Joyce Hinnefeld

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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Southern Independent Booksellers in Mobile



I’m back now from a quick, exhausting, but really fun trip to Mobile, Alabama for the Southern Independent Booksellers Association (SIBA) conference. The exhausting part came from missing an early flight out of Newark Saturday morning and then being delayed by two hours getting back to Newark on Sunday. So goes air travel.

The photo with this post, taken by Unbridled’s Sales Director Steven Wallace, shows a group of us starting the evening Saturday night at a beautiful old bar/restaurant called Caf√© Royale. Here, from left to right, are Shiela Woods-Navarro, Martha Arnett, and Flossie McNabb from Carpe Librum in Knoxville, TN; Jamie Fiocco of McIntyre's Fine Books in Pittsboro, NC; Nathan Carter of the Scheer Rep Group; yours truly, proudly wielding a copy of In Hovering Flight; Jamie Kornegay of Turnrow Books in Greenwood, MS; Maggie Lowery of Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS; and SIBA Board member Kelly Justice of the Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, VA. Missing from the photo, unfortunately, are Angela Bobbit of Rock Point Books in Chattanooga, TN, Charles Greiner of Baker and Taylor, and Angela Carr of Two Sisters Bookery in Wilmington, NC.

Southern booksellers are a riot! But I’m not sure I should have followed two Alabama-born boys, Steven Wallace and Nathan Carter, from bar to bar on Saturday night (I’m not as young as I used to be). On the other hand, that midnight drag show was worth it. And I got to see some beautiful old architecture, pretty parks, and nice river views in Mobile.

Sunday I enjoyed nosing around the book displays. I got a signed copy of Brad Gooch’s new biography of Flannery O’Connor, which looks wonderful, for my husband Jim Hauser, who teaches with Brad at William Paterson University. If I’d had suitcase space I’d have come home with even more books. At the lunch-time “Movable Feast” I had fun chatting with booksellers from Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and I also enjoyed meeting and talking with novelists T. Greenwood and William Conescu (among others), who were there to talk about their novels Two Rivers and Being Written, respectively. The SIBA folks ran all the events I attended so smoothly, and they were all really friendly and helpful.

Thanks to all these folks for making me feel so welcome at SIBA. I know I’m reaching for a clich√© here, but there really is something to this whole Southern hospitality thing. Add a love of books, even a chance to talk about the little things done in homage to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in IHF (Thanks, Nathan!), and you’ve got a perfect writer’s weekend in a lovely Southern city.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Book Lovers

I’m just back from the New England Independent Booksellers Association (NEIBA) conference in Boston and the New Atlantic IBA conference in Cherry Hill, NJ. Friday evening, in Boston, I signed books and chatted with booksellers from New England, along with a dozen or so other writers. For some reason two booksellers from a store in the Virgin Islands were also included with this region (lots of writers offering themselves for bookstore visits there).

It was fun to meet people in this context, but even more fun to go out to dinner afterwards, with Steven Wallace from Unbridled Books, Grant Novak from the Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury (www.vermontbookshop.com); Sandy Scott from the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, VT (www.galaxybookshop.com); Sue Richardson from the Maine Coast Bookshop (www.mainecoastbookshop.com); Lorna Ruby from the Wellesley Booksmith in Massachusetts (www.wellesleybooksmith.com); and New England rep Debra Woodward and her husband Terry (who provided some great insight into what it’s like to teach history and social studies in New Hampshire—mostly it sounds pretty good!). These were all deep lovers of books, all smart, funny, and just excellent company. I can’t imagine more enjoyable dinner companions than people who love books this much.

Sunday in Cherry Hill was a little different—a dozen or so writers again, but this time moving from table to table at lunch to talk about our books, and then, during breaks in the table talk, standing up to give a two-minute pitch to the whole group. The microphone wasn’t working for my two minutes unfortunately, so I did my best to shout out news about In Hovering Flight. I know all writers find it hard to shrink their books down to a two-minute spiel, but we did our best. Of course, I kept thinking of everything I forgot to say. Chatting at the table was more fun, especially since I usually found myself talking about the primary settings of In Hovering Flight—Bucks County, PA and the New Jersey shore—with people who know those areas well. I also got to see Stephanie Anderson from the Moravian Book Shop (www.moravianbookshop.com) and Rob Dougherty from the Clinton Book Shop (www.clinton.booksense.com), and I got to meet lovely folks from Harleysville Books in Harleysville, PA (www.harleysvillebooks.com), Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, NJ (www.watchungbooksellers.com), and BookTowne in Manasquan, NJ.

But now a confession: The best part of this weekend’s travel, for me, wasn’t getting to talk about my book with a bunch of book lovers (though that really was very nice). When I got into Boston Friday afternoon, I actually had time for an hour-long nap. I can’t remember the last time I took a nap in the afternoon.

