“The Book Festival represents the best of Brooklyn!” Borough President Marty Markowitz told a literary crowd at Sunday’s eighth annual Brooklyn Book Festival. This year’s event was the biggest so far, drawing an estimated 45,000 to Brooklyn, the nation’s literary hub, where over 340 renowned national and international authors appeared to read from and discuss their work.
After a weeklong series of over 60 “Bookend” events from Sept. 16 – 22, the Downtown Brooklyn festival consisted of 90-plus panels, readings and workshops spread across 14 stages. Among the venues were Brooklyn Borough Hall and Plaza, Columbus Park, Brooklyn Law School, St. Francis College, the Brooklyn Historical Society, and St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church.
In addition to the discussions and readings, literary organizations participated by setting up booths throughout the plaza. Literary journals, booksellers, “indie” book publishers, university presses, and more reported record sales this year. Stefan Ringel, Director of Communications for the Office of Marty Markowitz, told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle he was grateful for the wonderful work volunteers put in all year. “There was a lot going on, [but] everyone pitches in to make it work,” he said.
Borough President Marty Markowitz, introducing Lois Lowry, the winner of the 2013 Best of Brooklyn award, the “BoBi,” remarked, “Everybody wins when a festival like this wins.” Pointing out that Downtown Brooklyn hotels were packed and businesses humming, he promised that the Brooklyn Book Festival, which started during his tenure, “will continue no matter who is borough president.”
LOIS LOWRY, 2013 BoBi HONOREE
The St. Francis auditorium was packed with young adult fans of Newbery award-winning author Lois Lowry, this year’s Best of Brooklyn “BoBi” honoree (“The Giver,” “Number the Stars”). “'The Giver’ is my favorite book of all time,” said Jennifer, 23, in town while exploring a move to New York from Colorado. “I read it first in the sixth grade. It’s the book that inspired me to read.”
Lowry recalled that as a high school student at Packer Collegiate in Brooklyn, her English teacher wrote on one of her papers, “Be sure to keep on writing, I think you can do something with it.” The film version of “The Giver” is now underway in South Africa; the cast includes Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep and Brenton Thwaites as Jonas.
Lowry said that she avoids inserting a “message” in her dystopian novels. “It’s the kiss of death. Kids will recoil.” While not all of her novels have a happy ending, “Kids deserve an optimistic ending, some sense of hope for the future.”
Sharing the panel with Lowry was Katherine Applegate, this year’s Newbery Medal winner (“The One and Only Ivan,” “Animorphs”). “I started writing children’s books because I was stupid enough to think it was easier,” she confessed. “It’s extraordinarily challenging to write for kids; they can smell BS a mile away.”
Carolyn Greer, director of public events and tourism for the Borough President, moderated.
“Fiction was always the goal,” debut novelist Caleb Crain told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in a recent interview, when asked about transitioning from his career as a literary critic to novel writing. “Criticism was just a detour that happened to take a couple of decades,” he said. Speaking at one of the Festival’s most popular panels featuring five of the year’s most impressive debut novelists, Crain read from “Necessary Errors,” a remarkable debut published this past August. Set in 1990 in newly democratic Czechoslovakia, Crain’s novel chronicles the unique coming-of-age story of an American abroad.
Ayana Mathis read from her critically acclaimed novel “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” which traces the story of Hattie Shepherd, who, in 1923, flees from Georgia to Philadelphia at age 15. She gives birth to numerous children and resolves to raise them in a manner that prepares them for the adversity she knows they’ll face. When asked how she faces the terror of the empty page, Mathis answered candidly: “I don’t suppose there are any tricks. You just sort of do it.” And although her book turned out to be an enormous hit, she didn’t set out to write a novel; the book was shaped by distinct short stories that Mathis did not intend to connect. In fact, when a friend suggested she thread her stories together into a novel, Mathis recalls that she answered, “You’re so ridiculous; I’m not writing a novel!”
Also featured was Ursula DeYoung, whose enchanting book “Shorecliff” follows Richard, a teenage boy, who joins a crew of cousins, aunts and uncles in Maine during the summer of 1928. Michèle Forbes spoke about her beautiful debut “Ghost Moth,” a novel set in 1969 Ireland. In the book, Katherine and George, a couple with four children, struggle to maintain a functional marriage after discovering each other’s secrets. And A.X. Ahmad read from “The Caretaker,” a captivating thriller about a Sikh Indian Army captain who becomes entangled in a U.S. Senator’s world while working on the senator’s Martha’s Vineyard estate.
THE FACES OF BROOKLYN
Nostalgia for an “authentic” Brooklyn of old was a theme of a panel composed of literary dynamos Pete Hamill (“The Christmas Kid”), Adelle Waldman (“The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.”) and Adrian Tomine (“New York Drawings”). Moderating was Penina Roth (Franklin Park Reading Series).
“Nostalgia is an ache for people, places and things that no longer exist,” Hamill said. “I can walk there blindfolded and tell you what floor Mrs. Caputo lived on. I can see the factory where my father worked, a condo now for at least 20 years. Things inevitably change; time causes its erosions. Those erosions are where we live our lives.”
Waldman, a Brooklyn transplant, said, “I’m self-conscious that I’m not really of Brooklyn. It’s a complicated issue for many of us. We’re attached to a place, but contributing to change that’s not always good for the people who’ve been here before. That said, Brooklyn has become my home.”
Cartoonist Adrian Tomine, originally from California, said he, too experienced nostalgia: “For horrible strip malls, a Chinese restaurant in Oregon, things of no value to anyone.” He said Brooklyn inspires his work. "There's very little translation between what I see on my walks to the market and what I put on the page."
