Monday, September 26, 2016

National Book Festival 2016

The Library of Congress's annual National Book Festival was started by First Lady Laura Bush, drawing wonderfully diverse crowds from Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. Three years ago, as the National Park Service realized that the lawns of the national mall were being beaten down to nothing but dirt, a decision was made to move the festival indoors to the Walter Washington Convention Center. I was worried that it would lose the ambiance of the outdoor setting, with the Smithsonian castle and the Washington monument in the background, but it thrived at the convention center and many more people could be accommodated. That is, until this year.

For some reason the roster of eminent fiction writers seemed to get short shrift and the large ballroom on the second floor was reserved for historians and super stars. (Shonda Rimes, Bob Woodward, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) Other years one could come and go throughout the various venues since speakers often overlap, but this year lines formed outside the smaller rooms set aside for fiction writers, many so long that I thought I'd mistakenly ended up at Disney World.

Doors were locked until one presentation ended and another began. While chatting in the hour-long line for Richard Russo with some other book lovers, I found that they could not get in to see many of their favorites, Carl Hiaasen and Colson Whitehead among them. This is especially shocking in light of the fact that Whitehead, as an Oprah pick, was bound to attract a standing room only crowd.

Having worked for years on the Southwest Florida Reading Festival, I understand how difficult it is to please all the people, all the time.One has to make difficult choices. In fact, there were three people I wanted to hear at noon! But even though the new system meant that we couldn't interact with as many authors as we would have liked, (not even Mary Roach had seating space), my sister, my friend Don and I had a great afternoon, even finding ourselves within a couple of feet of Salman Rushdie at one point.

Yes! I did get to listen to one of my all time favorite writers. Richard Russo's "Straight Man" will always stand out for me as one of the best sendups of academia ever written and Russo admitted that it was the easiest novel he ever sat down to write. Of course, he was mostly asked about "Everybody's Fool," the sequel to "Nobody's Fool," and about his penchant for writing about the failing towns in upstate New York that he spent his entire life trying to escape from.

The questions were especially apropos, the interviewer pointed out, because of the current political climate that seems to pit blue collar workers, shut out from factory jobs that have disappeared and unable to reinvent themselves, against college educated folks with more resources. Russo did an admirable job of fielding a charged opportunity to trash one presidential candidate or the other, by saying that he wasn't inclined to alienate half of his audience, drawing appreciative laughs.

Russo was thoughtful and kind. I had no doubt that he would be. He treats each quirky character he creates, no matter how deplorable (if I may use that word), as someone loveable and redeemable. He told the audience that his best known anti-hero, Sully, played in the film, "Nobody's Fool," by Paul Newman, was based upon his dad, something I guess I should have picked up on but hadn't.

What's next? He has two books in the hopper, one a collection of short stories, and the kernel of an idea that may evolve into his next novel. In the meantime, he asks, can we please just read a little slower?


Paul Woodside said...

Lucky you! I would have loved to see Russo!!

Sallyb said...

Hi Maryellen, I believe that all the interviews were taped and should be podcast at the LOC website. He was sweet. Seems I've always missed him before.

Cathi Davis said...

I was there to hear Russo too! AS wonderful as you describe. He has his audience well in hand whether as readers or listeners. Very entertaining. I also liked his description of Straight Man...mere "reportage"...the most outrageous and most true book he has written, so he said. (I was in the third row, you could see his eyes light up when asked about the book.) I also liked his insight into the film/tv business.NO one is funding $20 million literary movies...not happening...but it is happening in TV..that's what an author wants now...a scripted series to tell the story.
Finally liked the question about The Ice Harvest...a movie with John Cusack I really liked, didn't realize he was the screenwriter.