DIANE URBANI DE LA PAZ: Writing heroes with auras

I AWAITED MY heroes. For years I’ve hung on their words in novels such as “Into the Beautiful North;” in an essay on the New York Times’ Modern Love page; in the fertile “Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape.”

With their writing, these authors reached in and held my heart.

Now they’re here in person at Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend. Giving readings. Free. Every night this week. How did this happen?

The Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, begun in 1974, is how.

Luis Alberto Urrea, of “Beautiful North” and many more, and Modern Lover Debra Gwartney are among the faculty members giving lectures and workshops by day and public readings by night (see Centrum.org for the schedule).

It’s a funny feeling when your hero walks up to the registration table wearing shorts and a T-shirt.

That’s Urrea, a big man with a soft voice and a shimmering aura around him. OK, maybe I exaggerate. But only a little.

I’ve listened to him interviewed on public radio podcasts of “Fresh Air” and “Latino USA,” read the “Dear Literary Companion” letter on his website and, last spring, got in line to check out his new book, “The House of Broken Angels,” at the Port Townsend Library.

There are already 17 requests for this, the library told me. Do you still want …?

Two weeks ago I got the email: Come get your book.

Reading “Broken Angels” is like being swept into a multi-generational birthday party — and a wake for a man still very much alive.

Read “Angels” to see what I mean. Hold on for the cinematic ending.

Urrea will give his reading at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Wheeler Theater at Fort Worden, 200 Battery Way. Spokane writer Kate Lebo, she of the tantalizingly titled “The Book of Difficult Fruit,” is also on the bill.

The Writers’ Conference also led me to novelist Shawn Vestal. His “Daredevils,” a book of which I’d never heard, had me at scene one.

He’ll read tonight, alongside compatriots Patricia Henley and Alexandra Teague, at the Northwind Arts Center, 701 Water St. in Port Townsend.

Did I mention it’s free?

I got to interview Vestal, who also writes a column for the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, for an article about the conference that appeared in the PDN last Friday.

Here’s an award-winning tour de force, a writer and educator in Port Townsend and at Eastern Washington University, who remains humble.

“There’s a lot of room for self-doubt in teaching,” Vestal said.

“Am I doing it right? Is it working for them?”

Gwartney, who read a riveting, exquisitely personal story Sunday night, squirmed at times with nervous energy. When she finished and the cheering rose up from the audience, she all but bolted from the stage.

I know what it is to doubt myself, even in my chosen profession, and I know how it feels to be so self-conscious that I can’t stop my legs from trembling.

Seeing these writers grapple with the same, well, it ups their heroic status in my book. Makes me see that now and again, we all struggle.

The arrival of writers such as Vestal brings an additional gift: discovering and reading a book outside my usual region of interest. I don’t do this of my own accord; my book club chooses it or I’ve a freelance writing job that requires it.

Either way, the rewards are rich. I dive into another world, experiencing it with wide eyes.

And sometimes, I get to lay eyes on the authors themselves, bright auras and all.


Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend.

Her column appears in the PDN the first and third Wednesday every month. Her next column will be Aug. 1.

Reach her at [email protected]

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