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Wednesday, December 26,2012

Closing the book on 2012

by Bill Castanier
Author readings may not measure up to the spectacle of a Wharton Center musical or the audacity of the new Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, but for many in the Greater Lansing community and me, they provide a window to an earlier time when authors were the rock stars of popular culture. This past year saw several notable Lansing appearances by some amazing writers. 

First, hats off to the One Book, One Community program (co-sponsored by Michigan State University and the City of East Lansing), which selected Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” her documentary nonfiction look at everyday life in the Mumbai slums. Boo made several appearances in East Lansing and read from her book, which was named as a National Book Award winner for nonfiction this year.

In April, a couple of hundred readers were treated to a conversation with three National Book Award honorees at the Library of Michigan’s Night for Notables, which is held each year to recognize 20 important Michigan books from the previous year. Jesmyn Ward, who won the National Book Award in 2011 for “Salvage the Bones,” and Jaimy Gordon, the 2010 award winner for “Lord of Misrule,” joined 2009 finalist Bonnie Jo Campbell (“American Salvage”) for a conversation about writing and life after becoming a National Book Award honoree.

Gordon and Campbell both live in Michigan and Ward is a graduate of the University of Michigan’s writing program. Seeing three writers of this caliber together on stage is a rare occasion, and they didn’t let anyone down. Each of the women talked about how she was unprepared to be honored. Both Campbell’s and Gordon’s books were underdogs (or as Gordon’s called hers, a “longshot”) while Ward was a virtual unknown in the publishing world. In an April City Pulse story, the authors related how none of them had any inkling they would be in consideration for the award. Gordon didn’t prepare any comments for the award ceremony, Campbell had to borrow a dress and Ward said at the time, “I can’t believe it.”

All three writers candidly admit that before being honored their writing careers were on the ropes. Ward considered taking up nursing. Campbell thought about replacing writing with teaching. And Gordon, a Western Michigan University professor, was losing hope. Gordon, who wrote about a down-and-out racetrack in “Lord of Misrule,” compared her writing career to a racehorse at the end of its career that makes one last unexpected run for glory.

The writers also discussed a common aspect of their writing: Each book has a strong, young female protagonist — all lost girls — who overcomes their flaws, looking out for themselves and others.

Also this past year, there were some other notable author events including thriller writer James Rollins, fantasy writer Cory Doctorow, mystery writer Steve Hamilton, paranormal romance writer Richelle Mead and two former baseball players from Michigan, Jim Abbott and John Smoltz, who penned memoirs about their lives in and out of the game. There was also Jeffrey Zaslow — author of “The Last Lecture” and, most recently, “The Magic Room: A Story About the Love We Wish for Our Daughters” — who wowed the crowd at Schuler Books in January talking about parents, daughters and wedding dresses. Zaslow died one month later on an icy road on his way home from his own last lecture, a book signing in Petoskey.

I had no idea that Rollins’ “SIGMA Force” series, about a fictional paramilitary unit, had a cult following until they showed up en masse to pose for photographs with the author. The Michigan-born Mead also has a following of devotees for her vampire franchise that features tattooed protagonists. She’s into her third series, after the phenomenally successful “Vampire Academy” series. Fans of Mead like to do the red hair thing popular among vampire writers and there was no shortage of all shades at the Mead signing, along with tattoos (real and otherwise) and a variety of homemade T-shirts. Her fans showed up early at Schuler Books in the Eastwood Towne Center, which has become the go-to place for the odd, the unusual and paranormal writers’ tours. No doubt this has something to do with the interests of Whitney Spotts, the store’s promotional manager (hey, I’m just saying, Whitney ... ). 

Smoltz and Abbott put on quite a show at their respective appearances. Waverly High School graduate Smoltz was well received by the home crowd, and discussed how religion helped him get through some very dark moments in his career. But Abbott pitched the equivalent of a no-hitter at his book signing at Schuler Books in Okemos. Born without a right hand, Abbott became a star athlete in high school and college, working his way up to the major leagues. He even added an Olympic Gold Medal to that list of accomplishments, but the real story is about the support his family gave him growing up in Flint and what happened to him after he washed out of the big leagues and was no longer “the one-handed pitcher.”

This may have been the first time that tears rolled down my cheeks at an author event. It wasn’t about what Abbott had overcome, but the example he was setting for some young kids in the audience who had been born with the same birth defect. I about lost it when a 2-year-old boy sitting next to me held up his arm, which had no hand, pointed at him and said, “Jim Abbott.” It made it that much easier for me to hand over my Jim Abbott rookie card to his grandparent. 

What makes book signings like these especially appealing is the lack of frills — just the author, a book and readers. When I speak to classes, I’m often asked for advice on how to become a writer. I tell them to do two things: write and go to author readings.

(Bill Castanier writes a literary column for City Pulse and blogs on Michigan writers and books at mittenlit.com.)

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