Monday, October 18, 2010
Andy is always going off to various music festivals - something I have absolutely no interest in attending. Hanging out in a crowded and trampled field with a bunch of crunchy granolas listening to jam bands noodling all through the night would make crazy. No sir. My kind of festival is one involving books. And cool buildings. And famous authors. And a short commute. And zero cost. Sounds like I'm asking for an awful lot out of my dream festival. But that is exactly what I found at the second annual Boston Book Festival this past Saturday.
The Boston Book Festival (BBF) is a celebration of words - read, spoken, written, drawn, listened to and debated. Over the course of one Saturday they put together an impressive list of panels, workshops and entertainment - spanning all genres and age ranges - completely free of charge. They even managed to provide $10 parking vouchers at major downtown garages for anyone wanting to print one off their website. It usually costs $10 for just an hour, so the luxury of spending 7 luxurious hours enmeshed in books without having to pay through the nose for parking was too good to turn down.
I have posted in the past about my local library that looks and feels like a church of books. Well, at the BBF many of the venues are beautiful old churches and I got to sit in magnificent sanctuaries listening to nothing but thoughts on the world of literature. I started off at the Church of the Covenant to hear indy publisher Beacon Press' director, Helene Atwan, host a panel called First Time's A Charm about life after a successful debut novel. I was happily entertained by Joshua Ferris of "Then We Came To The End" fame (distance from the subject of your writing builds the proper tone), Justin Cronin of "Mary & O'Neil" (experiencing the things you are writing about makes the details flow and the results more clear, fun and believable - aka his excuse for learning to shoot guns in Texas) and Jennifer Haigh of "Mrs. Kimble" (writing towards an idea is a great goal except she is always wrong about where she thinks it will go because her characters keep changing the path). I also thought it was neat to learn that Cronin's current novel, The Passage, came into existence because of a challenge his 9 year old daughter gave him to write a book about a girl who saves the world. The first in his planned trilogy has been a big hit for which he's thankful since it created added pressure spending a career writing it - succeed or fail.
I had to cut out of this panel when the audience questions began so that I could dash down the street to the historic Trinity Church to worship my other favored religion - baseball. One would think that in a big baseball town like Boston, that if you were having a forum on Writing About America's Favorite Pastime you would have it take place in the big open sanctuary and not the small forum space in the basement. I was lucky to get in to this panel in high demand and had to laugh when my seat provided an obstructed view, much like sitting behind the poles at Fenway. NPR's Bill Littlefield hosted this formidable panel of baseball authors. Howard Bryant of ESPN and Ken Burns' documentaries regaled us with stories about Henry Aaron while NY Times & WSJ journalist James Hirsch contrasted those with tidbits about Willie Mays. I was a bit disappointed that the panel did not provide any round table discussion to stay on the topic of writing about baseball and instead did nothing but take audience questions - all of which were to solicit the authors' thoughts on the current state of the game and inside tidbits about the legends their current books feature. I could listen to people talking baseball all day but I would have enjoyed the opportunity to hear more about how they write about it and the differences it creates compared to other non-fiction subjects.
I took a break at lunchtime wandering past the poetry stage and bookish vendors lining Copley Square and over to the Boston Public Library to print out that discounted parking coupon. I had not been to the BPL since I was in college. I used to spend a lot of time researching papers there and I would bring my material down to the older part of the building where there is this one particular room filled with tables and old fashioned desk lamps. It made me feel smarter to sit and work in there than in the modern part of the building. As if of the knowledge from all those brilliant minds who poured over those same tables long before me might be absorbed magically into my brain. Never seemed to work that way - I always daydreamed too much.
Anyway, as I was trying to remember how to get over to the main side of the building I pushed open a door and found myself in the courtyard I'd forgotten existed. What a pretty spot to escape the noise and stress of the city and have a cup of something refreshing or a quick bite to eat. It also would be a great place to read. The BPL reminds me of a museum - hidden treasures tucked behind the modernized shelves of books. It was the site of most of the BBF events going on for kids including author & illustrator appearances from such well known titles as "Fancy Nancy," "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," "Scardey-Cat Splat," "Lunch Lady," and "Bats At The Library." There were story times, character visits, lessons on creating your own book and so much more.
I capped off my day at the less beautiful but larger capacity Back Bay Event Center to see two of the most desirable panels on the agenda. From Page To Screen was hosted by Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr and he did an excellent job providing fascinating conversation with superstars Dennis Lehane of "Mystic River," "Gone Baby Gone" and "Shutter Island" fame and Tom Perrotta of "Election" and "Little Children" fame. Lehane cannot convert his books to screenplays while Perrotta can. So the contrasting opinions, process and emotion from each of them was terrific. The author's only real power in the world of Hollywood is in the writing of the book. From there, even if you collaborate on the screenplay adaptation, you still have to subject yourself to the painful surrender of your words for the whims of directors and producers. Both were in awe of the creative ideas others came up with to convey things visually that took so long to unravel in writing and both were a bit disenchanted with other changes that had to be made. After some debate, it was also decided that Diane Lane provided cinema with the worst Boston accent ever in "The Perfect Storm" because it was so bad, it threw Mark Wahlberg's natural Boston accent right off the rails.
The final panel of my day was to see personal favorite and author I most wish I could emulate, humorist and travel writer Bill Bryson. Author of one of my favorite books, "A Walk In The Woods," I so looked forward to this panel hosted by NPR's "Here & Now" host, Robin Young and also featuring New Yorker writer Tony Hiss. But unfortunately she essentially just turned the time over to each author to promote or lecture on their current books. Hiss provided us with a fairly dry slide show and Bryson read to us from personally selected portions of his newest release - "At Home." Though it was entertaining, I wanted more Q&A. And since there wasn't any time for more than a couple of people to approach the mike, I decided to splurge and buy his book so I could get it signed and ask him what I wanted to know. When my window of 15 seconds arrived, I asked Bryson if he was a fan of Jerome Jerome's writing. Who the heck is Jerome Jerome you ask? Well, Bryson didn't ask. He told me he had read "Three Men & A Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog" and enjoyed it very much. I told him that when I read it, it reminded me of him because it totally cracked me up. Bryson looked up from signing my book with a pause and thanked me for an incredible compliment since Jerome's book was excellent.
Before screwing up a beautiful moment I decided it was best to leave. That, and the fact that the handlers were moving people along at a quick clip. Signed book in hand I was just happy knowing that my writing idol Bryson appreciates the nutty humor of an 1800's Englishman as much as I do. I could finally rest. Thanks to the BBF for letting me have so much fun. Fiction, baseball, movies and travel. I can't wait to see what they put together next year.