Notes from the Brattleboro Literary Festival

Last weekend I had the great honor of participating in the Brattleboro Literary Festival in Brattleboro, Vermont. Here are some thoughts from the weekend.


I lost in the first round of Friday night’s Literary Death Match to author Victor LaValle and his amusing, suspenseful and disgusting story about a man and a public restroom. Nevertheless, author Stuart O’Nan described me as “Raymond Carver meets Denis Johnson” and poet Major Jackson called me the Bruce Springsteen of storytelling.

Jackson’s comparison was partly the result of my hairy arms and working class appearance, but still, I think my life may finally be complete.


Also judging Literary Death Match was inestimable Jane Yolen, who directed Guggenheim Fellowship winner Victor Lavalle to give me some money once she learned that I was not also a Guggenheim winner. 

I am still waiting to see the cash.


The aforementioned writers Jane Yolen, author of more than 325 children’s books, and Stuart O’Nan, author of more than 15 novels and works of nonfiction, are enormous, mindboggling celebrities in my mind, which made the amount of time I spent with these two authors and others this past weekend both astounding and humbling. 

I chatted with Jane and Stuart before and after Literary Death Match and later found myself at the same table as Stuart in a bar near our hotel, discussing books, publishing and most of all, baseball. Also sitting at the table were award-winning authors Tayari Jones, Bernice McFadden and the aforementioned Victor LaValle.

I felt like a complete fraud sitting at a table of such literary heavyweights. 

Then I spent parts of the next day chatting with these same authors and more before sitting down to dinner on Saturday night at the same table as Jane Yolen and author Richard Mason.

The next day Jane attended my book talk, and we spent quite a while afterwards talking about books, teaching, our families and more. Jane and my wife discovered that they are both Smith College graduates, so they had a lot to chat about as well.

I cannot tell you how utterly thrilling and slightly terrifying it was to spend the weekend in the company of authors such as these. Though none of them knew it (I hope), my mind was constantly filled with screams of “I’m chatting with Jane freakin’ Yolen! I can’t believe it!” and “Stuart O’Nan and I are talking Yankees-Red Sox! How is this even possible?”

A fraud, I tell you. I felt like a complete and total fraud.


I was joined for my talk on Sunday by author Ben Dolnick, who recently published his second novel, YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE. Ben is the type of author who approaches his craft with great deliberation and literary earnestness, which is the opposite of how I write. While Ben is contemplating how Proust and Alice Munroe may inform the shape and design of his novel, I am spitting words on the page in hopes that they form complete sentences. It’s always an honor to have the chance to speak to an author with as much skill and talent as Ben, though once again, I couldn’t help but feel like a bit of a fraud in his presence.  


One of the audience members suggested that I try my hand at standup comedy. While it was a nice thing to say, I explained that my wife does not think I am funny at all and I lack the courage required to become a standup comic.

There’s also far too little money in standup comedy for my liking.


On Friday evening, while my wife and I were at Literary Death Match, my in-laws were in our hotel room, taking care of our baby. Charlie was not feeling well, so at one point, he began crying and Elysha was called back to the room. 

Before she could return, a guest called the front desk, complaining about the crying baby. My mother-in-law asked the clerk, “What do you suggest? That I smother the baby?”

Later, the same person pounded on the wall of our room, upset that my wife and her parents were still awake and talking past 9:00 PM on a Friday night.

Had I been in the room, I would have invited the passive-aggressive coward to meet me in the hallway to discuss the matter face to face. This type of challenge usually causes people like these to retreat back into their turtle shells. In the rare instance that they take you up on your challenge, even better.

Pounding on the wall of a hotel room? Is there anything more weasely and pathetic?

The next day Elysha and I were beeped at when we failed to cross a street in a timely manner while pushing our stroller. I was uncharacteristically unprepared for this confrontation and skedaddled across the road like a frightened rodent. What I should have done is slowed down or even stopped in the middle of the crosswalk to tie my shoe.

I’ll be ready next time. That’s the key to all confrontations. Mental preparation.

Elysha regretted not extracting Charlie from the stroller and nursing him right there  in the middle of the crosswalk, which would have been the greatest retort to a car honk in all of human history.

Plans for the weekend? Why not join me, Jane Yolen and Stuart O’Nan for something I don’t entirely understand.

