Last year, the Wordstock literary festival hit on a formula that suddenly elevated it from a kinda-interesting books festival at the convention center to a vital center of literary conversation and activity. The key word is "conversation": Wordstock's organizers shifted the fest's emphasis away from individual author readings and toward panel discussions. Last year saw lively, insightful panels on comedy writing, short stories versus novels, writers' communities, the future of the print industry, and much more. This change in focus revitalized the festival—now, one of the highlights is seeing big-name authors in conversation with other writers on the subjects that matter to them. With that in mind, here are a few of the most exciting names cropping up in panels and readings at this year's fest.
Diana Abu-Jaber made a name for herself with personal, evocative novels about the immigrant experience in the United States, plus a memoir about her own childhood growing up with a Jordanian father and American mother. The PSU prof breaks from form with her newest, Birds of Paradise, set in Florida in the years immediately before and after Hurricane Katrina. Birds follows a Florida teenager who runs away from home to scrounge a living as a model in Miami Beach. And while Abu-Jaber doesn't revisit her familiar themes of identity and cultural displacement, she's always taken evident pleasure in writing about food (The Language of Baklava is a personal history told through Persian cuisine), so it's no surprise that one of Birds' protagonists runs a health food store, while another spends her days baking fancy cakes. (Yum.) AH
Reading w/Julia Glass, NEA Stage, Sat Oct 8, noon; panel discussion "Read My Lips: Telling Stories Through Food" w/Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Mark Bitterman, OCT Stage, Sat Oct 8, 3 pm
Steve Almond is an essayist, and most recently, the author of Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, a healthy mixture of reflections on the role of rock music in his life and those of people around him. At last year's Wordstock he captured my attention by reading an essay on Metallica's "Fade to Black," which is one of those melodramatic, I-hate-myself songs that embarrass you in retrospect. While examining that side of the song, he also discussed an ex-girlfriend who managed to work out some real feelings of depression through it. That story, paired with an essay on sleeping with someone despite the fact that they loved Air Supply, made Almond's talk a home run. JACOB SCHRAER
Reading w/Peter Mountford, Wordstock Community Stage, Sat Oct 8, 11 am; panel discussion "What's with America's Sexual/Literary Hang-Up" w/Lidia Yuknavitch, Cheryl Strayed, Viva Las Vegas, Wordstock Community Stage, Sun Oct 9, 11 am; panel discussion "Writer as American Citizen" w/Daniel Woodrell, David Marin, David Biespiel, NEA Stage, Sun Oct 9, 5 pm
Jennifer Egan snagged a Pulitzer for her recent novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, but don't let her fancy award intimidate you, because Goon Squad is as entertaining as it is uncompromisingly smart. The book takes its structure from the evolution (some might say decline) of the music industry since the 1970s; onto that framework, Egan maps the stories of a cast of characters whose intersecting lives create a schematic of how technology has changed, and is changing, our culture. AH
In conversation with Greg Netzer, NEA Stage, Sat Oct 8, 1 pm; panel discussion "Pushing the Limits of Form in Fiction" w/John Freeman, Elissa Schappell, Wordstock Community Stage, Sat Oct 8, 4 pm
Anne Enright is the Irish, Booker Prize–winning author of The Gathering, about a large Irish family and a woman whose life is shoved off kilter by the suicide of her brother. Her new book is by some accounts even better: She's is a master stylist on a sentence-by-sentence level, and in The Forgotten Waltz she applies her talents to a look at one woman's infidelity. AH
Reading at NEA Stage, Sun Oct 9, 2 pm
Isaac Marion debuted this year with Warm Bodies, a fresh, first-person take on the zombie novel. Marion got his start when a Hollywood executive came across one of his short stories on his blog. That story, of a zombie falling in love with a human, was developed into the novel Warm Bodies. Inspired by the Christian fundamentalist community Marion grew up in, Warm Bodies is half horror show, half Romeo and Juliet, and altogether a rare show of emotion and sentiment in an increasingly bloated subgenre. JS
Reading at McMenamins Stage, Sat Oct 8, 2 pm; panel discussion "Vampires Are So Last Season" w/Maggie Stiefvater, Suzanne Young, Sara Gundell, McMenamins Stage, Sun Oct 9, noon
Lauren Oliver's first book was the tremendous young adult book Before I Fall, which is essentially Groundhog Day for teenagers—from that admittedly sketchy premise, Oliver tells the story of a self-absorbed mean-girl teenager who is killed in a car accident, and then forced to relive the last day of her life over and over until she figures out what she needs to do differently in order to move on. Her newest book, Delirium, is set in a world where scientists have found a cure for love—another gimmicky premise, but she's pulled it off before. Delirium is the first book in a projected three-part series, apparently the de rigueur template for YA success these days. AH
Panel discussion "Teens Facing Fears in Fiction" w/Kimberly Derting, Patrick Carman, Suzanne Young, W+K Stage, Sat Oct 8, 5 pm; reading w/Jonathan Auxier, Knowledge Universe Children's Stage, Sun Oct 9, 3 pm
Michael Ondaatje's best-known work, The English Patient, barely resembles the torrid romance that Hollywood extracted from the otherwise quiet, moody meditation on war, love, and society. In addition to challenging and sometimes experimental novels, he has written the imaginary poetry of Billy the Kid, and explored the immigrant history of his adopted home, Toronto. Ondaatje has won numerous awards, including the Booker Prize and the Governor General's Award. His new novel, The Cat's Table, is a coming-of-age story set aboard a transatlantic voyage. JS
