Saturday I went to the 510 Readings for the first time. Four writers--two fiction, two memoirists--read their work at an art gallery above a funky vintage store. In spite of my long book publishing background, it was the first reading I’ve been to in quite some time.
I was in publishing in New York for 17 years. I loved just about every minute of it. I considered myself incredibly lucky to be in the field, and I did whatever I could just to stay in and advance. When it became apparent that I wasn't going to move up the ranks at a large literary trade house quickly enough for my liking, I embraced my love of editing in general and went to a non-publisher to edit their company's books. When I came back from a year or two abroad, I went to a reference imprint at a big house. My career could in no way be considered a boon to literature, which didn’t bother me in the least. After a few years at the large literary house reading one coming-of-age novel after another (that was the fashion at that moment), I thought "literature" was pretty much overrated. After working at a bookstore part-time during a few holiday seasons, I saw that my suspicions were correct. There was plenty to read out there, and no one else needed to add to the glut. I rarely went to readings and was in no way part of the literary scene. I was a very business-oriented editor, concerned with acquisitions and sales, and I liked it just fine.
Now that I'm at a career crossroads, though, I thought I'd attend a reading. Maybe I missed something on my first pass-through. The authors at yesterday’s reading were all quite good. Kevin Sampsell was funny; Jane Satterfield was perceptive and self-aware; and Meghan Kenny gave an unforgettable description of a tornado on the day of a tragic funeral. Ron Tanner's work, though, particularly spoke to me. He wrote about a woman passing through northern California on the way to visit her ailing father. I'm from San Francisco, but I'm not in love with the City (note caps, because to a San Franciscan, it's the only City) and northern California the way practically everybody else is. Nevertheless, I appreciate adoring descriptions of my homeland because I like to hear what everybody else sees in it. The woman in Tanner's novel-in-progress drives over the Donner Pass in winter on her way to the very small town of Exeter, in central California. Few people know enough about Exeter, where my college roommate grew up, to write about the unusually wide streets in such a small town. Ron Tanner does, and he also wrote wonderfully about coming over the Donner Pass in a snowstorm, where a century ago an exploring party cannibalized its dead members during winter. The woman coming over the pass is attracted to the guy putting chains on her tires while heading home to her family during a tragic period. I love the hope inherent in people being attracted to each other no matter how bad the timing. It’s so human. “Yes, we might end up eating each other for dinner, but meanwhile, you're hot.”
It's similar to the hope that keeps people going to readings or writing books. Most of what's written isn't going to be that interesting to most other people, but when an author and reader find each other, that's magical, whether the connection is through a reference book (I worked on books about coins and comic books that tens of thousands of people waited for eagerly every year). It's also wonderful when it's more personal, when a writer captures an aspect of my home so well I feel like I’m right there. My New York publishing career was fabulous, but I missed some of those more personal writer-reader connections along the way. I appreciate 510 Readings for giving me a chance to find more of them now.