On Saturday, I attended the wonderful National Book Festival, held on the National Mall in D.C. It was the 10th year for the Book Festival and the 6th time I have attended. My college friend K. has attended it with me every time, so it’s a tradition with us. Sometimes we are joined by other college friends. This year and last year, my friend and roommate D. came with us.
Usually I try to read books from participating authors in the weeks prior to the event. K. always does that, but I decided not to this year, in favor of books I planned to read for blog challenges. I look at the Festival as not only an opportunity for seeing authors whose books I’ve read, but also as an opportunity for discovering new authors and – especially in the case of non-fiction authors – hearing about interesting and diverse subjects.
As K. had read quite a few books from the participating authors, she had some authors of definite interest and I went along with her. My event round-up is below. I will refer sometimes to the tent names, so let me explain that briefly: the tents were loosely named after the genres of the participating authors, e.g. Fiction & Mystery, History & Biography.
We arrived at the Mall at 10:30, the Festival having begun a half-hour before. D. has studied abroad in Chile, so she camped out at the Isabel Allende talk right away. The one book I’ve read by Allende – Daughter of Fortune – I didn’t like. The tent (Fiction & Mystery) was crowded, barely enough room even for standing audience members and K. and I went off to find seats in the Contemporary Life tent. Ree Drummond was the speaker there. I am aware of her blog, The Pioneer Woman, and have read the beginning of her series of posts about first meeting Marlboro Man (her husband.) She fielded questions about blogging from the audience, which I thought was a cool start to my day, considering I am now a blogger.
We rejoined D. and the three of us returned to the Fiction & Mystery tent to see Elizabeth Kostova. I really enjoyed Kostova’s vampire tale chunkster, The Historian, especially her descriptions of places and eras. Kostova preferred to direct her talk based on questions from the audience, rather than wait until the last five to ten minutes as most authors did. Asked about the upcoming film adaptation of The Historian, Kostova expressed confidence in the studio (Sony’s Red Wagon Productions), citing their stated vision for the film: “terrifying and beautiful.” Another audience member asked her about the nested journal structure of The Historian and Kostova credited Victorian novels as her inspiration.
Kostova talked some about the writing process of both her books. Years ago, she asked a friend what chapter she was on in writing her book and the friend replied unconcerned, “I don’t know.” Kostova said, to the amusement of the audience, that she didn’t know you could write that way! She had written The Historian from beginning to end, pretty much the order in which it was published. So with The Swan Thieves, her second book, her day’s writing was determined by whatever voice felt the strongest. Kostova joked that one nice thing about writing The Swan Thieves was that no one asks her if she believes Impressionists are real.
Kostova spoke of a childhood steeped in books and story. Her grandmother read aloud all of Austen’s novels to Kostova before she was 16. Her father told her Dracula stories based on the vampire movies he’d seen as a kid. Kostova raises her own children on story. At bedtime they excitedly say to each other “Get your pajamas on, it’s time for Greek myths!”
Asked about her favorite place to travel, Kostova said that Bulgaria was a close to her heart. She went on to describe her foundation to support Bulgarian writers.
One of the last questions was a request for Kostova’s opinion on the current vampire craze. She said that it was nothing new: “vampires live up to their reputation of never dying.” She said that there was a surge of vampire stories in the 1950’s. Kostova remarked that it speaks to the power of myth and elaborated that the not-quite-human nature of the vampire is intriguing to us, more interesting to us than say, the blob, as far as monsters go.
After listening to Kostova’s talk, the three of us took a break from the Festival to get lunch and wander around in the National Gallery of Art.
