Sunday’s fundraiser in support of the St. Helena Public Library was a primer in how books can transport readers to faraway places: the squalor of Skid Row, a North Carolina textile mill rocked by labor strife, and an ascendant, rapidly changing Russia.
The third annual Bookmark Napa Valley, held at Markham Vineyards and featuring four authors, had raised $40,000 for the Friends & Foundation, St. Helena Public Library, as of Monday. That’s less than the $48,000 raised last year, but organizers hope to see the tally increase as post-event donations continue to arrive in the mail.
The city provides the library’s basic operational budget, while the nonprofit Friends & Foundation provides community programs and part-time staff that enrich the library, including storytime, guest lectures, author appearances, Spanish-language services, and concerts.
As Jack Stuart, chair of the Friends & Foundation board, told the city officials in attendance, “You bake the cake, we spread the frosting.”
Following a wine reception where authors signed their books and mingled with the 170 guests, Oak Avenue Catering served dinner in Markham’s barrel room. After dinner, author Lisa Napoli, returning from last year’s Bookmark, interviewed the other three authors: Ivo Pochoda, Lisa Dickey and Wiley Cash.
Pochoda explained how her experience as a professional squash player overlaps with her career as an author. In both athletics and literature, you have to master the fundamentals before you can get to the “fun, exciting, fancy” stuff – whether that’s carrying on a long rally in squash or depicting a vivid setting in a novel.
“Place is a character,” said Pochoda. Her latest book, “Wonder Valley,” is set partly in Los Angeles’ notorious Skid Row, where Pochoda has taught a creative writing workshop for six years.
The characters in Pochoda’s novel were inspired by the people she’s met through her workshop, and the book tries to trace how people end up in such a place. However, she said she was careful not to steal anyone’s life stories.
“People who live there don’t have a lot – all they have is their stories, and it didn’t feel right to take their stories from them,” she said.
Wiley Cash’s latest novel “The Last Ballad” was even more directly inspired by real people, in this case the workers who participated in a historic labor strike at a textile mill in his hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina.
Although as a youngster Cash was well aware of the site of the old Loray Mill, which by his time had been acquired by Firestone and has since been converted into luxury apartments, it wasn’t until he went off to graduate school that he learned it had made international headlines in 1929 when a violent strike became one of the early flashpoints in the labor movement.
Cash became fascinated by the major piece of local history that he’d never been taught in school. His novel’s main character Ella May Wiggins was a real person, a single mother who helped lead the strike and wrote protest songs that were later admired by Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.
For Cash, fiction became a way to gain a greater insight into history.
“It’s easy to understand facts, but it’s hard to understand the motivations behind the facts, or what compelled (people) to follow a set of actions,” he said.
The featured author who hewed closest to real life was Lisa Dickey. Her nonfiction “Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia” was based on three trips she made to Russia between 1995 and 2015, tracking down the same people each time and examining how their lives were affected by the historical and social trends that were changing Russia.
Dickey said the book’s title is a phrase that Russians frequently used to characterize what they bitterly imagined was the typical American view of Russia’s supposed backwardness and lack of sophistication.
During her first visit, her photographer brought along a big bulky prototype digital camera, which added to the suspicion among some Russians that they were American spies. But people quickly warmed up to Dickey and were happy to welcome her into their homes during her subsequent trips.
When Dickey was writing the book she didn’t expect that Russia would become such a hot topic in the U.S. She said that the best way to understand Russia is to travel there and form bonds with its citizens.
“There are 144 million people in Russia who are not Vladimir Putin,” she said. “The more familiar we are with each other, the better off we’re all going to be.”
Each of the authors were animated and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to talk about their work.
“Being a writer is a super-lonely occupation,” Pochoda said. “You have this idea in your mind that people are going to laud you in a way like this, and it never happens until you come to something like this. It’s crazy to be here where people are giving you that weird, crazy respect you think you deserve.”
The Napa Valley Vintners were the event’s biggest sponsor, and Meadowood offered free lodging for the authors.