SF Sightings: The May Queen Panel

On Monday night, Your Correspondent (hereinafter referred to in both first-person singular and third-person, as the mood fits) observed the largest group of writers ever assembled at A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books. This little infobyte was reported later by Wendy Sheanin, the bookstore’s loquacious events coordinator. Personally, I stopped counting after seven writers — in large part because I grew distracted by Jay Ryan’s multihued parrot poster for Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, hanging to the right behind the (then vacated) folding chairs arranged for the writers. The poster’s colors were very pleasing and somewhat hypnotic for Your (Caffeine-Fueled & Sleep-Deprived, I should note) Correspondent. But perhaps the greater distraction was a very attractive blonde woman sitting next to me, who smiled and was friendly and made Your Correspondent blush and caused Your Correspondent to move to the front when seats became available, so as to take perspicacious notes and not be distracted by this attractive woman’s décolletage, which was prodigious and Euclidean and, as a result, pernicious to Your Correspondent’s concentration, in his peripheral vision. These two factors prevented Your Correspondent from fulfilling his professional obligation on the arithmetic front. For all I know, there may have been as many as fifteen writers there. I’ll leave the appropriate experts to confirm the final tally by abacus.

chabonfinal.jpgNow ACWLP is a bookstore that Your Correspondent doesn’t frequent nearly as much as he should, in large part because Your Correspondent is somewhat vexed by the sizable contingent of smug and excessively coiffed and (most of all) humorless folks found in that area. No fault of the amicable ACLWP people, I assure you. You can find this contingent in Max’s Opera Café (situated in the same 1980s-glass-and-steel-and-black-black-grey-black plaza that houses A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books). Which means that you’ll also find them at the Opera Plaza (an independent theatre in the same plaza playing second-run indie films on closet-size screens) invading your cinematic experience with merciless cellophane and boisterous banter in media res (pardon the pun). Which means that you’ll also find them in ACWLP’s comfy confines, hemming and hawing and hectoring the very amicable people behind the counter with idiotic questions. That evening, I observed one gentleman ask, “Do you carry nonfiction? Because I just can’t find any!” This was as he was standing in the history section. I should note that this gentleman did not squint or wear glasses.

At the risk of generalizing, this contingent fails to understand that ACWLP has one of the best selections of literary quarterlies and hardbacks in the City, and it seems at times, as one is distracted by cell phone ring tones (for the love of God, why Chris de Burgh’s “Lady in Red?”) that some of these people may never know this, nor be curious enough to stumble upon this cache of literary wonders by accident or serendipity. To digress again (I’m sorry) and give you an idea of what one is up against in this plaza, should one dare to enter Max’s, this type is there, often insensitive and simply not comprehending that a very nice person is not only singing beautifully in front of them, but also serving them drinks and viands and placating them in countless ways that those blind or inured to the service sector (which, of course, includes this contingent) fail to parse. Your Correspondent actually prefers Tommy’s Joynt up the street, in part because the server-customer conversation is more egalitarian, there are very exuberant Germans serving corned beef and cabbage and pastrami and other crazed meat-heavy victuals, there’s an incredible selection of beers, and the staff, because they are not ignored while both serving and singing (in fact, they’re not really ignored at all), are less jaded.

In short, for these and many other reasons, Your Correspondent doesn’t get out to that block much.

So why was Your Correspondent there?

Three reasons: (1) I had enjoyed The May Queen, the anthology that the writers were there for, (2) Your Correspondent was set to conduct a panel with many of these writers later at the Hotel Rex, and (3) there were several writers whom Your Correspondent knew by email but had not yet had the good fortune to meet in person (and, in at least one case, there was a most criminal three year absence of idle chit-chat, even when the writer lived in close proximity to Your Correspondent!).

mayqueen.jpgIn any event, after the anatomical contretemps described above, which was unfortunate, ironic and possibly egregious for a reading championing women’s issues, Your Correspondent took a seat in the front, being sure to ask the people behind him if he was too tall and might obstruct their view of the front. Apparently, there were no problems.