Back at Fiction & Mystery, after the Ken Follett crowd had departed, we settled in some chairs to listen to Olga Grushin, author of The Dream Life of Sukhanov (which K. had read) and The Line. Grushin always knew she wanted to write books, but would never have predicted that she would write them in English. As a child, she would write stories which her father would type up and bind into books. These books would be presented to her mother as gifts. Grushin came to the United States to study at Emory University. To learn English well enough to write books, Grushin briefly tried Nabokov’s method of reading the dictionary straight through. In the middle of the C’s, she gave up. She joked that if any scholars were to analyze her writing, they might notice a concentration of obscure English words in the A’s and B’s. Grushin explained how she tries to fuse Russian intonations and thought processes with the English language in her books.
Anchee Min is the author of Red Azalea, The Last Empress, and Pearl of China, among others. I haven’t read her books yet but have been interested in them for a while. Min was breathless as she started to talk, her excitement to be there clearly evident. She talked at some length about her arrival to the United States and the parade of jobs she had before she became a published author. Min and her college-aged daughter read aloud dialogue from Empress Orchid and her daughter also read aloud from Min’s most recent book, Pearl of China, about the author Pearl Buck.
When Min was a child, she was instructed to denounce Pearl Buck, though she had never read any of Pearl Buck’s books. While on tour for one of her first books, a reader presented Anchee Min with The Good Earth as a gift. Min completed it on the flight home and broke down because she felt that finally someone had written about China’s peasants with admiration and humanity.
At the end of her talk, Anchee Min and her daughter performed a brief peasant opera, an opera that Pearl Buck had enjoyed.
James McGrath Morris writes books about American journalism history. Intrigued by his author description in the program, we slipped into the History & Biography tent to listen to him speak. Morris’ most recent book is Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print and Power about Joseph Pulitzer. Knowing very little about Pulitzer, I learned quite a bit just from the author’s talk. In a neat figure of speech, Morris compared Pulitzer’s sense of future trends to the way a surfer detects an oncoming wave. Morris talked about how Pulitzer’s reputation was irreversibly stained by his participation in ‘yellow journalism’ but then also described some of Pulitzer’s more laudable qualities. When Pulitzer came to New York, he turned his paper’s focus to denizens of the Lower East Side, giving a dignity to their stories but putting them to print.
K. had told us about Henry Petroski when we were reviewing the Festival schedule the night before, and how he had written a book about toothpicks. For the rest of the day, when we talked about what was next, we repeatedly referred to him as the Toothpick Guy. Petroski did not talk about toothpicks, but expounded on his most recent book theme: the relationship between science and engineering. The talk was mainly a defense of engineering, which he argues is not given enough attention in policy-making and research & development. This is not a topic I have given thought to, and while I found it a bit dry, it was still something new to me, and thus of value. Petroski definitely knows his field as was demonstrated by his able response to the audience questions, including a question about the collapse of the World Trade Center towers that smacked of conspiracy theory.
Another friend, C. had texted me before Petroski’s talk, letting us know she was at the Fiction & Mystery tent. We joined her there, catching the last half of Peter Straub‘s talk. Straub writes horror books, and has collaborated with Stephen King on a couple of books. An audience member said in her question that she could not tell which parts Straub had written and which parts were written by King. Straub said that King and he had tried to write like the other: King used references to Straub’s beloved jazz artists and Straub made rock and roll references, and so on. Peter Straub said that so far only Neil Gaiman has proven success in telling their passages apart.
As in the past, I left the festival with greater appreciation for authors whose work I had read, and a desire to track down the works of authors whose talks had entertained and intrigued me. Certainly, I want to read Anchee Min, whose enthusiasm marked her talk as one of my favorites of the day. And I may be able to squeeze in one of Peter Straub’s books for the RIP Challenge.
If you live in the D.C. Metro area, I highly recommend attending the National Book Festival if you can.
We took the Metro back, stopping at the U Street exit to pick up a cake at CakeLove. K. and I had heard about CakeLove from its founder, Warren Brown, when he spoke at the National Book Festival several years ago. (He has published a couple of cookbooks.) Here is the cake after we had eaten some slices. K. aptly observed it looked like Pac-Man.