Elena Passarello recalls her first experience with The Magic Barrel, the annual Corvallis event that features a number of writers reading from their works to help raise money for Linn Benton Food Share.
Passarello, the award-winning essayist and professor of English at Oregon State University, had been in Corvallis for only a month, learning about her new job and new town, when she read at the 2013 Magic Barrel.
“I had no idea,” she said, recalling the hundreds of people who attended that event, the writers who donated their time, the entire experience. “It was a profound moment for me.”
This Friday, Passarello returns to the stage of the Whiteside Theatre for the 2015 Magic Barrel, but this time, as the emcee. Her job will be to keep the fast-moving event on track, to persuade attendees to reach into their pockets to contribute just another buck or two to Linn Benton Food Share — and to keep the event fun.
She jokes that her goal is to leave the previous emcees of the event (a list which includes this writer) in the dust.
“I’m feeling very competitive,” she said. “I’m just focused on winning.”
You’d be a fool to bet against her — but she declined to offer any spoiler alerts as to what she might be planning, other to hint that it may involve a big hat.
The Magic Barrel (the name comes from a very beautiful and very odd short story by Bernard Malamud, who taught for a time at OSU) is marking its 23rd edition, with a typically eclectic list of Oregon writers and a tradition of raising, over the years, tens of thousands of dollars for Food Share.
The event “has a legacy now,” said Gregg Kleiner, a Corvallis writer and one of the raft of volunteers who’s worked for years on it. “People know about it. They know it’s fun.”
Nine writers are scheduled at this year’s event, headlined by Corvallis’ Tracy Daugherty, who helped get the event going more than two decades ago. Daugherty most recently cracked The New York Times’ best-seller list with “The Last Love Song,” a biography of Joan Didion. (See the box for a full list of this year’s readers.)
Each of the writers has about eight minutes to read, and Passarello noted the time limit can be a challenge, especially for prose writers. And writers sometimes can be fazed by the size of the crowd; “It’s not like a bookstore reading,” she said.
Kleiner said the focus always is on local or regional writers. “We prefer people to have a book out,” he said — and the event always includes tables featuring books for sale. Typically, an author who reads at the event will have to wait five years before earning a return invitation.
“There’s nothing scientific about it,” Kleiner said of the process of selecting each year’s crop of readers.
But there is one hard-and-fast rule: “People need to be really good readers,” he said. “It’s a live show.”
Which is not to say that the process of putting on each year’s Magic Barrel always is a smooth-running operation. After all, Kleiner noted, this is an event featuring writers that is organized mostly by writers.
“It’s like herding cats,” he said.