"The Best Panel Ever": A Review of the "Wildly Imaginative Voices and Visions" panel at Story Week

“The best panel ever!” everyone sitting beside me cheered at the conclusion of tonight’s “Wildly Imaginative Voices and Visions” panel. The rare occurrence of a spectacular audience Q and A with the energetic and insightful panelists, plus a host willing to dive into process, were the chemistry to make those cheers genuine.

From classes with the esteemed Ann Hemenway, I've admired her singular ability to incite discussion that doesn’t just reiterate, but explore possibility. “I just ask what I’m interested in,” she told me later, and I can’t think of a better way to interview. What I didn’t expect was for the panelists to be so engaged. As soon as Emma Straub sat down, her eyes darted all over. Straub didn’t just sit back and bask in the power of the stage--she cared about what the other panelists said, and the questions at hand. The section she picked from her debut novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, had a sharp, clear descriptive voice with metaphors that made you want to snap your pen in jealousy. Elsa took a swig of an unpleasant drink and, “it felt as good as pressing a bruise." Describing a theatre where her title character once performed, Straub wrote, "she could hear everyone in the audience breathing”, such a unique way to convey intimacy.

Adam McOmber was most studious of the group, and his novel The White Forest, set in various parts of the Victorian England, reflected this preoccupation. His sensual words lulled us into the visions his character heard her mother describe. I didn’t connect with McOmber’s reading as much as the others, but people around me scribbled enthusiastic comments in their journals, and his book flew off the Book Cellar tables. Just a matter of personal taste, I think. But the scholar had one of the pithiest quotes of the night, when asked about his protagonist’s deeply Gothic voice: “I grew up in a small town in Ohio, and I’m gay. I think that’d make anyone sort of Gothic.”

T. Geronimo Johnson charmingly confessed that if he’d known reading events were part of the writing package, he’d have been a lawyer. He needn’t have worried. His smooth deep voice tricked me into thinking he’d written a prose poem instead of a war novel while his character, of all things, described the guns in a sporting goods store. I haven’t read Hold It ‘Til It Hurts,  but after hearing a snippet I’m willing to lay money on it becoming this generation’s The Things They Carried. Not just the poetry of the surroundings, but the rich, gritty speak of Johnson’s soldiers  in “Goddamittstan” earns it that comparison.

Hemenway has a fabulous fearlessness about inserting herself into interview--she told Straub about her love of old Hollywood, and drew parallels between the panelists’ responses. Johnson in particular played a maverick, stating he only researched facts to fit his story, and that he felt his job, “was not to make a sympathetic character, but to make a world where that character made sense”, nor to write for an audience primed to accept his work. Research for all the writers was compelling yet spotty--many of them wrote a first draft and filled in the blanks later so as not to be caught in the snare of libraries. And perhaps significantly, all of them had difficulty finding a publisher for their work--as Johnson said, he was down to the last agent, last publisher on the list. In Straub and McOmber’s case, getting to write their book were feats they never dreamed. Straub wrote four unpublished novels before a tiny press asked for a short story collection. McOmber worked on a novel for 7 years before having a crisis of confidence, and starting over with short stories. Despair, however, was their best teacher--it made Straub go to grad school to see what she might be doing wrong, and McOmber discover how to tell if writing worked or not.

OK. Let’s be honest. As the great Wyl Villacres noted in a different review, audience Q and As usually suck. Somebody always wants to know how they can get the book under their bed published, and clearly this fancy-ass writer on stage is the best person to tell them. But the function of the Q and A goes straight to the heart of the Story Week mission--to connect readers with writers, and to take it away would be a disservice to everyone. And so, one must wade through the silly in order to get to the magic. When Hemenway opened this panel up to the audience, no one moved. No line had been forming throughout the conversation, so focused (or terrified) was this crowd. Things could have stopped there and no one would have been cheated--it was already a great panel.  But finally, after some whispered encouragement and a few elbows in the back, a young lady in black rose to ask the first question. Everyone applauded, and she did not disappoint, coming out with a gem: “How do you know when to let writing go?”

Then, the next person slowly crept up behind her. And the next, and the next. And the magic kept unfolding. Johnson in particular made the audience at ease. After he responded to a young man’s inquiry about writing a story through the eyes of soldier, clearly feeling he’d done a poor job of getting to the earnest question, he said, “that was a bad answer”, and we all laughed, though it wasn’t. Sultry-voiced himself, he complimented a questioner’s voice, and the audience laughed again at the awkwardness inherent in the exchange. (OK, that was me he complimented, and I totally made it awkward.) Emma Straub elaborated about the theatre she’d mentioned in her reading, how she ended up doing a reading at that very theatre, and how it was exactly like she’d imagined it, and she wasn’t sure if she’d written so well it that she might have just willed into existence.

By the time Johnson talked about “drawing the shadow of a story” so you weren’t overwhelmed by the weight of the world you’d created, the people I sat with actually gasped at his insights. Every single person who approached that microphone had more than just a self-interested question. Hemenway had made them curious about how these people worked. And Straub, McOmber, and Johnson were more than ready and happy to tell them.

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