On a Wednesday in November, Deirdre Gogarty and I flew to Memphis at sunset and landed an hour later in darkness sprinkled with glittering lights. A minivan pulled in front of Delta’s Concourse B. Mike Stanton, photographer and self-described coffee evangelist, hopped out of the driver’s seat and loaded our bags into the back of the rental. Another writer/blogger/conference attendee named Louise Julig perched in the front passenger’s seat.
Mike drove Louise, Deirdre, and me to Oxford, Mississippi, in a vehicle that smelled of a finely, brewed bean. A full thermos and cups waited to be filled with our driver’s special blend. We poured. We drank. We shared stories. And then Mike took us to a tiny market/restaurant around eight o’clock that night. He ordered tacos for us in effortless Spanish. Hungry, we inhaled the best Mexican food I’ve tasted since my childhood in McAllen, Texas.
As homemade tortillas assailed my senses I entered a fictive dream. No longer in the real world but in Ellen Gilchrist’s In the Land of Dreamy Dreams. We drove around the center of Oxford called the square, a haven of independent bookstores, restaurants, churches, and courthouse. Our chivalrous driver then unloaded our suitcases at The Inn at Ole Miss and bid us farewell. “You’ll be seeing me around,” he said as he gave us his phone number in case we’d need a ride.
Thursday morning I awoke to blinding sunlight, trees bursting with color, and a hilly landscape that begged to be walked. Deirdre and I trotted down steep steps, passed an old train depot, followed sidewalks to the square. We feasted on books, roasted vegetable sandwiches, and High Point Coffee lattes. We crossed streets as courteous drivers stopped and waited. Everyone yielded: men, women, even students who looked too young to drive.
Later that day we attended Neil White’s pre-conference workshop. The author mapped out his approach to writing his memoir, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts. He handed out brochures and posted diagrams of Art & Craft. We connected dots from The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron and stared at our lopsided lives. Then we discussed Voice and David Sedaris, Details and Rick Bragg. Neil explained how his original 300,000 words had become 87,000. He brainstormed 150 titles before his intuitive wife pointed the way to the one he would choose.
Just as the sun began to sink and brighten the trees, Deirdre and I rode a red double-decker bus to Off Square Books. We sat near a circular corner stage in fourth-row seats as Jim Dees introduced the house band, the Yalobushwhackers—this was Thacker Mountain Radio, a live broadcast for Rebel Radio 92.1 FM to be re-broadcast Saturday night on Mississippi Public Radio. Here I slipped deeper into my Oxford dream. I held onto my chair as Ian Frazier read from his latest book Travels in Siberia. Would someone please pinch me?
Taylor Hildebrand then sang a few original songs and Lee Gutkind, the “Godfather of Creative Nonfiction,” took the stage and performed as though he were in a play. He entertained with a story from his travel memoirTruckin’ with Sam. His reading evoked laughter as he humorously described physical problems he’d had which also made me worry like a mother or a wife. I’ve never seen an author execute a reading quite like Lee’s. Still in the fictive dream, no one had pinched me.