By Anita Jones/March 28, 2013
I hit pay dirt recently at a special event at Book Passage bookstore near San Francisco where six talented women authors from around the country were gathered to read from their favorite works. This is one of several “Women’s Voices” events, created to bring together writers who are interested in women’s lives and issues. The vitality and soulfulness of this group took us through a myriad of emotions.
Victoria Zackheim, a novelist and anthologist, was our guide for the evening. Zackheim is the editor of five anthologies including The Other Woman–a play in development at Berkeley Rep–where 21 wives, lovers and others talk openly about sex, deception, love and betrayal; The Face in the Mirror, writers reflecting on their dreams of youth and the reality of age; and Exit Laughing, how to use humor to take the sting out of death.
She commented about the joys of doing book readings with such a powerful group of women. The writers meet each other and become friends as do their families. She asked each author to read anything they’ve written–published or unpublished, fiction or non-fiction–as long as it represented their voice as a woman.
“We expected vividly authentic writing from the accomplished authors invited to join us. What we didn’t expect was the sense of community and connection that arises spontaneously each time we do our readings…” Mara Purl
Mara Purl, an actress and author who pioneered small-town fiction for women through her popular and critically-acclaimed Milford-Haven Novels, was first. Instead of reading from her eagerly-awaited Book Two of the Milford-Haven Saga, Where the Heart Lives, her cohorts encouraged her to read a raw, brave unpublished piece.
The story is about the sometimes difficult relationship Mara and her sister had with their mother (a former ballerina, Broadway dancer and film actor, who gave it all to start a family), and the breakthrough which was a turning point for them. The piece will be published on her blog on Mother’s Day.
Barbara Graham (on the video below) was next up. She edited and contributed to Eye of My Heart, joining 26 other smart, spirited writers who told their stories about being a grandmother in today’s world. She read from The Belle of Pittsburgh, her contribution to Zackheim’s, Exit Laughing.
From this first line–“You don’t have to get all gussied up,” I told her. “He’s a hospice rabbi; he’s used to seeing people in their bathrobes”– Graham had us laughing with her during her farewell to her 95-year-old mother, Irene. From there she lead us on a heart-rending and humorous journey as her mother, though dying of lung cancer, remained a coquette obsessing over what to wear to the retirement home’s black-tie ball and later, discussing proper hospice attire.
When Zackheim introduced Sylvie Simmons of San Francisco, the most recognizable name in British rock writing, she said Simmons was riding on a very big, powerful wave. Her book, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, is taking off like crazy, Zachheim said. It’s a New York Times bestseller as well as one in Canada and the UK.
Simmons, who has interviewed every notable musician you can imagine and counts many of them as friends, took the stage with her ukulele and sang Cohen’s song, “Famous Blue Raincoat.” After the event, bestselling author Pam Houston was very excited about the song, and said she uses it as an example in her writing classes to show students how few words you need to tell a story.
Allison Bartlett read from her book, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession. This is about John Charles Gilkey, who stole rare books, and another man who spent three years trying to track him down.
What drew her to this story was that unlike most thieves, he wasn’t stealing to sell the rare books; he was building a collection. The section she read described one of her meetings with him when he was out of prison in a San Francisco rare bookshop, which she wrote was “less traditional interview, and more field trip.”
“Writing is such a solitary pursuit, so to hear fellow writers read published work and drafts is so inspiring.” Allison Bartlett
Pam always connects with the audience. She made us laugh a lot as she started with a section from Contents that references Burning Man and bringing Harrison Ford home and ended with a “Rick” story set in Albuquerque involving the “relationship police” (you have to read the book!).
Zoe Fitzgerald Carter was introduced next with another surprise. She’s the lead singer in a band called “Ruthless Priestess.” Carter is the author of Imperfect Endings: A Daughter’s Story of Love, Loss and Letting Go, a memoir about her glamorous, independent-minded mother who is not willing to continue life with Parkinson’s disease.
She read a short piece adapted from her essay in Exit Laughing, titled My Dead Pet Mole, about a dead mole her grandfather caught in a trap and gave her when she was young. Again, we laughed a lot, but there were many quiet, poignant moments in this story as it’s about love, change, decay and loss.
Zackheim returned to the podium to share a detail about her editing process for Exit Laughing. “Can you imagine?” she said. “I put the word out to these authors that we’re doing an anthology about humor and death, and as each essay arrives via the internet, my process is always the same: I print it out, I make myself some tea, I settle into my little favorite place on the sofa and I prepare to read. And I’m reading these wonderful, sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant stories and suddenly out from the printer comes My Pet Dead Mole, and I’m thinking, this is going to be a very interesting collection–and I was right. Thank you to all the writers!”
Simmons closed the evening with a song she wrote. At the end of the night, as the authors mingled and posed for photo ops, I asked each of them for a quote about the event. This one sums up the night nicely:
“If you stumbled in off the street tonight, you’d think you’d struck it rich.” Pam Houston
I left Book Passage feeling enriched and inspired as a woman writer. A good friend of mine says laughter is soul food, and I love that we laughed a lot that night (there was more than one reference to wrapping things up to get home in time for Downtown Abbey).