Booker Prize-winner author Margaret Atwood was the keynote speaker at Belmont University's Ninth Annual Humanities Symposium on October 27. Karen Trotter Elley, BookPage Production Designer, attended Atwood's talk. Below, she describes the memorable evening (Atwood sang!)—and provides some writing tips from the prolific author.
On Wednesday, I sat in a pew in the Belmont Heights Baptist Church patiently waiting for a talk by acclaimed author Margaret Atwood. In the row in front of me, a young woman squirmed in her seat, giddy with delight.
“I just love her,” she confided. “I never thought I would actually have the opportunity to see Atwood in person. This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me!” The young lady I assumed couldn’t possibly be over 18 years of age turned out to be a writing teacher at Belmont University, and she had just checked an item off her bucket list.
Then the highly anticipated event of the evening began as Sue Trout, professor of English at Belmont and an organizer of the symposium, came out to make her opening remarks. Trout stated that the evening was “one of those shining moments in life.” Chalk up another one for her bucket list.
According to the Symposium’s program, Atwood (author of 40 books) is a giant of modern literature, “a rare writer whose work is adored by the public, acclaimed by the critics and studied on university campuses around the world.” She is perhaps best known as the Booker Prize-winning author of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin.
When Atwood finally stepped up to the podium, she had a surprise for us. She listened to the Grand Ole Opry every weekend growing up in Canada, and one of her dreams was to someday sing to an audience in Nashville, TN. Since Belmont University is smack dab in the heart of Music City, she begged our indulgence. In a sweet voice with an authentic sounding accent, the sophisticated, world renowned writer delivered a more than adequate rendition of a verse from an old Hank Williams tune, “Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do.” The crowd went wild and one more bucket list item bit the dust.
After that, Atwood charmed us with her warmth, wit and wisdom as she made wry observations about writing and life. Her selected readings from her latest novel, The Year of the Flood (2009), introduced a future world where much of human life has been obliterated. Two women remain: Toby, a former God’s Gardener (a religion devoted to the melding of science, religion and nature) barricaded inside a luxurious spa, and Ren, a trapeze artist, locked away in a high-class sex club with a really good dental plan and the cleanest dirty girls in town. Adam One, the kindly leader of God’s Gardeners, is still around. But how many others have survived and in what form? Atwood wasn’t telling so I guess we’re going to have to read the book to find out.
To put a capper on the evening, there was an extended Q&A with Atwood followed by a book signing. It was a great night for readers, writers and bucket lists.
• In order to minimize confusion on the part of the reader, Atwood advises writers to use character names that begin with different letters of the alphabet or at least give them a different hair color. For example, Betty is a blonde and Barbara has dark brown hair.
• When writing about several different people, Atwood stresses that it’s important to keep their timelines straight. She suggests creating a chart with the years across the top and the months down the side. Be sure to put the characters’ birthdates in so you’ll automatically be able to determine the actual age of characters as time passes in your story.
• Check the world events against the birthday to determine what was going on at different ages in their lives. One example she gave was the invention of pantyhose, without which mini-skirts might never have existed. Another example cited was the color of appliances, carpeting, etc. used in homes at that time. Some folks still vividly recall the period in the ’70s when avocado green, orange and brown were all the rage in home décor. It’s important to get the details right, she says, or someone will write you a "yah, yah, yah letter," as she calls it.
• During the revision process, Atwood says you may need to cut what you may feel is a fabulous piece of writing. She advises writers not to throw those pieces away. “Put those cuts in a drawer. That deleted piece might fit perfectly in another writing project somewhere later down the line.”
What is your favorite book by Margaret Atwood?
I had to double check my calendar when I started seeing posts pop up on blogs (like from author Jackson Pearce or literary agent Nathan Bransford) about NaNoWriMo. But then I realized . . . Yep! November really is less than two weeks away. And if you're going to spend the month pounding out a 50,000 word novel it's not a bad idea to start psyching yourself up.
NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Last year, 167,150 people officially participated in the writing frenzy, and 32,178 of them were winners. (You're a winner if you complete the 50,000 words.)
