I can't believe it's been a week since the Southern Festival of Books! Now that I've had a few days to reflect on the experience of having 200 authors in Nashville—and running around like a chicken with my head cut off to see as many of them as possible—I wanted to share my favorite moments from the book festival (in no particular order).
As a native Arkansan, it was surreal to see Damien Echols, one of the members of the West Memphis Three and the author of the memoir Life After Death, walking free on the stage of an auditorium at a book festival. It's hard to convey how important Echols' case was to many people in Arkansas (and later, around the world) when I was growing up; in high school, students routinely wore WM3 bracelets to express their support for the three convicted men. Echols spoke poignantly about how it's emotionally difficult for him to talk now about his time on death row and in prison, but he continues to travel and promote the book because you never know when an audience member might find themselves on the jury of a murder trial. Echols wants to educate people about the painful realities of our justice system.
I had the good fortune of interviewing Naomi Benaron, author of Running the Rift, and Inman Majors, author of Love's Winning Plays, on the Chapter 16 stage at the festival. (Okay, I know this is technically two "moments," but I'm grouping 'em together!) Both authors were gracious, articulate and fascinating to talk to. It was inspiring to hear how Benaron actually aspired to win Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize from the time she started writing her book—then went out and did it! Her love and respect for Rwanda, the setting of her novel, was palpable. Majors was just as funny in person as I hoped he'd be, and his philosophy of humor—he uses "high" language applied to "low" situations (a.k.a. toilet humor, as the case may be)—rang true.
On the final day of the festival, I hosted a panel called “Creating Our Own Realities: Young People Making Sense of Their World." The authors on the panel were Loretta Ellsworth and John Corey Whaley.
Even though the last day of the festival was terribly windy, a nice crowd turned out to ask questions of these two YA authors and listen to them read. I loved hearing both authors talk about writing the story they needed to write—but by far, my favorite part of the panel was when young people asked questions during the Q&A and approached the authors after the talk. (One kid wondered if Where Things Come Back was inspired by a video game.) It's fun to hear from the people for whom the books are intended.
On Saturday morning of the festival, Nina Cardona--a reporter on Nashville Public Radio and host of All Things Considered--interviewed four authors at the Women's National Book Association breakfast at the Nashville Public Library. There was a stellar line-up: Ben Fountain (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), Christopher Tilghman (The Right-Hand Shore), Gail Tsukiyama (A Hundred Flowers) and Karen Thompson Walker (The Age of Miracles). Throughout the two-hour panel, Cardona (whose voice has accompanied much of my time in the car, as long I've lived in Nashville!) did a fabulous job distilling (and explaining) the four distinct stories and pulling out similarities. It was especially fascinating to hear the authors speak about getting to know their characters and taking on the beast of research.
The final session I went to at the festival, William Henry Chafe's talk about his book Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal, reminded me that some of the best experiences at a book festival are the unplanned moments. I walked into this session on a whim when I was on my way home on Sunday, and it turned out that Chafe's flight was delayed. So, the poor moderator--not to be deterred!--went ahead and gave his introduction without the author present. Turned out he'd attended Yale Law School with the Clintons, and he was able to give some insight into their time as law students. The moderator had certainly not planned to take questions from the audience about a book he didn't write, but this introduction added an unexpected personal touch to the proceedings. Then, about 20 minutes late and straight from the airport, Chafe burst into the room and blew us all away with a spirited account of the Clintons' relationship--and how you have to understand their personal lives to make sense of their political decisions. The audience was obviously enthralled, and it was an exciting way to end the weekend.
This is really only the tip of the iceberg of the fun I had at the festival. Moral of the story: Go hear authors speak in person! Author talks are entertaining and you'll no doubt learn something, too.
Have you been to any great author events lately?
Gillian Flynn—the genius behind Gone Girl—spoke at the Southern Festival of Books on Saturday, October 13. I knew there would be a large crowd with a lot of questions at the talk, and I was not disappointed.
Here are a few fun facts from Flynn's presentation:
• Flynn's dad was a film professor, which explains the author's love of pop culture—and dark stories. (He took her to see Alien when she was seven.)
• She wrote her first novel, Sharp Objects, while she was a writer for Entertainment Weekly. To separate her two lives—writing the book in secret and writing for work—she neglected to include any pop culture references in the novel. She also wrote the novel all over the world while she was on location covering movies.
