National Book Festival 2013

For easy reference, authors discussed in this post: Matthew Quick, Patrick Ness, Taylor Branch, Jeff Chu, Veronica Roth, Nicholson Baker, Alfredo Corchado, Fred Chao, Jonathan Hennessey.

The Library of Congress’ National Book Festival is held every year on the National Mall in Washington D.C. My friend Kristin and I figured out that we have gone to the Festival nine times, including this year. (This is more of a feat for Kristin who has been living in Charlotte, N.C. for a number of years).

It’s been reported that the Festival may not be held on the Mall next year because of a new irrigation system that will be installed on the Mall. I really hope that they figure out a way to keep the Festival on the Mall, because it really wouldn’t be the same in, say, a convention center. I love the freedom of the tent space, even with the crowds at the more popular authors’ tents. As far as weather, I’ve put up with heat and rain (and this year there was rain) and it’s been worth it. I love hearing authors talk books. I love being around other people who love books.


I took a lot of notes this year, but definitely don’t feel compelled to read everything below. I bolded the authors’ names so that you can skim for the authors of interest to you. I tried to include the most interesting quotes and tidbits from the talks.

On Saturday, I arrived at the Teens & Children tent in time to hear Matthew Quick (author of The Silver Linings Playbook) in the middle of telling an amusing story about his trip to France and the inspiration for his new book Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. I was too late to fully appreciate his story, but I liked what he said in the Q&A about encouraging boys to write and about giving boys “permission” to have emotion.

Next up was Patrick Ness. I had just recently read The Knife of Never Letting Go, so Ness was definitely a must-see. He had a joking manner from the start of his talk. The person who introduced him mentioned that Ness was born in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, a town known in this area more as a place to work than as a place to live. After a slight pause, there was a smallish cheer from some of the Northern Virginia residents in the audience, including me. Ness: “Right, like you’re all from Ft. Belvoir.”

Ness’ presentation, like that of other authors at the festival, took the form of an interview. When his interviewer asked, “Do you get upset at [sad event from one of his books]?” Ness said, yes and that “if it doesn’t affect me, how arrogant for me to assume it will affect you.” He also defended the dark tone of his books saying that “what teenagers write is way darker, way bleaker than what I write” and also that “if you don’t write about what’s dark, you’re abandoning teenagers to face it by themselves and that’s the immoral position.”

Other Patrick Ness tidbits:

– Part of his inspiration behind the thoughts of Manchee, the dog in Knife of Never Letting Go, came from his cat. Ness owned a cat who was completely silent, except when it went to use the litter box. Then it would meow while heading to the box, while in the box, and then as it was leaving the box: “Here’s my poo!”

– On the character of Viola, from his Chaos Walking trilogy: “If I see another heroine called feisty, I’ll eat my hair . . . It wasn’t about making her strong, but making her true, like the teenage girls I know.”

– Not having closely followed reviews of A Monster Calls, I didn’t realize that it was based off another author’s idea, the late Siobhan Dowd. Ness is currently working on a screenplay for it.

– There will not be a fourth book to the Chaos Walking trilogy. Ness: “I like stories that are finished.” Audience: *applause*. Person in the back: “Thank you!”

After a quick lunch, I slipped into the fairly crowded History & Biography tent to hear Taylor Branch, author of the award-winning trilogy, America in the King Years. (The first book, Parting the Waters, won him the Pulitzer Prize for History). The audience was very engaged with his speech, as he passionately talked about civil rights, current politics, and the importance of history education.

– Branch was definitely not shy of being provocative – the following is as exact a quote as I could capture as my pen started to die: “The greatest unexamined question is: to what degree are the foundational underpinnings of our current partisan deadlock racial?”

– Quote I really liked, regarding the current political deadlock: “We need to get out of the notion that the only hope we have is for the other side to drop dead.”

– After Branch made a case for civil rights education, the audience rose in a standing ovation. Branch: “Thanks, that’s very kind . . . though I was trying to mix some scolding with the inspiration.”

After Branch’s Q&A, I switched tents to hear Jeff Chu, author of the book Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America. I was halfway through reading the book at the time of the festival (just finished it today). The book is part memoir, but also includes Chu’s interviews with people as varied as a young closeted gay man in Arizona; Justin Lee, the founder of the Gay Christian Network; and the patriarch in charge of the Westboro Baptist Church (the church that pickets funerals, churches, etc with anti-homosexual signs). As Chu described it, his book is about the “messy intersection of faith and sexuality”.

Chu started off with some great words about journalism: “The goal is not to be objective but fair; not neutral, but biased toward truth.”

Chu read an excerpt from his book, the part where he interviewed the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church. Then he also threw in a funny story not from the book, about the time when he took some of that church’s members out for dim sum while they were in New York. Chu said he felt “convicted to show grace to the people of Westboro Baptist Church.”

