The Adriana Trigianni and David Baldacci event, Wine and Words, at the Virginia Festival of the Book last week, was held at a Charlottesville wine bar called Enoteca. It’s a knock off of the wonderful Bar Veloce in New York (2nd Ave, between 11th and 12th); they even have the slim menus, the high chairs, and the tea candles in small glasses.

My wife and I arrived twenty minutes early and the place was already full. We brought down the mean age by thirty years. We found two chairs across from each other, away from the crowds, but too far away from the wine. Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green” was playing overhead, and I smiled.

The two authors were easy to pick out, not just from their dust jacket photos but also by the group of people surrounding them and the name tags on their lapels. There was no organization to the crowd, just people mingling, the sound of many conversations.

I was disappointed with the fact that each person only received one drink ticket.  After the first glass of Montepulciano I would have to start paying. One of the bartenders was overheard saying, “I should’ve known to order more white wine.”  To eat, there were big green Cerignola olives, fresh crusty bread, Pecorino fresco, mild Manchego and Grana Padano.  baldacci

A white woman with flat hair and glasses, in her sixties, came back to the table near us with two signed copies of Very Valentine. She was beaming. An older gentleman who sat next to me asked her what she thought of Trigiani’s books.

“Well they’re not deep, but for women they are very enjoyable,” she said.

Baldacci was leaning against the bar, drinking the same Montepulciano, making smug mannerisms and laughing, surrounded by old men who were jealous of his perfect part.

A fat lady had to lean on my chair to get onto hers, and she kept her feet on my rungs the rest of the time.  “It smells like pancake syrup,” she said to her equally overweight friend. A group of women were in the corner near the window, laughing loud enough for everyone to hear. “I guess, some people just came for the wine,” the lady with her feet on my chair said.
trigiani Finally, there were some introductions. Baldacci stood in front of the group, thanked everyone for coming, and spoke a little bit about an organization that he and Trigiani helped start, Feeding Body and Mind, where they take book donations and send them to a food bank to be handed out along with meals. He also spoke of how much he enjoyed the festival. He has participated in every one since its inception, fifteen years ago. “There’s smething for everyone at this festival,” he said, in a voice that was almost too soft to hear.

Trigiani came up after him and killed it. She’s a boisterous woman, with a big voice and an even louder laugh. She introduced everyone she had brought with her, including her mother, three sisters, her fifth-grade French teacher, and her in-laws. The crowd loved her, and she loved them back. “This is my home state.  I love me some Virginia.”

On February 26, 2009, Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times of Philipp Meyer: “American Rust announces the arrival of a gifted new writer — a writer who understands how place and personality and circumstance can converge to create the perfect storm of tragedy.”  The reviews for this first-time novelist have been rave, with comparisons to Richard Russo, Salinger and Steinbeck. This pressure on a writer brings excitement to readers.american-rust

It was the first day of spring and I was excited to attend the event, Fateful Acts: A Fiction Panel, with authors Valerie Laken (Dream House), Katharine Davis (East Hope), and Philipp Meyer (American Rust).

Katharine Davis discussed the difficulties in briefly describing her novels. “It’s the complexity that makes [novels] interesting.” Valerie Laken described how the idea for her novel came from a personal experience. She and her husband had bought a rundown house in an up-and-coming neighborhood in Ann Arbor. Soon after, they learned that a murder had occurred years before in their fix-it-up home. A young man had shot his mother’s boyfriend in the house, then walked down the street to the ice cream shop, set the gun on the counter and asked if someone would please call the police. “Stories come from mistakes,” she said, getting a laugh from the crowd.

American Rust, Mr. Meyer described, starts with a killing in a town where the steel industry went under. “It’s about how much people are willing to sacrifice for their friends.” He said he’s hesitant to call it a crime novel because throughout the book the reader always knows more than the characters.

“It’s set in southwest Pennsylvania, which is very beautiful, and very remote, with a lot of wildlife. It’s a place so depressed that a job at Walmart is coveted.” He described the place as having a “certain sense of loss, both human and material.”
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He’s held many unique jobs, including working in a trauma center, driving an ambulance, and doing years of construction work. When Mr. Meyer was 16 he dropped out of high school and got his G.E.D. “I didn’t understand at the time how it would change me. It’s a social handicap. The decision was more significant than I first expected.”

While working in construction he knew several people who had been to jail, and what he learned from them made its way into the novel. “Most had some awareness that people are interested in them as ex-prisoners. When they realize that you’re not afraid of them, they’re willing to tell you anything.”

Researching the novel he “did a lot of walking in the town, and so in the book there is a lot of walking. Sometimes I would go to a bar and buy someone a beer. You’d be surprised, everyone wants to talk about themselves.”

Mr. Meyer admitted that American Rust is the third novel he’s written, but only the first one published. He was writing for eight years before he had a single story published, but now he’s had stories in McSweeney’s and on Salon.com. “I’ve always been a big reader,” he said. “I don’t remember learning to read, I just remember always reading.”

I climbed up the creaking stairs, 10 minutes late, as Jeffrey Renard Allen read from hisholding-pattern story “The Green Apocalypse” from his collection Holding Pattern. I was immediately reminded of how much I enjoy the way he pronounces the word “particularly”: it comes from his mouth like a rubber ball in slow motion, that then bounces gently down the stairs. Jeffrey Renard Allen, who is a professor in the Riggio program, was one of the most intelligent and kind writing teachers I’ve had.

Mr. Allen was one of three men reading from their short story collections. Following Allen was James Matthews who read from Last Known Position. He is a veteran of the Iraq war, having done two tours. Following him was David A. Taylor, author of the collection Success: Stories. After reading, each of the three authors took questions from the small audience of 20 people.

On how he starts writing stories, Jeffrey R. Allen said, “Every story is different.” He went on to describe how  when he was once in Chicago, riding the El, he saw an older lady playing a guitar on which there was a picture of a younger boy, assumedly her grandson. The image stayed with him and found its way into the end the story “Bread and the Land.”

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“Characters take you to place you didn’t expect,” Allen responded to an additional question on planning stories in advance to actually writing them. “Every story dictates its own terms.”

Someone asked Allen about his poetry, and how he came to it. He said that in school, he had always considered himself a fiction writer until a professor told him that his writing used mostly plain words, which he did not take as the compliment that it was intended. So, he started reading and writing poetry “as a way to better understand how to use the language.”

Up Next: Wine & Words with David Baldacci and Adriana Trigiani