Question of the Month: Fair

by Susan Henderson on April 5, 2010

Tell me a story of you at the fair. What did you eat? What caught your attention? Did you ever get separated from your group? Did you win a prize? Did you raise your hand when the hypnotist called for volunteers? I want to hear all about it.

Speaking of fairs, I’m starting to learn more about what happens to books just before they’re published, and one of those things is that they are carted to The London Book Fair in April. The hope is that your book creates a pre-publication buzz and nabs some foreign rights sales.


This is what the galley version of my book looks like, and it will be in someone’s suitcase this month, flying off to London. It’s a little like sending your child off on an airplane ride without you, and you hope she’s in good hands, never overlooked or left unattended but loved, included, and delighting those who meet her.


If you have a moment to pop over to The Nervous Breakdown, I recently interviewed author Danielle Trussoni, and I’d love for you to join the conversation. We talked about her novel, ANGELOLGY, as well as her road to publication and how Will Smith’s production company is handling the movie version of her book. Hope to see you there!

{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

robinslick April 5, 2010 at 9:18 am

I am just so thrilled for you…you have no worries, your book is going to be a huge hit and no worries about it being overlooked or unattended but damn it’s too bad we didn’t put a tiny GPS system on it before it left for London.

And I am also thrilled about something else happening this week which I can’t quite believe is actually going to occur…you can spill if you want, I wasn’t sure if I was “allowed” or not.

Growing up in Philadelphia, I don’t have any fair stories except one: I always knew I hated amusement rides; I get dizzy just looking at them and could never watch my kids even on roller coasters because I was sure something terrible would happen…every year there are accidents somewhere. But in a weak moment, I let myself be talked into riding the Octopus at the local school carnival because it is allegedly a lame ride and it was at a freaking elementary school. Well, trust me, it’s not lame by any stretch of the imagination; the minute my little car started rising and spinning I began to scream like a crazy woman LET ME OFF LET ME OFF STOP THIS RIDE IMMEDIATELY I’M GOING TO DIE I’M NOT KIDDING.

At first people on the ground and the guy running the ride thought I was kidding and everyone was laughing their asses off but after a minute of my non-stop hysteria they realized it was no joke and much to the dismay of the other people on the ride, they stopped it and let me off.

I promptly threw up in front of everyone and didn’t even care.

Sort of like the whole book publishing biz, huh.



billiehinton April 5, 2010 at 9:23 am

My first memory of the fair is being separated from my parents and standing amidst a sea of adult legs, at night, not able to get anyone’s attention or see anything but all those legs. I think I just stood there and cried until someone noticed me and reunited me with my parents. A sort of companion memory is the first year we took my son to the fair – we rented a big wagon so he could ride in it with all the gear one tends to have with toddlers. That wagon was so huge it cleared a path wherever we went, and so no danger of losing anyone in the ocean of legs!


SusanHenderson April 5, 2010 at 9:34 am

I’m always slightly afraid of and attracted to fairs because they seem to be run by transients and runaways so there is just this tension and tenderness of being among complicated lives. I love local fairs with their hypnotists and Irish step dancers and fold-out tables. I remember the first time I brought the kids to Coney Island (not a fair exactly but similar low-budget fun) and we went out on the beach and only a few steps into the sand there’s a steak knife and a used condom.

I’m with you, Robin, I can’t even spin sideways for a second before I’m sick. And yes, I will tell what we’re up to… cuz WE’RE GOING TO CANADA ON THURSDAY!!!! A little writer’s retreat and much-needed girl time. I can’t even tell you how much I’m looking forward to it!


SusanHenderson April 5, 2010 at 9:37 am

Oh, your story of the ocean of legs describes it perfectly, and when my kids were younger I was always so afraid of letting go of them for even a second.


billiehinton April 5, 2010 at 11:29 am

yay for the retreat time – I’m also leaving thursday for writing retreat at my favorite place, not too far away from home in miles but very far from the distractions of a daily routine.


Jimnichols April 5, 2010 at 11:46 am

I love your cover, Sue…and think that its jaunt to London is a beautiful thing! Can’t wait to read it.

My fair memory is of the hootchie-cootchie show, when my brother and I snuck in under the tent and no doubt lit up the entire interior with our wide-as-saucers eyes.


SusanHenderson April 5, 2010 at 11:59 am

Jim, I’ve never been to the hootchie-cootchie type of fair, but I hope you’ll write about it in your next book.


SusanHenderson April 5, 2010 at 12:01 pm

We’ll both have to come back and share about our retreats. I want to return with a solid chapter 1 of my new book… I know the shape of the story in large brush strokes, but I haven’t actually got anything other than research and outlining done.


