Last night, I attended the Portland celebration of Ellen Urbani‘s new novel, Landfall, at the Powell’s downtown. Ellen has been getting a lot of much-deserved positive attention for this beautiful, important novel (full disclosure: I blurbed it, but only because I loved it so much), so I knew the turnout would be big, and when I learned that Cheryl Strayed was introducing Ellen, I decided to arrive at least a half-hour early to beat the throngs. I wound up being 40 minutes early and, sure enough, the reading room was already teeming with fans and well-wishers.
I said hello to Ellen and to her rockstar publisher, Forest Avenue Press‘s Laura Stanfill, and then I spotted author Mo Daviau in a seat, so I headed that way. Mo pointed out that a group of kids was giving people temporary tattoos of dragonflies (it’s a reference to the novel); she showed me hers so I went to get mine, but on the way I spotted my friend, author John Carr Walker. We chatted for a while, during which time author Stevan Allred walked past and I greeted him, and then I spotted author Rene Denfeld and went to say hello to her (and finally get my hand fake-tattooed).
By the time I finally took my seat, I had recognized several other writers in the room, and I sent this text to my wife:
“SO MANY writers here! Cheryl Strayed and Elissa Wald and Rene Denfeld and Stevan Allred and Liz Prato and John Walker and Dan Berne and Mo Daviau . . . . I know most of these people and am friends with some of them, but I’m starting to feel a little starstruck!”
And when I looked up from that text, I spotted Margaret Malone, Edee Lemonier, and Kate Gray, and by the end of the evening I’d also seen Davis Slater, Monica Drake, and Evelyn Sharenov. I even met one author new to me, Kate Ristau, who is awesome!
I was, indeed, startstruck. But it was true: I know these people. Some are good friends, others close acquaintances, and some I’ve only met a couple of times at events like this, but I know these people. I live among them, and we all do the same thing: we write. We are writers.
I sat in my little metal folding chair grinning like a fool. I felt so blessed just to be in the room with all these people. But to be among them? To be one of them? I can’t explain, exactly, how warm and grateful that makes me.
It’s the thing I have come to love most about this city I call home now. Portland isn’t really the sunny Portlandia you see on tv or the beer-bearded nirvana you dream about moving to — we have our issues, and plenty of them — but folks, the writing community here is the most supportive, close-knit, warm, loving mass of human beings I’ve ever lived and worked among.
This isn’t to say that Portland is unique in this respect. I’ve seen similarly supportive communities in Columbus, in Austin, in San Francisco. I’ve felt it deeply at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and at every AWP conference I’ve attended. But there’s something special about this town, something almost familial about the Portland writing community. It’s like a city-sized group hug around here, and yesterday, at Ellen’s book event, that group hug was a big one.
Cheryl Strayed introduced Ellen and spoke about their friendship — they met not as writers but as mothers and then discovered they shared a profession (“I don’t think we exchanged manuscripts on that one,” she said, referring to early book projects, “but we exchanged kids! A lot!”) — and then Cheryl described how beautiful Landfall is.
When Ellen took the podium — or, rather, took the mic and walked out in front of the podium, to be closer to the audience — she held off talking about her own work and instead brought up wave after wave of other people she wanted to thank: her publisher, the designer of her book cover, her web designer, her publicist. She gave flowers to them all! And then she kept on, thanking friends, thanking readers — she even thanked a few of the people who’d blurbed and promoted her book.
She read a bit from her novel, but she also spent a lot of time, both in her comments and in her Q&A, talking about the human devastation of Hurricane Katrina, about the things people go through in desperate circumstances and the ways people come together. (Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the hurricane’s landfall.) Then, following her Q&A, she called up a University of Alabama football player and coach to chuck Moonpies and boxes of Crackerjacks into the audience while Ellen sang the University of Alabama fight song! Then Ellen herself tossed strings of beads into the crowd.
All of this is to say that, if you’re an author going on your first book tour, take some tips from Ellen Urbani. It’s all fine and well reading your work aloud for an audience — I do that a lot, and mostly people seem to like it — but whenever you can, try changing things up a bit. Talk to the audience, get other people involved, do something interactive, and have some fun with it. Make it an event. Your audience will love you for it.
Before signing books, Ellen, ever the class act, called up every author in the audience who’d ever had a book for sale in Powell’s, and we all lined up for a group photo so large we couldn’t fit into a single frame — Laura Stanfill stood on a chair and still had to take two photos to get us all in!
And in that photo, we got to do what I had been feeling all afternoon — it was, effectively, our big group hug.
I chatted with some of the writers for a minute but noticed the autograph line was already halfway around the room, so I grabbed a spot in line. As I worked my way closer to the signing table, I had time to read thank you notes in a display case and, just to drive home how close-knit the whole writing community can be, not just within Portland but well beyond this wonderful city, I spotted a thank-you card from author Jesse Goolsby — who was in my workshop group at Sewanee!
Small world? Nope. Writers’ world. 🙂