Monday, September 28, 2009

National Book Festival

Thanks to the weather, which was highly rainy, my hiking plans for Saturday were canceled and so we decided to go to the National Book Festival on the mall in DC instead. The Book Festival happens every year and is put on by the Library of Congress. It brings lots of authors in to do book signings and give talks and has a lot of kid-centered activities to encourage kids to read. There are tents for several genres such as Poetry and Prose, Fiction and Fantasy, Mysteries and Thrillers, Teens and Children, and History and Biography. They were also giving out a lot of free reusable bags, which is sweet.

Jeff and I met up with Stan at Dunn Loring and got in at about one o'clock and met Alex there. Just as we arrived, massive bestseller James Patterson (who shares a name with my late grandfather) was going up to speak. He was surprisingly funny and clearly didn't take himself very seriously. He regaled us with anecdotes such as going into a bookstore to watch people buy his first bestseller but seeing someone steal it instead. All of these stories were of dubious veracity, but they were entertaining nonetheless. He has recently branched into young adult fiction and has a website,, dedicated to making kids readers for life. He talked about ways to get kids into reading and then got into his suggestions for writing. First of all, he advocated using outlines, which works for him. He also said "stop writing sentences and start writing stories." As a popular novelist, for him the story was the most important part, and he admitted to not being the greatest stylist there is. He also suggested working on multiple projects at once, which for him keeps writers' block at bay. He encouraged people to write every day, even if you thought whatever you wrote that day was bad, and if you were trying to write a novel, writing a page a day could get it finished in a year. When asked how he wrote so truthfully about a black family (his character Alex Cross who shares the name of one of the friends I went with), he stated that he thought people were more the same than people made them out to be.

After that I went to catch part of Julia Alvarez's talk, since I've read her In the Time of the Butterflies. She writes historical fiction about the Dominican Republic under the dictator Trujillo, where she grew up. She emphasized the political importance of reading about other countries' situations, even through fiction. She thinks that doing so can make us all freedom fighters in a way. She also talked about the importance of public libraries in getting her access to reading, which influenced her to write. I didn't catch any talk of her methods, unfortunately.

After getting some delicious cinnamon pecans, we went to see George Pelecanos, who writes crime novels set in DC and is a writer on The Wire. He told a story about a man in prison who got books sent to him secretly and eventually was influenced to write, and recently published his first novel (sadly I can't remember what it was). For him, research was the most important part of writing. He was mostly influenced by events in the news, which propelled him to write about those issues. He actually said the writing itself was not that fun for him, but that he liked getting the message out and doing the research. He also writes about people from vastly different backgrounds than himself, and says that the way he makes the characters authentic is to go to places where he doesn't belong, places where his characters might live, and just talk to people, and listen, and find their voice. I haven't read anything by him, but my friend Alex wanted to see him speak, and now I want to read a book by him.

I unfortunately missed Mark Kurlansky's speech - he's a historian whose book about Cod I am reading now. I thought about getting him to sign the book, but it's a library book so I decided not to. My friend Stan did get a book signed by him. We also failed in our mission to procure either a salt shaker or an actual cod to get him to sign (he also wrote A World History of Salt). Other authors present included David Baldacci, Judy Blume, John Grisham, John Irving, Jodi Picoult, Daniel Silva, Nicholas Sparks, and David Wroblewski. I kind of wish I had gotten there earlier to see more talks, or that I wasn't so tired of standing and wet from the rain so that I would have stuck around longer. Still and all, it was a great experience, and I hope to go next year as well. There are book festivals like this in other places, too (for instance, also one in Baltimore this weekend) - definitely check one out! To find out when and where your local book festival is, click here.

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