Jimnichols April 5, 2010 at 12:13 pm

I think they all used to have h-c shows…tucked away where they wouldn’t offend the women and children. (It was assumed that men wouldn’t be offended).


naseem April 5, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Every year my son and I go to two fairs. One is the Oregon Country Fair. It is a forty+ year tradition held in the woods in Vineta, Oregon. And it is a rush. Think Woodstock. Think paisley. Think body paint, drumming, vegan food, and Patchouli. Think minstrels, magicians and marijuana. Lots of it. Think and be prepared for a bit of nudity. Should I be taking a 10 year old to this festival? Yes. He loves to dance, he loves to drum, he loves to learn to make fire at the wilderness camp, he loves to learn about solar energy at the solar camp, he loves to eat the best chocolate chip cookies we can find anywhere (except our own kitchen, of course) he loves the color, the sights, the sounds of people acting like happy gentle butterflies living out a dream that we can all be kind to one another.

The other fair, is the Oregon State Fair. It is filled with animals, and fried foods, and hawkers selling everything from Emu jerky to rhinestone bras. Elijah likes to go to the democratic booth, collect his annual allotment of political buttons, then go to the republican booth and ask them questions like — why don’t you think everyone should have health care? We ride the Ferris Wheel, and the Bumber Cars. We eat roast chicken and corn on the cob, and fudge. Lots of it. We look at Oregon’s population of overly wide people and are glad they are not taking off their clothes.

For a view of the Country Fair go to:


SusanHenderson April 5, 2010 at 7:48 pm

Nope, I’m pretty sure the fairs I go to with goats and rickety rides don’t have these secret tents in them. 🙂


SusanHenderson April 5, 2010 at 7:53 pm

The parade and the people up on stilts are wonderful… and now I want a rhinestone bra! Love how you described those fairs. I felt like I was there.


Jimnichols April 5, 2010 at 10:15 pm

Well, if you knew about them they wouldn’t be secret!

Actually, I think that all stopped 25-30 years ago. Did you ever read Cheever’s Wapshot Chronicles? There’s a good hootchie-cootchie fair in that book.


Anonymous April 6, 2010 at 3:51 am

I only have one memory of going to a fair. Except that it wasn’t a fair but a country circus. My younger brother and I were staying with our grandmother in Ohio during the summer of 1968 and as soon as she announced that the circus had arrived in town we drove out to watch them unload their trailers. What happened then was magic. Grandma’s brother, Uncle Randolph we always called him, had asked one of the circus men if there was anything “the boys” could do to help out. A big man waved for us to come over to him and said that we could help raise the tent. For the next hour, us two skinny runts stood in line behind the other circus men and pulled on long ropes that were attached to the center pole of the tent and pulled in tug-a-war fashion to raise the heavy colorful canvas of the tent. I had been practicing gymnastics for a couple of years at school, so the workout, and blisters were no problem for me, but my brother was only 7 years old and he kept getting knocked off the end of the rope. So he buddied up with an older circus man that was standing to the side cheering on the pulling crew.

It was a great experience and we were given free tickets to come back to the show that evening.


SusanHenderson April 6, 2010 at 7:32 am

That’s a terrific story!


SusanHenderson April 6, 2010 at 7:35 am

If it’s in that great big red Cheever collection, I must have read it. But, circus-wise, there was a tent like this in WATER FOR (ha! I almost wrote heffalumps!) ELEPHANTS, and that was certainly a memorable scene.


Jimnichols April 6, 2010 at 8:20 am

There were two Wapshot novels, The Wapshot Chronicle and a sequel, The Wapshot
Scandal. Great books. I haven’t read Water For Elephants but the reviews sound cool…interesting that it came about as a result of the National Novel Writing Month.


kategray April 6, 2010 at 8:30 am

Growing up in New England, one is surrounded by dozens of fairs, and I’ve been to my “fair share.” (ha ha)
My favorite is probably the “Big E,” otherwise known as the Eastern States Exposition, not least of which is because you can visit six state buildings (Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island), and sample what each has to offer in terms of food and quirky exports.
Another, that has now ended (a victim of the economy), was the Festival of the Green Corn, or Schemitzun, that is basically a big Powwow. I wish it was still running, because my husband’s grandmother was Ojibwe, and I’d like our kids to have a sense of their heritage….
But honestly, the bulk of my childhood memories come from the summers in Helena, MT, when we’d go to the Last Chance Stampede and Fair. It was a rodeo and classic fair, with barrel racing, the kids riding sheep, and I loved it every time we went. One year, I was sick, and missed my chance, and it sticks in my mind, because my grandmother didn’t enjoy going, so she stayed home and made me what she thought I needed to have for “sickie food”. Poached eggs over toast, with milk…I think I stared at that bowl for an hour or more, scowling over my miserable fate: no fair, no food, no fun. Later, we would go every time to see my younger cousin Jessica riding, or showing her steers (by family tradition, they were all named Nutsy). I think I get a pang every August, when I realize I’ve missed another year….


