This year’s epic (EPIC!) National Book Festival Coverage is brought to you by:
(lovely) photos: Mike Danko and Chris Svetlik
narrator / interviews: William
medieval combat / interviews / fairy dust: Cale
moderation of madness/”editing”/accosting strangers: Svetlana
pretty face: Amy
The National Book Fair is an annual tradition for the BYT crew, though, this time, as befits the stellar lineup of authors, we sent the pro-team rather than the rowdies (ignore the overlap). I know this decision caused considerable consternation among the readership. “What of the arrests and illegal detentions? What about asking inappropriate questions to proxies for no-shows? What about random photographs of hot, nerdy, librarians?” Friends, I assure you, we have none of this covered. But we did bring props in the form of a war hammer and a viking hat and 2 umbrellas, resulting in moments like this one:
The weather was cool, cloudy, threatening (eventually delivering) rain – portentous, in a word. I alighted from the Metro with not a little trepidation. I began to think of this whole exercise as a terrible, terrible idea and longed for the comfort of my bed. Still, I was assured a press pass and interviews of 15 minutes or more with George Pelecanos, Walter Mosley, John Irving, John Grisham, and – I kid you not – Judy Blume. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I called dibs on interviewing the one, the only, Judy Blume. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. THAT Judy Blume. Suck it, Charlie Rose, I win at life.
With our rendezvous made, photogs assembled, passes distributed, and schedule deliberated and agreed upon, we were ready. Two teams fanned out to meet the masses as we waited for our allotted interviews.
Before we even start describing how the day went, you need to know that this girl won the Festival for us:
We ran into her RIGHT OUTSIDE the Press tent and if we could have dedicate this whole post to her, we would have.
Sadly, we didn’t and this is how the rest of the day proceeded, according to William:
While Cale and the estimable lens-jockey Danko went off to terrorize the locals, lithe Svetlana, fashionable Chris, and, well, me, decided to try to get to the core reasons why people were here. Was it pure fan-fantasy, to meet the scribe behind the tome? Was it a desire by aspirants to rub fairy dust upon the mythical, yet-unpublished “great American novel” tucked under an arm? We would find out.
As the teams fanned out, we desperately sought photo ops – and, after a few false starts (“no photographs, please”), we managed to entertain ourselves quite well, organizing a series of japes using the various gewgaws brought by Cale and Amy. These proved useful time and again, and would serve us well in the serious interview portion of the day. Still, this being early days, our fires were bright, our eyes alight, and our appetite for foolhardy adventure unchecked. Naturally, we sought out the best and brightest among the attendees, asking them to smile, hit each other with Thor’s hammer, or otherwise entertain us in the interim before the big moment – MEETING JUDY BLUME.
We also decided to track down some answers to the burning questions of the afternoon, and, after a few failed efforts (it’s not a stereotype if you’re actually shy and nerdy and withdrawn, is it?),
we found Estelle Zatz, asking, why are you here? She replied brightly that it was her birthday (aw, bless!), and her son had flown her down from Massachusetts so that she could spend another year at the Festival. Favorite Book: “The Fountainhead”. Today’s target of opportunity: Jeannette Walls, author of “The Glass Castle.”
Next up, we found Matthew and Declan. They’re both 10 and hear to meet their hero, Rick Riordan. Matthew expounded upon the excellence of one particular book in Riordan’s oeuvre, “The Lightning Thief,” which is, according to Matthew, about the adventures of a young hero who must save the world in an ultimate battle torn from the pages of mythology. Cool. Declan’s favorite book is the final in the same series, titled, “The Last Olympian,” similarly filled with fun and excitement. Wahey!
No description of our day would be complete without the estimable Merrick Murdock, a 52-year-old film producer from the area and self-described “book nut.” She detailed her bibliophilia, dating back to 1964 classic “Harriet the Spy,” although it was really C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” that turned her into an addict (reading, presumably). She soon expanded her teen mind with Joan Didion, Herman Hesse, Truman Capote, and finally John Fowles oft-neglected masterwork, “The Magus.” Continuing, she decried the dearth of worthwhile product through the 1970s, which pushed her into the plot-boiling-waters of James Patterson and Michael Connelly, the latter of whom she hoped to approach about collaborating on a film version of one of his novels.