But even better than the nap was time on a plane to read—in this case, Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home. What a glorious book, and what a great reminder of why all these terrific independent booksellers do what they do. Certainly it’s not for the money, or for the deep public appreciation (booksellers are up there with teachers on those two counts, I think). It’s because they understand the fundamental, never-changing value of this simple thing: a deeply satisfying reading experience.

Actually, maybe it’s not that simple; I keep trying to explain to myself why I’m so enchanted by Robinson’s novel, and I find that I can’t. The reviews I’ve read haven’t done it either, though I guess James Wood’s review in the September 8 New Yorker comes close, when Wood writes of Robinson’s “fight with words, the contemporary writer’s fight with the history of words and the presence of literary tradition, the fight to use the best words to describe both the visible and the invisible world.”

Reading Home is like sitting on the porch and listening to the catbird in the overgrown yew bush in our backyard while he races through his fast and reckless song, just sitting and listening and not feeling any great rush to go off and do something else. I have a sense that I’m not the only person who doesn’t spend enough time this way. I’m grateful for booksellers like the ones I met this weekend, who remind us to appreciate the writer’s struggle with words, and the gift the outcome of that struggle gives us, when we just take the time to sit down and read.

P.S. Who besides a book person would tell me that she LIKES my long blog posts? (Thanks Debra!)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Avoiding the Ten-Thousand Dollar Casket

When I began In Hovering Flight, I had no idea the book would, in many ways, center on the question of where the body of Addie, the novel’s mother/artist/activist character, would come to rest. Back then I just knew Addie was going to be a bird artist married to an ornithologist; before long, I also knew she would become an environmental activist. But when, as a member of a writers’ group in Bethlehem, PA, I read Mark Harris’s book Grave Matters (www.gravematters.us) in manuscript, it suddenly dawned on me: of course Addie would seek a natural burial (and a pretty complicated one, compared to those described in Mark’s book).

Grave Matters is a wonderful book. What I’ve loved about it, from the beginning, is that it isn’t a “screed,” (no raging, doctrinaire voice), and it also isn’t so mired in data and statistics that it’s impossible to read with any pleasure. (I don’t have specific works in mind when I say that, but I do have to confess that I sometimes find works on conservation and the environment pretty impenetrable.) What Grave Matters does, in compelling, straightforward terms, is tell the stories of some regular people who have chosen not to be buried in the conventional way (that is, in “a ten-thousand dollar casket and . . . shot full of formaldehyde”—in the words of Dustin, the “alternative burial” specialist in In Hovering Flight).

Reading Grave Matters with my fellow writing group members, back in those days before it was published, was a powerful experience. All of us in the group are of roughly baby boomer age, we all have children, and I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all given our own post-death possibilities considerably more thought than we would have, had we not read Mark’s book. Read it and talked about it, pretty obsessively, for a lot of weeks back in 2004 and 2005. If you haven’t read it, or learned about the growing green burial movement, I encourage you to take a look. And to start thinking about this for yourself. More and more green burial options are becoming available, as you can learn at the Green Burial Council’s web site: www.greenburialcouncil.org. We won’t all have to go to the lengths Addie asked for in the weeks before she died.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

First Flight at Our Independent Bookstore

Even though the official publication date is September 16, on Thursday night, September 11, we “launched” In Hovering Flight with a reading/signing at, fittingly, my hometown bookstore, the Moravian Book Shop (see the post titled “When in the course of human events” for more about this fine store). There was a terrific turnout, and we sold a bunch of books, all of which was really exciting, of course. But the best part was how surrounded and supported I felt; there were friends from our local Quaker Meeting there, friends and parents from my daughter’s school, current and former students of mine, and lots of other colleagues and friends. It made me realize that we really are part of a wonderful community here, and it confirmed, for me, what the Indie Bound people have been saying, about the invaluable sense of community that a local, independently owned bookstore can offer (see “Why shop Indie?” at www.indiebound.org).

So hearty thanks to Stephanie Anderson and the other folks at the Moravian Book Shop for making this special evening happen.

A quick note on one of my favorite moments of the evening: I noticed an older couple in the audience that I didn’t recognize, and when they came up after the reading to have me sign their book, they introduced themselves as Claire and Ed—two birdwatchers from our area who had seen an article about In Hovering Flight in the local paper (http://www.mcall.com/entertainment/all-hovering.6577244sep06,0,4383006.story; http://www.lehighvalleylive.com:80/bethlehem/index.ssf/2008/09/moravian_college_professor_to.html). I was thrilled about this. I’ve so hoped that birders and birdwatchers (there’s a difference, I’ve learned, but I’ll have to write about that another time) would find and read IHF. I’ll admit, too, that it makes me a little nervous. Will they find flaws in the lists in all those field notebook entries? Will they take issue with my use of the long-eared owl or the cerulean warbler (not to mention that beautiful, mythical Cuvier’s kinglet)? Will they disagree with my depiction of the scarlet tanager’s song? I know enough about birders and birdwatchers to know that they’re a smart, opinionated group overall. I hope the ones who read my book will feel that I’ve handled their beloved birds accurately and well.

