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GET LIT!: Tokers, smokers and night prowlers: A former Get Lit! director recalls strange times from festivals past

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During the seven years I spent with the Get Lit! festival, I worked with hundreds of writers, an ensemble best suited for a Wes Anderson film. The charismatic young poet published in The New Yorker, whom everyone, regardless of gender, fell a little in love with. The National Book Award winner formerly under FBI surveillance, who asked if I wanted to "catch out" (meaning bail town) and ride the rails. The novelist who brought a six-pack of beer onstage for a Q&A session. The Pulitzer Prize winner who allegedly asked if someone had a tissue, blew her nose, then handed it back.

There are many incredible Get Lit! stories from its 20 years, and considering how many local authors, interns and volunteers have sustained the festival, everyone likely has a favorite author anecdote. Here are a few of mine.

THE LITERARY LEGEND

Both of these statements are equally true: Joyce Carol Oates was a lovely guest, and I spent the duration of her visit in abject fear.

Onstage or in front of a classroom, Oates is brilliant, charming and incisive. She answered student questions thoughtfully, signed books for countless fans and remained patient with a festival director whose desperation for things to go well must have been palpable. But as that director — an aspiring writer who'd first read "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" in high school, along with many of Oates' books — all I could do was imagine everything that could go wrong. Luckily, the worst that befell us involved a faulty heater in her hotel room; the venue's lack of a proper green room for her to review notes prior to her lecture; and my attempt — while driving her around Spokane — to let fresh air into the car by cracking the windows, which was met with a quick rebuke from the bird-like, 75-year-old author. Later, she showed our staff photos of her cats and we discussed our mutual love of Twitter. I'm pretty confident we're best friends.

THE HOTEL ROOM BREAK-IN

Benjamin Percy's live readings are known for "the voice." It's deep — bass deep — and he claims a friend once told him he sounds like drunk Darth Vader. Whether it appeals to you or not is irrelevant, as Percy wields it well — audiences are mesmerized. I've always assumed the voice would be terrifying in a certain context, and to his misfortune, a clerk at the Montvale Hotel experienced it when he entered Percy's hotel room at 1:30 am, presumably thinking he'd take a nap in an empty room. Percy thought he was about to be murdered and leapt out of bed, grabbing the nearest object as a weapon, which turned out to be a television remote. The employee fled, and the hotel (under prior management) offered Percy a paltry $50 gift card as compensation for his near-death experience. Thankfully, he was wild enough to brave a return to Spokane, where we made sure to book him at a different hotel. Soon after check-in, he posted a photo of a cheetah-print chaise lounge in his hotel room, speculating as to how many previous hotel guests likely had sex on it. It remains to be seen whether he'll dare visit again; if he does, I'm confident Spokane will find a way to add to the litany of weird.

THE BOSTON SMOKER

When my predecessor as festival director Danielle Ward booked Tim O'Brien, we were elated. It gave the festival an opportunity to engage multiple communities, particularly veterans, and working with O'Brien was a breeze; he even skipped the formality of a speakers' agent to communicate with us directly. But he had one important request: a hotel where he could smoke in the room or on a balcony, rather than being forced to descend in an elevator multiple times per day. In 2011, Ward and I thought that was crazy — did he not understand that we were in Washington state, where smoking indoors had been outlawed years prior? I emailed to promise we'd look into it, cautioning that it was unlikely. When I called two prominent hotels, the responses were similar: a horrified "no" along with "I don't think that's even legal anymore." I delivered the news to O'Brien as gently as a clueless graduate student could. Things were quiet for a couple of days, and then I received a phone call. "This is Tim," he said, pleasant as always. "I found a hotel that will let me smoke. If I book it will you reimburse me?" I was embarrassed, but O'Brien didn't seem perturbed in the least and acted sheepish for what he viewed as both an indulgence and a practical necessity. For the duration of his visit, he couldn't have been more gracious.

WELCOME TO WASHINGTON

Each year, a few authors agree to be interviewed about the craft of writing for a local publication. One particular year, the interviewers — all graduate students, well over 21 — decided the only way to ensure the recording didn't get ruined by background noise was to host the interview at someone's apartment. With the author's encouragement, the students poured a few drinks, passed around a joint, then dove into the interview. They didn't realize until the next day that they'd been so stoned they never started the recording. To his credit, the author — who I'm told could barely formulate the words to tell the designated driver which hotel to drop him at — offered to redo the entire interview. It turned out great. ♦

Melissa Huggins spent five years as Get Lit! director. She is currently executive director of Spokane Arts.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Tales From the Trenches"

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