Tag Archives: Virginia Festival Of The Book 2009

The library is never open long enough – see you in 2010

Today we say goodbye to this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book. If someone had told me way back in the last century that I would be guest blogging for a major festival in 2008 and 2009, I would have said, “Blogging. That must be something you do from a flying car.” Turns out that this year’s festival coincided with the maiden flight of the world’s first car/airplane hybrid, which I don’t think was chance.

So we are living firmly in the future. And yet still reading books, a medium older than peanut butter, even while people all around us are predicting that these are end times for books. But to my surprise and delight, yesterday’s “What About My Book? Navigating the Industry Now” panel was optimistic. Although Ron Hogan of GalleyCat and Beatrice (and the author of The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane! American Films of the 1970s, which must have won some kind of title award) described the New York publishing industry as being “in freefall,” the panelists all agreed that a good book always has a future in the business. Authors might not receive the $5 million advances they’ve come to expect, but a commercially successful book will award them royalties above and beyond a small advance. According to the panelists, the recession has forced big publishing houses to stop overpaying for projects, or issuing “bad bank loans” to authors, which is a positive change to their business models, even if it might cost jobs in the short-term.

The big publishing houses are still going to rely too heavily on books like the latest celebrity memoir or fad diet book that don’t require massive promotional budgets (these things sell themselves), so mid-size houses like Algonquin that don’t need to answer to stockholders might be a better fit for new authors, even if they can’t provide the coveted six-figure advance. Does that make sense? Did I get that right? Is anyone else falling asleep? Ha – that’s actually a fun game. Let’s keep playing. Is anyone else eating her first ever box of Cracker Jacks, wondering what the big deal is? Is anyone else biting her nails to shreds? Is anyone else kind of liking Keith Gessen’s novel All the Sad Young Literary Men even though their friends gave it bad reviews? Is anyone else easily distracted?

Returning to this idea of the celebrity memoir being a surefire, no-brainer hit, I went to my last Festival of the Book panel this afternoon, entitled Francois Coty: The Perfume Magnate. Skipping over the variegated history of this French billionaire turned fascist who founded the Coty fragrance company, it interests me that the Coty company, although now out of the Coty family’s hands, is still hugely profitable because it sells celebrity perfumes almost exclusively. J.Lo, Sarah Jessica Parker, the Beckhams, and Celine Dion all have their own smells in the Coty catalogue. Even Tim McGraw and the Olsen twins are in on the action. Do people even buy perfume anymore if it’s not affiliated with some superstar? Mary-Kate and Ashley are the new rose and lilac. And are certain celebrities perceived to be better smelling to the general public? I bet Obama smells good. Can someone put that in a bottle? And then pour the bottle all over the back of my neck three times a day? What?

I sense that I’m losing you again. Let me conclude by bragging about the other fabulous thing I did as part of the Festival of the Book: scored a free ticket to the Authors’ Reception. Because I came by myself, I subjected numerous people to my mingling skills. Fortunately novelist Sarah Collins Honenberger was lovely as usual (you can find her blog here) and I met Robert Stilling, an English Ph.D candidate who co-authored What Should I Read Next?, a book of recommended reading from UVA professors. Then I decided the party was too grown-uppy so I sat down with a first-grade girl and got to talking about frogs until I lost track of time and security ushered us out of the Special Collections Library. I don’t know what it is with me and hanging out with little girls at literary soirees, but I seriously need to find some writer friends my own age.

The father’s daughter is not a doctor

If I am my father’s daughter and my father is a doctor, doesn’t that sort of make me his patient? But I can turn the tables by making him my blogging subject. He arrived late to the “Doctors Who Write” event sponsored by the Virginia Festival of the Book because he’d been busy at the hospital taking out a gallbladder. While we listened to the doctors read from their work, he crouched down in his chair to wipe something wet off his shoe. I knew that he had just come from surgery so I wrote “Was that blood on your shoe?” in my notebook and nudged him on the arm. He read my question and whispered, “Yes. I think it belonged to a possum.” My dad has a way of raising more questions than he answers.


