I'm glad that this weekend's Tucson Festival of Books was the inaugural event, and not that I'd failed to pay attention an passed up such an awesome event in years passed.
Thousands of people (easy, maybe tens of thousands) hit the UA campus for book signings, panels, readings and shoulder rubbing with hundreds of authors, including plenty of locally affiliated ones and some big-time literary names. I played it safe and easy, hitting the two biggest names on the list: Elmore Leonard and Billy Collins, each of whom packed the 1,000+ seat ballroom to standing-room only. Here's a bit of what I jotted down:
• The first film version of Elmore Leonard's short story 3:10 to Yuma sparked a new bit of street slang in Cuba, where apparently the picture was a huge hit. So if you're ever on a dark street in Havana and you hear somebody talking about "Yuma," they mean "United States."
• Leonard's first non-Western, The Big Bounce, was "condemned by the legion of decency" at the time. Prior to publication, Leonard's agent, Swanny, told him, "Kid, I'm gonna make you rich," then proceeded to receive 84 rejection notices.
• Leonard's new book, Road Dogs, brings back the character of Jack Foley, who Leonard himself can't separate from George Clooney in his mind.
• Despite plenty of salty and rough language in his characters' dialogue, Leonard never "went all the way with obscenity" in his writing, because he'd think of his mother.
• He's always had trouble explaining his books, because he starts going into way too much detail and "can't just wing it."
• Leonard was writing Western short stories for pulp magazines when he started out, and he used Arizona Highways as an indispensible reference source. Then, on his first trip to Tucson, he saw the Catalina Mountains were nothing as he'd described them.
• An audience member asked why Leonard seemed to use Frank as a bad-guy name so much. Leonard: "I tried Frank as a good guy once. He wouldn't act right. I switched it to Jack and he wouldn't shut up."
• Q: Why are so many of your characters sleazeballs? A: "I like my characters. I think most of them are just dumb, and that's why they turn to crime."
• While he praised many of the film adaptations of his books and stories, particularly Tarantino's Jackie Brown (his Rum Punch), Leonard had nothing good to say about how the filmmakers changed Be Cool. "Cedric the Entertainer does not belong in one of my stories."
As packed and as entertaining as the Leonard segment was, Billy Collins turned out to be the day's highlight. A Collins reading is practically a stand-up act, with a strong element of humor existing in nearly every poem. He has a calm, measured and almost deadpan voice, a little bit like the Kevin Spacey narration in American Beauty.
• "You do find, as a writer, that long-dead poets begin to imitate you. This is known technically as anticipatory plagiarism."
• When using actions to describe quotations, stick to expected actions. Bad: "Help, I'm drowning," she implied, and "Screw you," he explained.
• "A little subject matter goes a long way in poetry."
• Collins on how to appreciate poetry that may not be as accessible as his: "If you read one poet for a while, you get to learn how hard you can press." That analytical pressure varies greatly from poet to poet, and it's a necessity in terms of really getting all you can out of a poet.
• Collins has always tried to ride a line between humor and seriousness. For example, when he reads On Turning 10, he can hear the laughter from the audience taper off in degrees as the poem slowly turns more serious.
• Silence is both the best and the worst reaction from an audience. Listening to the feedback is a way for the audience to reveal new things about the poem to even its author.
• Other favorites from Collins' reading: Litany, Forgetfulness, Monday and Tension.
Billy Collins - Forgetfulness
Billy Collins - Child Development
Billy Collins entire reading "The Best Cigarette"