Calvin College Festival, afterword

As noted previously, I spent part of last week at the Calvin College Festival of Faith & Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This is a lit conference held biennially (in odd-numbered years, they have a Festival of Faith & Music), with about 2000 attendees. Although Calvin College is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, the festival is open to anyone with an interest, positive or negative, in religion and writing. Past guests have included Salman Rushdie and Elie Wiesel; Philip Pullman and Richard Dawkins would be welcome if they chose to come, and I imagine even Peter H. Gilmore could wangle an invite to a panel discussion if he promised not to hex the Presbyterians. Christians in attendance run the gamut from conservative evangelicals to apostates like yours truly. Everyone I met was incredibly friendly.

My first event, on Thursday morning, was a reading from Set This House in Order. Around 50 people showed up, and in what was a first for me, a young woman in the audience bought and downloaded the book for her Kindle before I’d even finished. I know it shouldn’t seem like a big deal, someone buying a novel at a reading, but there were no physical copies for sale in the room, and while you could walk five minutes to the Festival book bazaar to score one, they eventually ran out of stock. So between the instant gratification and the bottomless inventory, this ebook thing is starting to seem like a pretty nifty invention.

Thursday afternoon was my main event, a speech about growing up as the son of a minister and a missionary’s daughter, and how that influenced my writing (“An Interesting Moral Education,” text here). Another big crowd, and the talk went over well. My favorite comment was from the guy who introduced himself as Lutheran pastor and said, “I just want to tell you how glad I am to meet a preacher’s kid who has a job.

Thursday evening my hosts took me and several other writers out to a local Persian restaurant, Shiraz Grille. My dining companions included poet Kazim Ali and novelist Olga Grushin, who it turns out is a fellow John Crowley fan. I had the Cornish hen kabob, which was awesome (I’m pretty sure the secret ingredient was turmeric). Also, great baba ghanoush (never had it before—I know, I know—but now I think I’m going to have to try Alton Brown’s recipe).

I snuck out of dinner early to catch Wally Lamb’s keynote address at the Calvin sports arena. Much of his speech was about how he’d been touched by the power of Oprah, but he also talked about his work with an inmates’ writing group at York Prison.

Friday morning I got up early to attend a talk by Christa Parrish about the alternate publishing universe represented by the Christian Booksellers Association and the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. There are some interesting parallels to (secular) genre publishing: going the Christian fiction route gives you access to a devoted fandom, but at a risk of being isolated from mainstream readers. CBA publishing standards are geared towards the most easily offended readers, so there’s little or no profanity, no explicit sex, and no scenes, I am guessing, like this one. Parrish admitted to sometimes chafing under the guidelines, but she also pointed out that if this publishing channel didn’t exist, many of the customers wouldn’t read any fiction at all.

Next I caught a talk/reading/stand-up act by Joshilyn Jackson, who by her own admission could not hope to meet the CBA publishing standards. She was very funny, and of the books she read from, gods in Alabama seemed like the one worth checking out first.

Friday afternoon was my last event, an onstage conversation with Kathryn Davis. I was almost late for this, having confused 2:00 and 2:30 somehow (they look so similar), but fortunately my student guide and designated Matt-wrangler Jacob Eizenga was on the ball and got me there with a minute to spare. Ostensibly the topic of the conversation was “interior landscapes,” but as usually happens, we ended up roaming into whatever subjects struck our fancy, and there were lots of process questions from the audience.

And then, after a book signing, it was time to head for the airport. I’m sorry I didn’t stay longer, but my master plan was to squeeze in a weekend visit with my uncles in Detroit and then get back to my cave and resume work on The Mirage. If I’m lucky enough to be invited again, next time I’ll stay the full Festival.

In the meantime, thanks to Shelly LaMahieu Dunn, the hardest working woman in show business, her assistants Kristin Otte and Shannon Jammal-Hollemans, my guide Jacob Eizenga, and the many other people on the Festival staff who made my stay so pleasant. If they invite you, say yes.