A Deep Dive into the Woolf Conference Chapter

Day 2 of my virtual book tour for Southern-Fried Woolf is here! So many thanks to Two Cool Chicks for sharing. BTW, you can sign up to win a $25 gift card to bookshop.org over there, too!

There were a couple of neat tidbits that I wanted to dig out to share with you, but could I find them today? I could not. I will keep looking for them.

Coneflowers. Photo by Rami Tayyem on Pexels.com

Here’s a section from a chapter in which Briscoe and her mother go to a conference:

Just last year my mother and I attended a Woolf conference.

Mother’s emails leading up to the ask were uncharacteristically adorned. She writes about the approach of fall, the squirrel activity in and around her cabin, (which she knows interests me), and, oh yes, she will be attending a Woolf conference that weekend.

            “Your research would benefit,” she says.

            I write back. “Is that your way of asking me to go with you?”

            Almost immediately: “If you want to.”

            “You don’t have cancer or something, do you?”

            “You wish!”

            Do I want to share a room with her for a weekend in some predictably armpit hotel? Michael and I just happen to not be on the road then, a fact that is obvious if you track his tour online, which makes me suspect my mother’s been sleuthing. Unless I invent a business meeting or a mystery trip, I have no excuse not to go, and she knows it. 

            I discover through some online sleuthing of my own that my mother is the plenary speaker for the conference. Somehow, she neglected to mention that.

             I agree to go to the conference.

Turns out my mama is a fish in Woolf circles. As in a big fish. As in THE academic rock star – scratch that, the equivalent to me is country star – at this conference. Here in the marbled and chandeliered lobby of the Marriott (town undisclosed due to lack of relevance to anyone with a pulse) with its 60’s- vibed conversation pits and multiple check in/out kiosks that will eventually put desk clerks out of work but to which my mother and the line of introverted academic conference goers gravitate, we are stopped every three feet by people who “just want to say hello” to my mother.

“This is like being in public with Michael,” I say to my mother. She basks in the adoration, unable to hear me. Which, truth be told, shocks me, misanthrope I thought her to be. When we register at the table with the ubiquitous ruffled skirt, we are handed packets of material and a bag of swag. I dig in to see what Woolfies consider fun freebies.

            I immediately toss the lanyard with my name on it back into the limp canvas bag when it comes into my hands. There’s no way I’m going to wear that. Maybe I’m a lit geek, but there’s no reason to be branded as one outside of the conference. I try not to think about the irony that the bag advertises books but is in no wise sturdy enough to hold more than a couple of paperbacks.

The bag also contains sticky notes advertising a small press (keeping those, thank you very much), stacks of brochures (I promptly toss mine into a nearby recycle bin), a handful of hard candy that is not worthy of bearing the title. These I put on the nearest table. I’ve seen better candy at parades. (I do keep the chocolate ones because inferior chocolate is, arguably, better than none.)

Why did I set Southern-Fried Woolf in 2018? That’s simple – I was told “everyone” was doing it back when I was finishing up the novel. That is, several notable writers decided during the pandemic that it would be easier to set their novels before it since we didn’t know how things would pan out. While I think it wouldn’t have been too hard to have adjusted it back to present time, I decided that I didn’t mind leaving it in 2018. There were very few changes needed, and Twitter had a stronger presence in 2018. In one of my favorite chapters in the book, Briscoe (the book’s main character) live tweets a talk her mother gives at that Woolf conference mentioned above. It was so much fun to write that chapter! Since we’re likely seeing the social platform’s last moments, I see what I wrote as a bit of a time capsule.

Although truth be told, I was the one coming back to a shared hotel room at a conference once upon a time long after midnight, having stayed at the social event until the music stopped. That wasn’t Briscoe or Briscoe’s mom, that was me. My roommate groggily asked if I had had a good time. I said I had, before changing into my pj’s and getting into my bed. (I did NOT go off anywhere with a curly headed grad student named Marshall or anyone else!! I did dance en masse with a group of academics that I didn’t know, which I really enjoyed.) 

Also on the timing front: “Find My” was once the “Find My Friends” app, I do believe, so I kept that in the current edition. Until recently, I never paid attention to either version unless I lost my phone. But after having heard about a woman who was only found after an accident through her phone, I decided to share my location with my hubby. I told him he did NOT have to feel obligated to share back. I just wanted him to be able to find me in case I got lost in a snowstorm or something. (Welcome to my life with anxiety; the most outlandish things can seem possible, nearly imminent.)

