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October 9, 2013

So Indie it Hurts: Adventures at Wordstock 2013

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As one of Bookreporter.com’s more mobile interns (I work remotely and live on the West Coast), I get access to a whole other side of the country. This past weekend, I visited Wordstock, a cleverly-titled (unfortunately the comparison is lost on us darn millennials) literary convention in Portland, Oregon. Much like the city that houses it, Wordstock is enthusiastic, very indie and a tad strange...but always in a good way. Come follow me as I explore scandalous graphic novels and more indie publishers than you could shake a hipster at, plus find out what happens when you mix Shakespeare and Star Wars.

I entered the Portland Convention Center on a gorgeous fall Saturday and immediately spotted a group of Halo cosplayers decked out in impressive but uncomfortable looking Styrofoam armor. I had not expected such Comic Con-like levels of fan devotion and felt very underdressed in my button-down and jeans, until I checked the signs and realized that the Oregon Retro Gaming Convention was taking place in a different hall in the same building. I made my way to the correct hall, forked over $11 for a ticket (another perk of small conventions), and was relieved to find everyone there in street clothes. Since I’d neglected to get up early, things were already in full swing. Authors were doing readings on big stages, more authors were signing and chatting with fans at small ones, and booths filled up all the rest of the space. A quick wander showed plenty of small presses (mostly from Oregon but a few from the rest of the Pacific Northwest), a handful of publishing services scoping for authors, some college booths advertising their MFA programs and several independent bookstores.

The first panel of the day was Timothy Zahn, author of about forty Star Wars novels including the Thrawn Trilogy, and Ian Doescher, author of something extremely awesome that I will get to in a moment. As a Star Wars fan since age 10, I was extremely excited to see the man who practically defined the Expanded Universe (all the books, comics, cartoons and supplemental material set in the Star Wars universe other than the movies). I would have been content with a reading, some Q and A and maybe, dare I hope, a handshake. But this panel was not going to settle for my humble expectations. Oh no. It was going to do something else. Something wonderful. Apparently Ian Doescher had taken the first Star Wars movie, translated it into Shakespearian-style old-fashioned English and written it out into play format. He and Tim Zahn proceeded to read three scenes, and the delicious combination of George Lucas and the Bard made my inner nerds very, very happy. I had sworn going into the building that morning that I wasn’t going to buy anything, but I left that panel with a signed copy of VERILY, A NEW HOPE and have no regrets whatsoever.

At that point, I figured, Why not? and bought a couple Christmas presents, including a gorgeous book of poetry by Tom Hennen from Copper Canyon Press (anyone near Port Townsend, Washington should definitely check them out --- they have some fantastic stuff). I wandered, I browsed, I stopped and listened to a couple of Grimm’s fairy tales read by people who I assumed were authors, only to later learn they were Monroe and Juliette from NBC’s “Grimm.” I have not seen the show and thus cannot squee at the level these two apparently deserve, but any of you who have feel free to do it for me.

Later, I dropped in on a wonderful panel by graphic novelists Gene Yang, author of AMERICAN BORN CHINESE and the newly released BOXERS & SAINTS, as well as creator of the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” comic adaptations, and Craig Thompson, best known for BLANKETS and HABIBI. The two discussed their writing and drawing processes, the various mental issues that can be caused by making comics full-time and their feelings about becoming part of the “Old Guard” of the comics world. In contrast to a lot of authors I’ve heard, both of these cartoonists thought about comics as an outsiders’ medium, something still very working-class despite the level of critical acclaim that modern graphic novels are getting. In Thompson’s words, “We didn’t get music or art or literature much growing up in Wisconsin, but we had the Sunday funnies.” Ironically enough, they also noted that making a book-length graphic novel took considerably more time and effort than writing a book. The amount of respect they had for one another and their craft was obvious, as well as how much they enjoyed interacting with fans and seeing the impact their work had on them. All the authors I saw seemed genuinely pleased to be there and happy to share the work that they loved with others. After all, they love books just as much as everyone else visiting.

This feeling of acceptance and community was really what set Wordstock apart from other events like it. There’s none of the publicity that comes with larger conventions. There wasn’t much spectacle at all, (apart from a few Star Wars costumes) just a lot of creative, talented people eager to meet others who like books as much as they do. Woodstock only invites independent vendors and pulls most of its guests from the Washington-Oregon-Northern California area, giving it a nice sense of community. The larger Wordstock organization (it’s an art and education non-profit, check it out here) also supports campaigns for literature and education programs that teach kids to write. It was a great day at a unique convention that was all for a good cause. It doesn’t get much better than that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to a galaxy far, far away. By troth, the Rebel Alliance doth need salvation.