After pondering why all the readings in San Francisco bookstores seem to take place in the children’s section, I looked around and noted that there were about 30 people, but a paucity of men. (Many more spectators would wander in after 7PM.) This was a pity, as the men probably needed to attend this reading more than the women. It was also troubling that the few Y-chromosomed customers attending were in deeply intense modes of concentration that seemed to cause them considerable affliction. For example, there was a fortysomething gentleman who was stark and immobile and seated not altogether comfy. The most animated thing he accomplished during the reading was to cross his legs. Whether he was reserving his energies for something later in the evening, I am not in the position to speculate. Perhaps he was transfixed by the Jay Ryan poster or facing a Euclidean anatomical predicament of his own.

I also espied a man in a leather jacket who, while mostly inert and frozen, was nevertheless drinking a Styrofoam cup of coffee with austere alacrity. He did not smile.

In fact, the most animated man I saw was a thirtysomething man with an exceptionally large brow and curly hair (not Dave Eggers). He seemed very nervous. His head pivoted nervously around the room, as if he expected to collide into a process server or he was afraid that someone specific and possibly malicious might see him. He reminded me of Peter Lorre. I was shocked that he wasn’t sweating.

What all this meant was this: Your Correspondent, at least from his perspective, was apparently the only dude in this room who wasn’t inert, intense, gloomy, paranoid, static or miserable. Granted, we were all still suffering from a lost hour, courtesy of the recent switch to PDT. And granted, as established, Your Correspondent was suffering from a sleep deficit. But none of this is anything to get huffy over.

So to step up the sanguinity, I went backstage and introduced myself to the ladies, “Hi there. I’m Ed Champion and I’ll be your podcaster this evening.” Since Michelle Richmond had her hair in pigtails (a wry visual reference to her May Queen contribution), I didn’t entirely recognize her. But we said hello and I apologized for the slack how-do-ya-dos over the years.

Your Correspondent returned to his seat and, not long after, the ladies emerged.

Wendy, the aforementioned events coordinator, then stepped up to the podium. As I recall, she had an impressive array of brown hair and was dressed in a burgundy turtleneck sweater and, I do believe, several other wool accoutrements designed her to protect her from the elements. You have to understand something: it’s been raining like a motherfucker in the Bay Area. Nearly every day of March. I know a few people who have not only gone well beyond Wendy’s preparations and who have, in at least one case, sobbed on the phone to me because of the gloomy weather. So if I cast Wendy in a neurotic light, it’s only because, frankly, we’ve all been neurotic here in San Francisco, what with being denied the sunshine for so long.

Anyway, Wendy remarked that she liked a SRO crowd, which the event had certainly become. Her introduction continued. Things were fine for a while, as Wendy set up The May Queen and the inevitable offerings of the contributors. But there was a tragic conversational segue out of left field as Wendy talked of turning 30 herself, expatiated at length about a bad breakup and how she had wept over Erin Ergenbright’s essay and how grad school was tough and how….well, no matter. Wendy is a nice person and this was a pretty mammoth event to organize. And given the number of digressions contained within this account so far, it would be hypocritical of me to quibble about this.

Even so, after about what seemed like sixteen minutes of this, I soon wondered if we would ever hear from the book’s contributors, many of whom appeared to be a wee bit nervous (but disguised it gracefully) and who had not read in front of a crowd before.

But eventually Nicki Richeson, the editor of this fine anthology and someone who Your Correspondent had apparently met unknowingly at a Tayari Jones reading a few years before (apologies, Nicki!), was on deck. She promised that we would be hearing “the smallest taste of a person’s voice” with all the contributors, followed by a Q&A.

Also: Samina Ali, alas, was sick. Long live Samina Ali. But Nicki revealed that nine of the contributors, again a number that cannot be corroborated due to my unfortunate incapacitation, were there to read from their work.

First up was Heather Juergensen, whom I dimly recalled from a hazy DVD viewing of Kissing Jessica Stein about three years before. What Your Correspondent saw of the film was not bad. Unfortunately, two factors prevented Your Correspondent from enjoying the film in full: (1) some excellent beer and (2) a girlfriend who became extremely randy around the film’s 20 minute mark. Matters were not helped by the fact that said girlfriend was nibbling quite pleasantly on my ear. What was Your Correspondent to do? All I’ll say is that I ended up kissing a woman who wasn’t named Jessica Stein. But I’m sure it’s a fantastic movie and it’s been added to my DVD queue yet again, where I can enjoy it without beer and/or a woman to distract me. So my profuse apologies to Ms. Juergensen.

