Talkin’ Books in Austin


The Texas Observer will be blogging from the Texas Book Festival on Oct. 22-23 in Austin. Here are highlights from Saturday’s sessions:

Friends Harrigan and Wright Hold Court

By David Duhr

Stephen Harrigan and Lawrence Wright, legendary Texas writers and legendary friends, received the Texas Book Festival’s Texas Writer Award in front of an appreciative audience in the House Chamber at the Capitol. The award is given each year for “outstanding literary achievement,” an umbrella phrase Harrigan and Wright fit under comfortably. Both writers have worked in many genres, producing nonfiction books, novels and screenplays. Harrigan is probably best known for the novel The Gates of the Alamo (2000). His new one is Remember Ben Clayton (which we reviewed in our September issue).

Wright won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. He’s a staff writer at The New Yorker (after turning down a similar job at Rolling Stone shortly after an evening out with an irate Hunter S. Thompson—a story that had the crowd in stitches).

Harrigan and Wright met in 1980 at Texas Monthly—after being born in the same Oklahoma City hospital more than 30 years earlier—and became fast friends. Their easy rapport made for one of the more entertaining writing panels I’ve seen, the back-and-forth so comfortable that moderator Evan Smith of The Texas Tribune had only to sit back and stay out of the way.

Among the more amusing stories was when the authors reflected on the moments they each knew they wanted to become writers. Harrigan’s was in the fifth grade, after writing an assigned poem on Christmas. Listening to his classmates read their work, he discovered that his poem “was the only one that rhymed, the only one that scanned.” Wright’s was in the eighth grade, when he was asked to write a story using three words voted on by the class, one of which was ouch. “I wrote a detective story, a Sam Spade thing,” Wright remembered, “the detective was C.H. Johnson, and at one point his secretary turned to him and said ‘Oh you, C.H.’” (Give it a second look.)

As the anecdotes continued—including Wright’s prediction that the authors’ next books [after their current projects] won’t be printed on paper—it was clear that the gallery didn’t want the panel to end. Perhaps it was the pleasure in watching two old friends talk about life and craft on a day they were being mutually honored in front of their home crowd.


‘The Dean of Moderators’ Discusses Presidential Debates

By Josh Rosenblatt

Stepping out from behind the anchor’s desk at the PBS NewsHour, Jim Lehrer helped open the Texas Book Festival with a talk on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives.

Lehrer cast out any demons lingering from the 82nd legislative session with tales from his new book, Tension City, a history of televised American presidential debates and a first-hand account of his experiences as a moderator. The book also includes interviews with candidates, presidents and fellow journalists. Despite 50 years as an award-winning journalist and his time on The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, Lehrer is probably most famous for moderating 11 presidential debates over the past 20 years.·

The title of Lehrer’s book (his 23rd, by the way) comes from a quote from former President George H.W. Bush. Lehrer told the capacity crowd that the book was supposed to be called Moderator until an editor at Random House convinced Lehrer that even he wouldn’t buy a book with so bland a title. Instead, Lehrer chose the title from a line by Bush, who was describing how brutal televised debates are. It’s a situation of heightened awareness and consequence, Lehrer said, where one wrong word or one misplayed tactic can cost a candidate the presidency, and change the course of history.

Bush and Lehrer should know. Lehrer was among the journalists who participated in the 1988 presidential debate between Bush and Michael Dukakis, the former governor of Massachusetts. Dukakis badly miscalculated his tone while answering a question about the death penalty. Lehrer told the crowd he’s usually reluctant to point to a single moment as a deciding factor in a presidential campaign but conceded that Dukakis’ debate misstep may have cost him the White House. And to hear Lehrer tell it, Dukakis’ recollection of the experience is just as fascinating as the moment itself.

Even an old debate moderator like Lehrer realizes that by the time the debates roll around, most voters have long since figured out which candidates share their opinions on the issues. Still, he said, the debates are a time to “take the measure of an individual,” to see his/her temperament under extreme stress and to ask ourselves, “Can I really picture this person behind that desk in the Oval Office?”


