Booking around Kingston, pt. 1

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What makes a book reviewer’s heart beat faster? Being on the road heading toward a Writers’ festival. In this case, the Kingston Writersfest, a four-day, fifty-two event extravaganza.

I invited my good friend Jan to go with me to Kingston and after I finished teaching on Thursday, September 27, we headed north and west. (I wish being a book reviewer paid well enough to make a living, but perhaps only Michiko Kukitani of the New York Times has that luxury.) Our first event didn’t start until 8:30pm so we had time to drive along the American side of the St. Lawrence, with glimpses of the river and a stop at Krings State Park where we walked across a footbridge to a little island. The crooked white pines and tiny islands reminded me of Japanese landscapes, especially with the low sun and long shadows.

It wasn’t difficult to navigate to the Holiday Inn on the lake where most of the writersfest events take place. We even had time to walk up Princess Street and eat some delicious Thai food before we headed inside up to the sixth floor of the Holiday Inn. I picked up my press pass and Jan and I crowded into a big room with rows of chairs set up. We thought we were early enough to get seats near the front but many people before us had also had that idea.

Alison Wearing put on a dynamic one-woman show, Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter. (She’s also written a memoir with the same title.) Wearing grew up in a small town in Ontario in the 1980’s in what she assumed was a “normal” family. But at the age of twelve, her father left to live in Toronto with his boyfriend. The production had music and slides and Wearing acted out many roles, managing to make the show both personal and universal. She had slides of gay activists marching in Toronto (including her father), the Toronto gay fathers’ picnics and slides of family life before and after her father and mother divorced. One line in particular struck me. Wearing’s father said, “If I had been born ten years earlier I would never have left my marriage. If I had been born ten years later, I wouldn’t have married a woman at all.”

The crowd dispersed after the show and Jan and I followed directions to a quiet street in Meadowbrook, a neighborhood on the west side of Kingston. It was after 10pm when we found Vicki’s house, a friend of a friend. Our awkwardness at arriving on a stranger’s door late at night was immediately relieved when a smiling woman answered the door. She made us feel welcomed and didn’t seem to mind the lateness of the hour. We slept soundly and in the morning shared a scrumptious European-style breakfast with her—fresh toasted bread topped with thin slices of aged cheese.

Vicki is a bicycling advocate and we were thrilled when she told us she had enough bicycles in the garage that we could borrow a couple for the day. She gave us our route—about a 30 minute ride— and we set off, two rural women negotiating city streets during rush hour. Fortunately Kingston has separate bike lanes and a fairly sedate morning driving crowd. We passed shopping malls, residential neighborhoods, the giant wall of the Kingston penitentiary and rode along with a wide view of Lake Ontario. It was the perfect way to begin the day.

We had to puzzle out our bike route at a couple of corners which made me a tad bit late for my first event of the day, a meeting with Kat Evans, the marketing director for the Kingston Writersfest. Kat was gracious as I ran in the door to the hotel, tearing off my bike helmet and reflective jacket. She told me, calmly, as we sat together in a booth in the hotel restaurant sipping cups of Earl Gray tea, that they were now on the nineteenth event of the festival and everything was going well. She did carry a clipboard and jotted down notes as we talked. The Writersfest  “employs” over 100 volunteers over the course of the four-day festival (Jan noticed that they all were asked to wear black and then were accessorized with deep orange scarves, a very classy volunteer outfit). Kat estimated they would have 5,000 attendees.

I’d asked for one interview with an author and Kat set me up with two more. She seemed unflappable and even got on the phone to make sure I was on the list for the Book Lovers Lunch. “Your ticket will be upstairs”, she said, “and after the lunch I’ll tell you when the interviews will happen.” When I went to the Kingston Writersfest last year I was somewhat of a fly on the wall, enjoying myself and sampling a bit of the festival without checking in with “the management”. Now I had become enmeshed in the whole project. We were trading assets—I needed authors to interview and events to attend and Kat wanted the publicity she knew NCPR could supply.

Back outside the hotel I looked up into the warm blue sky, checked my color-coded writersfest program and decided I had time to explore the city a bit before I went back inside for most of the day. While I waited for Jan, I sat on a bench looking out across the bay to Point Frederick and the Royal Military College. The Wolfe Island ferry churned by and I was a little bit jealous – Jan had plans to take the free, twenty-minute ferry ride out to the island, go for a walk and check out the island bakery. But I’d done the same thing last year so I had no need to pine for it. Still, it was such a beautiful day. I’d have to find another little window of unscheduled time in the afternoon.

Jan wanted to see Queens University and we followed a pleasant route on sidewalks that circled on the lakeside edges of the big hotels, through little parks and past docks filled with pleasure boats. When we walked inland the houses of old brick and stone looked older than anything we have in the interior of northern New York State. The big campus is also filled with lovely old buildings and it was a pleasure to walk along with the crowds of students. At the farthest out point of our walk I glanced at my watch and realized that, once again, even if we walked fast, I’d be late for my next event. At the Book Lovers’ Lunch Will Schwalbe would be speaking about his memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club.

This time when I ran into the hotel elevator another woman ran in with me. She sighed and leaned her head against the wall. “We’re not that late,” I said, as a decorated veteran in the lateness campaign. “Hardly even fifteen minutes.”

On the sixth floor, we rushed out to the ticket-takers and heard the news. “We’re overbooked so we’re setting up another table.” My acquaintance and I sat together, with a another late pair across the table. In short order we had silverware, ice water, green salads and bread and butter. Not a bad lunch already

As penance for our lateness our table was served last but I didn’t mind. I leaned in to talk to my table partner and I enjoyed the food. I felt a bit bad for the guest speaker, Will Schwalbe, who had to begin his talk while most of the people in the room, well over one hundred of them, clinked knives and forks against their plates while they ate lunch.

Schwalbe’s book is selling well which may be surprising for a book with a rather depressing title. Schwalbe formed a two-person book club with his mother during the last two years of her life, when she was dying of pancreatic cancer. While they waited in hospital waiting rooms and chemotherapy cubicles they talked about each read. The End of Your Life Book Club is poignant, of course, but not maudlin. Schwalbe writes, “Mom had made it very clear that she was living while dying and that whatever time she had left was not to be turned into a rolling memorial.”

Our late-people lunch arrived during Schwalbe’s talk, which turned out to be fine. He was a good speaker but he didn’t say anything in his talk that wasn’t in the book, until the question and answer session and by then I’d finished my meal.

“I’m on a crusade,” Schwalbe said, “Ask each other more often, not ‘How are you doing?’ but ‘What are you reading?’”  He said the best gift to give another person is not a book but rather a conversation about that book. Of course my book reviewer’s heart swelled with joy to hear this.

And then the speech was over and we hadn’t yet gotten our dessert. I had to pass on the pastry as I rushed out the door to my first interview, downstairs in a small meeting room. I wasn’t bereft about not getting the sweet. I still had hopes I’d be able to sneak out later and get to a fine bakery less than a block away.

(to be continued in Part II)