As I approached the Overture Center to see Wisconsin novelists Jane Hamilton and David Rhodes read as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival on Saturday night, a fellow hovering outside the main entrance asked me, "Are you here for the Bill Ayres/Bernardine Dorn event? Do you want one of these?" He half-heartedly waved a flier at me. "You're not protesting, are you?" I asked not thinking that he could be; he seemed far too tentative and, well, alone. "Yes," he answered. I gave him an are-you-nuts look and handed his flier back to him.
Upstairs at Overture, a book festival volunteer herding people asked me, "Are you here for Jane Hamilton?"
Well, if the truth were told, I was out in the windy cold on Saturday night to hear David Rhodes.
Nothing against Jane Hamilton, for certain, but she's given a number of readings in Madison over the years. She's lovely and always entertaining.
But Rhodes, who published the novel Driftless last year after a 30-year publishing silence, has never before given a reading in Madison, and only a few small readings in support of the novel at all.
Readings, of course, are what the Wisconsin Book Festival is based on. Hearing an author read from his or her own work can be transforming. Usually, it is not, of course. Most readings range from pedestrian to jolly-but-soon-forgotten. There are exceptions, when the writer's words, spoken by the writer, reveal more. More than what you've been getting by absorbing them silently off the printed page. The story opens up; who the writer is opens up. It's a blue-light special, limited-time-only kind of thing.
Promenade Hall was full, about 290 people. Hamilton spoke first. She confessed she had gotten to the Dane County Farmers' Market at about 6 a.m. and had spent the morning there and was still chilled from the experience. Her natural warmth showed through nonetheless as she thanked the audience "for being Madison" and then went on to shimmy into an incongruous cocktail dress she'd brought for some kind of an ocean-cruise writing seminar at which she'd taught. She read from a paper her son had written while he was in high school, a gently satirical piece of make-work he'd had to turn in for gym class that's right, gym.
It had been serving as inspiration, Hamilton explained, for both her new work and her most recently published book, Laura Rider's Masterpiece. It was the impetus for Hamilton to try on other voices. "Writing in another person's voice is a gateway drug," she laughed. Hamilton then read from a work-in-progress set on an apple orchard in Wisconsin ("it's fiction!" she assured the audience). Hamilton's piece was funny, and the audience was laughing like it was at a taping of Saturday Night Live.
Michael Chaim then introduced Rhodes, saying that as a bookseller, he'd been "privileged" to witness first-hand people's reactions to Driftless. The novel, set in the driftless area of southwest Wisconsin, where Rhodes lives, catches something true about the area, from landscape to the personality of its residents.
Rhodes, somewhat tentative but not seemingly ill-at-ease, said that it was an "overwhelming honor" to be there. He said that his daughter was in the audience and that she had "given him the courage to do something I wouldn't normally do." He read a longer piece, a chapter from Driftless. "It goes kind of like this," he began.
Though I had initially assumed (I guess this stemmed from the bookfest volunteer's casual terming of this as "the Hamilton event") that most of the people there were there to see Hamilton, judging from the number of q & a questions directed David Rhodes, that wasn't the case. And they weren't all questions. Several people took the mike to tell Rhodes just how much they loved reading his book, almost like testifying. It was clear that his work had gotten into readers' heads and hearts. One woman told how her book club had been inspired to go out to Readstown, in the driftless area, to discuss the book.
One questioner wanted to know what authors inspired them. Hamilton spoke about Jane Austen. Rhodes cited William Faulkner "He wrote with the voice of a culture" which for a writer is "so incredibly courageous."
"You are deep and I am shallow," Hamilton joked, confessing that she was going to go home and give Faulkner another try.