O. Henry lived and wrote in Austin in 1885.
Above: Joe Nick Patoski and Sarah Bird write from Austin; Bird's "How Perfect Is That" depicts Austin personalities.
TEXAS TOP 10 BOOKISH DESTINATIONS 2015
If you were old enough to read in the 1970s and you were in Texas, you recall a new statewide magazine called Texas Monthly that launched in 1973 in Austin. TM seemed to foreshadow the next generation of Texas letters. Bylines included names like Jan Reid, Gary Cartwright, Joe Nick Patoski, Prudence Mackintosh, Harry L. Hurt III, Stephen Harrigan, Larry L. King, Gregory Curtis, William Broyles, and Billy Lee Brammer.
Brammer (1929–1978), a Dallas native and a Texas and Washington, DC, political insider, is also celebrated as the author of one novel (three novellas, really): The Gay Place, a 1961 cult classic described as one of the best political novels ever written. Its title taken from a poem by F. Scott Fitzgerald (“Under a white moon—I heard Helena In a haunted doze / Say: ‘I know a gay place Nobody knows.’”), the book features a wheeling-and-dealing governor said to be based on LBJ, Brammer’s real-life mentor.
Politics and progressive country music infused Austin in the 1960s and 1970s, and the passage of time has provided perspective. Homegrown: Austin Music Posters 1967 to 1982, a coffee-table book from the University of Texas Press, 2015, showcases the iconoclastic poster art of the Austin music scene from 1967 to 1982. From the Armadillo World Headquarters to the Vulcan, this unique collection archives the art of the era.
There’s been a lot of discussion about “Old Austin” and “New Austin.” If the sixties and seventies represented the old guard, then David Heymann’s My Beautiful City Austin (2014) seems to depict the challenges of the new. The collection of seven stories deals with a young architect who desperately needs work but cannot seem to persuade his clients to make the design decisions to maintain Austin’s authentic charm. The humorous hubris of new money plays out in its pages.
You might also remember the origin of the city’s literary nickname, “City of the Violet Crown,” bestowed on it by Austin resident William Sidney Porter, aka O. Henry, around 1890. Theories of its meaning vary, but for many years the name has attached to the Writers’ League’s highest honor, and to businesses and venues around the city.
You can visit O. Henry’s relocated Victorian-style house at 409 East 5th Street; the house serves as a museum dedicated to the author’s life and career during his Austin years, and the organization hosts monthly readings and an annual pun contest.
Sarah Bird and Elizabeth Crook represent the new generation of Austin authors. Most of Bird’s novels have focused on the social satire of contemporary Texas, but her most recent book, Above the East China Sea (Random House, 2014), is a departure in setting and tone, from sharp-witted to serious.
Crook’s Monday, Monday (Macmillan 2014) opens with a horrific scene depicting one of the first mass shootings in U.S. history, when Charles Whitman killed seventeen students at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966. The book isn’t about the incident or the gunman, but rather about how the shooting sets in motion an entire lifetime of relationships.
One tradition in Austin which has bridged old and new is the Texas Book Festival, which will be celebrating twenty years this October. A free annual book fair held in October on the grounds and premises of the State Capitol and other nearby venues, the festival was established in 1995 by Laura Bush, then the First Lady of Texas, and Mary Margaret Farabee, wife of former State Senator Ray Farabee. Featuring hundreds of authors, performers, and publishers each year, the festival benefits the state's public library system, promotes the joy of reading, and honors Texas authors. With the assistance of honorary chairman and librarian Mrs. Bush, and a dedicated task force, the festival has grown, hosting more than 3,000 authors since its introduction.
Austin is blessed with a bounty of independent bookstores, including BookPeople, BookWoman, Malvern Books, South Congress Books, and Austin Books and Comics. All feature events for the literary enthusiast. BookPeople hosts more than 300 (yes, three hundred) events annually, with authors far and near. For popular touring authors space may be limited, and the store issues advance free tickets. But even if you can’t make it in person to a signing, BookPeople provides an online pre-ordering service for signed copies.
BookWoman, on North Lamar, recently celebrated forty years in business—making it one of only a handful of feminist bookstores remaining in North America. Owner Susan Post was named Austin’s “Best Feminist Flamekeeper” by the Austin Chronicle in 2014; the store has made the Chronicle’s “best” lists in numerous categories over the years. Poet Nikki Giovanni will make an appearance April 11, 2015.
In the spoken word oeuvre, there’s a lot to hear in Austin, including the Neo-Soul Poetry Slam (every Thursday at Mr. Catfish & More), the Austin Poetry Slam (Tuesdays at the Spider House Café and Ballroom), and the Spoken and Heard (Open Mic poetry) series (Kick Butt Coffee, Sunday nights).
Austin’s a world-class university city, of course, and that means frequent opportunities to catch a reading by visiting writers at UT-Austin, St. Edwards University, Austin Community College, and other institutions. UT’s Harry Ransom Center, which most recently acquired the papers of Nobel Prize-Winning Author Gabriel García Márquez, maintains a renowned collection of rare books (including a Gutenberg Bible and three Shakespeare First Folios) and writers’ archives. The Center mounts public exhibitions year-round from its collections (the current show celebrates 150 years of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland).
The Michener Center for Writers, a top-ranked MFA program, accepts fellows to study and write with dozens of resident and visiting faculty in fiction, poetry, playwriting or screenwriting. To mention only a few tidbits regarding this distinguished group: Michener Chair in Fiction Elizabeth McCracken, recently won the $20,000 Story Prize from the Chisholm Foundation for her latest collection of stories, Thunderstruck. Fiction professor Peter LaSalle’s novel Mariposa’s Song (Texas Tech University Press, 2012) captures the culture of undocumented workers in East Austin.
For learning experiences accessible to the wider writing public, join the Writers’ League of Texas and sign up for their workshops, newsletters, conference, and contests. Founded in 1981 as the Austin Writers’ League, it expanded its scope in 2000 to serve a statewide population of writers and authors.
In recent years Austin has played home to a burgeoning enclave of young adult, middle grade, and children’s authors. The Austin Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) chapter is known for its community of children's book creators. It meets monthly and holds workshops and critique and networking opportunities throughout the year. The organization also runs an annual conference for all levels of creators.
If you like to learn about the writing craft when you travel, you’ll want to check out the Writing Barn. Situated on seven and a half wooded acres in south Austin, this rural-chic facility under the oaks provides a peaceful retreat for writers without ever leaving Austin and hosts a slate of workshops, talks, seminars, and meetings.
And when you’re ready to plug into the publishing scene, you’ll find myriad opportunities in Austin. From the University of Texas Press, which publishes regional trade books and art books as well as academic works to a flourishing trend of independent and small presses, there’s plenty to learn and enjoy.
One last Austin literary destination offers a rare chance to see a print-on-demand book manufactured on the spot. There are only a few dozen Espresso Book Machines in operation worldwide, and the University of Texas Co-Op Bookstore boasts one. Stop by to see BOB — the Burnt Orange Book Machine – crank out a paperback in less time than it takes for you to finish your skinny latte.
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