Barbara Donley and her son Patrick (aged 15) were there for John Grisham and Patterson, respectively. Two hours in a soggy line for Grisham did not dim her enthusiasm for a signature from the man, nor did Patrick seem at all disappointed in the long wait to have his favorite, MAX, autographed.
Of course, we always keep an eye out for fashion from our magisterial perch at BYT Towers, so when we saw Maximilian and Alexandra pushing little Felicity in matching bright pink, we could not help but stop. In spite of their shifting accent and seeming unwillingness to answer our questions, we discovered that they were down from New Haven, Connecticut on an unnamable errand. Still, Alexandra was as buzzing as her vibrantly-colored shirt about the possibility of meeting Nicholas Sparks, Grisham, and Judy Blume. Max was a bit more reticent, and expressed his admiration for Paul Kennedy (giving the game away – obviously, an agent of Bismarck or Metternich, perhaps on a mission to restore the principle of Westphalian sovereignty! Our eyes are upon you, Max!). Felicity is allegedly a big fan of Angelina Ballerina, but we were not buying that for one hot second, I can tell you. While Max was distracted by a man with a fedora, we made good our escape.
Finally, to alleviate our growing ennui (not yours, I’m afraid, there’s pages more of this to trudge through), we assaulted a group of teens. Daniel, aged 16, preferred Card’s “Enders’ Game,” while Jim, also 16, was amped to see Patterson. Tess and Lyla Gavagan (obviously pseudonyms), aged 15, were fans of Ellen Hopkins “Crank,” and Dr. Seuss’ the “Cat in the Hat,” respectively. Sure. I was not buying any of it. The agents of illiteracy, indecision, and indolence were upon us.
Naturally, we made for the Press Tent.
How better to cap this extraordinary day of traipsing through the fields of our National Mall, discussing the various stages of bibliophilia with the kind denizens of this country? First up in the tent – local hero George Pelecanos. This Washington, DC, native was well established as a favorite son before his stint writing episodes for perhaps the best ever show on television, The Wire. Oh the questions I had for him (thanks Fritz!). Favorite dive bars, inspirational episodes from his own life, life in the dangerous DC, when the Spy Museum was a row of porn shops and the best of the 930 Club was in a basement, when the Crow Bar was a ramshackle house on K Street – ah, so many questions! None of which I ever got to answer. He blew us off. BASTARD.
We used that wasted opportunity to act like complete jackasses in the media tent:
(John Irving sat there)
(Random monkey toy in tent)
(Svetlana pretending to be George Pelecanos in absentia of real George Pelecanos)
and then we spotted another go-cart full of writers en route. TIME FOR ACTION:
Paula Deen, author of a billion cook books, TV personality, restaurant owner, gravy queen, Cale’s fantasy woman
Whom we were told we had 2 minutes only with…
Paula Deen: Tell me what’s goin on ya’ll!
Cale: I’m gonna record you with this little device.
Cale: First of all Paula, you’ve brought so much joy to my life, particularly in the stomach region, I was wondering if we could get a little hug going.
We hug, she’s a great hugger. It’s like hugging a panda who is pregnant with a marshmallow sauce baby.
Paula: (whispers softly) Everybody needs a hug sometimes.
Cale: (regains composure) If you were stranded on a desert island, would you rather have a lifetime supply of butter or bacon?
Paula: (laughs) I can’t choose…
Cale: we don’t have much time here…
Paula: Well you know it would have to be bacon, cause I could chew bacon.
Cale: Good answer. Is the pig your favorite animal?
Paula: Might be… besides my dogs.
Cale: But you wouldn’t…
Paula: no, no, I wouldn’t eat my dogs.
Cale: One more question, is The Lady and Sons the greatest restaurant of all time?
Paula: Well, I think it’s pretty good honey… that’s where I choose to go. And Uncle Bubba’s. My brother and I have a seafood restaurant in Savannah.
Cale: Oh, I’ve been there.
Paula: You’ve been to Uncle Bubbas? Get out!
Cale: Well, one time Lady and Sons was full so they sent us there.
Paula: Did you have the chargrilled oysters?
Cale: I did, the appetizer.
Paula: They are out of this world.
Paula: Even people that don’t really like oysters…
Cale: like me
Paula: …like those.
Cale: Exactly. Thanx Paula, let’s get one pic with the warhammer.
Paula: What is this?
Cale: I don’t know, just hold it.