Ric April 6, 2010 at 9:00 am

Couple of stories – I was in 4-H for ten years and, each year, we would complete our projects and show them at the Sanilac County Fair. I had Jersey cattle, so I would get to stay at the fair for three days – sleeping overnight in a big pole barn with 60 other kids. This would have us inside the gates all the time, and we would wander through the rides as they were setting up and chat with the carnys. Sometimes they would give us really loooong rides – since they were just getting the day going and the lines weren’t forming yet. My buddy Alex ticked the guy at the Salt n Pepper Shaker off and the guy stopped the ride, with us hanging upside down thirty feet up in the air and just left us there. Every few minutes, he would hit the button and we would move a little bit, and the car would shake, making the change fall out of our pockets. He would calmly walk under us and pick up our money and then go back and shake it some more. To this day, I won’t go on any ride that turns me upside down.

In the summer of 1967, on the day I got my driver’s license, I took a sweet little blond on my first real date. We went to the Croswell Fair. My sweet little blond had a few black roots that appeared while we were on the Tilt-a-Whirl and, as we were getting off, the carny said, “I like blonds no matter what color their hair is.” It is still one of the best lines I’ve ever heard. I laughed and she didn’t. Was a long ride home.


SusanHenderson April 6, 2010 at 11:08 am

I’ll add those to my reading book. WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is a great story, and I forgot she did it for NanoWriMo! Read it quick before the movie comes out!


SusanHenderson April 6, 2010 at 11:12 am

I didn’t know you had Montana roots. Me, too. I know those local fairs, rodeos and pow-wows very well, and I’m probably going to set my next book in Central MT.


SusanHenderson April 6, 2010 at 11:14 am

I love your stories, Ric, and you know you have another column beginning, don’t you?


kategray April 6, 2010 at 11:33 am

Yep. Those Montana roots are purely by chance, though. My mother’s family landed in CT, back in the 1700’s, and were moving west by the 1800’s. Her grandparents made the land rush in Washington State originally, in the 1910’s. One day, they were crossing a flooded river, in a wagon, and the bridge washed out under them. They had four little children at the time, and the youngest, a baby, was swept away. They never found her, and my great-grandmother insisted on leaving. Somehow, they ended up being able to stake a claim in East Helena, in the Clasoil district, and now, the remaining family is still clinging to thousands of acres, in spite of a decades-long drought.
I have all of my grandfather’s letters home during the war, when he was with the Army in the South Pacific, and all he ever wrote about was farming, and how he couldn’t wait to get back home to get his own piece of land going. My dad almost took a position as the priest of the one lone church up in Flathead…I almost passed out thinking of what that would be like in the winter…sliding doors, I guess!


SusanHenderson April 6, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Oh God, how awful about the baby. Although our family cemetery in Montana is filled with children and stillborn babies so I guess those kinds of tragedies were more common back then. 🙁


SusanHenderson April 8, 2010 at 11:53 am

Off to the airport. I’m going to spend a long weekend in Canada with some writer-friends and hopefully come back with a finished chapter or two of the new book. In the meantime, share your stories and your news, and I’ll catch up when I’m back.


nasim marie jafry April 8, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Hey Susan, Just wanted to say hello, and well done on the book deal! I wanted to email you but could not find a link. Our brothers were good friends at Stanford in early-mid 90s, and in a band, I spent a good bit of time in Palo Alto back then and recently hooked up with Jeff again on Facebook, which led me to your blog. My autobiographical novel was out in 2008 with HarperCollins (The Friday Project imprint). I’d love to email with you, please contact me via my blog if you have a chance. warm wishes, NASIM MARIE JAFRY


Nathalie April 9, 2010 at 1:59 am

Fair? I seem to remember I went once when a very small child, in Paris, to Foire du Trône. I don’t remember much. Later, much later I went to the one that takes place in Nancy every April (just outside the Law University buildings!), with my Dad, to take pictures. Later still – when at university – the boyfriend I had at the time was horrified by the fat that I had been “fair deprived” and dragged me back to eat the very peculiar waffles they make there. I had taken numerous pictures of the wonderful waffle iron but had never taste the waffles before.


SusanHenderson April 11, 2010 at 5:05 pm

How fun to have a reminder of The Havering days! I’m so excited to hear about your book… just checked out the Amazon link for it — here for anyone interested: — and I’ll be in touch soon.


