Showing posts with label book festivals. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book festivals. Show all posts

02 September 2017

A Summer Plot

Question: What do you call a gathering of writers? It can't be a school (that's taken), or a murder or a pride or a gaggle (also taken). Of all the suggestions of collective nouns I've seen, I prefer a plot. It has a nice ring to it, I think: a plot of writers. Not that it makes sense or anything--actually I just needed a good title for this column.

The gathering I'm referring to is one I attended two weeks ago, on Saturday, August 19: the third annual Mississippi Book Festival, held here in Jackson on the grounds of the State Capitol. A plot of several thousand writers (and readers) gathered there from nine a.m. until five p.m., in the blazing sun and stifling humidity of a southern summer, to attend author panels and signings and to buy books and--as our Baptist brethren like to say--to "fellowship." And fellowship we did, all day long and into the night, when our annual "literary lawn party" moved to another site several miles north.

The only official indication we have of this year's total crowd-size is the number of people who attended the forty-or-so panels held in several indoor and air-conditioned venues on and around the grounds, and I'm told that was around 6500--though there were certainly many other folks who came to the event and did not choose to attend a panel. As for me, I was stationed for most of the day at an outdoor and un-air-conditioned venue: the twelve-by-twelve-foot tent assigned to my publisher (Joe Lee, of Dogwood Press) and his four authors--Randy Pierce, Valerie Winn, Susan Cushman, and myself--along with stacks and boxes of our books. A couple of us played hooky long enough to participate in signings and panels throughout the day, but it was still a little crowded there. And really, really hot. But we saw a lot of old friends, met some new ones, and sold a few books as well.

My panel was one of the very last of the day, at four p.m., and although we four panelists and our moderator were sweaty and exhausted by then, so was our audience, so we all managed to get through the hour and have a good time. The panel, called "Voices of Home," was held in one of the rooms inside the Capitol, and--a quick plug, here--it's an impressive building, as are the grounds surrounding it. Especially this year, since we've had such a wet summer and everything is, for a change, as lush and green as a rainforest.

We who took part in the festival were extremely fortunate to have several nationally-known authors and publishers in attendance--Ron Rash, Greg Iles, Otto Penzler, Tom Franklin, Richard Ford, etc.--and even though Saturday's schedule was too hectic to allow much visiting, there were a couple of pre-event functions on Friday night that gave everybody time to get together and chat and catch up a bit. These were held at the home of Eudora Welty and at the historic Old Capitol Museum, and included panelists, sponsors, and guests.

I posted a similar SleuthSayers column at this same time last year, following our 2016 event, and I'll ask the same question again. Do you, as writers and readers, have annual local/regional book festivals like the one I've described? I know of several states that do. If so, have you attended or participated, and did you find it enjoyable? I think most of you will agree that getting together with others in the literary world, regardless of where or how, is usually fun for everyone. Even when the temperature and humidity are both well above ninety.

I asked Otto Penzler if he had expected it to be this hot down here. Gracious as always, he said, "Sure--I love the south." And then gulped about a gallon of water.

Excuse me while I go turn up the A/C.

03 September 2016

A Literary Lawn Party

Two weeks ago today, while my friend Elizabeth Zelvin was entertaining our loyal SleuthSayers readers far better in this timeslot than I could've, I was in the middle of another kind of literary endeavor. From 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on August 20, at the height of our summertime heat and humidity, I participated in what was billed as the state's biggest lawn party: the second annual Mississippi Book Festival, held on and around the grounds of the State Capitol Building in downtown Jackson. Also known as the state's Largest Gathering of Sweaty Writers and Readers.

A quick word of background. As some of you might know, Mississippi has more published writers per capita than any other state. In other words, you can't open your car door around here without bumping into another writer. (A lesser-known fact is that the Delta town of Greenville, Mississippi, has more published writers per capita than any other city in the nation--past and present examples include Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, Ellen Douglas, Hodding Carter, Beverly Lowry, William Alexander Percy, Jim Henson, and so on.) We might spit tobacco juice and talk like Forrest Gump and dodge alligators when we mow the back yard, but the ghosts of Faulkner and Welty will forever live in our libraries and bookstores.

My point is, there are a lot of writers here, and I think most of them--at least most of those who are alive and still pushing keys or pencils--came to the recent Book Fest. In fact we had plenty of authors from elsewhere as well. The number of attendees expected last year, at the first annual festival, was 1,000; more than 3,000 showed up, including John Grisham. This year, according to the official figures, some 6,200 people attended the many panels throughout the day, and several hundred more were outside and around the grounds. And, like last year, several attendees DFOed (in medical terms, they succumbed to the heat; in Southern terms, they "done fell out").

This time, more than 120 authors served on 30 different panels held in and around the Capitol Building (I was on the panel for the recently-released Mississippi Noir), and about 70 more were featured in an "Authors' Alley" venue, an area where self-published writers could display and sell their wares. Also on the grounds were tents for different publishers and bookstores here in the state--I was part of Dogwood Press's tent, along with our head honcho Joe Lee and fellow authors Randy Pierce and Valerie Winn. There were also additional activities for panelists, including a cocktail party at the Old Capitol Museum the night before, an authors' breakfast the morning of the festival, and an after-event celebration at a nearby restaurant/bar.