In conversation with Andrew Proctor, NEA Stage, Sat Oct 8, 2 pm
Zachary Schomburg is a Portland resident who teaches at PSU and PCC, and edits Octopus Books and Octopus Magazine. His books of poetry include 2007's The Man Suit and 2009's Scary, No Scary, which was nominated for an Oregon Book Award. The Man Suit, written while Schomburg was a 911 dispatcher in Montana, is an absorbing and surreal collection of prose poems, the heart of which is a cycle on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln—it's by turns unnerving and spooky, romantic and beautiful. At Wordstock, Schomburg will read from his new collection Fjords, which will be published in February. JS
Reading w/Ingrid Wendt, Attic Institute Stage, Sun Oct 9, 1 pm
Daniel Woodrell is a crime novelist whose work deals with the broken dreams and rage of poverty-stricken rural America. Woodrell dropped out of high school and went on to earn an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop; the acclaimed film adaptation of his almost-perfect novel Winter's Bone vaulted him to fame and bestseller lists in 2010. Woodrell writes lean prose that sparkles with kinetic wit in a voice mixed with elegance, clarity, dialect, and profanity. This year has seen his first three novels return to print in an omnibus volume, The Bayou Trilogy, along with a new collection of short stories, The Outlaw Album. JS
Reading w/Chelsea Cain, McMenamins Stage, Sun Oct 9, 3 pm; panel discussion "Writer as American Citizen" w/David Biespiel, David Marin, Steve Almond, NEA Stage, Sun Oct 9, 5 pm
Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is brainy, self-referential sci-fi that, like Rick Moody's The Four Fingers of Death, adamantly insists that genre fiction and high-concept navel inspection need not occupy different ends of the bookshelf. Safely features a time machine repairman with daddy issues whose job puts him in close conversation with the paradoxes of the universe. AH
Reading w/Vanessa Veselka, NEA Stage, Sun Oct 9, 3 pm
Some of the most intriguing panels the festival has to offer.
My Censor, My Self—Authors discuss their struggles with self-censorship. Panelists include Kerry Cohen, author of the self-explanatorily titled Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity and Lidia Yuknavitch, author of the no-holds-barred The Chronology of Water. W+K Stage, Sat Oct 8, noon.
The Death of Print And Digital Humanity—Plazm magazine staffers, including author Jon Raymond and Urban Honking founder Mike Merrill, discuss the impact of social media, e-publishing, and portable technologies on reading, writing, and the construction of self. W+K Stage, Sat Oct 8, 2 pm.
Barry Lopez With John Freeman—The venerable nature writer Barry Lopez ("venerable" being code for both "old" and "absolutely brilliant") is interviewed by Granta editor John Freeman. This is a must-see. NEA Stage, Sat Oct 8, 3 pm
Pushing The Limits Of Form In Fiction—Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Egan is joined by Granta editor John Freeman and Tin House Editor Elissa Schappell to discuss new innovations in fictional forms. Wordstock Community Stage, Sat Oct 8, 4 pm.
Latin American Writers And Their Social Cultural Realities—Isabel Jaén and Fernando Sánchez discuss cultural influences in contemporary Hispanic fiction. W+K Stage, Sun Oct 9, 11 am.
What's With America's Sexual/Literary Hangup?—Nothing like a blunt discussion of puritanical sexual mores at 11 am on a Sunday. (Shouldn't you be in church?) And with Steve Almond, Cheryl Strayed, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Viva Las Vegas on board, it will definitely be blunt. Wordstock Community Stage, Sun Oct 9, 11 am.
Move Over, Holden Caulfield—A discussion of why, exactly, coming-of-age stories are so damn popular, when coming-of-age itself was so damn terrible. Featuring Paranoid Park author Blake Nelson, among others. Wordstock Community Stage, Sun Oct 9, noon.
Mean Girls—Authors discuss why we "love to hate" mean girls, and how writers can create compelling mean-girl characters. With Chelsea Cain, Lisa Wells, Moira Young, and Karen Karbo. Wordstock Community Stage, Sun Oct 9, 1 pm.
Future Shock: Emerging Trends In Publishing—You can lock yourself in the library and pretend e-books aren't happening—or you can check out this panel for a discussion of how future trends in publishing might unfold. McMenamins Stage, Sun Oct 9, 2 pm.
From Playboy To The Bible: Adapting Writing For Screen And Image—A discussion of collaboration between writers and artists in cartooning and film, featuring cartoonists Shannon Wheeler and Mark Russell and filmmaker Andy Mingo. OCT Stage, Sun Oct 9, 4 pm.
Writer As American Citizen—Steve Almond, Daniel Woodrell, David Biespiel, and David Marin discuss whether writers have a social responsibility. (This is not a question that women authors need worry their pretty heads about, apparently.) NEA Stage, Sun Oct 9, 5 pm.
Other Festival Events
To Be Heard: A Documentary—A documentary following three teenagers from the South Bronx whose lives are changed when they take a poetry class together. Bagdad Theater, 3702 SE Hawthorne, Thurs Oct 6, 7 pm, $10.
Live Wire! Wordstock Extravaganza—The live radio show puts on its most literary hat for its annual Wordstock edition, this year with a couple of Pulitzer Prize winners (Jennifer Egan and Isabel Wilkerson), plus graphic novelist Craig Thompson and the always-entertaining Steve Almond. Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie, Sat Oct 8, 8 pm, $25-35.
The Life And Times Of Allen Ginsberg—Jerry Aronson introduces his 1994 documentary about the Beat poet, based on 10 years and more than 120 hours of filming. Northwest Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park, Sun Oct 9, 7 pm, $6-9.