Writers Fest: Literary wisdom

Biography panel at Woodstock Writers Festival. (photo by Dion Ogust)

Biography panel at Woodstock Writers Festival. (photo by Dion Ogust)

No individual could attend every single one of the workshops, panels, interviews, and parties at last weekend’s sixth annual Woodstock Writers Festival — except possibly indefatigable festival organizer Martha Frankel, who keeps close tabs on every aspect of her baby. I made it to five events, not including the Story Slam competition, which was won by talented local writer Desirée O’Clair, with Kathleen Harris and Verna Gillis coming in second and third.

Following are memorable quotes from the panels and interviews I witnessed.


Will Hermes of Rolling Stone talked with musician and photographer Chris Stein, a founding member of the pop band Blondie. With photos projected overhead from Stein’s new book about the New York City scene of the late 1970s and the creation of the Debbie Harry persona, Stein reminisced about famous people he knew.

Stein, looking at a photo of Debbie with sleek punk rocker Joan Jett: Some girls have been recreating this photo on Instagram.

Hermes: You were friends with William Burroughs, right?

Stein: Yes, Bill and I were very close. We were both on methadone at the same time.

The panel on the state of publishing today featured industry pros and two writers. Bestselling author Gail Godwin read a passage from her new book Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir, discussing how publishing changed when corporations bought the companies from their book-loving founders and successors.

Literary agent Ned Leavitt: When I was a young editor at Simon & Schuster, it was bought by Gulf + Western. We called them Engulf + Devour.

Godwin: My book Unfinished Dreams was originally called The Red Nun. The publisher didn’t like it. Too many people had grown up being hit with rulers by nuns.

Sara Carder, a Penguin Random House editor, on making acquisition decisions: All I have is my intuition. I look at what comes in, commit to my authors, and hope I can support them. The relationship between editors and authors is sacred.

Jenny Milchman, who pitched eight thrillers over eleven years before getting a contract with Random House, and then spent eleven months on the road doing readings: I walked this close to trying to do something nimble and creative, make a micropress and print my books through Lightning Source. But without an advance, I would’ve had to mortgage my house to do my book tour.

Mary Cummings of Diversion Books, an up-and-coming digital publisher: Writers get overwhelmed about being on social media to promote their books. We tell them, “Play to your strengths. Do what you’re already doing, just do it a little more.”

On the fiction panel, authors discussed what made them writers.

Poet and thriller writer Stephen Dobyns: I’ve always said that writing is a type of functional madness. You sit staring at a typewriter, later a screen, writing something down, and reading it over and over and over. As Joseph Heller used to say, “I go to the beach, and I look around, and I wonder — why aren’t all these people at home working on their novels?”

Ann Hood, author of six novels and a memoir: From the age of four, I wanted to live inside a book. I was an English major in college, so when I graduated, I became a stewardess. I went straight from TWA to being a writer. My mother used to send me applications to work at the Post Office, even after I had written several books. At the Post Office, you get a pension and 30 days’ vacation.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Jane Smiley, who has just completed a trilogy: I gave each of my characters a temperament and sent them out in the world. I played God — I gave them free will. I fell in love and argued with them. Now I’m done with them. I need to go torture some other characters.

WAMC radio personality Joe Donahue interviewed Abigail Thomas, whose memoir What Happens Next and How to Like It was just named Book of the Week by People Magazine.

Thomas: When you’re writing memoir, you have to figure out what story you’re telling and leave out what will distract from the story. [Otherwise] you’ll have a broth with tusks sticking out of it.

Donahue: In the book, you talk about boredom. You say you were bored reading On the Road.

Thomas: Kerouac sent his laundry home to his mother. What is this On the Road shit? There’s no irony anywhere in the book. It was the fifties. When did irony get born?

Donahue: The Reagan Administration. Here was a guy who acted with a chimp and then became President.

Thomas, in answer to an audience member’s question about writer’s block: Not being able to write is like being a cat whose whiskers have been cut off. You can’t feel where you are.

At the festival’s closing event, a memoir panel, Martha Frankel gave advice on how to recover memories: Describe a color or a smell or a taste. The word “meatloaf” can lead into 20 pages.

There is one comment

  1. David B

    I love Abagail Thomas, but I don’t think she’s seeing the beauty of On the Road. The “on the road” part is much more metaphoric, I think. Sure, Jack sent home his laundry, but his emotions, his dreams, his discoveries were all in his head. The road was just that…the road.

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