Celebrating 40 with my literary family

Last Friday, my first novel, Hagridden, turned two years old.

And I turned 40.

About six weeks before that, I moved away from Portland, that beautiful city full of beautiful writers and publishers that I have called home and family, respectively, for the past five years. So for my 40th birthday, I decided to drive the two hours back down to Portland and throw myself a combination birthday-and-farewell party, and the only way I knew how to say goodbye to my Portland literary community was with a literary party.

So I turned it into a reading.

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My wife got to organizing the food and drinks and decor (she’s amazing, y’all!), and she also helped name the event: Sam’s “Vintage Dude” 40th Birthday Party & Literary Reading Extravaganza. I decided to hold it at Portland’s Independent Publishing Resource Center, a cherished Portland institution where I’d also held my Hagridden release party two years ago, in part because the IPRC is suffering the rapid-development pinch that so many artists and creative types in Portland are experiencing — their rent had tripled overnight, and they needed to raise money to find a new, more affordable home — and I thought hosting my party there might help them raise some money. (I’m happy to report that the day before my party, the IPRC met their funding goal! But their Kickstarter is still going, and they will need more help down the road, so if you can chip in a little, there’s still time to help out.)

From there, I just needed to find a roster of folks to read.

If I could have invited every writer within driving distance of Portland to read, I would have, and I would gladly have sat in a chair for the months it would have taken to hear everyone I know and love share their words at a mic. But I couldn’t invite everyone, so I had to make some tough choices. And what I chose was to have a mix: some fiction writers, some poets, some essayists, some long-time Oregonians with celebrated books that I absolutely love, some transplants like me with books I have long been eager to see in print, some former students-turned-emerging writers . . . .

The final reading roster for the evening was, in order:

  • Renée Muzquiz, my good friend from Texas, who opened the evening with a few of her beautiful songs;
  • My wife, Jennifer (billed as “Surprise mystery reader #1!”), whose poetry I have always loved since we first met in college — she read a few of my favorites and wowed the crowd!;
  • Aubrey Jarvis, a former student of mine who is now one hell of an essayist and who is going to make a fierce publisher or editor or agent someday;
  • Mark Russell, a dear, wonderful human being who has been fantastically supportive of my work over the years even though he’s also busy being a brilliant satirist and the writer for DC Comics’ Prez series and the current and already-celebrated Flintstones series;
  • Bright and Shiny, a Portland band I love to pieces and which includes two of my favorite writers in Portland, Jessica Ann and Jonathan Oak — they played our “intermission” while we did cake from Tacoma’s Corina Bakery and whiskey toasts with bourbon from Portland’s Eastside Distilling;
  • Monica Drake, an icon of Portland literature and a good friend and colleague, who, like Mark, has been profoundly supportive these past few years and whose books, especially her recent story collection The Folly of Loving Life, are effectively the raw essence of Portland distilled into prose;
  • Yousef Allouzi, another former student of mine who is a profoundly thoughtful, attentive prose craftsman — know his name, because you’re going to be buying his books someday;
  • Todd McNamee, my dear dharma buddy and a gifted Portland-born writer who books Drifting and Spirits you need to find online and whose current novel is available free, in serialized form, on his website;
  • The “Surprise mystery reader #2!” — actually, me, because much as I wanted to just sit back and enjoy the work of others all evening, my wife convinced me to join in the fun, and I’m glad she did;
  • and Jenny Forrester, the founder of Portland’s renowned Unchaste Readers series and the author of the memoir I think I’ve been anticipating more than any other for the past few years — it’s called Narrow River, Wide Sky, and you can buy it from Hawthorne Books starting March 1, 2017!

(My good friend and Portland poet Dena Rash Guzman was also on the lineup, but she fell ill the day of the party — but I want you to know you can buy her first book, Life Cycle, now, and look for her next book of “Joseph” poems by the end of the year!)

Of course, it wasn’t all authors and musicians performing at the party — a great many of my friends were there, like me, to listen and laugh and enjoy each other’s company! Among them was Laura Standfill, the founder of Forest Avenue Press, who is always ready with her camera, and she took a ton of photos throughout the evening. Amazingly, so did my wife, even though she was also setting up book and beverage tables and serving cake and organizing toasts and reading poetry at the mic.

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Jennifer getting the words going with her lovely poetry (photo by LS)
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We had cake from Tacoma’s Corina Bakery (photo by JSB) . . .
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Monica Drake showed us all how a classy Portland author works a crowd! She even replaced a character name in Clown Girl with “Dr. Sam,” an epithet the whole crowd picked up from my students! (photo by LS)
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And then Jenny Forrester wrapped up the evening with a beautiful excerpt from her forthcoming memoir. (photo by LS)

One of my favorite things about the whole evening was the book table, where, on one side, all the readers set up their books and albums for sale and, on the other side, my wife arranged a very cool “creativity corner” where my friends could write messages on a typewriter “guestbook” and use stickers and markers to craft little zines and microbooks for me!

But my favorite part of the whole evening was introducing friends to each other, helping my fellow writers make new connections — and, most of all, hugging all my friends, all my literary family, and realizing that actually, I’m not going to miss them at all! Because they are family, and we’ll stay in touch, and I’m only a couple hours away so I’ll be back to help them celebrate all their milestones, too — their books and their birthdays — and if this long and lovely literary evening showed me anything, it showed me that we really are here for each other. We truly are family. And I couldn’t be happier about that.

Two years ago, I had the best birthday I could have imagined with the release party for my first novel in my old hometown in Texas. Last year, I had one hell of a birthday in San Francisco while reading with good literary friends and celebrating the first anniversary of Hagridden. And now this outpouring of love and fun I experienced in Portland as I turned 40, and to everyone I’ve named here in this post and a whole bunch of unnamed people at my party and a LOT more who couldn’t make it but sent me their love, and to the IRPC who let us take up their space for an evening, and especially — far and away mostly — to my wife who made the whole evening possible: I will love you (and owe you favors) forever! I wasn’t really that hung up on the whole 40-years-old thing and I honestly just wanted to have a little fun for my birthday and say a brief goodbye to a wonderful city and some dear friends, but everyone who came and everyone in Portland, you made last weekend (and the past five years) a transformative event that I will never (even in my doddering old age), never, ever forget. And I love you all, more than even this writer’s words can express.

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