Before transitioning into the Q&A portion, Chu told a story about his mom, who took it hard when he came out as gay. Recently, she came to his apartment in New York and cooked a meal for Jeff, his husband Tristan, and eleven friends. She made 13 meals, one for each person. She also gave Tristan a pair of antique ivory chopsticks – every person in Chu’s family has their own pair. Chu broke down a bit in recounting this story, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only audience member who started circumspectly wiping their eyes.

A couple of take-aways from the Q&A:

– Regarding the response to his book: Chu wasn’t surprised by the reaction of conservative evangelicals, as he grew up in that environment, and knew what to expect. He said that he’s been taken aback by atheists’ response mostly.

– Regarding journalistic coverage of religion: Chu acknowledged that what you’ve heard about the “liberal media elite” is true, including himself as part of that group. He said that religion is not well-covered by journalism, and that it’s undercovered unless it’s in a polarized way – that is, in a way that neatly fits into the liberal vs. conservative narrative.

Book-Signing Interlude

After listening to Chu, I hustled myself over to the book-signing area to wait in line for Taylor Branch’s autograph. I normally care little about getting autographs, but some friends of mine had lent me Branch’s first book in the trilogy and I was getting the signature for them. I chatted with another book fan from St. Cloud, Minnesota, who recommended the Janet Evanovich series; she grew up in Trenton, New Jersey and found delight in the local details from that series.

After getting the book signed by Taylor Branch, who was friendly but necessarily brief – and breaking my Book Festival tote bag while placing the large tome back in the bag – I skittered back to the tents just in time to get cover from the rain.

It was still raining when I headed over to the tent where Veronica Roth was to speak. I was curious to hear her and also curious to see how fever-pitched her fandom would be. The tent was unsurprisingly overflowing with people. My friend and I barely managed to get under the tent canopy. The fandom was very excited to be there, cheering enthusiastically and shouting things to Veronica. There was a whole section of girls just to the right of the platform who spent almost the entire time holding up their smartphones toward the author. A few people around us, perhaps disgruntled by being in the fringe, said things like “All I really wanted was for my book to be autographed” or “I just want to get a photo of her, and then we can go.”

Even from far away, Veronica Roth came off as friendly, approachable and quite young (she’s 25). She wrote Divergent while she was a senior in college. A few interesting quotes/tidbits:

– Roth observed that when people say that a female character is strong, it’s really shorthand for “character that we like that’s a girl.”

– The third book, Allegiant, will have dual narration from both Tris and Tobias/Four.

– The idea of the world in Divergent started first with Roth’s idea of the Dauntless. The rest of the factions were created as part of what Roth thought as a utopia. However, in the process of writing Divergent, Roth realized “my utopia sucks!” and that’s where the idea for the faction conflicts came from.

I left during Roth’s Q&A and sought out a seat at the next tent over, to listen to Nicholson Baker. I’ve never read his books, but his name was familiar – I think I’ve seen his book The Anthologist around. While waiting for Baker to speak, I overheard two people greeting each other, and talking about how the one had found out about Baker’s appearance through the other’s tweet. Later, through some quick research on Twitter, I identified the two people as Susan Garfinkel, a researcher specialist in the Digital Reference section of the Library of Congress and Dan Waber, who made this cool thing. D.C. is so nerdy. 🙂

I learned from the introduction that Nicholson Baker has written some dirty books, and one of these, “Vox”, was given by Monica Lewinsky to Bill Clinton. Baker: “I had a sincere desire to write really dirty scenes . . .  Some think of graphic scenes and write it down; others think of it and don’t write it down.”

Baker has a strong interest in preservation, particularly the preservation of old newspapers. He said that he isn’t opposed to e-books, but he is arguing against taking a picture of a book or newspaper and treating the original as disposable.

Someone in the Q&A asked Baker about his recent appearance on the Colbert Report. Baker said he was “still raw” from that experience. He said he doesn’t remember much after arriving on the stage, and that he couldn’t tell if he was thrilled or in a personal hell. He added that he would do it again. My friend and I of course looked up the interview that night and thought that Baker actually handled himself quite well, despite how he may feel about it.

I’m not sure that Baker is totally my style of writer as his books feature a lot of stream-of-consciousness passages, but the interviewer said he liked The Everlasting Story of Nory, so I may try that someday.

On Sunday, Day 2 of the Festival, I first sought out a couple of friends who were volunteering. Kim was swamped at an information booth, rolling up posters and handing out free tote bags. Katie was ushering at the History & Biography tent. They both mentioned an earlier frenzy of people looking for the Giada De Laurentiis book-signing.  After chatting with Katie, I went to see Alfredo Corchado, Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, who wrote a nonfiction book, Midnight in Mexico. [Sidenote: while waiting for him to speak, I overheard a woman telling her friend about Manil Suri, whose presentation she had just seen. Add him to a growing list of Indian and Indian diaspora authors I still need to read.]