SusanHenderson April 11, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Nathalie, that’s an incredible waffle iron, and I hope you go taste one this week.


rachelkramerbussel April 12, 2010 at 2:13 pm

Oh my goodness…you just brought back such a vivid memory. I spent most of my young summers on Martha’s Vineyard with my grandmother; she grew up there and now, at 87, I think it’s still where she feels the most at home. They have this wonderful fair every summer that I’d look forward to all year. I’d knit little random things (really, just random shapes) and enter them for prizes, try to win stuffed animals, go on rides. But one year, I think I was around 8, I was wearing sandals and stepped on a giant nail that went into my heel. We had to go to the hospital and honestly, I don’t really remember that part so much as walking around with this searing pain in my foot and so hurt and afraid and then my grandmother taking care of me. We had some fun summers, away from my parents, at the time, me being the only grandchild. I guess it’s a good thing I don’t remember exactly what happened after that point or how they got the nail out. I hope I got to eat some cotton candy at some point.


SusanHenderson April 12, 2010 at 9:28 pm

I hope you did, too. How awful about the nail, but I love your vivid story and that your grandmother took care of you. You’ve blogged about her before, so I already liked her and had a picture of her in my head.


raebryant April 13, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Hah, carnies. I’ve always had a visceral reaction to carnies. Must have started in middle school, something about dirty flannels and cool “I control the ride” pose they struck at the gear shift, control box, whatever the hell that thing was/is. Sweat and Marlboros, Def Leppard blasting, vibrating the soles of my canvas sneakers. I always imagined the carnie in charge was watching me because I was special and beautiful and sexy with wind blowing through my hair. Ooo, those carnies.

Just pre-ordered Up From the Blue. Have to say, I like your style. 😉


SusanHenderson April 13, 2010 at 6:17 pm

Oh, wow, would you write a whole book with this voice and attitude in it? I love everything about it.

And thank you so so much for pre-ordering the book. xo


raebryant April 13, 2010 at 6:22 pm

You must be the tenth muse. I had to start a new short story after reading your Question post. 😉

And you are most welcome.


SusanHenderson April 13, 2010 at 9:14 pm

Wonderful! And after you finish that short story, keep going so I can buy a book called CARNIES.


SusanHenderson April 15, 2010 at 11:16 am

Wonder what’s going to happen to the London Book Fair now that the UK airports are shut down…


SusanHenderson April 15, 2010 at 11:35 am

Speaking of London, I love it when Charlie doesn’t hold back: He loves having a dialogue, so feel free to jump in to the conversation whether you agree or not.


susanwoodring April 17, 2010 at 6:36 am

We live right next to the fairgrounds in our tiny town, and your question is so timely–the fair is happening now. We took the kids out there the other day, and every night, there are distant carnival lights flashing in our windows; we fall asleep to the sounds of roller-coaster screams. We huddle in my daughter’s room to watch the fireworks through her window.


SusanHenderson April 17, 2010 at 11:45 am

That’s a really interesting view of a fair–the sounds of it as you tuck your daughter in for the night. I love the image you’ve put into my head.


deansadams April 19, 2010 at 12:37 pm

When I was 12 years old, I had a paper route and would try to make extra money selling papers at the fair grounds after I delivered my normal route. My “customers” were horse track people and the carnies. The track folks were mostly tragic, hung over and difficult sales. The carnies were impossible sales.They would sleep under tarps beneath the rides and I would quietly look for the ones awake at 8 a.m. Mostly they refused my sales attemps by confessing to illiteracy. The whole endeavor proved a sad task, paying a profit of ten cents per paper sold, for a happy naive adolescent.


SusanHenderson April 19, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Aww, you’re here!

And that’s been my experience, too, just that people who go on these cheap, traveling shows have some pretty tragic stories. Seems like they’re all fleeing something, and then you have a whole group of unhealed people hanging out together, and there’s something beautiful and dangerous about the whole thing. I’m glad to know about your paper route. You started racking up those character-building experiences pretty early…it’s why you’re so cool. 🙂


SusanHenderson April 30, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Another job opening for you smart artistic types… (Thanks for the heads up, Eric!)

Manager, National Programs
The Alliance for Young Artists & Writers
New York, New York, United States

Oh, and here’s another… (Thanks, Aida!)

6/7 Creative Capital – Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program supports individual writers whose work addresses contemporary visual art through grants ranging from 3,000 to 50,000 USD. Writers who meet the program’s eligibility requirements are invited to apply in the following categories: Articles, Blogs, Books, New and Alternative Media, Short-Form Writing. For guidelines and eligibility requirements, please visit


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