So if you’re reading this, Claire and Ed: Thank you again for coming on Thursday night. Let me know what you think of the book—but please, be gentle!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Belated Acknowledgment

I suppose it’s inevitable to leave out important people in your book acknowledgments, but lately I’ve been really regretting one particular omission from the acknowledgments in In Hovering Flight. When I wrote those acknowledgments I was pretty caught up in proving myself, I suppose—establishing my credibility as someone who’d really done her homework when it came to writing about birds. Hence the long list of books and articles. I was also caught up in recent conversations I’d had about the book, with local friends, family members, people at Unbridled Books. And so I forgot maybe its most important reader, a very early one: Gene Garber.

Gene was my graduate advisor in the doctoral program at SUNY-Albany in the early 1990s, and he’s been an invaluable mentor to me ever since. He had a real aura in that program—he was much loved by many of the graduate student writers, including some wonderfully outspoken ones (if you’re reading this, you know who you are!). He was about to retire when I started the program, but fortunately I got to take one fiction workshop with him, and he agreed to act as my dissertation advisor. He taught me so many things, and I want to talk about a few of them here.

He taught me how to teach. He ran a terrific workshop. His long written responses to our work (at least one thoughtful, unbelievably astute, single-spaced page in response to anything we wrote) set a high bar for everyone else in the workshop; we all wanted to try, at least, to sound as smart as Gene.

He in no way played the role of the big name at the front of the room whose favor you needed to win in order to get anywhere in the program, or beyond. Instead, he himself was an example for us, of someone who had spent his adult life writing and teaching, and didn’t think he needed lots of accolades for that.

He wrote (and still writes) wild, wonderful fiction. I remember reading his novel The Historian during my first year at Albany and thinking, I’ll never write anything remotely like this. But I wish I was someone who would.

He taught us not to be afraid, or contemptuous, of literary theory. Reading and talking about someone like Roland Barthes or Maurice Merleau-Ponty with Gene was exhilarating. And it made you want to write in a way that was new, different—even maybe scary—for you.

And finally, he has continued, through all these years, to read whatever I’ve sent him, whenever I’ve sent it to him. Often really early in the process. That was the case with In Hovering Flight. He read a draft so long ago, and his encouragement and—as usual—wise editorial advice made all the difference. If Gene told me (as he did back then) that the manuscript I’d sent him was the best thing I’d written yet, I could tell myself through the various disappointments I experienced in the year after I finished a first draft, then I had to persevere.

Gene has done all these things through a long career of writing and teaching, and he’s also managed to be a patient, funny, endearing father, grandfather, and friend to so many. In a picture of him from my wedding, he is smiling in his usual calm, beatific way; seeing that photograph, our friend Bob dubbed him “the Buddha.” And it’s true: I think of him that way. His guidance to his students wasn’t overtly spiritual, but for me, at least, his voice and his example have had an almost spiritual influence. He made me want to keep on writing, and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. I’m sorry I didn’t say this in a brief note at the end of In Hovering Flight, but maybe it’s better to say it here, and in this much detail. His influence has been about so much more than a single book.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Birds and Lawns

My husband is out taking pictures of a tree in our back yard right now. In early June, this tree, a big old tulip poplar, was struck by lighting. There’s now a big, exposed gash in the central part of the trunk, and the tree is clearly dying. We thought at first we could wait it out—that the tree might make it, and we wouldn’t have to cut it down. But now every single tree person we’ve consulted has said it has to come down. Our house is inside the city limits of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. But we live in a small, old development with lots of big old trees; though there are some smooth, cultivated lawns, most people have big stands of trees in their front or back yards, or both. But most houses have an acre or less of land, and so we have neighbors, and this dying tulip poplar is right on the edge of one neighbor’s property, near her house.

We hear wood thrushes in the trees around our house each summer. This summer I was pretty sure they were nesting in a tree or trees in our yard; I heard them without even leaving the house. The July-August 2008 issue of Audubon magazine has two articles about wood thrushes, one about their northern nesting, in this case in Vermont, the other about their winter lives to the south, in this case in Belize. There are lovely images and moving accounts of naturalists and bird lovers working on behalf of the wood thrush and other species in both articles. But there’s also a really disturbing statistic: over the last 40 years, the number of wood thrushes in the United States and Canada has dropped by 48 percent.

Now, on the first day of September, our yard is covered with leaves from this old tulip poplar. It’s clearly dying—lots more branches full of leaves turning brown. By late fall, we’ve been told, it will have to come down. It breaks my heart to think of cutting down a tree, and I really don’t like to think about how it will affect my daughter, who hates any and all changes of this kind.

It’s a peculiar project, this attempt to put together homes and lawns and woods. The birds aren’t just here for our entertainment. When you might be on the verge of depriving a family of wood thrushes of a good place for their nest the next year, that’s the kind of thing you think about.