It’s 4:45 in the afternoon, and a handful of barflies are enjoying the cheapest beer on tap at the Sunset Blvd cyber bar. I’m here to meet Steve Weddle, and I recognize him immediately by the flame of red hair and matching beard. I wave and head over to the table in the far corner, hailing the waitress on the way. Sometimes I wonder why I come here with the ‘Ms. Fiorentino’ barmaid’s saucy I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude (appropriately Lizabeth Scott, 1945), and her preference for watching the barking clowns of reality TV shows and listening to the sugary beats of pop music … all of it tilts me the wrong way. But the dive atmosphere is pitch perfect, and I find I’m able to drown out the blaring Auto-Tuned vocals of Miley Cyrus with the sounds in my head of Thelonius Monk’s fingers be-bopping across 88 keys in seamless harmony.
I sit down and ask for my usual Sam Adams. Steve orders a “Jack Daniel’s. No ice. No water. No umbrella.”
I grin at his sense of humor, “So glad you had some time to spare, Steve, before you gotta get back to Virginia. You know, I’ve worked out of the Northern Virginia/Washington DC area for a long time. When I first went there in ‘97, a place like Front Royal or Warrenton was still rather quiet … not the same bustle of the DC metro area. Last year as I drove through, the sprawl had already snapped them up. I guess that’s progress, right?”
“On the way home, we drove through Culpeper, stopping at a Super Target for electronics we didn’t need and a four-pack of fat-free Greek yogurt.
“I like being able to get fresh spinach-feta bread in a downtown coffee shop and a $6 bag of socks on the edge of town. For me, it’s good planning. Like keeping your living space beautiful by putting the outhouse on the edge of your field.”
I chuckle at his analogy, and expand on the thoughts on bookstores. “I’ve always found good used bookstores in Virginia, no matter where I’ve traveled in the state. And, of course, there are so many cultural highlights like Monticello and Montpelier. I even enjoyed visiting the real Walton’s mountain (no kidding … my wife surprised me with a day trip and we had a lot of fun visiting the area that inspired the TV series). One thing, unfortunately, I haven’t explored in the state is the writing community. What’s it like in your part of VA?”
“Used bookstores seem to be fading away, though, don’t they? I don’t know how they stay in business. Now the biggest surprises I find are in the backs of thrift shops. Writing groups puzzle me. I don’t know what groups you’ve been involved in, but there seems to be one in each town or region around here. You pay $100 a year to belong and that allows you to volunteer a few times a year at their fundraisers. Seriously, though, they seem to have some nice events. There’s one in Charlottesville that I belong to called Writer House, which hosted Chad Harbach the other night. The people I’ve met have seemed pretty cool.
“But what seems the most beneficial to me are the emails and chats, much like this one, in which writers who genuinely care about each others’ work pass around drafts and ideas. Sitting around after MFA classes was good, of course, but I’m not sure how you get that back. Sitting around a fire pit in the backyard would be good, too. Or a bar with a bottomless pitcher of good beer. As it stands, these electronic chats work because you’re not limited by a geographic group. All of us — in the woods of Virginia or Maine or wherever — can be isolated geographically, yet have a handful of talented writers in our genre read our work, listen to our ideas. I’m sure you’ve often found the “virtual” writers’ groups to work better than sitting around a table in the public library, trying to figure out a nice way to tell Nancy that her narrator isn’t believable.”
“Yeah, I get that.” Ms. Fiorentino interrupts us with a fresh round of drinks, “The Internet is a great equalizer. I mean, I was able to ‘meet’ the distinguished likes of Bill Pronzini, Ed Gorman, and Vin Packer and publish them! But back to brick and mortar stores, how was is it to get out there for your first book launch with COUNTRY HARDBALL? Did you imagine everyone in their knickers, break out in a cold sweat, stammer, or was it just plain easy-peasy?”
Steve lifts up the Old-Fashioned glass filled halfway with Jack, “What I hadn’t anticipated about the readings is wondering whether I’ve made it worth the trip for people. You’re asking people to give up a couple hours of their night, drive out somewhere, and so forth. I wonder whether my standing up there and reading a few pages and answering questions is enough reason for people to go to the trouble. I mean, it’s great for folks to head out to an indie bookstore. That alone is worth the trip. I taught college for years and stood in front of a few dozen people who would rather be anywhere than in a tight, fluorescent-lit room listening to me blather on about how American jazz influenced the poetry of Philip Larkin. So speaking with smart readers about a book they’ve read or want to read is much easier. I still stammer, of course, but that’s from the self-medicating.
