Coming Home: Reality, Snow, and Winter Institute

This past week I got to do something I've never done before - attend Winter Institute.

If you don't know, Winter Institute is an annual convention attended by indie booksellers where authors, booksellers, and quite a few librarians all mingle, talk books - and hopefully make an impression on one another.

This year it was in Albuquerque - somewhere I've been before and was ready to go back to. Whenever people ask me what my favorite city in my travels has been, I usually have to base that judgement on their airport and / or convention center. Such is the nature of work-based travel. However, having spent some leisure time in ABQ a few years ago, I can say that I generally do like the place.

Also ranking high on my list of awesome cities is Fargo. Yes, really.

Regardless, I first had to get to Albuquerque, which turned out to be way more of a problem than expected. Chicago is both an airport hub, and the hub of all my problems, generally speaking.

Without going into too much detail, I was supposed to get to ABQ at noon. I got there at 5:30. I was delayed so long, and so often, that I finished reading Moby Dick, which is my new metric for delays.

I did get into the city in time for my first Winter Institute event - a dinner with indie bookstore owners and fellow Harper authors. It was a great time, with lots of book talk, and - hopefully - some good conversation on my part. I'd been up for 17 hours at that point so any charm I possessed at that time is mostly due to coffee.

Then I slept for about ten hours. It felt awesome.

The next day I had an interview with LibroFM, followed by a cocktail hour where authors lined the walls, signing free copies of their books for attendees. It's breakneck, with people actually running through the doors when they open in order to ensure they get the books they want.

I signed for the full hour, then was whisked off to another dinner and mingling, with excellent food and better company, then came back to the hotel to sleep, and return home... mostly without delays.

I left behind 50 degree weather, a nice hotel room and catered dinners to come home to 10 degrees (projected -20 tomorrow!), no food in the fridge, laundry that needed to be done, a driveway that needed shoveling, and a dog that was so happy to see me, he pooped on the floor.

Welcome home.

I share this not because my life is difficult (it's not) but to convey that my life is... pretty average. It's easy to see authors posting pictures of fancy dinners, crowded signing rooms, and famous meetups, and think that a red carpet must be rolled out wherever we go.

It's not. And if it were, at my house, it would get peed on.

Author Mindy's life and Real Mindy's life are two different things, something that should be pretty clear by now. But I want to take it a step further.

The glitter canons of Twitter and white-toothed-selfie's of Instagram convey a story - one that is carefully curated.

I didn't tweet about the many, many booksellers who congratulated me on my first book (HERONE will be my 8th, the first seven having passed by without their notice), or the people who picked up a copy, perused it, then decided they didn't want to give it the room in their bag, or tote it home on the plane.

I share these things now because I think it's important for aspiring writers - and fellow midlist authors - to know what an event such as this actually looks like when you're in it. Yes, it's amazing. No, it's not difficult - one of my handlers thanked me for making an appearance at the author dinner right on the heels of my horrible day of traveling. I said, "I'm a farmer's daughter. My first job was called Pick Up Rocks. I was 5. It was 90 degrees. I can eat dinner and talk about myself this evening. It's not a problem or a hardship."

And it's not. I'm blessed to have a publisher behind me, a release coming up, and a tour to promote it.

And maybe next year they'll send me to Winter Institute again... with my ninth book (not my first.)


The Bravery of Youth

Over the weekend I gave an address at the Cleveland Public Library for the winners and finalists of the Letters About Literature competition, which is a reading and writing contest for students in grades 4-12. Students are asked to read a book, poem or speech and write to the author (living or dead) about how the book affected them personally. Letters are judged on state and national levels.

I was both a judge and a presenter for the state of Ohio, and the letters I read were impressive, indeed. Children and teens wrote of personal struggles, daily sacrifices, life-altering tragedies, and how a book had helped them cope. Reading them was at times difficult, and judging them even more so.

This weekend I met these children and young adults face to face, many of them drawing upon deep wells of bravery in order to stand on a stage, and read those letters aloud. One of the youngest letter writers was so small, she stood on her tiptoes during her entire reading in order to reach the mic.

Another cried openly. Some struggled with the pressure of speaking publicly. Some chose not to read - a decision I respect. The letters were deeply personal, relating stories that took great courage to even put to paper, let alone voice in a crowded theatre.

These young men and women spoke passionately about something I too have great feeling for - books.

