When I read a book, what matters most to me is the writing, and I am dismayed by the way that stunning prose often doesn’t get the attention it deserves. So I decided to do something about it. I figured Oak Park was the perfect place to launch Writing Matters, what I believed would be the perfect author series: a great writer whom people might not have heard of, but one they would feel glad to find out about. A beautiful venue. Delicious food and wine. Books sold on site. All proceeds from ticket sales given to charity.
Well, we made it happen. Our events brought in visitors from other places to Oak Park — once people came all the way from Buffalo, New York! Writing Matters helped authors, readers, our local bookstore and the wider community. Also, it helped me because I had the satisfaction of seeing how great writing can affect people in real time. I cannot tell you what a thrill it was to look around the audience when one of our authors was reading and see so many rapt faces.
We also had some unique and fun elements: There was a kid essayist at every event who talked about the importance of reading. (Sometimes those cuties upstaged the authors, who were good sports about it!) When we had an author of Czech descent, the essayist was an elementary school student from the Czech school in Cicero, who wore a charming traditional outfit to deliver her address. We invited the Czech counsel general, who happily agreed to come, and we served homemade apple strudel made locally by a Czech woman. When we had Tony Fitzpatrick come with his book on birds, we had a guest appearance by a screech owl.
We made programs just like theaters do and hung posters all over town. We tried to tailor the food to the books we were featuring — once, we had “boy food,” and another time we had a Barbie doll cake. When we had an author with a book that took place in India, we served an entire Indian meal, purchased from Khyber Pass, and Oak Park librarian Rashmi Swain’s daughter was the outstanding essayist. We always had beautiful flower arrangements, and in a gesture showcasing her usual generosity, the late Val Camilletti, owner of Val’s halla Records, made a custom CD with music to complement the book we were featuring — and then she gave away 10 copies. (Oh, we miss you so much, Val!)
For the first event, we had only three weeks’ preparation time. But we got 75 people who were treated to the lyricism of Leah Hager Cohen. The people who came had such a good time.
We had so many great authors, and word about our events was beginning to spread. But as a writer myself, I had to take a break so I could get my own work done. Recently my partner, Bill Young, and I joined the 19th Century Club, to partner with them in doing Writing Matters events. We set June 1 as the date when we would present our first author, Richard Ford.
Well. You know what happened.
But you know what? We’re back anyway, virtually. And our first event will be Sunday afternoon, Aug. 23. I’ll be interviewing a debut novelist whose book, Shuggie Bain, was just longlisted for the Booker Prize, the most prestigious literary prize in the English-speaking world. I’ll interview the author, Douglas Stuart, and I can hardly wait to ask him three questions: Did you cry, writing this book? Did you get to meet Tim Gunn in your time in the fashion industry in New York? Are you getting a swelled head now that you’ve gotten so much praise and are probably on the way to winning a Pulitzer?
Shuggie Bain is about a young boy growing up in public housing in Glasgow in the ’80s. It’s a dark book because Shuggie’s mother is an alcoholic and his life is hard. But the love, compassion and redemption shown in this book make the heartache you might feel worth it. Incidentally, you know how I heard about Shuggie Bain? In a New York Times rave … by Leah Hager Cohen.
See local author Elizabeth Berg in conversation with Douglas Stuart, author of “Shuggie Bain” on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2 p.m., by registering for the free webinar at nineteenthcentury.org and clicking on Events. Elizabeth Berg is the New York Times best-selling author of more than 30 books and founder of Writing Matters. “Shuggie Bain” is available for purchase at The Book Table.