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Reporting from the Road: Richmond, the Poe Museum, and Fountain Bookstore

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(The kind folks at Fountain Bookstore, including owner Kelly Justice, created a wonderful display for Finch; meanwhile, a flagging author stands next to a bust of a dead one; more on Poe below...)

I was on the road from October 28 through December 12 traveling up and down both coasts promoting my books Finch and Booklife with a series of gigs at indie and chain bookstores, universities like MIT, the Library of Congress, comic shops, and even a bar. This is the latest in a series of reports from events like the National Book Awards. You can read the others on my Omnivoracious contributor page.
  
Weird Southern Juxtapositions

Richmond's one of those studies in contrasts that makes your head spin. You can drive into the city through a semi-battered industrial section and see a weathered, pollution-blackened pseudo-doric column with "Entering Richmond" chisled into it against a backdrop of a burnt-out car and yellow grass struggling up through cracked asphalt. If you stand in one of the more famous cemeteries, you can see not just the roiling river and its insane rapids, but also the 1970s-style concrete of the university buildings surrounded by old-style Victorian and Southern Gothic statuary, beyond which loom factory smokestacks. Standing amid a bunch of dead confederate war heroes, looking out on a multi-cultural college, and then later wandering through some cool bohemian shops only minutes away from huge stone stallions rearing up with folks like Stonewall Jackson atop them...well, that's parts of the South for you, I guess. (Another statue depicts Arthur Ashe, but the way he wields his racquet, it truly looks like he's beating the crap out of the adoring marble children looking up at him.)

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(Wait. What's that there pyramid doing in the cemetery?)
 
Fountain Bookstore

Richmond also has a fabulous institution, the Fountain Bookstore, now run by Kelly Justice and ably assisted by, among others, Doc, Heather, Tess, and Steve. Not only did they have the cool display for Finch when I came in, they also were playing the Murder by Death soundtrack for the novel. Tess actually is a third-generation indie bookseller, and when I mentioned the movie Santa Sangre, Doc immediately came back with the name of the director, "Alejandro Jodorowsky." Which is when I knew I was in good hands--and I was right. The Fountain folks were among the most knowledgeable and friendly of any bookstore I read at during the tour. As the holiday party special guest, I thought I ought to entertain, so rather than a straight reading I told the Romanian "professional cockroach" story (direct link to podcast here), which pertains to part of Finch, then read the part of Finch that was inspired by the incident, followed by the somewhat tongue-in-cheek Evil Monkey Guide to Creative Writing published as an appendix in Booklife. It was a good event, and I was in an excellent mood, with Finch having made the year's best lists of the Washington Post and the Barnes & Noble Review, among others, and been on the Wall Street Journal's holiday gift book guide.

I even shot my first promo in the bookstore basement, which is undergoing a makeover. "We thought it looked a lot like your fantasy city of Ambergris," Kelly told me, before positioning me, teetering on boards, in front of some messed-up bricks. It's a measure of how comfortable I became on the tour doing things on the fly that it was all one take, reproduced below for your amusement (note the blooper at the end).


The Poe Museum

Staying with John and Kyla Glover, librarians and writers, I got a good glimpse of the historical anchors of the city while also getting a look at the modern context. We not only visited cemeteries, we passed by the former house of weird writer James Branch Cabell, and visited the Poe Museum. As their website says, "Richmond's Poe Museum boasts the world's finest collection of Edgar Allan Poe's manuscripts, letters, first editions, memorabilia and personal belongings. The Poe Museum provides a retreat into early nineteenth century Richmond where Poe lived and worked...Opened in 1922, in The Old Stone House, the museum is only blocks away from Poe's first Richmond home and his first place of employment, the Southern Literary Messenger."

Having always associated Poe with Baltimore, this information came as a bit of a surprise. The museum itself was an entertaining hodgepodge. Certain sections seemed to be of the "this is a piano owned by a friend of a cousin of Poe's" variety, but the manuscript sections and the display concerning Poe's entry point into detective fiction I found fascinating. The most interesting point I took out of the exhibits was simply this: contrary to my impression of Poe as being somewhat dysfunctional and not fitting into society, he was a high-functioning, ambitious individual who died under mysterious circumstances. Whether my original impression or the impression given by the Poe Museum is the correct one, I don't really know, but it made me interested in revisiting Poe and his work.

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(Poe the detective, and the memorial to Poe inside the manuscript exhibit.)

Which brings me to a book recommendation: The Ellen Datlow-edited Poe: 19 New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. It contains original work by Kim Newman, Pat Cadigan, Sharyn McCrumb, Lucius Shepard, Laird Barron, Suzy McKee Charnas, and others. Although published way back at the beginning of the year to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Poe's birth, it's a great holiday gift for anyone you know who loves weird fiction (along with Datlow's Lovecraft Unbound.) You can also try Peter Straub's reprint anthology Poe's Children, and definitely peruse In the Shadow of the Master, which reprints classic Poe tales with interesting afterwords by a variety of modern masters of horror and mystery.

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(Poe, the anthology, and Ellen Datlow, editor)
 
Finally, if you're interesting in some modern interpretations of Poe, my friend S.J. Chambers has been publishing some very interesting articles and essays on the subject:

The Baltimore Sun's Read Street Blog:  "Poe's 200th Anniversary:  S.J. Chambers" - Writers come together to talk about Poe's lasting influence

Fantasy Magazine:  "What I Here Propound is True:  How Science Fiction was Poened."  - A look at 19th century hoaxing, and how Poe's hoaxes contributed to sci-fi authenticity.

Tor.com: Was Poe Steampunk?

Tor.com: Living Poe Girl: Objects of Desire -- The first in a four part installment about whether Poe was a feminist.

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(Thanks to Kyla and John for putting me up--putting up with me?--in Richmond.)

 

Comments

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No, the Poe Museum did not lead you astray. The comment that "...he was a high-functioning, ambitious individual who died under mysterious circumstances..." is as good a one-sentence description of Poe as any I've heard.

I'm glad you've been inspired to investigate Poe more fully. He makes for quite a journey!

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