In what’s become an annual tradition for me, I attended the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. This is the first year that the Festival was held over two days, instead of just one. I was joined by four friends from college: Kristin, accountant and fellow Festival faithful; Debbie, elementary school teacher; Elizabeth, special ed teacher; and Sara, drug rehab counselor. My roommate D., an ESL teacher, joined us late on Saturday. Co-workers Kim and Beth were around but I only made contact with them via texting.
The weekend was overcast and humid and the rain of the previous week had left large puddles on the dirt paths of the National Mall. Walking to and from tents required maneuvering around those puddles, as well as around strollers, adorable and dawdling toddlers, picture-takers, and your basic crowd traffic jams. Golf carts driven by Festival volunteers snuck up behind pedestrians, and on Sunday, I saw three mounted policeman guiding their horses in a mini-phalanx through the book fans.
We arrived after 10:30am on Saturday. We first saw young adult author Sarah Dessen. Although young adult novels are not my usual genre, I read her book Just Listen last year and enjoyed it. Dessen has been writing young adult books since the mid-1990’s and clearly loves her reader demographic: teens “are the most enthusiastic readers you can find”. My favorite anecdote that she shared involved the movie How to Deal starring Mandy Moore which was based on two of Dessen’s books. Dessen humorously described sitting at a convention where people were uninterested in her books until they put out the movie tie-in materials, which drew in people as into a vortex. The festival audience laughed to hear how the proceeds from the film adaptation are appreciated by the Dessen family, saying while in their home, “Thank you Mandy Moore for our refrigerator.” I’m curious to read This Lullaby, as it was the book that Dessen seemed most fond of.
I went with my friend Sara to see Gregory Maguire next. She had read Wicked and I am in the middle of reading it now. Neither of us have seen the musical. Maguire started the session by engagingly reading an excerpt from his forthcoming book, “Out of Oz” which will be the fourth and final book in the series. The book starts from the point of view of Dorothy who is on a trip to San Francisco with her aunt and uncle. Maguire later said we were the first audience to hear anything from “Out of Oz,” at which news the festival crowd audibly preened.
Maguire decided to write Wicked while living in London and seeing a newspaper compare Saddam Hussein to Hitler. This inspired a desire to write about evil. He wanted to write about Hitler but – he said – not knowing German, among other things – led him to settle on an iconic evil villain of his childhood: The Wicked Witch of the West. It was like he had a vision of Margaret Hamilton [the actress who played the Witch in the classic film] saying to him “You have blessings my child and you will write my story . . . or I’ll get you and your little dog too!”
While describing how his book turned into a musical by Stephen Schwartz, Maguire said something about the “moral need to take our time to decide who is good and who is bad.” This resonated with me, especially after my recent read of Dave Eggers’ book Zeitoun, which I’ll get more into when I review that book.
I also loved what Maguire said about how each one of us has at most “binocularity.” We need to tell each other what we see, to work toward multi-ocularity. In response to a question about interpreting parallels in his books, Maguire said, “I put in a lot of questions, but answer them seldom . . . You ‘pass the test’ by deciding for yourself.”
On the prevalence of strong female characters in his books, Maguire said, “Well we all know that women are more interesting.” Acknowledging that his following statement was horribly generalizing of course, he said he was intrigued by the way women think in contingencies and hold ambiguities in their mind.
On his predilection for twisting fairytales: Maguire found the old fairytales to be porous, open for consider what’s in the gaps of them. “What I do never besmirches the original.”
On the inspiring nature of the musical, Maguire admitted that he sometimes sang “Defying Gravity” in the shower, when feeling down. He also described a touching encounter he witnessed between a Palestinian woman and Idina Menzel [who played Elphaba] after a show, where the woman said, “I’ve been in this country for seven years and never seen myself until now.”
There were other insightful and amusing things that Maguire said, and his was definitely one of my favorite sessions of the Festival this year. My friend Sara went up to ask a question but was the only one who they didn’t have time for, so Maguire told her he would answer her question after the session ended, which was very nice of him. My coworker Kim texted me to say that she really liked his talk and thought she might buy his books (she’d read Wicked before but not the rest of the series.)
After lunch, I slipped into the tent where Sarah Vowell was speaking. I have one of her books out from the library, Assassination Vacation, but haven’t read it yet. In her distinctive voice, she read from her book Unfamiliar Fishes and then opened up the session for questions. A Smithsonian employee asked her for input on museums. Vowell praised the design of the Smithsonian’s American Indian museum, such as how the visitor isn’t led around by text panels, and can choose whether to read more about the displayed artifacts as curiosity leads.
Vowell said she likes writing about the “dimmer corners” of American history; Unfamiliar Fishes is about the annexation of Hawaii. At one point in the session, Vowell said the story of America’s expansion is one of “communication and communicable diseases.”
