Authors share their secrets

Annual Literary Sojourn brings book-lovers, writers together

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For members of a book club in Fort Collins, the Literary Sojourn is an annual must.

What they hear from the nationally known authors helps them select books to read in the upcoming months and gives them greater insight into books they have read in the past year.

"It is just the complete book experience, because once you read an author, you want to be able to ask questions," said Paula Laramie, who has been coming to the event for six years.

Laramie and her five cohorts spent Saturday at the Sheraton Steamboat Resort Hotel ballroom listening to four authors talk about the impetus to their works, the writing process and the major themes in their writings.

Cristina Garc-a, David Quammen, Brady Udall and Ann-Marie MacDonald spoke to about 500 people, most of them women.

"After hearing the author, I read the book and picture how they got to the point of writing it," fellow book club member Jo Waldo said. "Its much more enjoyable that way."

Between stories of horrifying public speaking experiences and ready excerpts from his book "The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint," Udall told the story of how the book came to be. The book is about a half-Apache, half-white boy who was run over by a mail carrier at age 7 and his attempts to find the man and offer him forgiveness.

Part of the story came from Udall's experiences growing up near American Indian reservations in northeastern Arizona.

He told the audience about the time his seventh-grade football team played at the nearby school for delinquent American Indian children. He recalled an athletic field filled with glass shards and a cactus in the end zone, the other team's mismatched, poorly fitting uniforms and the dormitories that had bars on the windows.

As his team was about to leave the school in its shiny school bus and new uniforms, he looked up to see the boys hanging out of the barred windows, just about to throw things at them.

"It was very clear to me that they hated me, and I didn't understand why," he told the audience.

His other inspiration for "Edgar Mint" came from a girl he met in college. The girl told him about another man she dated who, at a young age, was run over by a mail carrier.

The mail carrier had presumed he killed the boy and had a mental breakdown. But when the boy got older, he was desperate to find the mail carrier and tell him that he survived and had a very fruitful life.

Udall asked to see the man, so he could hear his story. The girlfriend eventually became Udall's wife and the man's tale became a cornerstone of Udall's first novel.

"Those two things are for some reason married in my mind. They have nothing to do with one another," he said. "Art is placing things that don't seem to belong on the same page, forcing them together, and some alchemy, chemical reaction takes place. It is beauty."

Other authors shared their stories about the births of their novels. Garc-a said much of her work was inspired by her Cuban heritage and her family's struggle as exiles in the United States and supporters of the revolution in Cuba.

Garc-a admitted to finding little pieces of herself in many of the characters in her book: the communist grandmother, the patriotic baker in Brooklyn, the punk artist rebel and the deranged hairdresser in Havana.

The opening lines to her novel, "Dreaming in Cuban," come from memories of her grandmother sitting in a wicker chair on her front porch in Cuba, scanning the waters for invaders. It was the same grandmother who had a picture of Fidel Castro in a heart-shaped frame next to her bedside table.

The novel, which was Garc-a's most autobiographical book, started from a poem. Garc-a described creating the image of her grandmother as a gift that seemed to float down to her.

"Usually, a couple of times during the course of writing a novel, a seeming gift with wings will drift down," she said. "It is enormous work to make (the rest) seem as effortless as those little gifts."

MacDonald, the last author to speak at the Literary Sojourn, also talked about the gifts of creativity that inspire her writing. For her novels, "Fall on Your Knees" and "The Way the Crow Flies," the impetus was the image she writes in the prologue.

From there, she asks the questions that become the bulk of the novel.

Both novels involve child sexual abuse, MacDonald said, because it is a core theme that allows authors to explore a character's quest for identity and is a problem that affects many people and has been discussed openly only in the past 20 years.

Her most recent novel, "The Way the Crow Flies" is a story of childhood, marriage, families in Canada in the 1960s and the Cold World. It's a story that starts in Technicolor and slowly turns to shades of gray.

"You can't pinpoint the exact moment the world begins to darken. You can't pinpoint the very moment it becomes to late too do the right thing," she said.

Quammen described his version of nonfiction literature Saturday between tales of flesh-eating iguanas and crocodile hunting with aborigines in Australia.

Quammen, a former science and nature columnist for Outside magazine, writes about the natural world.

He told the audience his stories were like looking at a Chinese dragon -- from afar it appears to be a beautiful painted mural, but up close the onlooker sees a mosaic of shards of glass, beads, bottle caps and tile.

In his writing, the items that made up the mosaic are facts, real people, real narrative anecdotes and ideas.

Like many in the audience, the book club members from Fort Collins were disappointed that Audrey Niffenegger, author of the New York Times best seller "The Time Traveler's Wife," did not speak as scheduled. Niffenegger had bronchitis and had informed the organizers Friday that she would be unable to speak.

Despite the absence of Niffenegger, organizers deemed the annual event a success. Organizer Dick Ryan, of Off the Beaten Path Bookstore, noted that as the attendees came out of the ballroom Saturday, the most commonly asked question was when the Literary Sojourn would be held next year.

Organizer Chris Painter, director of Bud Werner Memorial Library, said the authors' books have been in high demand at the library and will continue to be after the sojourn.

"The whole event signifies that reading is alive and well," Painter said. "Books are treasured and loved. That is what we are trying to accomplish, to connect authors with their readers."

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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