2009 National Book Festival

My family and I went to the 2009 National Book Festival yesterday.


The National Book Festival was held in Washington, D.C., on the National Mall. It is heartwarming to see our nation’s Capital swarming with book lovers despite dreary weather. Every year the putting up of tents for the National Book Festival seems to draw rain. Drought-stricken regions should consider inviting the Library of Congress to bring their tents.

Quite a number of authors were in attendance from a number of genres, including history, literary fiction, crime, biography, children’s, YA, and poetry. There were quite a number of “name” writers: John Grisham, Marilynne Robinson, Tim O’Brien, Judy Blume, Jodi Picoult, Lois Lowry, etc. This year, I went specifically to see Junot Diaz. I had my copy of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao for him to sign and headed to the book signing lines. The staff is great, but it still took awhile to find the end of the correct, winding line to Mr. Diaz. After about an hour, Marky returned with her book already signed by Lisa Scottoline. She was gushing about how nice and personable Lisa was. As Diaz’s time slot was about to close, this is what I saw:

Junot Diaz book signing line

Junot Diaz is a class act, however, and stayed through overtime to sign everyone’s book. As we approached, we were warned that he was incredibly charming. He was. Despite the number of people still waiting, he went out of his way to chat with us. Marky was graced with a kiss on the cheek, while Rebecca (12 y.o.) and I shook his hand. I was worried about holding up the line, but he acted as if we were the only three people who held any interest for him at that moment. I already loved his writing. Now, I am just as impressed with his persona.

Our books now signed, we grabbed some food and headed off to the author pavilions. Marky’s new favorite attorney-turned-author, Lisa Scottoline, was scheduled to speak in the Mysteries & Thrillers tent at 3:15pm, while Junot Diaz was scheduled to speak in the Fiction & Fantasy tent at 3:30pm.

We listened to Lee Child while we ate. He had some interesting things to say about writing. He described a scene where one of his characters was driving around New York. He first tried to write the scene with complete fidelity to the New York City street layout, but it didn’t work. So, in the book, he simply had his character turn left onto a street that, in his book, was two-way, but, in life, was one-way.

As another illustration of “getting it right by getting it wrong”, he mentioned a book set in Texas. Their highway patrol is called the Public Safety Division or some such. He (or another author, I wasn’t clear) just called them the Highway Patrol because everyone outside of Texas understands that term. Only a limited set of people would understand that the Texas Public Safety Division consisted of patrolmen rather than health inspectors. A small detail, but I found it interesting. However, the clock was ticking and I could see that the Fiction & Fantasy tent was overflowing.

I left Marky and Rebecca in Mysteries & Thrillers. John Irving was talking in the packed Fiction & Fantasy tent. I could not get inside. Happily, the next author, Nicholas Sparks, was not as popular and quite a few people left. I was able to get inside. I did not enjoy Sparks’s talk. He talked about himself, his dogs, where he lived, what he did, when he wrote, and which laudable charitable activities he engaged in. When he stopped, his time had expired and he could not take questions. Finally, it was Diaz’s turn.

Junot DiazDiaz was engaging and seemed genuinely humble. A podcast or webcast should be up soon, so I will not try to recapitulate everything he said. However, he talked about the unique experience of immigrants and, particularly, Carribean immigrants. He spoke about how the culture he grew up in expected “smart” kids to become doctors, and viewed their becoming artists as a disappointment. He went quickly from his talk to the Q&A session.

Diaz talked about his struggle to complete the book. He discussed feeling like he started understanding structural aspects of the work better after five or six years of working on it. He said he was amazed that no reviewers focused on the female characters to whom, he thought, the book really belonged. A creative writing student mentioned his pop culture, literary, and other references within the work and said his professor told him not to do that. Diaz explained how he gave the same advice to his students if he felt they were still learning how to write a novel or short story. Only practiced writers should take on the difficult task of weaving such references into their narrative.

There was more, all interesting, but the webcast will be better at giving you the info. I really enjoyed his talk, including how he engaged the crowd, was always respectful of questioners, and really tried to provide considered answers to all the questions. The insights into the hows and whys of his own writing were well worth the trouble to see him.

If you are ever in the District in late September, I highly recommend trying to make it to the National Book Festival. It is a wonderful event. Very nearly without exception, the authors seem to be very appreciative of the event and the attendees. It was a great way to spend a Saturday.

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