Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)

Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)
"A curious and wonderful work of great human value by a Danish master." Sebastian Barry, Man Booker finalist (Click on the picture to go to the book's Amazon page)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How I Became a Third Rate Academic (With Coffee Stains and All)

The chairman of the Scandinavian department looks sternly at me. We're at the annual conference for Scandinavians in America, SASS. This year it takes place in Seattle and I've become drunk from half a glass of Chardonnay.

"You aren't just a writer, Peter. You're also an academic," he says.

I sigh. Why does this nice man from University of Washington have to insult me? Couldn't he accuse me of something more innocent like robbing banks? But no, the chairman is going for the throat.

I study him. Is this great scholar getting back at me because I borrowed his first name Terje in The Tsar's Dwarf? In my novel, Terje is a drunk and violent Norwegian who swallows his own vomit. But don't all Norwegians? What is so insulting about that?

"You teach at an American university, isn't that correct?" he continues relentlessly.

"Yes, part time, but Portland State didn't hire me as ..."

"And you write historical novels that require scholarly research. So, Peter ..." He looks triumphantly at me. "You're a scholar and an academic."

I sigh but the chairman is right. I'm in denial. I'm an academic, too.

My problem is I don't like labels. I can easily identify with novelist and human being (if the latter isn't bragging), but not academic or scholar. Actually, I take pride in the fact that I only have a B.A., not a Masters or a PhD.  I'm also proud that I've never read a single book on literary criticism in my life. And most important, I don't own a tweed jacket or smoke a pipe.

For the rest of the SASS conference I walk around in a daze.

I look at all my great colleagues presenting papers like "The Aesthetic of the Interface: Performativity and Pornographic Symbolism in the Poetry of Post Modern Sami Writers." I admire how the eyes of college professors are glued to their manuscripts; how they drown their PhD's in exquisite red wine, and use words only known to scholars of the 14th Century.

"How can I compete with that?" I sigh. I've never read Tolstoy or Camus. James Joyce and James Conrad bore me to death. "So what am I doing here?" I shout to the mirror in the elevator, but the mirror doesn't respond. After all, mirrors aren't academics, they're simply useful.

The next day I return to Portland and decide I have to accept my cruel fate, so I enroll into the local chapter of Academics Anonymous.  At the first AA meeting I stand up. On my shoulder lies a blanket of dandruff. In my pocket, two midterm papers sticking up begging for Cs.

"My name is Peter," I whisper. "I'm an academic."

"Hi, Peter," the crowd greets me. I look at the janitors with Master Degrees, the award winning poets, the adjuncts and novelists who dreamed of becoming curling instructors.

In a corner, a bearded man is shouting, "tenure ... I want tenure". It's not a pretty sight. Getting in touch with your Inner Academic never is. I sit down again. Two scholars doing research on the pronouns in the Icelandic sagas embrace me warmly.

I'm going to pull through.  And tomorrow I'll buy that tweet jacket if it's the last thing I'll do.


Monday, April 19, 2010

A Great Writers' Conference Outside Seattle: Cats and Coyotes Are Welcome

I lost my virginity in the state of Washington.

After almost forty readings and book signings in the US for The Tsar's Dwarf, I was invited to a writers' conference to do two workshops.

This happened last weekend outside Seattle at Kiana Lodge in Poulsbo overlooking Bainbridge Island. What a gorgeous place. It reminded me of Scandinavia before it was buried in volcanic ash. 128 people and a cat met up to listen to a bunch of professional writers sharing their wisdom about everything from self publishing to writing through grief.

I was hired to do a workshop on tragicomedy, an apt choice since I think I'm funny and nobody else does. Thirty-five people showed up in a cabin with stuffed moose. No, I'm not referring to the nice folks in the audience but to the aura of beautiful native Indian kitsch.

But don't get me wrong. I loved it all. The local writers were great and laughed in all the right places, except for the time when I read a piece equating writing to masturbation. People looked at me as if they were shell shocked.

Most writer conferences are great, but sometimes they can be frustrating as well. You feel as if you're standing in front of a huge buffet where you want to taste everything, not just the cauliflower.

Field End's Writer Conference was loaded with talent. There were so many writers I wanted to talk to, among them Bruce Barcott who was the delightful keynote speaker, and Gloria Burgess who did the opening address. But the conference only lasted a day, then we all went back to our semi colons.

Before that happened I appeared in another workshop with Dickey Nesenger, a Seattle playwright. The workshop was called Page One. Participants were supposed to leave page one of their manuscripts, and we were forced to say something brilliant about them after they were read aloud to us.

When I teach writing, I always try to stay away from the American mode of "I Looooved It So Much But ..." I try to be honest and supportive, knowing that beginning writers don't need bland praise, just a loving headbutt. 

In the evening I walked a last round at Kiana Lodge, admiring the tribal art work and the beautiful view of the sound. They do weddings here, and sometimes the odd coyote jogs through looking for a haiku poet to munch on.

Going back to Portland, I got a ride with Puerto Rican writer Carmen T. Bernier-Grand. Riding two in the same car is called car pooling in the US, so don't say the Yankees don't have a social conscious.

And hey, they read historical novels, too. The book store at the conference ran out of their pile of The Tsar's Dwarf.

God bless the state of Washington!