What I Learned at the 2013 Library of Congress National Book Festival
- by J. Shepperd
- November 5, 2013
London, Austin, Decatur, Brooklyn.... Book Festivals are thriving everywhere. Surely, dear reader, there is a celebration of writers and books near you.
For one thing, even in the rain, folks came out, ran from tent to tent to hear writers speak and stood in long lines with loads of books for their favorite authors to sign. In fact, one gentleman who insisted that I use his name (Bobby Martin) had 45 books by several different authors that he had carted down to the Mall. I met readers who had come from as far away as Florida and Georgia, a couple from Philadelphia and two friends who traveled together to the book festival from South Carolina. Terry McMillan stood up, walked the length of her line and greeted her fans. On Sunday, intrepid readers braved the sights, sound and scents of Fiesta DC 2013 to get to the books.
Last year, I went to the Library of Congress National Book Festival to beg a certain mystery writing gentleman to answer the interview questions that he’d promised to answer months before. I accomplished my goal and even solicited another promise, one still not kept but my time at the festival taught me something important. The love and appreciation of books is widely shared. This year, I went for the Washington Independent Review of Books and me, to do something called the “Independent Quickie.” Three writers, three questions, asked and answered while standing up.
The first writer that I had the pleasure of spending a moment or two with was Marie Arana, author of four books: Bolivar, American Liberator; American Chica; Cellophane; and Lima Nights. Ms. Arana effortlessly seams her two worlds, North and South America, fiction and nonfiction.
In the festival literature, she was listed as a book expert and I wanted to know exactly what this meant. She explained that she had worked in every aspect of the book business from vice president and senior editor at Harcourt Brace and Simon and Schuster. For 10 years, she was editor and chief of the Washington Post’s Book World. In fact, she was the catalyst and founder for the National Book Festival. So besides her wonderful books, Washingtonians also owe her for the festival. Ms. Arana said she jumped around to avoid getting bored and when asked about writing fiction, memoirs and history, she mentioned the one thing she does in every book: explain the Latin character which is different from the North American one. She doesn’t view her work as correcting a misunderstanding so much as the perfect opportunity to “educate some of us about the rest of us.” Particularly since, “everyone is now everywhere.”
Fortunately, Ms. Arana doesn’t have to decide what to write next, not yet. She’ll make that decision on December 15 when she heads to Peru for three months as she does every year to write. Was it her fear or joy that most often ended up on the pages of her books? “Fear and joy are so interlocked,” she responded. “You fear something, get surprised and it becomes joyful. They are both right there on the page along with embarrassment.”
I spoke to Ayana Mathis next and before I attempt to quote her, you should know that she speaks so lyrically that it is going to be difficult. This time, we were sitting down. She said that writing was a “strange muscle” and that part of what her writing did for her was answer a need to explore or better understand the milieu from where she comes. She is deeply interested in the relationships between siblings though Ms. Mathis is an only child. In The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (see the Independent’s review), Hattie offers up a kind of isolation, the isolation of each individual within a family story. One of the things that Ms. Mathis must understand—before fully fleshing out the book—is structure. When I asked about what would be next, she said it was too embryonic to mention and she’d have to stay mum for the time being.
In her earlier days in New York, Ms. Mathis waited tables and wrote poetry which sounded like a perfectly suitable togetherness. What she knows most about books she knows from her mother, who knew an enormous amount about a lot of things: “books make your broader.” On books that most impressed, she mentioned Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! as an incredible education on race and class in America. She also talked about Tony Morrison’s Beloved, the best psychological portrait of slavery ever written. When I asked about her fears and joys and if they made their way into her writing, she said that it was more her “obsessions.” She doesn’t write directly about herself, maybe it should be described as a kind of “vague ventriloquism.”
Finally, I met with Kenneth Mack, who in 1994 left the law for graduate school to become a historian. He was a partner in a big firm and instead preferred to read, research and write on a daily basis, to discover what he didn’t already know, to be expert enough to interpret or reinterpret the past. He spent 13 years changing his education and now teaches at Harvard Law School. Mr. Mack wrote Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer and says that teaching is an incredibly challenging job and one that inspires him to make his students see the world differently. He is bringing the gauntlet to them, encouraging them to imagine and work in a world of their own making. One of the books that made a lasting impression on him is the Autobiography of Malcolm X. At 13 years old when Mr. Mack read the book, he had never before read anything like it. Afterward, he began to question everything and still does. An appreciation for history and the past is one also for life in all its complexity. One of the books he loved, rereads and recommends is Simple Justice by Richard Kluger.
I had one more admittedly silly, parting question for all three writers: Had they ever learned anything from a how-to book?
Kenneth Mack thinks he learned something from one of those Books for Dummies.
Ayana Mathis said that the Internet is one giant how-to book.
Marie Arana said that she hadn’t but that her very good friend, Michael Dirda, was stunned by the great education he got from Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Clearly, book festivals are thriving.
A few more fall festivals to look for: