Saturday, January 17, 2004

Whitney Otto

Since the usual format of a Nye Beach Writer¹s presentation characteristically includes two writers, there is always the question of whether they will be disparate or similar, or in any way complement one other. Although we have presented fiction and nonfiction writers together before, an interesting aspect of tonight¹s guests is that their work neatly dovetails in a very odd way.

Tonight¹s fiction writer¹s style is emphatic and declaratory, a plainspoken rendering of rich detail about her character¹s lives that seems to imply fact rather than fiction. Their fictional personality traits and peculiarities are presented from a distance, as if the story was a product of research rather than imagination. Yet the nonfiction writer with us tonight has chosen to research and write about historical figures both outrageous and unconventional, and brought them to life in such an intimate way that their stories border on the unbelievable, the stuff of modern myth.

Whitney Otto has written four novels, her first the wildly successful 1991 How to make an American Quilt, made into a film by Steven Spielberg. Her subsequent works include Now You See Her, The Passion Dream Book and in 2003, A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity.

Whitney Otto writes shrewdly and incisively about a certain kind of modern women, and as I mentioned, from a distance. There is a feeling of the expatriate about her characters, as if upon dismissing the mainstream life of American consumerism and embracing a certain consciousness regarding artistic sensibility, they neglect to adequately substitute a clearly defined course leading elsewhere. They inhabit a floating world of their own devising, oddly elitist and nearly invisible to the rest of society, but somewhat unsatisfying to occupy.

Please welcome Whitney Otto.

Lauren Kessler

Lauren Kessler’s newest book, Dancing With Rose: Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimers, is an intimate, first-hand account of what it means to live with Alzheimers. For five months Kessler immersed herself in an alien landscape just a few miles from her home. She took a minimum-wage job as caregiver in an Alzheimers facility to better understand and write about the disease that claimed her mother's life.

“I am a writer of what is called literary nonfiction," says Kessler. “I tell true stories, factual stories based on extensive research, but I tell them as much as I can, as much as the material will allow me, the way a novelist would -- with scenes and characters and dialog, with an eye for the telling detail and an attention to the larger narrative.”

A special honor has been bestowed on Lauren Kessler -- her book, “Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of A Japanese American Family,” was chosen the one book people all over the state will read for Oregon's first state-wide "Oregon Reads" in 2009, part of the state's 150th birthday celebration. All 130 of Oregon's public libraries will receive copies of this book.

Kessler is the author of nine other excellent narrative nonfiction books including: “Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley: The Spy Who Ushered In The McCarthy Era”; Los Angeles Times best-seller and Oregon Book Award finalist “The Happy Bottom Riding Club,” a biography of the pioneering aviatrix, Hollywood stunt pilot and bordello Madame, Pancho Barnes; “Full Court Press,” a season-in-the-life narrative about women's sports; and “After All These Years,” portraits of 1960s radicals.

Kessler’s journalism has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, O magazine, salon and The Nation. She is the founder and editor of Etude, an online magazine devoted to new and emerging voices in literary nonfiction.

Photo by Carla Perry