Just a few years ago, a serious discussion of the “literary” scene in Dallas would have felt a little forced. Our fair city is known for a lot of things — well, at least a few — but attracting, inspiring and keeping writers of literature has not been one. In his column this week, Jim Schutze identifies Dallas as a “do” place versus a “place” place. In the past, people have come here because of what they might accomplish, not because Dallas is so full of character and charm that it's inherently irresistible. “Do” places may breed writers, but “place” places tend to be the ones that inspire the writing. People with serious literary aspirations usually pack their bags for more romantic shores once they’ve successfully strung a few words together here.
But we’ve gotta say, Dallas, in 2015 you really lit some candles, pulled out the massage oil and worked on seducing and developing a literary set. You’re becoming placier by the minute. Two local authors who’ve seen a lot of success in recent years, Ben Fountain (Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara) and Merritt Tierce (Love Me Back), haven’t even scampered off since hitting the big time. The Wild Detectives, Deep Vellum and Wordspace have continued to have a lot to do with making Dallas a more comfortable home for the literary-minded this year.
In its second year, Oak Cliff’s Wild Detectives — Dallas’ first independent bookstore that sells new merchandise — parlayed its early momentum to attract an even more impressive roster of events and speakers, like Speak author Louisa Hall, whose sci-fi novel about robots and the power of language made lots of national year-end lists. Non-profit publishing house Deep Vellum, another Dallas first, translated into English and released a string of acclaimed works of contemporary literature. And toward the end of the year, publisher Will Evans announced Deep Vellum would open its own bookstore, which will host a book club among other things. The opening event spilled out into Main Street in Deep Ellum and excitement over the house's endeavors was palpable. Dallas is officially home to two bookstores that throw rowdy parties, and that's really something.
Offerings from literary arts group Wordspace included a moving performance by poet Anne Waldman at the MAC and an equally provocative (though in a different way) performance by poet/actress Amber Tamblyn and poet Derrick C. Brown, called Lazers of Sexcellence. To keep going, the Dallas Museum of Art's speaker series, Arts and Letters Live, brought authors such as Anthony Doerr (All the Light We Cannot See, one of the best selling books this year); poetry groups like Pegasus Reading Series and Pandora's Box hosted frequent events; The Reading Room gallery in Expo Park held book swaps and readings; and Literary Death Match even came to Texas Theatre for the first time. Nor is that close to all, a fact that should not fail to amaze given the meager state of things in the very recent past.
The interest in literature and effort to build a community around it Dallas has begun to demonstrate hopefully means that our city will continue to grow into a hospitable place for writers to live, work and find inspiration. The following are some of the most notable books that came out this year, which were written by authors based in Dallas or have a prominent Dallas connection, and which suggest we are already well on our way.
Blackout, Sarah Hepola
Hepola's memoir about her drinking years and eventual sobriety is an ambitious effort to reconstruct and explore a life she, for the most part, can't remember. Blackout is relatable, funny, tragic and wise — altogether, it's one of the most sharply written books of the year, Dallas connection or none. The former personal essays editor for Salon (and Observer music editor!) moved back to Dallas from New York some years ago and wrote the book here, so it's a true Dallas baby.
Target in the Night, Ricardo Piglia
It's a challenge to pick just one book to represent Deep Vellum's many impressive releases this year, but this award-winning, artfully written novel by Argentine author Ricardo Piglia is as good a place to start as any. The beautiful prose outlines a fairly traditional detective story at first — a rogue inspector hunts for the killer of a mysterious newcomer to his small town, unraveling the town's own mysteries for the reader in the process — but it evolves into something more complex and meaningful. Deep Vellum has hit the ground running and as it continues to debut important works to the English-reading world, we can expect it to turn eyes toward Dallas as a city of literary significance.
Mad Men Carousel, Matt Zoller Seitz
Matt Zoller Seitz is the TV critic for New York Magazine, but once upon a moon, he too was an Observer staffer. So, he did leave — us and Dallas. (Can you blame him? I mean, the guy watches TV for a living now.) But at least he has the decency to come back and visit when he publishes something new, and he did just that at a packed event at The Wild Detectives in support of his tome about one of his favorite shows, Mad Men. Judging by the enthusiasm and intelligent questions by the audience, it's a subject that continues to interest a lot of people. If you're a supe fan, check out the episode-by-episode guide featuring his collected recaps (an art form in their own right these days) plus unpublished essays.
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Black Eyed Susan, Julia Heaberlin
Former Star-Telegram reporter Heaberlin tapped into her experiences studying the death penalty and the criminal justice system for this thriller about the survivor of a serial killer who comes to fear that she sent the wrong man to his death, many years after the incident. Heaberlin brings a reporter's sensibilities and thoroughness to a page-turner with depth and timely arguments about social issues that will appeal to fans of Gillian Flynn.
Nut Country: Right Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy, Edward H. Miller
We're not particularly thrilled with the portrait of Dallas painted by Miller in Nut Country, but we'll pretend there's no such thing as bad publicity. It's hard to say he's wrong to call us nuts (JFK did it first), especially when he's talking about the emergence and history of the radical right in Dallas in business, religion and politics, and the influence that culture here has had on Texas and the country at large. It's a worthwhile read if you want to get a feel for Dallas' critical role in the conservative movement.
Anatomy of a Museum, A. Kendra Greene
We're guessing there are quite a few things you don't know about Iceland, and that one of them is that it's home to a museum devoted entirely to phallology. Yes, the study of penises. If you don't believe us, you can read Dallas Museum of Art writer-in-residence Kendra Greene's book all about it. We promise it won't be boring.
The Grid, Harry Hunsicker
Dallas is home to a pretty darn popular writer of thrillers, if you weren't aware. Hunsicker used to be the vice president of the Mystery Writers of America and his sixth novel, The Grid, came out this year. It's part of a series that follows a character who's a former cop, Jon Cantrell. Many of his books are set in prominent, recognizable places around Dallas, which adds an extra element of fun for local readers.