It’s like when we went to that concert and hated the performance and the singers, but we decided afterwards that we loved the recorded music and therefore it belonged to us, and so we’d decide to forget the concert.
But Charlie Baxter was exactly as I thought he would be. Quiet, serious, contemplative, very kind, and softly funny.
I loved when he confessed to writing an entire story just to make the last scene plausible. It was so honest, and it reminded me of you.
AUSTIN: Right! I felt so relieved when he said that. He said he was even a little ashamed to admit it: that sometimes the story is really written as a pretext for that one scene that you really believe in. But writers always do that: they write a story just so they can include that one part that they love. The trick is making it all seamless.
I was thrilled when he began talking about stories in spatial terms. “Stories begin when some boundary is crossed and the characters are crowded into the wrong place and the situation becomes unstable.” One of the stories in Peter Orner’s book, Esther Stories (Baxter’s blurb is on the front cover) is simply a boss and his secretary in an elevator, and what they do. A perfect example of the “crowding” method at work. When anything can happen—that’s when you want to hit it.
MEG: Which reminds me, did you order that book?
AUSTIN: The William Maxwell one?
AUSTIN: I did. So Long, See You Tomorrow. It looks awesome.
MEG: I was so glad you asked him what he was reading. Because that was a question that wasn’t just for you, and it wasn’t to show off. You were honestly curious.
AUSTIN: I always like to ask that question, what are you reading? When you go to a reading that’s by writer who also teaches, it’s like an opportunity for free office hours. “Give me a reading list!”
MEG: I’m just amazed at how many people study literature who don’t really seem to like reading it that much.
AUSTIN: Yeah, and they treat Q & A sessions as bragging time or as a forum to explore their half-baked theories, or as a place to simply make a statement in the form of a question. Or worse, they ask a question that’s supposed to be a trap.
All those books he suggested sounded awesome. Eric Puchner’s Music Through the Floor and Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven. But he really lit up when I mentioned Peter Orner. I looked up the title for his new book on his time in Africa: The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo.
No wonder he couldn’t remember the name.