• Flynn's first story, written in third grade, was called "To the Outhouse." It was a riff on Little House on the Prairie—in which a girl gets up to go to an outhouse in the middle of the night, and is promptly surrounded by wolves!
• The author originally wanted to be a crime reporter, but she discovered that she was too shy for the interviews. Instead she turned to TV writing and criticism. Her work as a journalist taught her to be an observant person and disciplined enough to write every day—good training for a novelist.
• Flynn and her husband are "coming up on" their five-year wedding anniversary. (Gone Girl starts on a couple's fifth-year anniversary, which sets in motion the mystery at the heart of the novel. Let's hope the author's is less eventful!).
• When Flynn was drafting Gone Girl, main character Amy's family's business was originally a dating service. The oh-so-perfect "Amazing Amy" idea only came later.
• Flynn is currently in the process of writing the screenplay of the movie version of Gone Girl, which will be produced by Reese Witherspoon. Flynn confirmed that there will be voice over in the movie (think Election or Fight Club).
• No surprise here, but attendees of the Southern Festival of Books were eager to get their books signed and personalized by Flynn. The photo above is but a segment of the very long line at the signing colonnade.
Have you read Gone Girl? If so, I'd definitely recommend you try to catch the superstar author on book tour.
The Southern Festival of Books starts tomorrow in Nashville, and readers: If you live anywhere near our city, I recommend you come for a visit because this year's festival is going to be truly awesome. There will be more than 200 authors present, and the lineup is so impressive I can't quite believe our good fortune.
First order of business: I will be talking to three authors as part of a BookPage live interview series. These interviews take place on the Chapter 16 Stage, which is close to the entrance of the Legislative Plaza and the book sales tent. I would love to meet any BookPage readers in person, and I know you'll enjoy hearing from these three talented authors. (There will be time for questions from the audience, too—it won't just be me yammering away the whole time!)
Friday, October 12, 3-4 PM
I'll be talking to Bellwether Prize-winner Naomi Benaron about Running the Rift, a gorgeously written and heartbreaking coming-of-age story about an aspiring Olympic runner, set during the Rwandan Genocide. (Hint: The paperback of this novel comes out next week and it would be a great pick for book clubs.)
Saturday, October 13, 1-2 PM
Come hear me talk to Inman Majors, the author of the makes-you-want-to-cry-it's-so-funny Love's Winning Plays, a satire about SEC football. (If you're football-shy, never fear: This is really a story about an unlikely friendship. Football lingo and scenes are minimal. And really, football fanatics and people who roll their eyes at the sport will find plenty to appreciate in this book.)
Sunday, October 14, 2-2:30 PM
I can't wait to chat with local thriller author J.T. Ellison, whose first book in a series starring Tennessee Medical Examiner Samantha Owens—A Deeper Darkness—kept me up until 2 a.m. on a work night. Book #2 comes out in November, so jump on board with the series as it's being written. (Scarpetta fans will love it.)
I'm also moderating a YA panel on Sunday:
Sunday, October 14, 12-1 PM
The theme of the panel is "Creating Our Own Realities: Young People Making Sense of Their World" and the authors are John Corey Whaley and Loretta Ellsworth.
Whaley's Where Things Come Back might just be the most acclaimed YA novel that was published in 2011: It won the 2012 Printz Award, the 2012 William C. Morris Debut Fiction Award and Whaley was the first-ever YA author to be selected as a "Top 5 Under 35 Author" by the National Book Foundation. I loved this book. It's a story about growing up in a small town, hope, an obsession with a bird (!) and so much more.
Ellsworth's novel, Unforgettable, is fascinating—it's definitely one of those "what if" kinds of stories that makes you think. The main character, Baxter, has a photographic memory and suffers from synesthesia. He also testified against his mother's ex-boyfriend who is now out of jail, so there is an element of suspense that keeps you turning pages.
Frankly, there are far too many must-see authors speaking at the festival to highlight everybody, but here are a few that we're especially excited about:
• You know Junot Díaz? That guy who just won a MacArthur "Genius" Grant and is a National Book Award Finalist and is a past winner of the Pulitzer Prize? Well, he's speaking on Saturday at 4 P.M. at War Memorial Auditorium.
• Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl is the breakaway hit of 2012. Everybody I know is reading it—people who devour suspense, people who typically don't read "genre" novels, people who aren't usually aware of contemporary fiction. I adored this chilling, completely unpredictable story of a marriage and a police investigation. Flynn is speaking on Saturday at 11 A.M. at War Memorial Auditorium.