Corchado was interviewed by Hannah Allam, another journalist. (Both were 2008-09 Nieman Fellows at Harvard.) When Corchado began working for the Mexican news bureau, he promised his parents that he wouldn’t cover drug trafficking. But when the bureau went from twelve people to one, he no longer could choose what he covered. In July 2007, while in Mexico City, Corchado received a call from a source who told him that he was on a hit list. Though stunned, Corchado didn’t flee right away, but he also didn’t have a death wish and eventually returned to the States for a time.

Corchado described his book as being, in some says, an argument between mother and son. His mother would say, “Mexico is our burden, our destiny, not my children’s.” But Corchado wanted to prove his parents wrong about how bad Mexico was.

In writing Midnight in Mexico, Corchado said he struggled with “how to tell the ugly side, while having the instinct to protect home.”

The title of the book is about believing in a new day. Corchado told a story about the parents of the teenagers killed in a birthday massacre. Instead of taking the opportunity to seek political asylum, the parents stayed to “try to build community with the blood of their own children.”

I just picked up this book from the library today, and am looking forward to reading it.

After Corchado, I met up with my friend Kristin and my other friend Darcy at the Sci-Fi & Graphic Novels tent. The night before, Kristin and I had each bought a graphic novel at Barnes & Noble. I bought Fred Chao’s Johnny Hiro: Half Asian, All Hero. She bought Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell’s The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation. I read all of Johnny Hiro that night.

IMG_9828Fred Chao talked about moving from Taiwan to San Francisco as a child, hiding out in the library and reading Popeye comics. In high school he took drama class and felt he had found a community of friends. Post-high school, he wrote quite a bit, but lost all of his writing when his laptop was stolen. So then he turned to drawing. He said Johnny Hiro was a reaction to the comic books he read while growing up; he wanted to write/draw a graphic novel that was something in the middle of everyday and high-action.

Chao added some personal news to the end of his talk: he was recently diagnosed with epilepsy, and the medications he has to take work against his focus. So he’s having to change his approach to graphic novels. He can’t bring all the organic layers he was planning to create for Johnny and Mayumi and the other characters of the Johnny Hiro universe.

Jonathan Hennessey, whose most recent graphic novel adaptation takes on the Gettysburg Address, thanked the audience for their support of this boutique genre: the nonfiction graphic novel. He then gave a very interesting argument for how the seeds for the American Civil War began in 1776. He argued convincingly that the founding documents, The Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution, are actually in conflict with each other. Crucially, they were/are in conflict over the issues of slavery, government power, rebellion and sovereignty.

The Q&A for Hennessey was going strong when I left to get my graphic novel signed by Fred Chao. As I said earlier, I usually don’t try for autographs, but with the lighter Sunday crowd, I thought, why not? And indeed, the line wasn’t as long as Taylor Branch’s, which mean Chao could spend quality time with each fan. He was super-friendly with everyone. I admitted to him that I was a very recent fan, having read his novel the night before. He asked who else I had seen, and I mentioned Hennessey. And it turned out that Chao and Hennessey had hung out after the Festival’s authors’ gala until the building closed. Chao joked that perhaps he could now claim that he closed the Library of Congress. And then he drew a picture in the inside of my book, the cuteness of which guaranteed that I walked away smiling.


And that was the end of this year’s Festival experience. After watching a MST3K episode (“Time Chasers”) later that night, Kristin and I swapped graphic novels and she read Johnny Hiro and I read the first chapter of the United States Constitution, which was really good. And thus as it was ever so, new books were discovered, read and enjoyed.


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4 responses to “National Book Festival 2013

  1. Sounds like a wonderful festival 🙂 Much of your Patrick Ness recap was familiar to me from other times I’ve seen him, but I didn’t know about the cat!

  2. Sounds amazing! Can I recommend The Anthologist if you’re only reading one thing by Nicholson Baker? I really enjoyed The Anthologist, and I haven’t been crazy about anything else he’s written. There are sometimes overtones of maybe not exactly misogyny but just, there are overtones. That I don’t care for.

    Patrick Ness, as always, sounds great. He seems like such a cool and awesome guy.

  3. Ana – yeah, I imagine that many of the authors get asked the same questions or anticipate the same questions, so that it’s not all new everytime they give a talk. The cat anecdote was great. He said b/c the cat was like that, it made him wonder what it was thinking or trying to say.

    Jenny – Thanks for the rec! The description of the Anthologist sounded kind of boring, to be honest, but it is the one I’d heard about before going to the Festival, so if I want to give Baker a fair shake, it should be that one. But yeah, some of the racier books sounded like they’d have overtones that I’d just not enjoy.

  4. Thanks for describing your day. it was fun.

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