So many of the elements of the experience were personally moving for me. I heard fellow readers sharing their love of books. I learned - again - how as an author the impact my words can have. I heard new voices, some of whom will certainly become a new generation of writers.

It's easy to be overwhelmed by our adult lives, easy to wonder if anything we do or say actually matters. This weekend reminded me that our words have power - and that younger ears are listening.

The Great Unread: Dawn Powell

Last December on the Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire blog, I talked about how to round out your reading list, which included tips on reading essays, non-fiction, literary magazines, and finding your Great Unread.

By Great Unread, I mean an author who others are mostly unaware of. An author who – should you mention their name – will mostly be met with a puzzled look and the question, “Who?”

The story of my Great Unread starts last New Year’s Eve when a friend asked me if I was aware of a famous author from my hometown.

Now, my hometown has one stoplight – and we got that in the 90s – so I was pretty sure if there was a famous author from my hometown, I’d know.

After some Googling we discovered the author was not from my hometown, specifically, but the next little town, five miles away. They have the distinction of three stoplights.

Scrolling through my phone, I learned very little. Her name was Dawn Powell, she hailed from various small towns in Ohio, had lived most of her life in New York City where she was close friends with the literary stars of her time, though her own work never quite broke through.

Even so, I was fascinated.

Last January I read eight of her novels. They were stunning, and I, in turn – was stunned. How did I not know more about this woman? How had I lived five miles from where she was born and never heard her name? Why weren’t people talking about Dawn Powell – then, or now?

Her biographer – Tim Page – has valiantly poured himself into righting this wrong. Mostly due to Page’s efforts, Powell’s works have found their way back into print.

Powell’s novels are either firmly set in the Bohemian lifestyle of New York City, or bucolic Ohio towns – the two settings she knew best. Her life began in the latter, and did not have an easy start. Her mother died when she was young and her stepmother seems to have been nothing short of mean. Powell ran away from home twice, once at the age of 13 after her stepmother found her writings, and burned them.

Powell was passed around different relations after that, living in many different small Ohio towns. Reading her biography has been of great interest to me, as I get to see the names of tiny towns I’m familiar with, that otherwise have never been in print.

Powell graduated from Lake Erie College, and headed for New York City in 1918. She got a job as a typist, and managed to scrape together a living between that and writing columns for newspapers and magazines. She married, and had a son, although her family life would never be stable.

Her household always had too much alcohol and not enough money, her husband was in advertising and a heavy drinker, and as her son grew it became obvious that something was not quite right. Today he would more than likely be diagnosed as severely autistic. He would spend his life in between institutions and home, while Dawn attempted to be a mother while also fast becoming an alcoholic – alongside her husband, and barely scraping together a living.

Powell’s novels never truly found a footing, and her reviews could swing from glowing to derisive, occasionally for the very same novel. She tried her hand at plays, and had little luck there. One of her novels was adapted for film and released in 1936 under the title, “Man of Iron.”

Still, she was struggling.

With little popular acceptance of her work, a child in need of constant care, an unhappy marriage peppered with affairs on both their parts, and the ever present specter of alcoholism, Dawn was unwell.

Her health began to deteriorate, and she was often short of breath. In her fifties she was hospitalized when a tumor in her chest had grown large enough to crack a rib. The tumor was a rare kind called a teratoma – it had hair and teeth growing inside of it, and Dawn became convinced it was her vestigial twin.

Powell died in 1965 and donated her body to the Cornell Medical Center. They returned the remains five years later into the custody of the executrix of her will. Uninterested, the executrix had Dawn’s remains buried in an unmarked grave on Hart Island, the potter’s field of New York City, where the unknown and unnamed are interred by the inmates of Riker’s Island. Adults are buried in trenches holding 40 to 50 people. Children and infants trenches hold up to 1,000.

Dawn Powell was largely forgotten until 1987 when Gore Vidal wrote about her for the New York Times, and her biographer, Tim Page, became interested. Page joined forces with her remaining family in the 1990s to sue the executrix of her will for possession of Dawn’s diaries, manuscripts and copyrights to her novels.

Throughout her life Dawn Powell was the author of 15 novels and over a hundred short stories, plays, articles and diaries. But you’ve never heard of her.

I hadn’t either, and she grew up five miles from me.

So I talk about her now, whenever I get a chance.

I encourage you to find your own Great Unread, an author who means something to you personally, either geographically or emotionally. Find someone whose work you admire that deserves more exposure, or even, a resurrection.

Read deeply, read widely, and then share your love.