This past weekend, all of Boston's Copley Square was overrun by bookies. Not the gambling kind - the reading kind. And I was among them. For the second year, the city put on its free book festival all day long on Saturday. This event is more than your typical book sellers and author signings, though those are certainly there. The focal point for me is the plethora of panels scheduled throughout the day. These sessions are categorized just like genres in books - Non-Fiction, Fiction, Kids, YA and Poetry.
They also throw in some interactive events such as quizzes, Writer Idol (where they perform 3 minutes of random manuscripts turned in by hopeful writers), spoken word and Flash Fiction Open Mic (where you can read your short story to the crowd). There are Workshops about the craft of writing and the process of publishing. This year they even created an audio version of those Create Your Own Adventure stories that you could download to your phone and then experience the story as you were guided along the city. There is a stage for musical performances, a place for kids to make their own books and keynote speakers - both for kids and adults. My biggest complaint about this festival is that there just isn't enough time to do it all. I would love to see it spread across two full days - but that might keep things from being free to all.
I was not very familiar with any of this year's authors on the various panels but there were some topics up for discussion that piqued my interest. So I hopped on to the commuter rail, leaving Sammy behind for a day with Daddy while I treated myself to a bookish day in the city. I even had time to read on the train! What a luxury :0) Here is a snapshot (verbally) of my day...
FOOD - IN AN ACTUAL RESTAURANT!OK. So this has nothing to do with the actual book fest. My train was late so I missed the first half of a panel about how the internet keeps us isolated despite social networking. I decided to skip the end of it and get some lunch instead. You know, go be social in the real world instead of alone at a panel. I must tell you that it was a dream to wander into this fabulous little restaurant (Coda in the South End) and have a leisurely lunch instead of passing by the window with drool on my chin as I pushed a stroller and fussy but cute baby (who also has drool on his chin for different reasons altogether). I highly recommend the BLT & E which involves cream cheese and a fried egg.
SPORTS: WRITERS ON DECKThis panel featured three authors writing about baseball players (Jane Leavy on Mickey Mantle), baseball parks (Glenn Stout on Fenway's 100 year existence) and baseball history (Thomas Whalen on the original Red Sox dynasty). It also delved into how sports writers have had to adapt with the diminished opportunities in beat writing and newspaper columns, turning instead to online publications, investigative reporting and non-fiction books. The crowd was generally older but this being Boston, there was a fairly equal mix of men and women in attendance - both sexes are raised on sports heavily here. As to the craft of approaching writing in the sports genre, the same approach applies here as in many other genres - harness your emotions and passions and use them to make more personal connections with your readers through your words. The best advice was to never meet your idols. They can only disappoint you. In this day and age, I think we are all better served idolizing writers instead of athletes anyway.
TRUE STORYThis session was filled to the brim with adults of all ages and an even mix of men and women as far as I could tell. We were all there to hear from three non-fiction writers about the true stories they documented and the process involved. They wrote about civil liberties (Michael Willrich of Brandeis on the Small Pox epidemic), dynamic families (Emma Rothschild of Harvard on a Scottish family in the 1700's) and survival (Mitchell Zuckoff of Boston University on the rescue of plane crash survivors in Dutch New Guinea in WW2). All of these writers were terrific to listen to - such passion for and knowledge of the subjects they shared with us. They all spoke to the scavenger hunt they embarked on for research and how their books' subjects came about accidentally so it is important to get sidetracked. For them, the internet is a tool that, in paraphrasing Emma, makes them lucky to be able to wander in the archives of history while living when real books are still piled around us. I left this session realizing that non-fiction writers are truly collectors of lost stories and I look forward to reading all of the books covered here. Maybe some day I'll get lucky with my endless distractions and find a worthy topic to turn into a book myself!
MEMOIR: WRITING A LIFEI am drawn to memoirs like metal to a magnet. Apparently I am not alone. This session was also very full. But it was interesting to note that there were far more women than men here. There was also a small presence of younger girls. Here we were treated to four authors who were brave enough to share their own inner lives in print and in person. There was the humor of running a family business (Ben Ryder Howe's My Korean Deli: Risking It All For A Convenience Store), the sadness of a Cuban child separated from his family for a better life in America (Carlos Eire's Learning To Die In Miami: Confessions Of A Refugee Boy and also Waiting For Snow In Havana: Confessions Of A Cuban Boy), a childhood of self-discovery in the 50's (Maisie Houghton's Pitch Uncertain: A Mid-Century Middle Daughter Finds Her Voice) and the challenge of surviving food allergies (Sandra Beasley's Don't Kill The Birthday Girl: Tales From An Allergic Life). Do memoirists have better memories than the rest of us? No. They tend to keep journals. And they also paraphrase/create dialogue - they don't remember conversations word for word. They also point out that each person tells a different story of the same circumstance because you can't fact check memory. Accuracy in chronology is not as important to them as the story of the events overall. Mixing in humor/historical or scientific facts to parallel your own personal history can make things more universal and appealing to more readers. In the end, a memoir is about relationships. With ourselves, our religion, our family, our politics, our geography, our food, our arts, our geography - or a lament over the lack of any of these relationships. As Sandra said, "no story is too familiar if you find a unique lens to frame it."
I enjoyed my time with these authors, the moderators (Bill Littlefield and Robin Young of NPR & WBUR and author Leslie Gilbert-Lurie) and my fellow bookies. I found it refreshing to be surrounded by folks who were eager for spirited discussions with strangers rather than the solitary engagement with technology via texting and smart phones. There were lots of noses in books, but that is forgiven. And those noses were in real books, not e-books. Authors can't sign your Kindle after all.