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I was resigned to, in fact fine with, simply plopping my pocketbook down at a table full of complete strangers in the incredibly crowded ballroom and enjoying the show in anonymity. So I was thrilled to find that little ol’ me had a seat reserved up front with fellow committee members at the recent Alabama Library Association Author Award luncheon. We were honoring Watt Key for Alabama Moon; Deborah Wiles for Each Little Bird that Sings; Daniel Alarcon for Lost City Radio and Gregory Waselkov for A Conquering Spirit.

All of the authors’ remarks were characterized by humor, warmth and gratitude. I am humbled by the opportunity to be a small part of the selection process. I love the folks on the committee, and look up to them and honor their opinions. I am so proud of the works we were honored to honor, and thrilled that all of the authors consented to appear. All of them were so gracious in accepting our appreciation.

Almost as soon as I sat down I had to tackle one of Life’s Big Questions.

I wasn’t sure which was worse– allowing the obviously delicious pork roast to grow cold on my plate and go to waste, or asking the table at large if anyone would like mine. Sometimes I’m just not sure where the line is between good sense and good manners. If you’re ever eating with me and you see that the delicious meat main course is getting cold and you would like it– please ask me. We may be at Her Majesty the Queen’s table, but I’m sure she wouldn’t want us to let it go to waste. I’m from the country, where rather than thinking it’s gluttonous and in poor taste to ask ‘you gonna eat that?’ we think well of people who eat well and press another serving on people whether they want it or not. I hate to see good food wasted, so ask me. I won’t be offended in the least.

Anyhoo.

I read Each Little Bird last year and again this year. I cried just as hard at the end of the second reading as I had at the end of the first. It’s a wonderful, perfect little book. It’s just campy enough to be funny, but not so much as to be anything but true to the South (the South I know, anyway). I was so grateful that Wiles offers such a loving, entertaining, well written book that touches on places kids need support–Loss, and How To Act– whether they are dealing with fears about the death of a loved one, or with actual loss. Cause let’s be honest. If a child has the good fortune to make it to ten or so without losing a loved one, he or she has either been worried about the eventuality or will some day have to make sense of the reality.

Wiles spoke candidly of her personal struggle with sudden single parenthood, loss of her parents, and for a time loss of herself and her writing. She was witty, not morbid, and explained with an equal mix of gravity and wonder where she’d been and shared her gratitude for the feedback from her readers. I was able to take deep breaths to keep back my embarassing tears until she finished speaking with a story from a bereaved mother whose ten year old son’s friends had, she hoped, found some way to cope with her son’s death. Then I finally allowed myself to surreptitiously wipe.

Much of what she said sticks in my mind but the most important thing was what her agent told her when she was exhausted and uninspired and thought she’d have to pay her advance back– don’t worry about it, but promise me you will sit in front of that computer every day and think about What You Can Write.

Afterward I waited and waited to talk to her. When I finally did she looked hard at me and said, we know each other. I wish it were true! I’d love to claim that we did. But I asked a friend on the committee if it were possible and my friend said I probably just look like someone. Anyway, I told her how I loved the book and how much her remarks meant to me on many levels. She gave me a great big hug.

Watt Key’s Alabama Moon also dealt with some tough stuff. He said he wasn’t writing for kids. Controversy raged hot as a California wildfire amongst the members of the committee– is it a juvenile book, or a YA book? Should we go on the age of the main character (juvenile)? Or on the content? But again, such important themes, and believe you me, if a kid is interested in such things he or she needs this book. It was all there– a sense of betrayal by the government. The ability to fight and survive. Loss. Struggling against people who are Just Plain Bad, and having to see one’s beloved parent as mortal and fallible. Uncompromising integrity and dignity balanced against growing to accept the ways of the world. Key even threw in a bit of indomitable high spirits and humor. I loved the dear, scrappy, intelligent and caring young main character– and his poor parents– and was in his corner every single second. The monumental task of burying his own father at ten years old and setting off to survive on his own– the story was so well done that while it sounded awful, it was completely believable.

Key’s remarks were also a story of perseverance. I don’t know if he was exaggerating, but to hear him tell it, he pretty much sat down to become a writer and just kept pitching book after book from LA (Lower Alabama) to New York. He said Alabama Moon was his tenth or so. He just wouldn’t take no for an answer. He told with great relish of what joy it brought him to say, with a mix of self deprecation and jubilation, yeah, I’m a writer. I have to go to New York. When he mentioned that being from Mobile he had always thought of New York as the pinnacle of intellectual life in this world, Alarcon’s forehead crashed down on the honorees’ table with great drama and humor. But Key’s ‘aw shucks’ can’t cover up the universal richness of Alabama Moon.

Gregory A. Waselkov spoke with the true enthusiast’s joy about his subject matter and the unlikelihood of his ever being where he found himself in that moment. He said his ordinary job, which he loves, is getting paid to watch others dig in very hot weather. He talked about how the book came about. It is so important to have context amongst all the sentiment surrounding the near genocide of Native Americans in our part of the country, and he did a wonderful job, extensively documented but also very readable, of providing just that.