Ms. Juergensen was dressed in a pleasant green pullover reading “Lucky foda la noche,” with a green pendant around her neck occluded by the pullover’s verdure. Being relatively clueless about brand names, I have no idea if there’s a subtext to the pullover’s message, other than its ostensibly WYSIWYG content. Perhaps the Bret Easton Ellises in the crowd can help me out here. She read from her essay about becoming an actress, which involved being considered over-the-hill at an obscenely early age. She cocked her head slightly askew. She held the book curiously delicate in her left hand, raising her eyebrows quite rapidly when reading. If this was a first read for Ms. Juergensen, it was a dependable yeoman’s job.

She was followed by Erin Cressida Wilson, who you might know as the screenwriter of Secretary. What you don’t know, however, is that she’s authored something like twenty plays. Your Correspondent happens to know this detail because he carefully reads the bios at the end of anthologies. So should we all.

Anyway, Wilson read her essay about having a child and coming to terms with the fact that she got a boy instead of a girl, but learned to love him all the same. She looked as if she had just stepped out of the shower, for her slightly damp red hair dappled across her face. Personally, I thought this was an audacious move on Wilson’s part – a nice way to subvert the expectations that audiences have of their authors. Unfortunately, Wilson read in a monotone and matter-of-fact tone that may have taken away from the substance of her essay. It’s possible she had a flight to catch that evening. I don’t really know.

Wilson was followed by Kimberly Askew, who did not identify herself to the crowd. Kim later informed Your Correspondent that the last time she mentioned her name in public, she started receiving packages in the mail containing Malthusian propaganda from a stranger who refused to identify himself. The stranger did, however, confess that he had attended “that reading you were at, if you know what I mean.” After six years of endless scolding about “moral restraint,” the packages stopped. And since then, Kim has been very careful in bookstores.

But with her dark hair, isangelous gaze and a grayish suit buttoned to the neck, to say nothing of the dead giveaway of the essay’s first few sentences, I had a pretty concrete notion that it was Kim. And not just from those telling details. You see, I knew the man who had sent Kim the Malthusian packages. And Your Correspondent, before practicing journalism, let us just say, demonstrated the principle of population control in person.

Kim read about the fear that she had once faced with reading a poem in front of a crowd. Thankfully, much of this fear had dissipated with “Hold Your Applause, Please”’s reading, which Kim read in a charming and modesty bubbly voice.

Unfortunately, despite the clear instructions contained within Kim’s essay title, the audience did not, in fact, hold their applause. They all clapped, the bastards. Even Your Correspondent did. Clearly, the audience was comprised of reprobates and scoundrels. Let this be a lesson to you, ambitious essay titlers everywhere, that nobody pays attention.

Next up was Carla Kilhstedt, who, because she’s a big-time local musician, will never ever spare the time for a roundtable podcast with crazed writers. Before the reading, Your Correspondent was a big-time Sleepytime Gorilla Museum fan. Now, Your Correspondent has thrown all of his posters and CDs into the bonfire, and advises all readers to do the same. I weep. I weep again. I contemplate declaring bankruptcy.

Anyway, Kilhstedt, whose dark hair was cropped short and was also dressed in a green pullover and a grey shirt (there’s a running sartorial theme here, isn’t there?), read her essay “The Late Bloomer” and suggested that she had mom hands and bruises. Most importantly, she unfurled a telltale test to demonstrate that any single person is antediluvian: Pinch your knuckle-skin and if it doesn’t pop back, you are an old fogey.

We can say nothing but fantastic things about Michelle Richmond, in large part because we received the check in the mail today (Thanks so much, Michelle!). Richmond started off addressing a fallacy. Contrary to Ms. Juergensen’s assertion that babies just popped out, Richmond noted that they do not pop out at all. She then read from her essay, somewhat rushed, but with several acceptable asides (such as pointing out that she had perfected the art of getting ready in a miniscule amount of time).

