Back from the last day of Wordstock, the highlight of which was when a crowd of Portlanders filled a corner of a sprawling exhibition hall to hear Sarah Vowell speak about assassins. She’s written three books, and the third is Assassination Vacation, about her tour of sites related to the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. She read two excerpts: the opening, about Sarah making New England bed-and-breakfast guests uncomfortable by describing what a great musical Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins was, and a section about a commune where the future murderer of President James Garfield lived for a time. This commune preached utterly open relationships to the point where everyone was supposed to get sex…but this future assassin could not get any. (His nickname there: Get Out. I’m not kidding.) Vowell knows how to tell a story: find the sex and violence! And the humor. She’s good with the funny: self-deprecating, sarcastic, deadpan, good things like that. She even sort-of-kind-of links the aforementioned commune with the TV show The O.C. Really.
She had the crowd eating out of her hand, Sarah Vowell did. The audience responded with good questions, too, and question quality is such a crapshoot with public forums like this. No Chris Farley-esque “Wasn’t that cool?” digression about her work on The Incredibles or anyone asking Sarah out to dinner (‘cause I didn’t speak up).
Other good stuff was when author Trisha Howell, who writes kids’ books about dogs (like The Pekinese Who Saved Civilization), had her twin Pekinese onstage with her: the dogs were so still that they blended together to look like a single dog with a head at each end. I started listening to her presentation because of that image. And then there was Ridley Pearson, a mystery novelist who has plunged into children’s book writing with Peter and the Starcatchers, a prequel to Peter Pan that he wrote with Dave Barry. Yes, that Dave Barry. The two of them started writing what they thought would be a short novel about how Peter Pan met Captain Hook, and it’s grown into a planned trilogy where the first book alone is 464 pages, with seven chapter books filling in even more gaps. The subject grew and grew, to the delight of Disney, which owns the film rights and wants plenty of material to use. And Pearson is pleased to be enjoying all of this writing…for one thing, they’re books that his kids can read. He said how triumphant his seven-year-old daughter was when she brought her copy of the manuscript over to him, after five weeks of reading it on her own, and bellowed “I’m finished!!!”