“You’ve been to readings or giving readings, of course. I’m sure it’s much the same for you.”
I don’t have the heart to tell him I can count my public speaking on one hand, but I draw from what I have in the back pocket of my mind. “I’ve found I get the shakes heading up to the podium and then … it more or less comes naturally. I might waver a little mid-stream when I realize what I am doing, but I can usually right the course with what hopefully appears to be a long, pensive pause. It does help, for sure, being surrounded with like-minded aficionados. Speaking of your peers, The New York Times said, ‘Steve Weddle’s writing is downright dazzling.’ You going to be dining with John Grisham and Martin Amis now?”
“As you know, the legwork it takes to get a book into the hands of readers is monumental. I don’t see how you do it with all the westerns and the Beat to a Pulp site and books, and on and on. It makes me sleepy just thinking about it.”
“Well, I’m just a regular guy, Steve, with hired hands to help me put my pants on one leg at a time.” He courteously laughs at my lame joke. “Slight change of topic, recently Xiaolu Guo, author and film-maker, said American literature is ‘massively overrated.’ What are your thoughts?”
“I’ve been seeing more and more people say they want to read more international books. I just started THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS by Kiran Desai, which is swell so far. And I’ve enjoyed OUT STEALING HORSES by Per Petterson and WHISPERING MUSE by Sjon and much of the Haruki Muramki. I just ordered two of Xiaolu Guo’s books, so I’m looking forward to that. I’m sure I could fill my house with authors I’ve read from the UK and North America, while I could probably fill only a shelf or two from others. French and German, sure. Italian. But have I ever read an author from Malaysia?
“As for ‘overrated,’ I’m not really sure what they mean by that. She said that seven of the ten best novels listed in an Italian newspaper were American novels. OK. Why is that? Who picked the list? Italians? Do the Italians prize American novels over works of fiction from Chile? I don’t know. Why would they?
“Is it easier to sell a book worldwide if the book is in English? I’m not an international bookseller, but I’d bet it was easier.
“What I appreciate, from a completely self-serving point of view, is that when people start to have these discussions, I’m pushed in a direction that helps me discover new writers, new voices I hadn’t know. That’s how I ended up reading the Sjon, thanks to a discussion about international authors. So, my thought about the argument is, you know, ‘thanks.’”
“That’s a good point,” I reply. Ms. Fiorentino turns up the volume when a Justin Bieber tune starts playing. I lean in closer, shouting, “You’re popular within the social networking circles. Do you mind shedding some light on authors, readers, etc. who you’d recommend following?”
Steve signals for the check. “I don’t know about ‘popular,’ but I’ve certainly been thrilled with all the folks I’ve met online. Most of them, I mean. Many of them. Anyway, in addition to you, of course, worth following would be everyone in my Twitter feed and my RSS reader. Well, not all of them. I guess I should weed some out. Narrowing it down, I guess, you’d want to keep an eye on who the most active and inter-active people are. Who are the most engaging? I also like to have a variety of topics, as well as voices. For example, Chris and Kat Holm have recently shared great literature news and songs and general interest articles. I find myself interacting with readers and writers who I don’t really know that well, but said something interesting while I was looking.
“That’s the rough thing about Twitter and Facebook, isn’t it? You have a paperboat with brilliant scrawls floating down the stream. If you’re not looking down the hill at just the right moment, you’ll miss it. Then, maybe you see someone say something about the thing someone said. So you have to look back on the thread to find out what the original hullabaloo was. So, that’s kind of a pain, isn’t it?
“What’s wonderful, though, is seeing people who are really enthused about a thing and you get to check out a writer or band you didn’t know existed. The trick is popping in and out and still keeping time to read and write yourself.”
“So true,” I yell in agreement, the Bieber tune coming to a close, as was our tête-à-tête. While we walk to front door, I ask a parting question, “Are you a Belieber, Steve?”
“I saw a video of that guy as a little kid playing the drums and he seemed to have some real talent there.”
I nod my head, admiring his diplomatic approach. A cliché comes to mind, one that holds true—a southern gentleman. We shake hands and with that I watch the Old Dominion Troubadour exit into the fading sunlight of the day’s end.