The NaNoWriMo website has an amusing "why" section—as in why would you write nearly 2,000 words a day for a month:
Why: The reasons are endless! To actively participate in one of our era's most enchanting art forms! To write without having to obsess over quality. To be able to make obscure references to passages from our novels at parties. To be able to mock real novelists who dawdle on and on, taking far longer than 30 days to produce their work. [Ed note: Take that Jonathan Franzen!]
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.
Happy Banned Books Week! Since 1982, the American Library Association has celebrated our freedom to read by calling attention to the books that are most frequently banned in the United States. This year's BBW runs from September 25-October 2.
Here's a bit more on the purpose of BBW, from the ALA website:
Intellectual freedom—the freedom to access information and express ideas, even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular—provides the foundation for Banned Books Week. BBW stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints for all who wish to read and access them.
See this list for BBW library events around the country.
Also, Judy Blume—a personal favorite author of mine, and no stranger to censorship—maintains a great website on why books are challenged and why it's important to speak up for intellectual freedom.
Have any of your favorite books been challenged? (Hello, Harry Potter!)
Today is the 7th annual National Punctuation Day.
According to a column in the Seattle Times, the day was founded in 2004 as "a celebration of the lowly comma, correctly used quotation marks, and other proper uses of periods, semicolons, and the ever-mysterious ellipsis."
How are you going to celebrate? By pointing out grammatical errors on street signs? Revisiting ole Strunk & White? How about reading what is surely the liveliest book on punctuation published in recent years, Lynne Tuss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves?
When this book came out in the United States in 2004, BookPage editor Lynn Green described it as "funny and self-deprecating but always serious" about encouraging the proper use of punctuation. "Truss is a stern commander in the war on careless writing. Weary editors, schoolteachers and fellow sticklers everywhere will wish her victory in this much-needed battle."
I would also recommend you read The New Yorker's less glowing (but amusing) review, which points out Truss's punctuation mistakes and includes the line: " 'I am not a grammarian,' Truss says. No quarrel there."
Also, read this blog post (I linked to it a few months back) about writing a love letter to your favorite punctuation mark.
What is your favorite punctuation mark?
If you're into teen books—especially paranormal teen books starring tough girls (written by smart chicks)—then you will not want to miss this event.
Author tours are usually organized by the publisher. All we have to do is show up, which is great, but we started thinking maybe we'd like to try something different. Organize our own tour, just the way we want it. Pick the cities. Pick the authors. Organize the events. So, in Sept 2010, we'll do just that.
Tonight they're in Jackson, MS, at Lemuria Books. Later in the month, they'll also be in Arizona, California, Illinois, Ohio and Ontario.
Is anyone going to check out the tour?
Also: What's the most memorable book tour event you've ever attended?
Our clips from the event will crack you up—and remind you of why it's so much fun to get excited about a book.
Davis-Kidd's Mockingjay party had lots of appropriate programming, such as raiding a Cornucopia filled with snacks, Hunger Games buttons and fake bows-and-arrows that would make Katniss proud:
We formed an alliance (in Hunger Games parlance) with 9-year-old Darby to compete in a trivia match. Surprise, surprise. . . Darby knew way more answers than we did:
Watch more videos from the party on BookPage's YouTube channel. If you live in Nashville, check out Davis-Kidd's packed events calendar. September authors include Meghan McCain, Chelsea Handler and Rosanne Cash!
Did any readers of The Book Case go to a Mockingjay release party last week? We'd love to hear about it!
Maragaret Peterson Haddix's Into the Gauntlet—the 10th book in the 39 Clues series—goes on sale tomorrow. If you are a fan of the series, you will not want to miss Scholastic's "Inside Access to The 39 Clues" event.
For the past few weeks, readers have been able to submit and vote for questions about the series, and at 4 p.m. EST tomorrow, each of the 39 Clues authors will give their answers in a live webcast. (Authors include Rick Riordan, Gordon Korman, Peter Lerangis, Jude Watson, Patrick Carman, Linda Sue Park and Margaret Peterson Haddix.)
Never heard of this popular adventure series for tweens? Read our review of Book One: The Maze of Bones.