Cale then went for John Irving, living legend and author of such fine works as “The World According to Garp,” “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” and “The Cider House Rules.” Unfortunealty the interviewer line was long, so he tried to make friends with his BFF to try to get an in:
Cale: How do you know John?
John Irving’s BFF: We’ve been friends from prep school.
Cale: Is he actually a good wrestler or just a good coach?
JI’s BFF: Oh he’s very good.
Cale: Have you ever wrestled him?
JI’s BFF: No, I was on the lacrosse team.
Time again was short so Cale decided that in lieu of an interview, being irrelevant to our largely illiterate audience, he would dare to a wrestling match, one fall takes it all. Irving obliged, looking for the world like Kevin Keegan without the retinue of fawning Geordies. The results will not amaze you.
The tackle, which, “really did hurt” in 2 takes…
and by Mike:
Still waiting for the piece-de-resistance – JB – I (William) spied an opportunity to photograph Ken Burns and “National Parks: America’s Best Idea” collaborator Dayton Duncan. The two had worked together to create some of the best documentaries of American life, and I wanted their pictures in the story. I was shocked when Dayton invited me in the photo, and the three of us were able to chat about life on the road [biggest annoyance: people who lead with, “I bet you can’t remember where we met!”], sharing easy laughter and banter. Genuinely nice people who had no reason to be nice other than that I guess I was not nearly as annoying as the other thousand or so people who wanted to shake their hands.
Then, just as we were getting restless while awaiting JUDY! the (increasingly unnerved by our presence) PR Staff introduced us to
Rickey Minor, author of There’s No Traffic on the Extra Mile and music director on American Idol
Cale: So maybe you could give us a little… uh, song perhaps?
Rickey: I don’t sing.
Cale: Who cares?
Rickey: Ok, ok…
Cale: Do like an American Idol style song, with the dramatic vibrato or whatever.
Rickey: Let’s see… what’s an American Idol song?
Cale: I don’t know dude, I don’t watch that show.
Rickey: I don’t either. I got a life. (sings) I got a life
Cale: (sort of sings) he’s got a life
Rickey: I got a life
Cale: I say, he’s got a life. Ok, enough of that. Are you ever concerned that a song will be too obscure for the audience?
Rickey: I think so, there was Falling Slowly that Chris Allen did this year, it’s from a movie, nobody knew it, I didn’t know it. But it was such a great song I’m glad that he picked it, and it gave him a chance to personalize it and make it his own.
Cale: Is there anything personally that you’d like to see on the show that may not be marketable enough?
Rickey: Yeah, I’d like to see more funk on the show. Some Ohio Players, or a little Brick House.
Cale: Chuck Brown?
Rickey: Yeah, a little DC funk, a little Go Go. No Go Go represented! When is that Go Go week?
Cale: Ratings disaster.
Rickey: Yeah, that and polka. Hey, do I have to give this back? (holding up the war hammer)
Cale: Well, I was trying to get Paula Dean to hold it…
Rickey: What if I just run up there and pop her on the head with it?
Cale: I’m not gonna stop you.
Rickey: Lies! All lies Paula! (swings around war hammer like a maniac)
Cale: What are you doing here, did you write a book?
Rickey: I always wanted to come here.
Cale: Just to hang out?
Rickey: You know, I thought, book festival, in DC, in the rain. What could be more fun than that?
Cale: A lot of things actually.
Rickey: (laughs) that’s a long list. no, I always wanted to come so they told me I had to write a book to get invited. Either that or…
Cale: Bring a warhammer
Rickey:Yeah, bring a warhammer and they’ll let you do anything.
Cale: What are your thoughts on all the spin off shows?
Rickey: See, here’s the thing, I’ll spend anyone’s money. So I’m the director on America’s Got Talent and a lot of other reality shows and competition shows.
Cale: So you’re a whore.
Rickey: A highly paid whore. So yeah, those shows don’t bother me.
Cale: Which one is the Hoff on?
Rickey: Americas Got Talent. I played with him once. Baby you can drive my car with the Hoff. We had dancers and everything.
Rickey: He even asked if I wanted to go on the road with him and let me tell you… they’d have to print a lot of bucks.
Cale: Any scandalous behind the scenes gossip.
Cale: Just make something up.
Rickey:Paula Abdul was crying backstage…
Cale: Due to the Hoff?
Rickey: No, no, when contestants got booted, every week, she’d cry. I’m talking enough tears to fill a swimming pool. So much emotion. She may be crying right now.
