Virginia Festival of the Book

Enough of the politics and disaster blogging. Let’s write about someting exciting for a change–like writing.

Since Wednesday, Charlottesville has been hosting the 17th Annual Virginia Festival of the Book. It’s four and a half days of books and writers and panels about writing and publishing. Great stuff. (For a look at the events and history of the Festival, go towww.vabook.org.) The Festival covers all prose genres and poetry, and if you buy tickets in time you can listen to luncheon speakers like Kathy Reichs and Jim Lehrer. Apparently, you needed to buy those tickets last year because by the time I got to the Web site in early February, the events were sold out. I could only live vicariously through people I overheard talking about them in the hallways.

On Friday, I picked two panels to attend: Novels about Novelists and Worlds of Danger.

The Novels About Novelists panel was held at WriterHouse, whose mission is to “promote the creation and appreciation of literature and to encourage the development of writers of all levels by providing affordable, secure workspace and meeting space, high quality writing instruction, and literary events for the public.” (For more info on WriterHouse, go to www.writerhouse.org.)

The three authors and their books were Martha McFee (Dear Money),John McNally (After the Workshop), and Carolyn Parkhurst (The Nobodies Album).

McFee’s book is about a successful novelist who decides she needs to make more money and so decides to give up writing to be a bond trader. McFee herself described it as “an intersection of commerce and art with a focus on commerce over art.” An interesting premise to be sure, but I wasn’t that interested in reading about someone giving up art to become a money-grubbing capitalist. However, McFee read a portion from Dear Money that perfectly showcased society and media in New York City–it was a spot-on caricature of the “ladies who lunch” in present-day Manhattan. McFee explained that her protagonist does feel as if she’s betraying her art, almost as if she’s having an illicit affair. It allowed McFee to explore how it would feel to give up writing but not really do it.

In After the Workshop, McNally wrote about an aspiring writer who graduated from a prestigious writing workshop, only to stay in that city and work as the meeter/greeter who shepherds other writers around the city when they come to teach at the workshop. That much, McNally indicated, was autobiographical; however, with several books published he has no further relation to his protagonist. McNally read a passage describing his protagonist’s encounter with an agent–wildly comic but poignant at the same time. McNally described the writer in his novel as someone who continually questions his talent and everything else about his life. That one was a purchase for me, because I’m always questioning whether I can really do this (writing) or not.

Parkhurst’s topic in The Nobodies Album was the most intriguing–a successful novelist who decides to re-write the endings to all her published works while having a personal crisis with her son. Parkhurst described the draw on her creativity when she had to create two endings (original and revised) to several non-existent novels. She remarked that some people at readings don’t believe her when she says these novels don’t really exist–they want to know where to buy them! That one was a purchase as well.

In the discussion afterward, the moderator pointed out, in each book, the novelist-protagonist was not writing. Parkhurst replied, “That isn’t very exciting–a novel about a novelist writing!” What is interesting, she explained, is exploring what keeps us from writing. The moderator also pointed out that in writing about novelists who aren’t writing, there really is a lot about the craft of writing in the books.

Worlds of Danger featured authors whose books were about fear. Pearl Abraham (American Taliban), Carla Buckley (The Things that Keep Us Here),and Sheri Holman (Witches on the Road Tonight) called on different aspects of fear. Abraham described her novel as “how did we get from ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself’ to fear 24/7” after 9/11. Buckley’s idea came to her during the hype around the H5N1 possible pandemic a few years back. Holman’s book is basically about fearing your past.

Abraham’s book is loosely based on John Walker Lind, the so-called American Taliban captured by the CIA during the initial war in Afghanistan. Lind is now in prison for joining a terrorist organization but was almost put on trial for the murder of a CIA contractor even though he was nowhere near that event. Buckley, who is married to a scientist, came up with her novel concept after her previous nine mysteries had failed to get published. She and her husband had moved from a community where they were well-established to a new city where she had no friends or community support–at the height of the H5N1 crisis. In the midst of wondering what she would do to protect her children if the pandemic did happen, the idea for the novel came to her in a nightmare. Holman calls on folklore from the Appalachians and a former late-night horror movie show host to examine how our past creates fear for our present. The selections these authors chose to read convinced me to buy all three.

Book total on my day one at the Festival: five. Oh boy, here comes the trade-off–write or read?

Tomorrow’s post: Report on my Day Two at the Festival–the Book Fair and two more panels.

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