The Brooklyn Book Festival featured oodles of panels this fall in its historic Borough Hall Courtroom and in various sections of nearby St. Francis College--- the “Small College of Big Dreams” as the main building announced, so perfect a message for this gathering of writers, authors and would-be authors.
Hosted by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn Literary Council and Brooklyn Tourism, this fifth annual festival boasted an all-star literary lineup that included Salman Rushdie, Naomi Klein, Colson Whitehead, Venus Williams, Mary Gaitskill, Paul Auster, Sarah Silverman, Rosanne Cash, Paul Krugman, Gary Shteyngart, Francine Prose, Dennis Lehane, Pete Hamill, Jennifer Egan, Russell Banks, Michael Connelly, John Hodgman, Kristen Schaal, Per Petterson, Sam Lipsyte, Sloane Crosley, Sandra Rodriguez, Paul Harding, Maaza Mengiste, Amy Goodman, Marlon James, Jean Valentine (New York State Poet Laureate), Elizabeth Nunez and many, many more including Children’s and Young Adult Lit stars such as Rebecca Stead, Sara Shepard, Jacqueline Woodson, Jon Scieszka, Jenny Han, Mae Barnett, Tad Hills, Chris Raschka, Michael Rex, Matthew Reinhart, and Francisco X. Stork.
The event, which draws some 30,000 attendees from around the world, also included some 175 booksellers, publishers, presses and organizations, and also featured the awarding of the “Best of Brooklyn“ or “Bobi” to an author who has made a broad impact on the field of literature. This year’s recipient was renowned poet John Ashbery.
Ashbery’s first collection, Some Trees (1956), won the Yale Younger Poets Prize. His collections include The Tennis Court Oath, The Double Dream of Spring, and Houseboat Days. The 1975 Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror garnered the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. His 1984 A Wave won the Bollingen Prize and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. His most recent collection, Planisphere, come out in 2009 from Ecco Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Previous recipients are Edwidge Danticat (2009), Walter Mosley (2008), and Paul Auster(2007).
One outstanding gathering in the impressive Courtroom was entitled “Past is Not Past.” Introduced by Sara Nelson of Oprah Magazine, this panel featured the “cream of the crop” of today’s historical fiction with readings by Marion James (The Book of Night Women), Dennis Lehane (The Given Day), and Bernice L. McFadden (Glorious). Note: Glorious was later named as one of the "5 Books to Watch For" in the May 2011 issue of Oprah Magazine and described therein as, among other things, "riveting." McFadden's story is set against the backdrops of the Jim Crow South, the Harlem Renaissance, and the civil rights era, and she has blended the truth of American history with her amazing imagination to tell the story of “Easter,” a fictional writer who sees more horror and challenge than any woman ought to, including the most egregious loss any writer can know.
The Brooklyn Historical Society featured Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane in conversation with Alafaire Burke. These three masters of crime and cliff-hanging suspense together was quite entertaining. With , Connelly’s long-awaited The Reversal soon to come out, the process- and the business- of writing was heavily on everyone’s minds.
Connelly described his writing process as mainly resting upon “following his instincts.”
“If I’m not engaged,” he admitted, “I can’t sit down and say ‘Okay, now I’m going to write.’” An interesting admission for an author who has actually written two books in one year.
“I just keep laying bricks,” he advised the packed auditorium. “Writing a book is like driving a car across a frozen lake. Once you cross it, the book hits “train tracks” and you just let the train ride. I think a lot before coming to the paper. You just write in the moment. Some things just feel ‘right” on that day.”
“Do as I say, not as I do,” Lehane offered regarding his own process. “I’ve never had writer’s block,” he explained, struggling to keep a straight face. “I’ve just had comas…I write in bursts, then go into comas- really! I’m never worried about not having a routine,” he offered, “especially now that we have a baby in the house.”
As for plotting? “I have a goal before I write the first page,” Lehane said, “then at the end of the book I assess how close I’ve come to the mark- if at all.”
“What started as luck is turning out to be a career plan,” Lehane offered. His advice for new writers is to take less money initially and realize ‘it’s about commerce.’ “My first book was with a major publishing house,” he told the crowd, “and there I was, still (working as) a valet. The best way to think of it is ‘don’t publish me too big, don’t spend too much money on me until I can earn it back.’”
Incremental breakthroughs are key, Connelly advised. “If the company isn’t losing money on you, they’ll stay with you.”
What do they read? “I read less mysteries than anything,” Connelly shared. “When I come home after a day of writing, the last thing I want to read is something better or more clever. A little ignorance is a good thing!” (Note: Connelly’s reading the Franzen book right now…nowhere near a mystery…)
As for training or schooling? “Somebody who comes to write but with no skills and says, ‘I want to be a writer,‘ can’t get there,“ Connelly suggested. “If you come into a writing profession with no skills, you won’t make it. But if you have a few gifts, such as good dialogue, plotting, etc., you will.”
Connelly took creative writing in college, but was inspired, mainly, by reading. “My writing career came out of having been a voracious reader.”
The difference between a professional writer and an amateur?
“We know when to cut,” Connelly said.
For more information about the Brooklyn Book Festival, please visit the web site atwww.brooklynfestival.orgor check out the official Facebook page. On Twitter, follow the Brooklyn Book Festival @BKBF.
©2010 Text and photos M. D. Caprario
M. D. Caprario is an author, editor and journalist working in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco covering for the media all good things in the book, film and entertainment worlds- and people and things striving to make our World a better place. Reach her at [email protected].