Cale: So what you’re saying, is you’d like to swim in a pool of Paula Abdul’s tears?
Rickey: Yeah, I’d drown in her tears.
Cale: Excellent. So I’m gonna head off to sell that wonderful song you just sang for millions.
Rickey: (laughs) I like you guys.
Cale: We like us too!
Finally, finally – an expectant hush went over the crowd Judy was making her way to the stage. Scarcely believing my eyes, I made my way towards the stage. Mind you, this meant the “interview” we had planned was going to be some shouted questions, filtered by bald, splotchy, hyper- guy. NUTS. We were not deterred.
Judy’s first question was from a child, aw. The question was predictable (freakin’ children): What’s your favorite book? Judy cocked her head and stared into that child’s eyes like I thought she would bite her head off. Then she laughed and said, “Wait, I have a canned answer for that questions – I always say, my books are like my children and how could I possibly pick one? Some journos and young adults got some questions in before a helpful mother waved and said, wait, my child has a good question! And…you guessed it…What’s your favorite book? Judy made a noise like a game show buzzer and I was up next.
I was sweating, pale, clutching my war hammer and helmet to my chest, too afraid to approach her, too afraid to ask, as Cale had done so effortlessly, if she would hold the hammer, hit me, whatever.
William: “Um, well, you mentioned that you never wrote with an audience in mind, but are you mindful now that perhaps you can shape the messages that your books give to different audiences?” I had forgotten the central, most essential principle of the interview: keep it simple, stupid.
JB: She looked at me, annoyed, and rejoined, “how could I ever have guessed that anyone would read my books, ever? Much less think of some existential obligation I have to future readers? Heck, I’m amazed that anyone has ever read my books, much less that they would still be inviting me to events like this!”
William: Undeterred, I continued, “What gives you the strength to continue coming to events, such as this one?” Much better.
JB: She replied, “It’s thrilling to be asked to come out to events like this and talk about your books – in the beginning. At my age, it takes me away from the things I still want to write. I do love it, but I haven’t done anything like this in a really long time. I have been asked to come to the National Book Festival several times, but to tell you the truth, I just couldn’t’ come while Bush was in the White House. I am an Obama Chick, and I’m very excited that he is in the White House and that they invited me to come here again!”
So, no chance to commiserate about stealing “Are You There God,” from my elder sister’s bookshelf, how it warped my nascent sexuality and imprinted on me a sense of wonder about girls. No chance to talk about life and love and sex and death at all, really, what with us being knee-deep in rugrats at every turn. I stepped away from the stage, shaking, happy, breathless at my day. We made our way, triumphantly, to the pub to celebrate. I hope it was as enjoyable for you. As I re-read the above, it’s a cripplingly boring read. It didn’t feel that way at the time, though. Sometimes the written word cannot substitute for being there. Ah well.
AND NOW FOR THE PART WE like to call “Working the festival crowds”. No words are necessary if you carry a giant battle axe and a viking hat with you:
ok, a few more book festival profiles:
We met Kathy, who didn’t tell us her age, nor did she let us chat with her child, but instead volunteered her enthusiasm for the amusingly-named Mo Williems’ opus, “An Awful Bunny,” helpfully described as a children’s book on her daughter’s bookshelf. Wouldn’t have guessed.
The charming Ashley, aged 14, stole our hearts with her pretty smile and her (widely-shared) love of Judy Blume. We asked her for a question, and she replied immediately, “How did you become an author?” Great question, and one we would certainly ask.
Joe was next, and told us he was excited by the prospect of hearing the estimable Ken Burns speak – being, as we all are, a fan of his baseball, Civil War, and most recent National Parks pieces. He said his kids’ favorite book was “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” but he stuck with two themes – history and baseball – for his favorite book: “The Glory of Their Times,” by Lawrence Ritter.
Kayla, aged 12, told us Shanon Hale’s “The Goose Girl” helped her brave the storm, and, undissuaded by the enormous line, she came away with a signed edition. Lisa, her mom, said that Martin Zusack’s, “The Book Thief” was never far from her children’s nightstand, but that Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” was her all-time-favorite. I wasn’t certain, but I was pretty sure Austen was doing interviews later in the day – so we promised to pass on Lisa’s praise for her work. Turns out we were wrong, but if you’re reading this, keep at it, Jane!
SEE YOU NEXT YEAR