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The 15th annual Texas Book Festival was the first annual for WBN, and we loved nearly every minute of it. Dozens of writers and panels, many tents-worth of exhibitors, free music, access to the beautiful Capitol Building. It was an excellent weekend, and we’re already looking forward to next year’s event.

But before getting too far ahead, first I must touch on some highlights from this year.

Many of our Florida workshoppers will remember reading a short story titled “Helping” (a dry alcoholic psychiatrist, a patient named Blankenship, a bickering husband and wife, snowshoes). “Helping” is from the brilliant story collection Bear and His Daughter from the brilliant writer Robert Stone, and his was the first discussion we went to on the first day of the Book Festival. Author of seven novels, two story collections and a memoir, Stone read a piece from his recent story collection Fun With Problems (reviewed here by our friends at ChamberFour) and then took questions from the moderator and the audience.

(Aside: the audience was extremely disappointing. Robert Stone is one of our greatest living writers, and there were far more empty seats than full. Also, we were among a handful of audience members under retirement age. Have we really let Robert Stone fade from prominence? Are his books not taught/discussed at the high school and college levels? Meanwhile, the “Cooking Tent” was standing room only.)

The moderator was overly curious about the time Stone spent with the Beats, but Stone’s responses did yield a few soundbites.

About a meeting with an aging Kerouac: “He looked doomed.”

About Ginsberg: “He had a heroic dimension.”

About Cassady: “He disappeared utterly into speed.”

Regarding The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: “I don’t feel very warmly toward Tom Wolfe.”

His most curious comment came in response to a question about the tribulations he puts his characters through. Stone said, “My characters suffered so that I didn’t have to.”

It’s ¬†an interesting thing to say in and of itself, speaking to the relationship between writer and character, but what struck me most was his use of the past tense. I hope to hell it was inadvertent, and not an indication that Stone has written his last fiction.

But he is an aging man, and we should appreciate him while he’s still around. For Stone beginners, his first novel Hall of Mirrors is an excellent introduction. 1974’s Dog Soldiers won the National Book Award, and A Flag For Sunrise (1981) won the PEN/Faulkner Award. His 1997 story collection Bear and His Daughter (“Helping”) is wonderful.

After Stone we saw a discussion about the life and works of David Foster Wallace, a panel comprised of two more Davids, Means and Lipsky, and novelist Antonya Nelson. Nelson and DFW had workshops together at the University of Arizona, so she discussed what he was like in his early days of writing, but Lipsky was the star of the show. His 2010 book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is a transcript of the five days Lipsky spent with Wallace for a piece in Rolling Stone that never saw the light of day.

I was pleased that the panel spent as much time discussing DFW’s nonfiction as they did his fiction. Lipsky recounted a story about how when Colin Harrison of Harper’s read a draft of “Shipping Out,” DFW’s legendary essay about a week-long Caribbean luxury cruise, Harrison said, “We have the literary equivalent of cocaine on our hands.”

Justine was struck by the fact that Lipsky often referred to DFW in the present tense. Of course the panelists eventually got around to talking about the suicide. Lipsky said he was caught off guard by the news, but Nelson said, “I wasn’t surprised he killed himself. I was surprised at for how many years he didn’t kill himself.”

DFW beginners be warned: his work is not for the fainthearted. It takes patience and dedication to read much of his writing, but the payoff is exquisite. For nonfiction try his essay/article collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. For fiction, his story collection Oblivion is a good place to (try to) start. Unless you’re really gutsy and want to dive right into his 1,079 page novel Infinite Jest.

After the DFW panel we walked around the tents and vendors outside the Capitol. As we did our best to dodge the $4 hot dogs, the $4 cups of ice cream, the $3 cans (cans!) of root beer, I couldn’t help but think about Wallace’s “Ticket to the Fair.”

Tune in later this week (maybe even tomorrow) for a roundup of Sunday’s events.

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