Kindness and Commas

By Roberto Ontiveros

In a room in the Capitol that looked like a traffic court, Dagoberto Gilb talked about his 2009 stroke and the profound realization that followed: People are actually kind. This from a man who by his own admission never got help from anyone—even his mother. About 30 or so people gathered to hear Gilb discuss his new collection of stories, Before the End, after the Beginning, which includes a marvelous tale inspired by his stroke, “please, thank you.”

Gilb said he would be staggering down the street as his body got used to moving again, and someone, some stranger would ask him if he needed help. For a strong man who had worked hard for everything in his life, including his art and his education, the recognition of human kindness was as life altering as his stroke.

Speaking with Jake Silverstein of Texas Monthly, Gilb explained how he enjoyed writing in a kind of confused narrative style that imitates life and resembles Taoist philosophy rather than “John Kerry speeches.” When asked by a student what he thought literacy was, Gilb gave a graceful and holistic answer, acknowledging the necessity for a reader to be able to decipher text and divine nuance, before stating that a fundamental knowledge of grammar was a must.  “I don’t care who you are or where you’re from or who you sleep with,” said the former carpenter. “If you don’t know what a comma splice is, then screw you.”


Identity and the Border

by David Duhr

While the (not entirely-) invisible line between El Paso and Juarez divides two nations, nobody familiar with the area believes that it divides two cultures. Sergio Troncoso and Richard Yanez are two writers whose work explores a third culture, one comprised of “Mexicanized Anglos and Americanized Mexicans” living together along a blurry border. In their panel “Stories From El Paso,” they discussed self-identity, leaving home to understand home and how the city of El Paso colors their work and their lives.

Moderator Marcia Hatfield Daudistel welcomed the sparse but lively crowd by saying, “For those of you who are unfamiliar with El Paso, let me assure you that we are in the state of Texas, and we are part of y’all—we’re just in a different time zone.” Much of what the panelists chatted about, though, can apply to all cities and towns along the border.

Speaking about his childhood in El Paso, Troncoso shared a question that thousands of people can relate to: “Did I belong in the U.S., or did I belong in Mexico?”

“I now feel I belong in this in-between culture,” said Troncoso, whose most recent work is From This Wicked Patch of Dust.

“I self-identify as a Chicano,” added Yanez, whose new novel is Cross Over Water, “but I write about characters who are hopelessly stuck in the middle. Some days they wake up feeling very Mexicano, very brown; other days they’re thinking about “The Brady Bunch.””

Yanez said that he was unable to successfully capture El Paso in his writing until he left. For eight years, he bounced around the country from teaching job to teaching job. “I’m the writer I am,” he said, “because I moved away from the place I write about. It’s about loyalty to the memory of a place.”

Yanez has since returned to El Paso, where he grew up (in fact, Yanez and Troncoso attended the same high school, although at different times). Troncoso also moved around quite a bit—Mexico City, Connecticut, Boston—before returning to his hometown. “The family culture is very strong in El Paso,” he said. “That’s why it’s so difficult to leave.”

“But you have to get out of there and at least try it,” said Yanez.

These two writers did, and their work is the better for it.


Politics and Literature

By David Duhr

You would have been safe in assuming that the least politically-charged panel at this year’s book festival would be one titled “Wrestling With the Classics.” In the session, three writers discussed how authors such as Edgar Allen Poe, Jane Austen and Nathaniel Hawthorne influenced their current novels.

Moderator Carol Dawson threw that assumption out the window before she even got through her introductions, presenting panelist Hillary Jordan’s novel, When She Woke, as “a view of what this state and country would look like under certain dire influences that are bubbling up through the strata right now and capturing our political attention.”

Jordan’s book is a futuristic dystopian take on The Scarlet Letter. Criminals are no longer incarcerated, instead their skin is “chromed” in accordance with their crime. The book’s protagonist, Hannah Payne (versus Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne) is turned red when she is caught having an abortion in Texas. (The novel begins, “When she woke, she was red.”)

