Montclair Literary Festival: Thompson, Zanes, Phillips have a musical, literary beat
By GRACE L. WILLIAMS
For Montclair Local
A sold-out event that showed how composing literature and composing music were part of a unified art kicked off the Montclair Literary Festival on Wednesday, March 20. Three local and also legendary rockers performed their songs, and also read their words: rocker Warren Zanes, folk rock legend Richard Thompson, and singer-songwriter Zara Phillips performed on the stage of the United Way building located at 60 South Fullerton Ave.
They inhabited a simple stage that was outfitted with props that included folding chairs, microphones and music stands.
Phillips read excerpts from her book “Somebody’s Daughter,” which tackled the difficult subjects of adoption and grappling with family and identity; Thompson read from portions of his upcoming memoir, “Beeswing,” a memoir of the years 1967 to 1974, expected sometime in fall 2019. Zanes read three stories he had published as a music journalist.
While giving glimpses of his own process as a writer, Zanes cited an essay by Donald Barthelme about writing that cites tackling fiction. In the essay, Barthleme describes being an author that doesn’t know what they are doing or where the characters are going. This way, both reader and writer are discovering the characters as they unfold. “I found his suggestion liberating,” Zanes said. “As a young writer, I had been waiting to write stories until I had a sense of how and where they ended. I felt they needed a beginning, middle and end before putting pen to paper.”
His quest for these answers left stories unwritten while he waited for them to unfold. “That’s a recipe for discomfort,” he said.
Phillips read a passage from her memoir that tackled her complicated relationship with her adoptive mother, and the struggle the two women shared to understand one another. In one vivid flashback, Phillips watches her mother get ready to go out in her bedroom, and lets slip, as she had before, that the month Phillips was conceived, her own mother passed away. The struggle for a sense of family is one that Phillips acknowledges, even as she ponders being a grave disappointment to her adoptive mother.
“Writing a memoir is challenging in many ways,” Phillips said. “People get upset.”
Richard Thompson read from his upcoming memoir, calling the years he covers in the work, “meaty years.” Thompson shared a story from the years he toured with English folk rock band Fairport Convention, 1967-1971. He described the “uniform” so many young people and artists wore then: long hair, ripped jeans, tie dye, fringe jackets.
Because of a generational divide, Thompson said, young people often met with hostility by the “straights.” “We were greeted with a veneer of good manners, but often with a snarl or through gritted teeth,” he said.
He described an adventure he had with a girlfriend involving a traffic stop in Los Angeles. When the police wouldn’t succumb to her charm, she began calling the police “pigs” and “fascists.”
The audience laughed, as Thompson then describe a failure to communicate between himself and the policeman as he said he’d been in the States for a fortnight.
“I was thinking, ‘what part of a fortnight, were you not to understand?’” he said. Then he realized the officer actually did not understand the British word, and changed it to two weeks.
Between readings, each artist performed a song. They traded jokes and teased one another, making the audience laugh as well. At times, Phillips and Thompson sang duets.
After each artist presented work for a total of three rounds each, the trio stood together for one last song. Because the song celebrated a literary festival, they chose a fitting tune: The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer.”
Audience members joined in for the finale, dancing in their seats and clapping along to the beat.