On her transition from reporter to author of books on history: “I was terrible at interviewing people . . . I don’t like to pry.” Writing about dead people, Vowell pointed out, what are they doing to do?
Vowell mentioned her part-Cherokee heritage several times in the session. An audience member asked about Vowell’s feelings on Andrew Jackson [the president responsible for the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and thus the Trail of Tears.] Vowell memorably responded: “What are my feelings? You mean, like, I hate his f#&%ing guts? . . . I’m not really objective.”
I learned that Vowell is obsessed with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I will have to share this with my co-worker Kim, as that is her favorite book too.
On her young nephew Owen, who comes along for some of her research trips: On the one hand, he sees things she doesn’t; on the other hand, he is not much for the hiking and long walk portions of their trips. “I’d say he is sort of 50/50 as an asset,” Vowell concluded.
The last question, “what is your favorite kind of ice cream?” elicited the response, “Vanilla. It’s obviously the best one and I don’t see why we have to pretend otherwise.”
I loved Vowell’s deadpan snarkiness and look forward to reading a book by her.
I stopped briefly in the Poetry tent, but was not pulled in by the author there. The next author I saw was Laura Lippman, who writes Baltimore-set mysteries, many of whom feature reporter-turned-private investigator Tess Monaghan. I read the first book of the series, Baltimore Blues, not long ago and I think it’s definitely a series I will continue to read.
Lippman was wonderfully matter-of-fact about being an author. A former reporter, she is grateful for that experience as it taught her to be professional about writing, although she always wanted to be a novelist. Lippman said, with corresponding gestures, that she doesn’t like anything that puts the author “up here” and the reader “down there.” For her, a “book has as many lives as it has readers.”
As far as writing mysteries, people who know Lippman ask her how come she writes such dark material when she is such a nice person? She said frankly “I am a nice person because I have a nice life. When I look beyond [my life], I see a lot people have to be unhappy about.”
In a statement that encouraged me even more to read her books, Lippman told the audience that she writes for the person who has everything figured out by page 50. “I’m writing for them so they will want to see how the characters react to what the reader has already figured out.” I’m actually not a reader who figures out the mysteries right away, but I do like mysteries where characterization is the focus.
On writing books with a strong sense of place, Lippman recalled reading a critical essay which said “all mature writers move beyond regional literature” and thinking in astonishment “what?!” I couldn’t agree more as some of my favorite books are “regional” literature.
The last author I saw on Saturday was Isabel Wilkerson who wrote the award-winning The Warmth of Other Suns, about the migration of blacks to the North in the era of Jim Crow. I haven’t read her book yet, but am on the library waiting list.
Wilkerson worked for fifteen years on the book. “If this book was a person, it would be in high school and dating . . . which is kind of scary to think about.”
Wilkerson sees the story of The Warmth of Other Suns as a universal one, saying that all of us in that tent in D.C. had an ancestor who made a ‘leap of faith’ to leave the place of their birth. This “renews one’s faith in the power of the individual’s decision.” In fact, this perspective is why no photos of the book’s featured people are included. Wilkerson and her editor wanted readers to picture themselves, or their parents or their grandparents – whoever had to make a similar decision to pick up and go.
More specifically, she saw that the Great Migration of blacks to the North accelerated the arrival of the Civil Rights movement. By leaving the South, where everyone knew someone who had been lynched, these people were making a statement and freed themselves.
Not that the North was a land of milk and honey, she pointed out. The North needed cheap labor during World War I which is what precipitated the migration. And as Wilkerson said, “I found that the places that they go to often want the labor but don’t want the people.” Life was still very hard in the Northern cities, and failure was not an option, as their families back in South were depending on them to make it.
Someone asked Wilkerson if there was anything that she came across in her research that made her cry. She said that she sublimated her emotions in her mission to make this story come alive, although she found the risky drive of one character to the West Coast to be heartbreaking. Wilkerson pointed out that she came by the facts and stories in pieces over fifteen years, so a reader is more likely to be overwhelmed because he or she experiences the cumulative effect of the story in a more compact time frame.
The Warmth of Other Suns is a very large book, but I’ll be happy when I get my hands on it.
Gathering with my friends at the end of the festival, I heard reports of their experiences with other authors. My education-minded friends rhapsodized about children’s author Tomie dePaola. Someone remarked that Katherine Paterson seemed so wise. Responses were mixed on Sylvia Nasar (best known for writing the book A Beautiful Mind) – one friend found her too dry and the other was still curious to read a book by her.
Considering the length of this post and the waning hours of this day, I will write up the second day in a separate post.
In case you’re interested, check out my National Book Festival Author Slideshow which has all the authors that I saw from both days.