My husband Mike Knezovich and I have written posts about our writer friend Jean Thompson many times before – everything from the one I wrote about how she introduced herself to me decades ago from the barstool next to mine at Champaign’s Esquire Lounge to the one Mike wrote after Who Do You Love? (One of her collections of short stories) was nominated for a National Book Award.
Jean was in Chicago for the Printer’s Row Lit Fest last weekend. Her session was scheduled at the same time as the memorial service Mike mentioned in his Mondays with Mike post earlier this week so we didn’t go to hear her panel. Lorraine Schmall to the rescue! Lorraine is a writer in the weekly memoir class I lead in Printers Row. She went to Jean’s panel at the Lit Fest and reports in here for our Safe & Sound blog readers. Here’s Lorraine’s guest post:
By Lorraine Schmall
If you haven’t made it to Lit Fest, a/k/a The Printer’s Row Book Fair, mark it on your calendars for next year. This pageant of poetry and prose has been around since 1985, and it’s really fun.
The crowd is happy because vendors give away a myriad of free shopping bags and sunglasses. There are a million gorgeous books, and they’re all on sale. There are writers hawking their work, and young optimists handing out pins that say “every poem is a revolution.” There’s food and drink. There are high-class live events featuring the two hundred some invited authors, like movie star Ethan Hawke, Gourmet Mag Editor Ruth Reichl, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and Pulitzer Prize-Winning poet Tracy K. Smith.
It was ninety degrees all day Saturday but the streets were packed, and the bars were crowded: nothing like a short story and a Sangria.
I started my day with a session called “Do We Ever Escape the Past?” an intriguing question, but one left unanswered. The panel of superstar authors with Chicago connections chose to talk more about their art than psychology. But it was worthwhile, nonetheless.
Jean Thompson lives in Urbana and teaches at the U of I. She Poured out Her Heart is her twelfth book. She shared a dais with Julia Keller, a West-Virginia transplant who’s got a condo in Chicago, six best-selling books under her belt, and a Pulitzer Prize for writing (as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune) a “gripping, meticulously reconstructed account of a deadly 10-second tornado” near Starved Rock State Park. I remember the stories and got scared again just reading that in her bio.
Joining them was Vu Tran, born in war-scarred Viet Nam shortly after his father was airlifted out with the U.S. troops as Saigon fell. Vu is now a University of Chicago professor who has written a noir crime thriller featuring 1970’s Vietnamese refugees and an insider’s look at Las Vegas.
They were a stellar panel, all three with books positively reviewed in the New York Times, so they had a prestigious time slot –late morning — and a plush address: the Shedd Room at the Blake Hotel (many other authors had to carry on under tents in the mind-bending heat).
It was a fast hour and a half, listening to them. Funny Jean told us “It’s so much easier to write about bad sex than good sex. Everybody’s had that.” When asked if she starts her books with a plan, she said her characters created themselves. “This time I really wanted to write about higher love. But every day life and ordinary people got in the way.”
Jean’s biggest fan, humorist David Sedaris, claims “no one is beneath her interest…or beyond her reach.” I can’t wait to read her books.
It was exciting to meet Vu Tran, since I just came back from a visit to Viet Nam with my daughter. I assume his book will never be sold in his native country, which regulates speech and art as strictly as a red light camera controls us scofflaws. He said his first novel Dragonfish had a life of its own. “I didn’t know the ending until a week before I turned it into the publisher.” Not surprisingly, this brainy academic said all his characters suffer from a great deal of anxiety, like their creator. “That’s tough for them, but great for me because it’s fascinating to write about.”
Besides his neuroses, was anything else from his past in the book? “I was in a bad relationship at the time. All that menace and anxiety fell onto the pages of my book.”
Julia Keller, a television and radio commentator, was an upbeat moderator, who is happy that people write, read, and love books. “Print is back!” she crowed. She ended the session by quoting Phil Ochs, when she ruminated about why anybody would try to write at a time in history when all hell seems to be breaking loose: “In a time of such ugliness, the true protest is beauty.”