Jordan, who spoke first on the panel, took up where Dawson left off, stating that When She Woke is “set in a futuristic society where, among other terrible things, the country has hewed right.” Hers is a cautionary tale, Jordan told the crowd. About Hester Prynne’s Puritans, Jordan said, “It was a very repressive society, a very judgmental society … and we’re going through a phase like that now.”

Mat Johnson used Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, as the jumping-off point for his own Pym. (Read the Observer’s review of the book.) A devoted fan of Poe, Johnson calls the macabre writer “beautiful and brilliant,” but someone whose racism bubbles up through his work. Poe, the flawed human, Johnson said, “is like the uncle who molested you but then put you through college.”

When asked if he recommends reading Poe’s novel, the biracial Johnson laughed and shook his head no. He said the flaw in Poe’sNarrative is the author’s belief that “racial whiteness equals perfection. And perfection means no conflict, and no conflict equals not a good novel.”

San Antonio writer David Liss, whose The Twelfth Enchantment was released earlier this year, often explores issues of economics in his work. “My books tend to be fairly critical of unregulated capitalism,” Liss said.

With shades of Byron, Blake, and Austen, his new book is set in England during the Industrial Revolution, where, he told the audience, “Modern capitalism and the modern way of life were born.”

In part, he said, his book explores the devastation the Industrial Revolution wreaked on the countryside and on thousands of laborers who worked under “unambiguously awful” conditions, and what that means for us today. “The Industrial Revolution paved the way for how we live today,” Liss said. “Do you want to live in a world in which the Industrial Revolution never happened? Probably not. Could this thing have been mitigated? That’s what my work explores.”

Even more than exploring the influences of earlier works, “Wrestling With the Classics” was about wrestling with socioeconomic issues through contemporary literature. I get the sense that someday, books by Johnson, Jordan and Liss will be the classics with which future writers grapple.

Ellen Sweets/Friends and Foodies

Food writer Ellen Sweets and columnist Molly Ivins were friends for 20 years. Their bond deepened in the kitchen, where they shared recipes for life and food—from coq au vin to duck á l’orange to “garbage gumbo.” But most of all, they savored the saving graces of food, especially its ability to bring people together. Here’s an excerpt from Sweets’ book, Stirring It Up with Molly Ivins: A Memoir with Recipes (UT Press).

SweetsIvinsWhen Molly and I weren’t railing against some aspect of social injustice, we talked about food, from farming and ranching to organics and free trade to the joys of foie gras, vichyssoise, and red beans and rice, prompting a detour to discussing foods that provoke flatulent responses from the average digestive system and thereby providing irrefutable proof that Molly was as capable of’ low-brow conversation as the next ten-year-old. She could hold forth on almost anything, and it seemed that the more obtuse the subject matter, the more she relished it, although there was nothing obtuse about her love of pork—be it ribs, chops, roast, or tenderloin.

We talked about food as memory, authoritatively and with no scientific data whatsoever, placing the blame for family breakdowns squarely on the fact that so few families sit down and eat together anymore. We shared remembrances of little details, like when we learned how to set the table, how brothers and sisters took turns screwing up the placement of knife on the right and fork on the left, and how nobody ever wanted to load or empty the dishwasher despite the fact that it relieved us of having to wash dishes by hand.

She called me a liar when I told her about The White Trash Cookbook and how I owned both volumes and had actually found a recipe for an onion sandwich that I made and loved. My father loved them too; thin-sliced Bermuda onion, Miracle Whip (not mayonnaise), and lots of black pepper between two slices of Wonder Bread constitute heaven on a plate. You could gussy it up with a slice or two of tomato, but the basics worked just fine, thank you very much. For some reason this prompted a segue into why Americans ate so much bad food. In the mid-1990s she saw food issues as a neglected component of a serious social narrative. By then I had moved from editing to reporting to being a food writer. I began to focus more on food beyond its value as joy and sustenance, trends and recipes. I thought more about how corporate marketing foisted food-like substances on us, how we fell for it, and how the more we fell for it and the more sedentary we were, the fatter and sicker we got. If you wanted to elicit one of those wonderful Molly sneers, all you had to do was mention Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, or Monsanto—especially insanely litigious Monsanto.

