An Affair to Remember
Once again, The Ragdale Foundation hosted its annual “A Novel Affair” in beautiful Lake Forest. Kate Ancell was lucky enough to attend.
The thing about being a writer is, you can create fully imagined worlds, in which legions of readers can dwell. You can create a series (or twelve) to which millions of people are devoted. You can sell a novel to Hollywood and watch as your characters, your people, your places, become flesh and blood to anyone willing to buy a ticket. But you, yourself, have the ability to—mostly—exist in the day-to-day world as a regular, unremarked-upon person. This is not the situation that, say, Tom Cruise finds himself in.
But. Get a couple hundred self-confessed book geeks together, offer an open bar and access to their favorite writers, and it’s like Mensa night at the Oscars. Such was the situation a week ago when the Ragdale Foundation held its annual “A Novel Affair,” a weekend-long event where 10 top, top, top-notch authors mingled with adoring fans and well-wishers during a Friday night cocktail party at the home of Roger and Sandy Deromedi; retreated to the serene Ragdale grounds on Saturday; and then dispersed amongst 10 homes for intimate dinners with 15 lucky guests.
But first, a brief lesson. Ragdale is a—rightly—much-beloved institution here on the North Shore, and it has played host to hundreds of hugely talented artists of all sorts since 1976, when Alice Judson Hayes created the Foundation as a nonprofit artists’ collective. Now, Hayes was Howard Van Doren Shaw’s granddaughter, and hewas the renowned architect who built the original Ragdale house as a summer home for his family. (Interesting trivia note: he also acquired the acreage surrounding the now-estate, and stipulated that it was to be left untouched, unmowed and untended—he just wanted to look at it, which I guess, if you’re Howard Van Doren Shaw and it’s your property, you can. The fields are now a harvesting place of native flora seeds for the Chicago Botanic Garden, and are also the setting of the husband’s murder in the novel The Time Traveler’s Wife by Ragdale alum, current board member and featured “Novel Affair” writer Audrey Niffenegger. Whew!)
Getting a residency at Ragdale, for an artist, might be—say—the equivalent of moving up from the farm leagues to the majors for a ball player from Texas. It’s pretty hard to do, and it’s also a life-changer. So they’ve got some game in the literary world. Also, Ragdale is kind of a secret—they’re almost never open to the public, because they’re a retreat and artists go their for peace and solitude, not to be stared at like monkeys in the zoo; and you have to be asked in. Which is why, of course, “A Novel Affair” is such a very big deal. This is an opportunity for anyone who’s willing to buy a ticket to have the chance to (at least this year): a) hear Jane Hamilton rap—which in itself is worth the price of admission; b) meet Dani Shapiro, Dennis Lehane, Andre DuBus, Dan Chaon, Bernard Cornwell, Audrey Niffenegger, Josh Ferris, Andrew Sean Greer, Margo Livesey, Honor Moore; and c) attend an awesome dinner with your chosen author at which you can pepper him or her with inane questions which they’ll answer. Awesome.
I attended the dinner for Dan Chaon, at Amy and Matt Davidson’s Lake Forest home, which was such a pleasure I can’t even tell you. Chaon is an affable, self-effacing guy whose friendly, Midwestern exterior belies the dark-angel mindset in his books—the latest of which, Await Your Reply—freaked me out for days. The Davidsons were lovely hosts and the dinner managed to be normal, which was somewhat surprising as I had feared, beforehand, that guests (myself included) would spend the evening staring at Chaon while giggling nervously and slopping wine over ourselves. This did not happen. Instead, people mingled, chatted amiably and snapped up signed books by the fistful.
This was not exactly the case the night before at the cocktail party, which was a little more surreal (it’s not every day that you find yourself searching for the buffet line with Dennis Lehane, after all). Guests—again, myself included—seemed almost unable to believe their luck at being included in the evening…and that, I think, is the genius of the whole event. To be able to waltz into a gorgeous historical home, with its original Jens Jensen gardens, and find yourself confronted by a crowd of fans declaring, “This is like the Academy Awards, for heaven’s sake!”; or to debate the merits of creative writing classes with Andre DuBus while thinking: how, where, did The House of Sand and Fogcome from in that charming head?; or to share a mini-pizza, of all things, with Josh Ferris; or to watch a be-stickered Bernard Cornwell (of Sharpe fame) get slowly, surely hemmed in by fans but smile gamely on and on while the sun set over the treeline…well, friends, that is an experience that money just can’t buy. But it can—it can be yours, too, next year, when Ragdale brings the “Novel Affair” back once again. Mark your calendars now: I’ll see you there!
For more information, to apply for a residency, or to keep up-to-date on the events at Ragdale, visit ragdale.org.