For anyone interested and in the area, I will be appearing at the Brattleboro Literary Festival this weekend along with an enormous assemblage of far more interesting and well known authors.

If you’re looking to do something this weekend, you really should consider attending the festival. Brattleboro is a beautiful town and the lineup of authors is extraordinary.

On Friday night, I will be competing in Literary Death Match at 8:00 at the Robert Gibson River Garden (where I gave my very first book talk five years ago). I have never participated in or attended a Literary Death Match, but the YouTube videos of these events make them appear fairly insane, so I’m quite sure what to expect. All I really know is that I will be reading about seven minutes of my own fiction and will be judged on my performance by a former Literary Death Match finalist and (brace yourselves) Jane Yolen and Stuart O’Nan. 

So no pressure.

If they approve of my performance, I move onto a final round, in which I honestly have no idea what might happen.

It should be interesting.  

Then I will be speaking again on Sunday about my books and my writing process at the same location at 11:00 AM.

On Saturday I will be squeezing in as many author talks as possible with my wife, my in-laws, some friends and anyone else who would like to join us. So if you plan on making the trip to Vermont (or already live there), let me know when you’ll be arriving in Brattleboro and perhaps we can get together for lunch or to take in an author’s talk together.

Difficulty staying Faithful

I finished reading Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season by Stephen King and Stuart O’Nan, and while I enjoyed the bo0k, I have a few quibbles with it as well.


As a Yankees fan, I knew that reading the book would be difficult. The 2004 baseball season was the worst in Yankees history. After taking a 3-0 lead over the Red Sox in the battle for the pennant, the Yankees became the only team in baseball history to lose the next four games and thus lose the series.

This would be heart wrenching regardless of the opponent, but the fact that it was the Red Sox made it exponentially worse.

Still, I wanted to read this book. I’ve read everything else that Stephen King has ever written, and I adore the man.

While I haven’t quite read everything Stuart O’Nan has written yet, I like what I’ve read so far. More importantly, he was my professor for a writing class at Trinity College, so I got to know him a little bit and liked him a lot.

Even though I knew it would be hard to listen to these men describe the events of that 2004 postseason, I thought that I would be happy for them as well. As a native New Englander who grew up near Boston, I understand the suffering the Sox fans had endured. They deserved to win. At least this is what I had convinced myself of when I dove into the book.

I have three complaints about the book, and they all pertain to O’Nan.

First and most surprising, O’Nan engages in conspiracy mongering several times in the book, implying with all seriousness that baseball might be fixed. A remarkable confluence of events seem (in his mind) to be too dramatic and convenient to be anything but orchestrated, and he says as much more than once. King actually dismisses these claims at one point in the book, and rightly so. Like King, I find this kind of conspiracy theory nonsense to be exactly that:

Nonsense. But I know there is a small but vocal minority of sports fans who feel this way.

Yet when the long haired, loose-lipped Cowboy-up Red Sox of 2004 overcome a 3-0 deficit against a corporate team with twice the payroll that has embraced the moniker of the Evil Empire with enthusiasm, there is not a single mention of conspiracy theories to be found.

This annoyed me. If you’re going to imply that the fix is in several times over the course of the baseball season, you can’t ignore what would seem like one of the most orchestrated moments in the last 100 years of baseball.

Second, O’Nan is less than magnanimous when it comes to the Yankees. King has no love for my beloved team, but he is not mean-spirited about the team, either, He does not call them cheaters or question their character. O’Nan does so repeatedly, and it is not necessary.

Lastly, the nicknames that O’Nan uses when discussing the Red Sox players in the book made me bonkers. Nicknames have always been a part of baseball, but O’Nan takes it to an entirely new and truly bizarre level. Most of my friends are Red Sox fans, but I never heard them refer to Mark Bellhorn as Marky Mark, Pedro Martinez as Petey or David Ortiz as El Hefe (especially since Ortiz already has the often-used nickname Big Papi). It makes no sense. Was O’Nan inventing these nicknames himself, or did he hear some inebriated bleacher creature use these names and co-opted them for the book.

A good nickname is a thing of beauty. Naming your utility infielder after a former Boston-based hip hop musician turned serious actor is an act of stupidity.

Then again, I’m a diehard fan of the New York Yankees who died hard in October of 2004, so perhaps I am biased.