Making up the titles of the conference lectures was a hoot! I really would love to hear lectures based on those. Tell me, when you read the book, which you like best. (I want to list them here, but they’re one of my favorite parts of the book, so I won’t.)  

And I did actually hear someone “sl*t shame” a woman at a conference (not a Woolf conference; I’ve never had the privilege), which I thought was harsh. Being somewhat prudish myself, it was fun to allow Jules, Briscoe’s mom, to be as adventurous as she wanted to be.

The more topical, superficial, speculation on Woolf’s life brought up during the conference scene is modeled after some of the literary podcasts I listen to. I love it when someone enjoys an author’s work so much that they want to think about their day-to-day lives, want to know all the deets. Sure, sometimes it’s a little prurient, but I’d rather see engagement with an author on any level than see her forgotten.

(While it’s not quite the same, I really do wonder why we are shown the Ramsays’ large family without seeing them being intimate with one another, not even a “time-to-put-your-bookmark-in-Mrs. Brady” moment when a lamp is discreetly switched off. I’m guessing they have a pretty great sex life: she’s a withholder; he’s entitled. I can see that leading to some fireworks.)

In case it’s not obvious, one of the bonds that Briscoe and Michael share is a physical one. Science and psychology are discovering that pheromones can keep couples together when common sense says they should part, or so I’ve been told by greater minds than mine, if I understand that correctly. Yet Briscoe says she’s just as lonely after sex with Michael because for him, it’s performative. He can’t get close to people, although we are never told why not. (As the author, I have my suspicions, but I’m not telling. I could be wrong.)

I opted for us to see the couple “together” on occasion in case their tie doesn’t immediately make sense. Initially, the scenes were more detailed, until I realized that all I was trying to convey is that Briscoe is physically drawn to him, regardless of his failings. They’re not particularly sexy scenes; they’re not meant to be. But clearly, in that arena, she’s a happy woman.

How can Briscoe be angry with Michael when he’s more to be pitied than not? She sees him as the human he is and not as her spouse with all of those exhausting expectations. I think one of the most telling scenes of this is when she asks Michael…well, I’ll let you find out what she asks him, but you’ll know it when you read it.

I’ve often imagined how sad and lonely a life of fame must truly be, except for those rare occasions when it’s heady. I’ve met my share of celebrities of varying degrees and that’s been my takeaway: privacy is precious and to be treasured. Trust is difficult. Discretion is nearly nonexistent. Not that it’s ever been offered me, celebrity, but I would refuse it if it were.

I also enjoyed Jules having her moment at the conference, and Briscoe witnessing it and her mother’s power in the academic world. I wanted to parallel celebrity in various arenas to validate finding value in anything that means something to us, rather than in what society tells us to value. I believe anything we do well can be counted as art. Well, almost everything. But some things are more a matter of taste.

Then, of course, there’s Jules’s moment of doubt at the conference, of wondering if she has made the right career choice. She admits the truth: she chose the study of Virginia Woolf’s work over her own family. Briscoe tells her that she, Briscoe, is still in her life, but her mother doesn’t accept Briscoe’s glossing over the truth: they are profoundly disconnected. (Could this be yet another reason that Briscoe fell for someone like Michael?) Though this moment is meant to be humorous (you should have seen what word I originally put in the text! I ultimately decided it was too outrageous), it’s another moment of healing.

We learn at one point that (a tiny spoiler here) Briscoe’s father visited her mother regularly after she fled to her lighthouse substitute, the watch tower (which is phallic shaped; let us make of that what we will) but secretly. I think much can be made of that, too, some of it seemingly contradictory. (If I had had my way, we would have seen more of Briscoe’s dad in the book, but it wasn’t to be. It didn’t fit the trajectory. I was surprised to see more of him weaving its way in during the pandemic, and I even ordered a packet of coneflower seeds that I have yet to plant. Hence the photo in this post. But I digress.)

I don’t want to spoil a certain kissing scene in the chapter for you, but I thought it was funny on the page. If it happened in real life, those kissed would have plenty of reasons to object. That, too, was fun to write. Unlike me, Briscoe has someone writing her dialogue. I envy that. I often say I’d like to have a backspace button for when I’m speaking.

The link for my book, again, if you’d like to know more about all that kissing…

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