• I've heard Ron Rash speak twice at past Southern Festivals, and he is wonderful—funny, interesting, entertaining. Go hear him speak on Saturday at 10 A.M. in Room 12 of the Legislative Plaza.
• As a reader of his own work, Adam Ross gives the best performances I've ever heard from an author (seriously). Claire Vaye Watkins' collection Battleborn is one of the most haunting and exciting debuts of the year. Adam Prince has recently been named one of the 20 best new writers by Narrative magazine. Hear all three of them together on Saturday at 3 P.M. in the Nashville Public Library Auditorium.
• Damien Echols, one of the "West Memphis Three" who served 18 years on death row (for murders he did not commit), will speak about his memoir, Life After Death, on Sunday at 1 P.M. in War Memorial Auditorium.
And friends: That is only the tip of the iceberg.
Other authors you can see live and in person: Chris Pavone, author of The Expats; Padgett Powell, author of You & Me; Jay Jennings, editor of Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany; Amy Franklin-Willis, author of The Lost Saints of Tennessee; Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia; Margot Livesey, author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy; Katherine Paterson, the former National Ambassador for Young People's Literature who is beloved for her novel Bridge to Terabithia; David Maraniss, author of Barack Obama: The Story; Dan Chaon, author of Stay Awake: Stories; Alice Randall, author of Ada's Rules: A Sexy, Skinny Novel; Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and the Unlikely Road to Manhood (and a contributor to The Atlantic); Sharon Creech, author of The Great Unexpected (and Walk Two Moons!); Courtney Miller Santo, author of The Roots of the Olive Tree; R.L Stine, author of GOOSEBUMPS(!!); Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk; Karen Thompson Walker, author of The Age of Miracles . . . and more!
Can you see why we're so excited?
Browse the Southern Festival of Books schedule; make a game plan for which sessions you're going to attend; and come prepared to ask questions and buy books. Visit the festival's mobile website to plan on the go.
Which events are you planning to attend? See you this weekend! (I'll be the dork carrying a stack of 15 autographed books.)
There was an illicit behind-the-scenes thrill to Ann Patchett's panel at the Southern Festival of Books. Billed as "A Conversation" between Patchett and her friend and fellow writer Edith Pearlman (whose short story collection is a finalist in this year's National Book Awards), watching two authors chat before a considerable crowd in the War Memorial Auditorium was a glimpse into the writer's world that stood out from the crowd of readings and panel discussions.
The talk focused on the differences between writing short stories and writing novels, although there were plenty of detours along the way. Both authors were comfortable on stage, and they managed to make their discussion (which they had planned out over dinner the night before) feel polished, but also lively and spontaneous. Patchett couldn't say enough good things about Pearlman's work, which she learned about while editing Best American Short Stories 2006. Pearlman was equally complimentary of Patchett's prowess, saying to the audience, when Patchett expressed doubt that she could make a love story seem fresh, "Oh, I think she could—don't you?"
Highlights included Pearlman's explanation of her desire to write short stories and only short stories, despite people asking her if she was "smart enough" or "man enough" to write a novel. "Writing short stories is the way I live; it is my main pleasure," she said. She writes about six stories a year and publishes about six stories a year "though they're not the same six stories!" She expressed appreciation for novels, saying that "so much can happen in a novel" and that she admires the form but can't work with it.
Patchett, on the other hand, said she wasn't "generous enough to be a short story writer," explaining that novelists only really needed one idea, whereas for a short story collection, you need as many ideas as you have stories. (A arguable but interesting claim.) Though Patchett, like other MFA grads, started out as a short story writer, once she started writing novels "it was as if I had stretched out," she said, explaining that going back to the format would be similar to moving from a small apartment into a house and then saying you had to move back to the apartment. Interestingly, Patchett doesn't feel the same way about essays. (She's currently working on a collection of them and writing them "feels like a vacation" because she doesn't have to make anything up.)
Like any good small business owner, Patchett couldn't pass up the chance to deliver an impassioned plea for supporting local stores (especially her soon-to-open bookstore, Parnassus Books). "Although I've never been on Facebook in my life, find us on Facebook, 'like' us on Facebook!" she laughed.
The festival may be over now, but I thought you'd enjoy reading about a few of my favorite moments from the weekend. Also, be sure to share your own experiences in the comments: Why do you like to go to book festivals? What's the most memorable author reading you've ever attended?