It was a long day, and as hot as Satan's pitchfork, but that surprised no one--this was, after all, mid-August in the Deep South. And I think everybody had a good time. I met a great many interesting people, renewed old friendships, sold and signed some books, guzzled a dozen bottles of water, and gave and received a lot of damp hugs. At the signing tent after my panel, I was fortunate enough to sit beside one of my longtime heroes, John Hart, who's written some of my favorite mystery/crime novels.

Now for my question. I've heard that a number of states have annual literary festivals like this--last year at Bouchercon I visited with a lady who was in the process of organizing a debut bookfest for Virginia. Have any of you gone to and/or participated in one of these, or something similar? Was it state-sponsored? Was it well attended? Did you find it worthwhile?

With this year's Bouchercon drawing ever nearer, our event the other day reminded me how much I enjoy this kind of gathering--being in the company of fellow writers and readers, and spending hours on end talking about nothing but stories and books and writing and the magic of fiction. And the great thing about B'con is that the focus is on mystery writing. What could be more fun than that?

I hope you'll be in New Orleans, I hope we'll be hurricane-free, and I hope it'll be drier and cooler than usual. And if it's not, I hope you won't DFO on Canal Street.

Either way, I'll see you there.

02 October 2015

Breaking Out Of Solitary

My first official post as a SleuthSayers contributor—my first big deadline here!—arrives at a busy confluence of events. The Fall for the Book festival, which I've helped run for more than 12 years at George Mason University, is still underway as this post appears (and battening down, scrambling to reorganize as a hurricane looms), and next week, Bouchercon begins down in Raleigh, and just a couple of weeks back, my first book came out (with all the busyness that entails), and on the same day as the launch party, I was a speaker at the Fairfax County Public Library's Book Club Conference and....
Well, the point of all this isn't that it's a busy time, but rather that I wanted to set up a focus on one of the elements that threads through all these various events.

My role at the library's Book Club Conference was to talk about how to moderate a book group—tips and tactics to help keep discussion going, keep the focus on the book (instead of the wine!), and keep everyone involved and engaged. Before I got into specific recommendations, however, I asked people what they wanted from a book club in the first place.

I already had my PowerPoint prepared—the next slide ready to provide my answer to the question—so I hoped that the comments from the attendees would jibe with my own thoughts and expectations, and it turned out they did. "I want to learn something." "I want to read a book I might otherwise not have picked up." "I want to see what other people thought about what we read." "I like getting together with friends." "I wanted to meet new people." Or even as simple as: "I wanted to do something different, and I learned that I liked it."

Here's the PowerPoint slide that I put up at the end of that part of the conversation:

And it's those bolded words at the bottom of the slide I want to talk about now—and not just in terms of reading, but also writing, another solitary act.

In certain circumstances, reading isn't a solitary act, of course. We can attend a reading; my wife and I can read to our son; and in fact, I read to my wife pretty regularly as part of our evening routine, as I talked about in a recent column for the Washington Independent Review of Books. But most of the time, reading is one person engaging with one book at their own individual pace.

Similar, writing can be a collaborative process, of course, but that image of the writer alone with her pen or alone in front of the computer is a persistent one for a reason. We engage with the page—trying to capture in words those characters and stories our imagination has conjured up.

The connection, then, becomes this: solitary writer --> piece of writing --> solitary reader. And in the process, there's also this connection implicit in that one: solitary writer --> solitary reader.

A book club provide the opportunity to expand that solitary reading experience into a shared one. What did you take from the book? What were your attitudes about this character? What did you think of the author's decision to....? And in the process, what emerges is: What did we think of....? —not a decision that will reach unanimity, but a conversation that serves to be bigger than the sum of its parts.

During all my years with Fall for the Book, there have been two types of moments that have struck me as central to our mission—and neither depends exclusively on the actual programming we've hosted year after year. Those readings and panel discussions are part of the larger engagement, of course: hearing authors read from or speak about their works. But what strikes me as more important is when a reader comes in holding a well-loved copy of a book and meets and asks a question of the person who wrote it—making manifest somehow the connection that already exists by virtue of those two solitary experiences I mentioned above, with the book as the connecting point. The other moment is when that reader turns to another person holding another well-loved copy of the same book and says something like, "Didn't you love it when....?"

A book club or a book festival serve to turn the solitary experience of reading into a communal experience, hopefully enriching connections and perspectives and understanding.

And for an event like Bouchercon ahead, opportunities exist not just to connect readers and writers but also to connect people within the community of writer. Networking is inevitably an important aspect of conferences. (How many people will be meeting with their agent or editor next week? How many will be looking for a new agent or courting an editor? How many might ask a writer friend to suggest an agent?) But beyond those more goal-oriented aspects, there's something more important that's gained by being not so alone—by meeting and greeting and sharing anecdotes with others who have elsewhere been toiling alone over those notebooks or in front of that screen, making physical and concrete those connections and that camaraderie that already exist in myriad ways.

I enjoyed your book. I admire your work so much. What you do—it matters, it meant something to me.

I just wanted to say that.