LOVE, VILLAINY, ETHICS and KARAOKE
Renowned writers, pop culture geniuses and close friends Chuck Klosterman and Rob Sheffield had a lively crowd of spectators laughing as they joked about their own and each other’s work. Author and New York Times “Ethicist” Klosterman discussed his recent book “I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains Real and Imagined,” in which he reflects on his increasing tendency to relate to “antiheroes” in pop culture. “I find myself making up reasons to root for Darth Vader,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sheffield spoke about his latest book “Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke.” A sequel to Sheffield’s first book, which presented a humorous yet heartbreaking account of his courtship, marriage, and sudden loss of his wife to a pulmonary embolism, “Turn Around Bright Eyes” reveals the widower’s path to moving on – through karaoke.
Author Ed Park, who moderated the event, put it aptly when he noted, “Rob’s book is haunted by love; Chuck’s is haunted by hate...both are books that see love, hate and evil through the prism of pop culture.”
POETS LAUREATE PAST AND PRESENT
“I’m from Brooklyn, and this is how we rock in Brooklyn!” New York Youth Poet Laureate Ashley August shouted to a crowd on the steps of Borough Hall. The 20-year-old poet, playwright, and actress read with a fiery enthusiasm. Following her dynamic performance was Brooklyn Poet Laureate Tina Chang, who told the audience she was “very glad to be back in Brooklyn” after returning from Vermont. “Brooklyn has the best audience in the world!” Chang read from her poignant poems that convey the difficulties of balancing writing and mothering.
New York State Poet Laureate Marie Howe offered a beautiful reading and Charles Simic, the U.S. Poet Laureate from ’07-’08, was the final poet on the panel to captivate the crowd. He read his poem “My Beloved,” which delivers a humorous view on the difficulty of coming up with new, fresh descriptions when writing a love poem. “In the fine print of her face/ her eyes are two loopholes./ No, let me start again./ Her eyes are flies in milk/ Her eyes are baby Draculas./ To hell with her eyes./ Let me tell you about her mouth,” he read with a smile.
THE LOST BOYS
So much star power on one altar. HBO's “Bored to Death” creator Jonathan Ames joined forces at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church on Montague Street with Sapphire, whose book "Push" inspired the Oscar-winning film “Precious,” and literary enfant terrible Tao Lin, whose new novel “Taipei” is a searingly candid portrait of the artist as a young drug user.
“I feel pretty muddled and at a loss every day, like most all of us. But there is some solace though in just trying to write,” said Boerum Hill novelist Ames, who read mostly from “Wake Up, Sir!” – whose hilarious and hapless protagonist has a valet (probably imaginary) named Jeeves like in P.G. Wodehouse's novels. “Like someone tinkering with a car, I do enjoy writing sentences, and maybe getting outside myself.” Sapphire, who read from her gripping new novel “The Kid” about Precious's orphaned son, revealed she's working on a book of poems.
NEW FACE, NEW RACE
Sex reassignment surgery can change your gender – and now short-story writer Jess Row has dreamed up “racial reassignment surgery,” which allows characters in his upcoming first novel to change their ethnicity. He called “Your Face in Mine,” which is set for spring or summer 2014 publication, “speculative fiction” that's not exactly sci-fi. The excerpt he read in the Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room focused on a Korean character who was having operations done in secret to become “Gwyneth Paltrow white.”
Row – who said the idea of being able to change racial identity “speaks very directly to my own experience of being a white man and having desires to change my appearance to suit my own sense of white liberal guilt but also a sort of attraction to other races and cultures” – shared the spotlight with author J. Courtney Sullivan, who lives in Gowanus. She read from her riveting new novel “The Engagements.”
LOVE AND LOSS
“I write about what keeps me up at night,” Paul Harding, Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Tinkers,” said of his new novel “Enon,” about a small-town man's efforts to come to grips with the accidental death of his only child. “Charlie, c'est moi; I lived with his grief all these years,” Harding said of protagonist Charlie Crosby.
Harding told the audience at the Brooklyn Law School Student Lounge that writing about a parent losing a child is full of pitfalls – one false step would turn the story into “melodrama” or “trash.” He was joined by novelists Christopher Beha, who read from his work "What Happened to Sophie Wilder", and Robert Antoni, who based his new book “As Flies to Whatless Boys” on his ancestors' 1840s voyage from London to Trinidad.
OLD AGE IS NO PLACE FOR SISSIES
Maybe there's an Alzheimer's epidemic among the 62-plus-year-olds in the emergency room at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. Renowned writer Lore Segal handles this apocalyptic idea with deft wit and touching understatement in “Half the Kingdom,” a novel Melville House in DUMBO is releasing in October.
“There is something about the world in which we live – we now live 10 or 20 years longer than we would have expected a generation ago, for which I think we should be and we are grateful,” Segal told the audience at Brooklyn Law School Student Lounge. “However, that doesn't mean medical science knows how to keep us from deteriorating.” Segal's fellow panelists were novelists Fiona Maazel and Jonathan Dee, who read from their new novels “Woke Up Lonely” and “A Thousand Pardons.”
SOMETHING TO HIDE: WRITERS AGAINST THE SURVEILLANCE STATE
With the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance programs in the news, an eight-member panel, assembled by PEN, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the New York Civil Liberties Union read passages about the dangers surveillance poses to the freedom of writers.
Panelists included: Andre Aciman, Leonard Lopate, Francine Prose, Jeremy Scahill, Rachel Kushner, Tom Drake, Edwidge Danticat and Nick Flynn.
Scahill, National Security Correspondent for The Nation, described Ernest Hemingway’s seemingly paranoid conviction, prior to his suicide, that his phone was tapped, his mail intercepted, and his bank records spied upon. Decades later, after a Freedom of Information request, it came out that Hemingway had indeed been under constant FBI surveillance.