The lineup of readers changes and a different emcee is at the controls each year, but the basic idea behind The Magic Barrel has stayed the same now for nearly a quarter-century: Words flow from the mouths of writers so that food can go into the mouths of hungry people.
The 24th edition of The Magic Barrel: A Reading to Fight Hunger is set for Friday night at the Whiteside Theatre in downtown Corvallis. Doors open at 6 p.m., with the readings beginning at 7. Portland writer and screenwriter Jon Raymond is this year's emcee.
Over the years, the event has raised thousands of dollars for Linn Benton Food Share.
Part of the original idea behind The Magic Barrel was to find a cause that could unite writers, who have been known to lead solitary lives, into a public event that benefits the community.
But Raymond said he doesn't buy into the idea that writers aren't engaged with their communities.
"Writers have the reputation of being isolated, but I don't think that's actually accurate," he said. "There is such a thing as a writing community."
And, he said, there's something inherently social about the act of writing: "My experience is that it's in writing that you feel connected with other people. You feel in communion with the community."
This year's Magic Barrel draws on writers from the mid-valley and Portland — and includes a number of writers who have recently released buzzy books.
Corvallis-area writers on the program include Nick Dybek, author of the World War I novel "The Verdun Affair"; John Larison, the author of the gender-fluid Western "Whiskey When We're Dry"; Elena Passarello, fresh off an Oregon Book Award for her collection of essays "Animals Strike Curious Poses"; and Dionisia Morales, whose first volume of essays, "Homing Instincts," was recently published by the OSU Press.
A newcomer to the event is Chad Murphy, the OSU professor of business who's made a name for himself with his dryly humorous and absurd series of "Lord Birthday" cartoons. Murphy plans to show some of his cartoons while he reads the lists that go with each drawing. It will be one of his first public appearances, and he's still working on the details: At a photo shoot outside the Whiteside this story, he was musing whether Lord Birthday cartoons would go well with a deadpan British accent. (They probably would.)
Other featured writers this year include Omar El Akkad, who won the Oregon Book Award for his debut novel, "American War;" Eugene poet and multidisciplinary artist Sam Roxas-Chua; Oregon poet Mary Szybist, who won the 2013 National Book Award for poetry for her book "Incarnadine;" and Leni Zumas, the Portland author whose feminist dystopian novel "Red Clocks" has garnered national attention. (See the related story for more information on each reader.)
Each writer gets seven minutes to read, so the pressure is on each one to find just the right selection, and one that fits the tone of the evening. In general, once writers read at the event, they have to wait five years to get an invitation back — but Gregg Kleiner, the Corvallis writer who helps organize the event with the help of a small army of volunteers, says that rule can be bent in the event that a writer has a recently published book. And that's certainly the case with a number of this year's readers.
Raymond, for his part, has thought hard about the tone he wants to set for the evening. "You don't want to go up and do a bunch of balloon tricks, and then have somebody come up and read about poverty in America."
And he is working hard on the two parts of the evening that require extra effort on his part — his opening statement, and the bit right before intermission, during which he'll encourage attendees to make an additional donation to Linn Benton Food Share.
Part of the challenge there, he said, is to keep people in their seats instead of heading straight to the vendors on tap for the event — Squirrel's is selling beverages and Grass Roots Books and Music will have books for sale. But both vendors will be donating profits to the Food Share, so that takes some pressure off Raymond.
For Raymond, the connection between reading and writing goes back a long ways: "I was a very big reader as a child," he said. "In many ways, writing is a way that you can keep reading."
He is the author of the novels "Freebird," "Rain Dragon" and "The Half-Life," along with the short story collection "Livability," an Oregon Book Award winner. Two of the stories from "Livability," "Old Joy" and "Wendy and Lucy," were turned into movies directed by Kelly Reichardt, and Raymond worked on the screenplays for those movies, as well as another Reichardt flick, "Meek's Cutoff." (He earned an Emmy nomination as one of the screenwriters for the HBO adaptation of "Mildred Pierce.")
Raymond said Reichardt has been an ideal creative partner: "It's not entirely different from a writer-editor relationship," he said. "It's a very intimate, wonderful relationship when it works. ... She is very faithful to the material. There are not many filmmakers like that."
And there are not many events like The Magic Barrel, and Ryan McCambridge, the director of Linn Benton Food Share, said he appreciates that the event attracts an audience that may not understand the full extent of hunger in the mid-valley: "The exposure to that new group of folks is significant," he said.
And so is the fact that the event raises cash: McCambridge said cash donations are "the most efficient way to help Linn Benton Food Share get help to the people who need it."
Finally, McCambridge underlined a point that Raymond made: The Magic Barrel helps to build community: "It's such a unique event," he said, "and the people who come to it enjoy it so much."