Fear by the book

Villainous lepers, brutal killings, children boiled alive. Anight spent with Chuck Palahniuk, Craig Lesley and Tom Spanbauer inPSU’s Smith Memorial Student Union offered all of these with anadded bonus: free advice to young writers.

The event, organized by Michael Clark of Friends of English inassociation with the PSU English Department, brought the threePortland-based authors together to read their work and participatein a paneled discussion entitled Writers Talk About Writing.

Though the event was quietly publicized among current Englishstudents and alumni, a standing room only crowd packed the Vanportroom.

PSU professor and author of “Winterkill,” Craig Lesley, beganthe program by reading from “Burning Fence” a yet to be publishednon-fiction piece. Non-fiction is a departure for Lesley, who hasauthored two short story collections and four novels. His strong,sage washed, proletariat voice lent itself well to an unnerving andfunny account of his boyhood fear of leprosy. This fear caused theyoung Lesley to construct a leper trap, which served to catchsomething far more frightening, his stepfather.

Whether it was the events proximity to Halloween or having beenrecently plunged into the dark Oregon fall, fear seemed to be anunspoken theme for the evening. The theme was reinforced by TomSpanbauer’s reading, excerpted from his recent novel “In the Cityof Shy Hunters.”

The chapter deals primarily with those violent and terriblemoments that change an individual’s life forever. Charactersrecount, in Spanbauer’s poetic meter, grim and devastating eventswith vivid detail. A brutal subway killing in self defense, afriend dying of AIDS: these are the “unspoken places” whichSpanbauer also seeks to draw from the writers who attend hisDangerous Writers workshops.

As a one-time participant of Spanbauer’s workshops ChuckPalahniuk, author of several novels including the cult classic”Fight Club,” has clearly become adept in finding these unspokenplaces and occupying them completely. Palahniuk has a predilectionfor the macabre and nauseating.

During a recent book tour, his short story “Guts” often causedaudience members to lose consciousness. Not one to disappoint,Palahniuk treated the PSU audience to a soon to be published ghoststory entitled “Hotpotting,” in which several people aregraphically boiled alive in mountain hot springs that reachtemperatures of 200 degrees. References to fritters, bacon andother foodstuffs abound. Palahniuk quipped the story will be partof “a diet book.”

Following the reading, the theme of fear seeped quietly into thepaneled discussion. In answer to a question about what spurs themto write, both Lesley and Spanbauer stated that fear plays arole.

“I write about what scares me,” Spanbauer said, with quietintensity.

“Fear,” Lesley said, “especially when there is a deadline.”

Another frightening aspect of the event was the throng of fansthat swarmed the table once the paneled discussion ended. They weremostly young, wide eyed and awe struck. They related stories of howthey quit their jobs like such and such character from such andsuch book. They passed cell phones to the writer. They piled stacksof books on the table, asking only for a signature. Granted, themajority of this chilling display revolves around Mr. Palahnuik,something he is accustomed to. His book tours have drawn largecrowds across the country.

When asked if a book tour, at odds with the idea of thereclusive, unapproachable author, is necessary in today’s literaryworld, Palahnuik replied, “On one level it is reallynecessary.”

Because, in regard to the new generation of readers, “There areless and less incentives to pick up that passive object that thebook is.” However, he suggesed, the Friends of English paneleddiscussion is “far more pleasant” than a book tour.

In the end, what is most frightening is not the villainouslepers or the boiled woman screaming herself to death in a hospitalbed. Instead, it is the idea that English needs friends. Luckily,it has a best friend in Michael Clark and the PSU Englishdepartment, who plan on presenting more events throughout the year.For more information on what’s to come, they ask that you do nothesitate to contact them.