Tanya Shaffer followed next, wearing a purple velvety top and reading at an all-too animated pace from “Of Sweethearts and Sperm Banks.” It was not a surprise to learn that Tanya is theatrical. Alas, the theatrical isn’t always compatible with the literary.

Then followed Erin Ergenbright, dressed in a simple blue-black top, who read about the horrors of an on-off relationship with appropriate minimalist efficacy. During her reading, someone’s cell phone went off (ring tone; “Stairway to Heaven”), but Your Correspondent proceeded to flog the insensitive bastard while Erin continued with her read, without attracting too much notice.

Meghan Daum was next and she was perhaps my favorite reader of the group – in large part because she was the most subtly militant. Daum’s reading ranged from over-the-top anger (“She doesn’t yet GET IT!”) to a fury just beneath the surface. She does indeed have good reason for this indignation. But you’ll have to pick up the book and read the essay for yourself. Your Correspondent will just say for now that he did try to broker a détente when we did the podcast.

Flor Morales was there, but she did not read. And I regrettably didn’t get a chance to meet her. But Your Correspondent will say, off the journalistic record, that her tale of escaping from El Salvador while pregnant was moving.

There followed a Q&A. What follows are some highlights.

Tanya Shaffer reported that she was still with the man she cited in the essay and she still has the kid.

Wilson revealed that, gender discrepancies aside, her kid wears some late.

Richesin approached several writers for the anthology and confessed that Sarah Vowell declined to participate, suggesting that she has said or written everything she has to say about gender. This was quite interesting to me, seeing as how one could easily be preoccupied with gender for six lifetimes.

Wilson noted that she felt that she didn’t know a lot of women her own age. (She is 42.) The book was a conduit in certain respects towards bridging her isolationist tendencies. She felt that it was particularly empowering to read the essays in the book.

Juergensen noted that she was really taken with Kihlstedt’s essay, particularly with the concept that ambition often burns one out.

Kihlstedt responded that the format of the book reminded her of “An Exquisite Corpse.”

The women were asked what they thought 40 would look like. But since some of the contributors were closer to that age than 30, this question was somewhat vexing.

Kihlstedt noted a friend of hers that kept pointing out that every zero-number proved to be a better decade.

Shaffer rejoined, “As each year evaporates, you are still unavoidably you. I am still the same person.”

Richmond noted that there was a great fear of aging in American culture. Nobody takes you aside and gives you a signpost for each age, nor do they tell you that what you lose in youth, you gain in emotional and psychological ease. Ambition eventually eats away.

Juergensen noted that she took the assignment quite literally when she got it, talking explicitly about what happened when she was 30. Concerning being an actor in her thirties, she replied, “I’m too old to worry about it.”

Shaffer noted that when she told the Chronicle she was 32 during an interview, many of her solo performer friends were shocked that she had confessed so easily. “Never tell a reporter your age,” said a friend.

Richmond noted that there was no getting around age from an author’s standpoint. Because the Copyright Office required you to list your date of birth. So while she’s omitted this in later books, readers can still go back to the first book to find out how old she is. She is, nevertheless, proud of being 35.

A question was asked concerning whether the 30s are the new 20s.

Wilson, at 42, concurred. She said that at 42, she felt more like a 32 year old.

Richmond noted that orgasms last longer in the thirties.

Wilson had an interesting story where she had gained a lot of weight in her 30s while trying to become pregnant. During a 5-6 year period where she was fat, she was surprised to see that women were suddenly nice to her and not badmouthing a skinny yucky girl so easy to hate. She had more friends and an easier time with women.

Kihlstedt noted that one time, when she was dolled up for a photo shoot, she took a subway ride to Brooklyn and had never felt so many stares upon her.

Kevin Smokler asked an awkward question about that grups article. Kihlstedt responded by noting that she had planned to rock out for some time.

Juergensen noted that there were certainly clear expectations for how you should look and act in Hollywood.

Alas, the conversation on an interesting topic had to be cut short due to lack of time.

Your Correspondent didn’t have time to schmooze. I had to take my leave to the Hotel Rex, set up the audio and wait for the ladies to come. Sure enough, they did. But you’ll have to wait until the podcast is released to hear the results.

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