How I wished she could have lived to meet Robyn O’Brien, the feisty writer, born in Texas but living in Colorado. She wrote a remarkable book called The Unhealthy Truth, about how additives and chemicals and hormones in livestock have combined to promulgate allergies and mysterious ailments in children. Like Molly, she came from well-heeled Houston social stock; like Molly, she could rattle off the ironic ways in which corporate agriculture is not necessarily food-friendly and how Frankenfoods are making us fat and sick.

Molly, who stood an inch or so over six feet, fought an often-losing battle with her weight. I had long since abandoned my struggle, along with the amphetamines that were supposed to curb my appetite but made me crazy instead. On food-filled Austin weekends we pretty much settled for just eating good stuff—food free of pesticides, additives, preservatives, artificial colors, nitrates and nitrites. Well, except for red velvet cake, bacon, and smoked sausage. Hebrew National made the hot dog cut.

Once Molly’s health became fragile she paid even more attention to what we ate, almost always buying organic or at least preservative-, hormone-, and additive-free foods.

Mercifully, first lady Michelle Obama took up the healthy-food sword and led a national charge into battle against bad food, moving many communities to take a long, hard look at what they feed themselves.

By the time Molly’s health took its worst turn, neither she nor I was counting calories. Instead of trying to lose weight, it was important for her to gain as that hateful duo of cancer and chemo took its toll. We took great pride, however, in knowing that almost every pound we carried was free of high-fructose corn syrup, monosodium glutamate, red dye #5, and yellow dye #3. In truth, we spent a lot more time eating than we did intellectualizing and deconstructing food’s sociopolitical underpinnings. Relentless examination of American food flaws can really wear you out. Eating is much more fun. Better to just get on with it.



Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts: From Houston to Harlem
by Roberto Ontiveros

rhodespittsWith the publication of her first book, Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America (Little, Brown and Company), Houston native Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts has placed herself in the daunting position of contributing to a literature that has been forged by luminaries including Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston.  But Rhodes-Pitts, 33, said, “Confronting that legacy, immersing myself in it, arguing with it was all part of the project.”

A Fulbright Scholar who majored in filmmaking and African American studies at Harvard, she comes from an intellectually and aesthetically supportive background. “My mother was an artist and my father a labor economist. So I definitely took for granted a certain kind of curiosity, engagement and skepticism which probably all helped orient me toward writing.”

Harlem is Nowhere—her investigation of a contemporary Harlem culture that is being eroded by gentrification—is the first in a trilogy on African-Americans and utopia. “The next book is about Haiti, and I plan to spend most of 2012 there doing research,” Rhodes-Pitts said.

Rhodes-Pitts was always set on being a writer: “I didn’t know exactly how it would happen, but I knew it would.”  In 2001, following college graduation, she traveled in Europe and India, where she met a young English writer who was working in Delhi as an editor. He commissioned her to write for a few magazines. “When I came back to America I had these work samples and was able to start pitching myself to editors,” she said. “In 2004, I published a long essay about Harlem in Transition magazine, and it received a positive response, including queries from a few editors wondering if I was working on a book. That was the beginning of Harlem Is Nowhere.”

Rhodes-Pitts has chosen the essay as her mode of literary expression. “For now, it’s the form in which I feel most at home, it’s my native tongue. Maybe it’s a matter of gaining fluency in other forms. The essay allows for investigations, wanderings, polemics, and poetry, all at once,” she said.

After completing her Harlem research, Rhodes-Pitts sequestered herself at home in Houston. The transition from Harlem to Houston wasn’t easy. She now resides in New Orleans, which, she said, “has been great, very nourishing and warm, full of kindred spirits and a strong sense of community.”

But she said she still misses the “the rhythm of public life in Harlem, the degree to which I was inevitably part of some drama the moment I open my front door onto Lenox Avenue.”


Roberto Ontiveros is an artist, writer and contributing editor to Latino Magazine. His fiction has appeared in the Threepenny Review and the anthology Hecho en Tejas, which was edited by Dagoberto Gilb.