His remarks didn’t emphasize perseverance. He was all about just being surprised and tickled to be there, an academic startled to find the headlight of acclaim shined right in his eyes. But the archaeologist’s work, by nature, is so painstaking, detail oriented, so dependent upon hard work and the passage of time for any understanding to begin to coalesce. He was invited by the state to take inventory of what must have been incredibly extensive records and artifacts, and the book came out of that undertaking. I can’t imagine the immense body of most likely tiny and disparate puzzle pieces of records and artifacts, or the process of piecing them together.

I found the urban, dystopic, present/near futurist Lost City Radio troubling and disturbingly plausible as well. It had me at hello, of course, because I’ve loved Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the works of other Latin American writers and their milieu for twenty years and more, and loosely followed events in Chile and Argentina as the pop culture icons they were in the 1980’s. I was sorely tempted to go through Lost City Radio to see if Alarcon held to the minimum standard for decent writing I was given by Professor Vazquez-Bigi in college– never repeat any word on a page. I fought hard for this book to be our winner– other books in the final round were quite worthy and well done, but what I liked about this one was its broader picture of human destiny and loss– not to mention its loud and clear Latin Americanness and the way that it ties Alabama to the rest of our world.

I was shocked to see that Daniel Alarcon looked, not like the fiftyish mixed blood university don I expected, or even like a forty something sideburned hipster, but like a student. I’m sure that if I hadn’t been so enthralled by the book, I might have found his picture somewhere and been prepared. If his photo was in the dust jacket, I just ignored it. At the end of the book I was probably too busy simultaneously exulting in the depth of the story and the richness of the writing, and shaking my fist at God to bother.

I asked him (Alarcon, not God), afterward, how old he is. He’s much older than I’d thought, but years younger than I am, and I couldn’t even begin to fathom the creativity and vision that produced that book. I can’t imagine someone that young writing something full of such social awareness, depth, lies, dashed hopes, love, and sorrow. I loved so much about the book but the page where the neighbors ask Norma tenderly if they should help her beat her new young charge sticks out in my mind, and the hope with which so many bring Norma their stories, and the few who will ever regain contact with the loved one or community they lost.

Our suburban villages may not be numbered in today’s America, but they may as well be, in their facelessness, loss of community, and in the isolation of their inhabitants. Alarcon actually grew up in one of those faceless suburbs, although to hear him tell it, it didn’t affect him much at the time. I wonder if, like me, he had to leave the South to begin to appreciate the richness of its literary and musical character. I don’t know if it’s the genetics of being from a Latin American country touched painfully by revolution and explosive growth, or just his personal ability to experience (he went back to Lima and taught as a young man), imagine, compare with the faceless American suburban existence, empathize, and write down.

Alarcon did not mention his time teaching in Lima. I’m sure he was too modest. He mentioned the contrast between his suburban teenhood and the way of life in Lima, where nobody is safe, not even the educated middle class traditionally able to insulate itself against such things in most countries. He said his mother’s reaction when he presented her with War by Candlelight (which I felt was also a strong contender last year, but I was the only one so in love with it) was ‘Didn’t we give you a good childhood?’ How funny, sad and sweet that her impulse must have been to give him a ‘normal’ life, and what does he end up doing so very well– telling those disturbing, heartful stories.

He summed up by invoking the names of Garcia Marquez (but of course, I knew all along, without bothering to consult any critical resources) and Faulkner. I had to admit in our conversation afterward that my great passion for Latin American and Spanish Civil War writings is matched by a sort of dead place where my appreciation for Faulkner should be. I read up a bit before I wrote this, and I see how pathetic a scholar of Latin American literature I must be if I don’t see its connection with Faulkner. His stuff always just made me tired and frustrated. Even as a teen I just couldn’t care less about the tradition- and alcohol-addled characters and situations in the stories I had to read in high school. To me it’s just another species of Deliverance.

My book group at my library is reading The Sound and the Fury this month, in fact. I have the large print edition, in hopes that it will somehow be less painful and boring and endless to read. Maybe I didn’t appreciate it because I read it before I left the South, when my heroes were still The Kinks and The Pretenders, Blue Turtles – era Sting and Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath, early U2 and OMD. Maybe this time it will be different. I’ll report back.

I saw Watt Key and Daniel Alarcon in the hotel lobby as I was on my way– probably up to my room to kick off my heels for an hour before the next event. I wanted so badly to just check in and say, has anyone invited you guys anywhere? Is anyone welcoming you? Do you need someone to hang out with? But I didn’t want to be a pain in the ass.

You never know, at this level, whether someone is just too important and busy (or just busy), or whether they feel like a fish out of water during their Alabama odyssey and could actually use some kindness. I’m a terrible introvert, but when I’m out and about in a strange place, I usually wish someone would just take me on. But not everyone is like me. Most people probably aren’t. Alarcon is from here and probably had plenty to do. I didn’t want to be a shameless clingy fan, spouting off about how much I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez and pumping them both for information about what inspired them. So… I said congratulations, and thanks so much for coming, and moved on.

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