On Saturday, I was happy to meet Holly LeCraw, author of The Swimming Pool. I reviewed The Swimming Pool for BookPage's August debut roundup, and I suppose you would describe the story as a sexy literary thriller filled with lots of family drama—perfect for a winter weekend when you want to disappear for a few hours with a good read. I met LeCraw at the signing table and she couldn't have been nicer—and complimentary of BookPage!
A lucky break from my quest to talk with LeCraw was that I also got to meet Susanna Daniel, the author of Stiltsville, which was reviewed in BookPage's debut roundup, as well (and is now on my TBR list). The two authors spoke on a Saturday afternoon panel about "Plumbing the Depths (and Shallows) of Love" and had spots next to one another at the signing table.
Do you know you have a problem when you seek out an author twice in the span of a few months? Problem or not, I was glad I went to see Adam Ross read from Mr. Peanut (again), in part because Jim Ridley of the Nashville Scene gave a hilarious introduction in which he alleged that Ross does indeed hate women. (This is funny because the most common one-sentence description of Mr. Peanut seems to be "A novel about men who fantasize about killing their wives," although I suggest you read BookPage's review to get the bigger picture.) Ross read from the Sheppard section of the book, and though he said this was a section he hadn't yet read on the road—and that he read it at his wife's request—I was a bit disappointed that he didn't read from the point of view of another narrator. When I heard Ross at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville, he read from a similar passage.
The best part of this session was getting Ross's take on the Sam Sheppard case, which inspired a portion of his novel. I was interested to hear that he has never contacted any of his characters who are based on living people, like Susan Hayes. And no—he won't say whether he thinks Sheppard was guilty.
Another highlight was seeing my mom meet Ron Rash, whose most recent book is the short story collection Burning Bright. My mom had recently chosen Rash's Saints at the River for her book club to read and was eager to praise the story's setting and themes, which led to a great conversation in her group.
Although introducing Louis Sachar and hearing him read from The Cardturner was a major thrill, my favorite part about moderating his session was observing his interactions with fans. Teachers, grandmothers, elementary school kids, college students . . . I couldn't believe the range of people who showed up to get books—sometimes boxes of books—signed by their favorite author.
Meeting authors is definitely a perk of book festivals, but my true favorite thing is seeing so many passionate readers in one place—and loaded down with books. My first day at the festival, while waiting to have books signed by Audrey Niffenegger, I met a gentleman who couldn't wait to get his copy of The Time Traveler's Wife autographed. He was carrying a bag of hardbacks that must have weighed 50 pounds. On the top was Island Beneath the Sea, which I reviewed for BookPage in April. (He must have been carrying that one for fun, since Isabel Allende was not at the festival.) So, we had a nice chat about Allende while we stood in line. How much do you love bonding with strangers over books?
Book festivals take place year-round, all around the country. For example, the Texas Book Festival starts on Saturday—will any readers of The Book Case be there?
It is a gorgeous weekend at the Southern Festival of Books, and I couldn’t be more excited. I went for a few hours yesterday afternoon and had sightings of Ron Rash, Tasha Alexander, Andrew Grant—and Audrey Niffenegger!
A few BookPage staffers made the trip from our office to downtown Nashville to hear Niffenegger’s reading, and I have to admit that I felt like a total fangirl. The Time Traveler’s Wife is one of my all-time favorite novels, and though our staff was divided over Her Fearful Symmetry, I am firmly in the “like” camp.
Niffenegger was speaking about her graphic novel The Night Bookmobile, released September 1 from Abrams. Though I missed the actual reading portion of the session, I learned a few things in the Q&A that will be of interest to readers:
The author is thinking about opening a bookstore in Chicago called Artists Books. She’d stock all the books that “wouldn’t be in normal bookstores.” Niffenegger has never seen The Time Traveler’s Wife movie. The author’s next novel, Chinchilla Girl in Exile (see this blog post for more information), is about “how people treat you if you’re different.” When Neil Gaiman was working on The Graveyard Book he took Niffenegger’s tour at Highgate Cemetery.
I think of Niffenegger as a total rock star author, but she was nice as could be during the signing—and when I cornered her for a picture.
What author would make you feel like a groupie?
Stay tuned for more news from the Southern Festival of Books. . .
Here at BookPage we are getting very excited about this weekend's Southern Festival of Books, held right here in Nashville.
It would be impossible to see everyone at the SFoB, but I am going to do my best to hear:
If you can't make it, follow the action live on Twitter with the #SoFest hashtag. Visit The Book Case next week for a report on all the festivities.