As if this summer weren't hot enough, a bunch of bitchin’ women writers are about to spend the next few weeks in a rental van touring the South like some sort of badass rock band, bringing their literary boldness and goodness to bookstores and bars. First stop: Austin.
On Wednesday, July 11 Elizabeth Ellen, Chloe Caldwell, Mary Miller and Donora Hillard will be at Domy Books to kick off the Southern Summer Comfort Book Tour. Dressed in a uniform of wife-beaters and cut-offs, they'll be reading from their newly released books from such indie presses as Future Tense Books, Short Flight/Long Drive books and Tiny Hardcore Press.
The collaborative tour was the brainchild of Ellen, co-editor of Hobart and overseer of Hobart’s book division, Short Flight/Long Drive books. Ellen’s latest work, Fast Machine, is gritty in the best possible ways. A collection of her work from the past decade, it's a story collection that at least one reviewer has said reads like a novel, but "to me feels like a memoir," Ellen said.
Ellen has a uncanny ability to produce narrative that is tough and vulnerable, sexy and wrenching all at once. The stylistic range, varied lengths and abrupt transitions of points-of-view between — and sometimes even within — the stories in Fast Machine make for a unique and occasionally disorienting reading experience.
It’s hard to label the work under the confines of one particular genre. Take for example the short flash piece "Ground Rules," sandwiched between two lengthy, detailed pieces of prose:
Let’s set some ground rules, he says. As though we are kids on a playground. As though I am capable of not breaking any rule he sets before me. As though he just met me yesterday and hasn’t yet figured this out. Rule number one, he says: You can’t write about this. Right, I say. Of course. I won’t.
“EE’s our bombshell denmother,” says Hillard, whose latest poetry collection, Theology of the Body (Gold Wake Press) has been described by Blake Butler as “a mesmerizing object of equal command and restraint” and features understated yet powerful pieces such as Winter, Michigan: "you pinned me up against an oak in a park near where you were young and your hand/ sang inside and you were the resurrection you were violent light behind the mountain".
Ellen may be the denmother, but all these lit gals are total bombshells. Seriously, check out their Kickstarter video, which with the promise of quirky rewards like a “Polaroid from the road” or “shampoo, soap, mouth wash, and a handwritten note from one of the [expletive] hotels/motels on the trip” helped them raise more than $1,000 toward food, gas and flights.
“I was surprised and moved by how many people helped us reach our Kickstarter goal,” says Caldwell, author of the recently published essay collection Legs Get Led Astray. Caldwell says that when Ellen asked her to be a part of the tour last spring, “I immediately said yes without even thinking about it.”
It’s easy to imagine Caldwell jumping into the van without hesitation. In Legs Get Led Astray, she writes with a keenly balanced tone of recklessness and introspection, writing with a pacing and voice that allows her to sometimes capture both sentiments in the same sentence, as in her essay "That Was Called Love".
I sleep with my brother's friend from the Strand bookstore on the futon. He is suicidal and musical and has long hair and a nose ring and I fall a little bit in love with him.
Reading Caldwell's nonfiction, explains Sabra Embury, is like reading “the bucket lists of a rebellious early-twenties indie darling... she captures an essence of trying to find her identity in an oasis of young bodies doing the same, testing mortality and making enough money for cheap rent and bodega zebra cakes.”
Caldwell hopes they listen to the Now & Then soundtrack on the road, but knows they probably won't. And a lot of Beach Boys. She also dismisses Southern Comfort as the official drink of the tour, saying with the authority of someone who has had more than her share of syrupy SoCo that “every way to drink SoCo is the worst way.”
Miller, a current Michener Fellow at UT Austin and author of the story collection, Big World, agrees. “I had a very bad experience with Southern Comfort circa 1996, Panama City, and will not be partaking.” "I will drink beer. Preferably on tap," says Miller. "I will also drink vodka and tonics and pretty much anything else containing vodka."
Hillard has reason to indulge, too. "I'm finishing a PhD, cry with me," she says "so any excuse to be a body and high-five other girls is a sweet one."
Collaborative book tours, especially with more than two readers, aren’t the norm, and an event like the SOCO Book Tour is a chance to enrich and strengthen local lit scenes — and the broader indie lit community. In each city, local writers will join the girls.
Miller says the local collaboration was originally Ellen’s idea. “At first I thought something along the lines of, wow, that's a lot of readers! Is everyone going to read for, like, three minutes? But now I realize what a great idea it is: We get to meet and hang out with local writers, and they'll also bring their friends. It's pretty brilliant.”
Joining Caldwell, Hillard, Ellen and Miller on Wednesday night will be Austin's very own Jess Stoner, author of I Have Blinded Myself Writing This, and Timoth Willis Sanders, author of Orange Juice and Other Stories.
The kick-off to the SOCO Book Tour is happening at Domy Books on Wednesday, July 11 at 7 p.m. Free-buzz off all the creative minds, fresh stories, sexy readings and tall-boy beers (RSVP on Facebook for more details). No SoCo, though. And if you can’t make it out but still want to experience the tour Austin-style, check out this video Stoner made of boys at the downtown skate park reading from Fast Machine.
Next stop on the SOCO Book Tour is at the Houston Domy Books on Thursday night, and onward from there. The full tour schedule is listed below:
July 11: Austin, TX, Domy Books at 7 p.m.
July 12: Houston, TX, Domy Books at 7 p.m.
July 13: New Orleans, LA
July 14: Oxford, MS, Square Books at 6 p.m.
July 16: Tuscaloosa, AL, Green Bar at 7 p.m.
July 17: Atlanta, GA, Beep Beep at 8 p.m.