Friday, October 26, 2012

High Plains Book Awards -- the adventure continues in Billings

Last weekend saw the High Plains Book Awards weekend arrive in Billings. I had planned to try to get to a number of the readings, but after an exhausting week, I only made it to one, and it was a good one.

The beloved and I attended a reading that included Shann Ferch (aka Shann Ray), who won both the best first book and best short story collection categories. Ferch won for his book American Masculine, from which he read a moving story based in eastern Montana. Also reading was Craig Lancaster, copy editor of the Billings Gazette and also a nominee in the short story category for Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, who (if the story read was representative) seems to be putting Billings on the fiction map by demonstrating that characters living in this town can be just as hilariously perplexed by life as any other city's fictional characters. Last but not least was an old friend of the Montana blogosphere, Ed Kemmick, reading an unforgettable account of the "after-party" he experienced in Butte after Evel Knievel's funeral. That story came from Kemmick's The Big Sky, By and By, a collection of fascinating (and true) stories, many of which appeared first in the pages of the Billings Gazette.

The evening's awards banquet took place in a beautiful venue -- the Yellowstone Art Museum -- in the same spacious gallery where the "East/West: Visually Speaking" exhibit appeared. The food was decent fare, interesting conversation was plentiful, the beloved looked smashing, and the wine wasn't bad. We were about to experience the fun of "the envelope please" moments of learning who the winners were, and Tom McGuane was on deck as keynote speaker.

Things were obviously going way too smoothly -- but the fly in the ointment was soon to arrive. Most of the evening's budget had apparently been blown on the food and wine, leaving only $9.95 for the sound system. The rest of the evening was spent enduring a cheap microphone and an even cheaper speaker that was about the size of a Cap'n Crunch box. Those fortunate enough to be seated toward the center of the room could hear adequately, while the rest of us couldn't.

Our fine mayor, Tom Hanel, was one of the first speakers and welcomed everyone to Billings -- or at least that's what I think he was doing. You know it's bad when a politician has a hard time making himself heard. Knowing that the evening would lead to even less experienced public speakers arriving at the podium, things were not looking good.

Luckily for me, I have relatively sharp ears and reasonably good lip-reading abilities to augment them -- but it was hard work just to make out maybe 80% of the evening's content, work I wasn't really in the mood to be needlessly expending. Still, I was able to enjoy most of McGuane's remarks and anecdotes about his writing, his life in Montana, and his interactions with the world of Hollywood.

The beloved and I have been to a number of these awards banquets, and they have always been enjoyable -- one suspects that this won't happen again next year, so we will doubtless be back. I felt bad for all of those who came to hear McGuane and couldn't. Fortunately, the best way to hear any author is still through books, which are always available and are never dependent on a public address system...

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