Suzette Smith

This year’s Portland Book Festival really seemed to work. The weather was outstanding! (That’s not something Literary Arts could control, but it was still nice.) The festival was crowded, but more manageable than previous years. At festivals this popular, attendees sometimes can’t even stop at booths because the river of people sweeps them along, but I was able to stop at tables and talk to the local and visiting presses. All this manageability was not due to a lack of crowds or new faces. The passionate readers of the Pacific Northwest showed up for literature (and Tom Hanks).

As with our LitCrawl round-up, I enlisted a member of The Mercury’s Extremely Literate Strike Force™, Sophie Ouellette-Howitz, to help cover the festival. Her impressions are quoted and have her name following them. Now, let's get down to what people care about:

GENERAL LINE REPORT: The lines to talk to authors and get autographs were well-organized and streamlined. The lines to get into readings were long, but I didn’t see anyone denied admittance.

FOOD CART LINE REPORT: The food carts lines, always a point of exasperation in years past, were also do-able. I saw nothing worse than weekday lunch wait at any point. Some sold out by the afternoon. The crowds were snacky.

TOM HANKS REPORT: Popular actor turned author, Tom Hanks, spoke at the festival. He held a baby. Rumors flew that the baby holding meant he was investigating a presidential run. All around me, at the festival, people were discussing Tom Hanks. A mother and daughter were reading through a list of Tom Hanks movies on the daughter's phone and neither seemed to recognize that Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is not merely a Tom Hanks movie but a book by Jonathan Safran Foer. BUT WHO CARES? Get these people in here. Tom Hanks is a literary lure. I accept.


Despite being seated in the middle of a stage with the attention of every attendee in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall focused intently on them, Abbi Jacobson and interviewer Lindy West managed to create the impression that they were just having a casual conversation between friends. Literary Arts warned that the event was at capacity, but I saw plenty of available seats, which was shame given how delightful it was. Jacobson and West kept the audience laughing throughout. Jacobson was open about the anxiety she feels about pivoting from script writing to essay writing as well as the simultaneously complimentary and disorienting reality of being famous for playing a character with whom she shares a name and quite a lot of personality traits. Jacobson read two excerpts from her collection, I Might Regret This: Essays, Drawings, Vulnerabilities and Other Stuff, one about Elijah Wood and one about a crush she called “Venison Boy,” The essays indicated she can be just as funny on the page as she is on the screen. SOPHIE OUELLETTE-HOWTIZ


I went to the Incite: Queer Writers Read! Pop Up because I see the pop-up readings as palate cleansers—to be enjoyed between the heavier main course events—and because I preferentially seek out experiences labeled as “queer.” Poets David Rutiezer and Sam Roxas-Chua delivered earnest readings, despite the sometimes-raucous chatter of passersby, but to me, local lesbian romance writer Karelia Stetz-Waters was the standout. She explained that as a lesbian and a college professor, she feels uniquely equipped to give life advice to young men, and then proceeded to do exactly that. Both the pacing and balance of humor to sincerity in the short piece she read were spot on. SOPHIE OUELLETTE-HOWTIZ

Suzette Smith

Panels and on-stage conversations are the highlight of the Portland Book Festival, more than the book fair itself, more than the food carts. For the Survivor: Women at the End of the World panel, the Whitsell Auditorium was so crowded that an usher helped people find single seats. By the time I realized I was sitting next to a talkative person who hated both the New York Times and affirmative action, I couldn’t leave without exiting the event entirely. Thankfully, they fell asleep as the presentation began.

Lidia Yuknavich is a charming moderator and should always be in charge of crowds. She asked questions of Aminder Dhaliwal (Woman World), Ling Ma (Severance) and Leni Zumas (Red Clocks) on topics such as the politics of women's bodies in the futures they imagined and whether all the futures presented were dystopias. Dhaliwal was the only author that argued her cartoon vision of a woman-only post-apocalyptic society might be a vision of misunderstood utopia. I was surprised that Dhaliwal's Woman World was not the only funny apocalyptic future on the panel. Ling Ma's reading of Severance blew me away with Ma's dry, humorous imagining of accountants and production coordinators Googling various survival skills in a post-plague, collapsed society. Ma also had a good quote about her imagining of Severance, "Like all fantasies, they break once you start to inhabit them." After an attendee asked if any of the authors considered their readers who were men (Daliwal: "No." Ma: "I wrote this book for me." Zumas: "No."), Yuknavitch interjected, "All of the women in this room have been asked to identify with male characters for their whole lives." It was the perfect thing for a moderator to point out and I wished the person next to me wasn't sleeping. SUZETTE SMITH

Listening to Lauren Groff and Rachel Kushner speak, on the Dangerous Places: Women and Power panel, it was hard to resist the temptation to write down everything they said. Both were absurdly quotable, as was moderator John Freeman. “Everything dark in your life produces energy you can later use for fiction,” Kushner said early on, and I wondered whether that should be my next tattoo. “Landscape has a profound effect upon character,” said Lauren Groff, and I began mentally revising everything I’ve ever written. After Kushner spoke the visible and invisible ways the prison system exerts control over incarcerated people (a major theme in her latest novel, The Mars Room), Freeman brilliantly transitioned into a question for Groff about domesticity with the segue: “You can look at marriage as a vertically-integrated control system.” After this event, I felt so inspired that I spent $54 on hardcover copies of Groff and Kushner’s latest books, which I do not regret at all. SOPHIE OUELLETTE-HOWTIZ