What does one do on a sunny, mild September Saturday? In my case, I spend it indoors at the Book Festival presented by the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany.
I’ve heard people call this area of upstate New York the hole in the doughnut. They say there’s nothing really here, but we’re within easy driving distance to the world-class cities of New York, Boston, and Montreal. Some might say it’s not exactly a beautiful landscape in the Capital District, but we’re surrounded on three sides by scenic mountains that are easy to access: Adirondacks, Catskills, Berkshires.
But when you live where the New York State Writers Institute calls home, you’ve got something special, something as sweet as a doughnut, at least if you’re a writer.
I find the panel discussion on apocalyptic fiction fascinating. One of the panelists, the author Jim Shepard, says something that I felt personally and deeply when writing “The Culling”—that dystopian fiction allows us to work through our own fears and obsessions about the world in a pleasurable way.
I’m sorry to miss the tribute to Hunter S. Thompson because both Gary Trudeau and the venerable William Kennedy are featured panelists. There are also scheduled conversations with some of the hotter authors of the day.
But I spend most of my time in the grand ballroom, where more than eighty (80!) regional authors are exhibiting. I had received an invitation to reserve a table and exhibit at this event, but I hesitated for so long that someone else got the space.
No regrets. I’ve participated in signings and book fairs before, and these events can be a little painful for both authors and readers. I’m reminded why as soon as I walk into the hall. I’d love to stop and talk with some of the authors about writerly things, but all they really want to do is sell their books. Chitchat, sure, but buy my book. Obviously I can’t, and don’t want, to buy everyone’s book.
It’s hard to make eye contact and stop at a table when I know the sale isn’t going to happen. But I cruise the entire space and manage to engage with a few of the authors and I buy their books, even though I’ve never heard of them.
But a minor glitch: I’d forgotten they want cash sales, and I don’t have a fat wallet with me. Credit card? Venmo? No, just cash, please give me cash. The last book I buy costs fifteen dollars, but I only have fourteen dollars left. I apologize, but Stephen Eoannou takes my fourteen dollars in exchange for his story collection “Muscle Cars.” I later find out he’s from my hometown of Buffalo, NY and he places many of his stories in spots that are familiar to me. I think I’ll get in touch with him and make sure I send him that extra dollar.
I leave with books in my arms and the day is still so nice. I pass by the UAlbany tennis courts—excellent courts, I’ve used them many times. The tennis club is out in full force, playing doubles on every court. Of course, I stop and watch for a while. I have to get myself in the mood for my own match later in the day to be played on the equally fine courts at Bethlehem High School.
Sunny, pleasant days in the Capital District, the sweet spot between summer’s heat and autumn’s chill. A little culture, a little outdoor time. The doughnut hole isn’t just an empty space.