>Arkansas Literary Festival…*note correction below!

>It was a beautiful day in downtown Little Rock today… and the River Market District was teeming with natives and visitors in town for the annual Arkansas Literary Festival. I met my friend, Daphne, for a morning of events while my husband was giving a medical lecture to private practice docs, nurses and dieticians. It was one of those rare convergences of his work and mine. Yes, attending festivals like this is part of my work, as a writer. Learning from successful writers, and soaking up their creative energy.

It was difficult to chose from the amazing authors lecturing simultaneously all day, but after scrutinizing the schedule over our Starbucks drinks, we settled on these three venues:

Tito Perdue, author of several books, was reading from his latest, The Fields of Asphodel (fiction). The New York Press touted him as “one of the most important contemporary Southern writers we have—and should certainly be considered among the most important American writers of the early 21st century.” Purdue was scheduled opposite Sonny Brewer, so it was a tough decision. (Sonny was talking about Cormac: The Tale of a Dog Gone Missing, which made it easier for me to skip his presentation, since I’m not into dogs.)

Anyway, Perdue was born in Chile, but was raised in Anniston, Alabama from age 3, of a Chilean father and Alabaman mother, so he’s truly a Southerner. His latest book is kind of an epilogue to his series about his character, Lee, who died in the last book. He just wasn’t through with the character, so he wrote about his experience in pergatory in The Fields of Asphodel. The seven books he wrote about Lee have definitely autobiographical aspects to them. Lee despises modernity and loves the agrarian South… was asked to be sent back 100 years earlier than he lived, to see the South as it was then. Perdue spoke of him with compassion:

“When he died, he wanted beauty, which was always teasing about the edges of his life.”

Speaking of Lee, and himself (Perdue started writing at age 44 and “slowly developed a voice”… for about ten years) he says:

“The ability to see metaphysical truth through the transparent medium of reality is given us as we get older.”

I loved the passages he read from Lee and The Fields of Asphodel. His work has a fine literary quality. I’m anxious to read his earliest book, The Sweet-Scented Manuscript, which he wrote twenty years ago and just recently published. It was about his wife of fifty years, who accompanied him to the reading today. You could just see the love between them.

Next we listened to Tony Earley reading from his new book, The Blue Star. It’s a sequel to his best-seller, Jim the Boy, which Newsweek called “a dazzling first novel about boyhood.” In The Blue Star, Jim is a teenager falling in love on the eve of World War II. Earley teaches Creative Writing at Vanderbilt University, has a four-year-old, and writes “when he can.” The passages he read were tightly written, literary, but with a simplicity that bespeaks his talent. Asked about his relationship to his stories, he said, “I made up the childhood that I wished I had.” He also follows his heart instead of trends, saying, “For About a year and a half I tried to write something post-modern and smart so all the cool kids would like me. But now I just plan to keep writing sequels to Jim the Boy.”

It seems to be working for him. And living in Nashville has its perks. He asked his friend, the musician Paul Burch, to play at a reading he was giving, and Paul asked if he could write a song about his character, Jim, from his books. He ended up writing an entire CD, “The Last of My Kind,” based on Earley’s books. It might be the first soundtrack ever written for a book!

His purity reminded me a bit of Flannery O’Connor, who said, “Don’t think I write for purgation, I write because I write well.” Earley gave a similar answer to a question about why he writes: “I don’t think of writing as therapy. If I need therapy, I go play golf.”

Earley’s books have layers of meaning that can be enjoyed by boys (and girls) ages 12-22… or adults who will appreciate their literary quality and the charm of the stories, themselves.

Our final seminar was Barbara Oakley speaking on “Why People Behave Badly.” Her book, Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend, was born out of her quest to understand her sister’s lifelong aberrant behavior. Oakley is one of the few women to hold a doctorate in systems engineering, and used her scientific brain to research personality disorders in an effort to help us all understand psychopathic behavior in general, and what she calls “borderpath,” – a mixture of borderline and psychopathic personality disorders.

There was standing room only for Oakley’s lecture, and she seemed to be in her element during the question-answer time, which welcomed questions and comments from a psychiatrist, a pastor, a physician, and numerous folks with family members who struggle with personality disorders. I was already pretty familiar with a lot of the symptoms of these disorders, but am always interested to see what words of encouragement might be offered in the realm of healing. Near the end of the Q & A, Oakley’s theory of seven generations was discussed—that it takes seven generations for the wiring to be straightened out in a family with borderpaths. The first generation that acknowledges the problem and chooses to get help begins the process. But his or her children still have a strong chance of getting the gene, which will be weakened for the next generation, again, if the children seek help and work through their issues. *Okay, Barbara emailed me with the following comment/correction, so I’d like to insert it here, “for the record”:

*That’s actually not quite right. It’s many genes that combine to make a borderpath–which also makes it quite likely that the child of a borderpath, although at higher risk, could still be a perfectly normal, kind individual. So there’s no seven generations involved, or getting help or working through issues.

I think this info about the 7 generations came from a conversation I had with someone else at the festival. Sorry, Barbara! But it’s fascinating stuff. And delivered with a spirit of hope and a sense of humor.
There’s another full day of the festival tomorrow, for anyone reading this who lives in Little Rock or nearby. We ate lunch at the River Market (left) where I had yummy spinakopita, hummus, pita and taboulie from the Medeterranean booth, and we shared a table with this lovely gentleman in the hat.

And the Oxford Conference for the Book is wrapping up today. So many authors, so little time! My friend Doug, from our Yoktapatawpha Writing Group, was there in Oxford taking photographs. With a real camera. See, I forgot my camera, so these photos at the festival in Little Rock were actually taken with my cell phone! What they lack in quality, maybe they make up in candor… it’s easier to be sneaky with a cell phone!


  • she who must be obeyed

    April 7, 2008
  • Susan Cushman

    April 7, 2008

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