Doctors who write: Walker Percy, William Carlos Williams, Atul Gawande, Oliver Sacks, Abraham Verghese, my dad after retirement. . . . They are all I can come up with off the top of my head (with some help from Google on spelling). The local literary talent at last night’s VABook event included two pediatricians, a radiologist, and a physician who teaches at UVA. I learned from Dr. Lynn Eckhert that Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to go to medical school, contracted gonnorrhea from an infected baby she was treating and lost an eyeball. I learned from Dr. Sharon Hostler what it felt like to diagnose a colleague with Munchhausen syndrome, a “disease” that causes the patient to fake disease, often with more brutal consequences than actual illness. I learned from a short story by Dr. Bruce Hillman how heartbreaking it might be for an elderly fly fisherman to catch a dying fish that has no fight left. And I learned that Dr. Daniel Becker’s overextended, sleep-deprived 4th-year medical school students, whom he encourages to write in their spare time, have “found the 55-word story.” (If I was a 4th-year medical student, my story would be three words: Valium, Xanax, Valium.)

Last night Dr. Hostler pointed out that in an exam room every patient has a story to tell and it’s the doctor’s job to listen. Hostler said, “We’re all patients” – even the doctors – and that, as patients, “We tell stories about why we’re sick.” Patients tell their narratives to authority figures in white lab coats who can finish the stories for them. Writers, I think, turn over their stories to the community in the same way. We’re dying to relay our symptoms, our thoughts and feelings, to a larger audience so someone will say, “Don’t worry! You’ll be fine! My sister had that same thing last year and she’s an astronaut now!” or – god forbid – “I’m sorry but we’re gonna have to operate.” Sometimes the esteemed audience is your future self. Sometimes it’s just a single other person. Occasionally that person is swinging around a dead possum in the middle of the night and you wonder if maybe he should be the one in treatment. 🙂

Breakfast think tank with Dan Ariely, croissants, door prizes

No, I did not win any of the door prizes. Particularly not the coveted free ice skating lessons that drew a murmur of excitement from the business breakfast crowd in the Omni’s conference room. We were there this morning to launch this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book with scrambled eggs and a presentation by Dan Ariely, the Duke/MIT professor and author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. After sympathetically noting the conflict of interest between a 7:30AM meeting on March 18 and an alcohol-fueled Irish holiday on March 17, Ariely gave a talk similar to this one in which he unraveled the mysteries of behavioral economics, aka the science behind buying a $4 cup of coffee or preferring specialty beer.

Last fall Fortune Magazine described Ariely as one of “10 new gurus you should know.” They like him because he applies statistical science to consumer behavior and helps companies save money on things like insurance claims and clothing returns. I like him because he’s one of the few men who realize that jeans qualify as business pants and because he’s a riveting speaker.

Whenever I encounter someone of above-normal intelligence, my first thought is always, “Let’s get this guy to Washington ASAP. He and Obama need to do lunch.” I imagine the first half of these meetings of the minds will be devoted to discussing how clever a matchmaker I am; the second half to policy decisions. And sure enough, Ariely has sage advice for the president. When asked about the outrageous AIG bonuses, Ariely said that he’s against capping bonuses in the future; instead, the CEOs should get nothing. They’re likely to do a better job for zero dollars than for $500,000. He said it’s like when you ask someone to help you move furniture for an hour. The friend volunteers out of the goodness of his heart, but the minute you offer to pay him some paltry amount like $5 (the equivalent of half a million for Mr. AIG), it’s demotivating. The person thinks, “My time is worth at least $20 an hour.” When market forces enter into the equation, the social incentive vanishes. Which is why I pay everybody in pizza. Speaking of which, if we paid the IRS in pizza instead of dollars, people would be more likely to cheat on their taxes. The further removed the commodity is from actual money, Ariely says, the more likely we are to justify fudging the numbers (or slices in this case).

By the way, I have been up learning interesting things for four hours, so I think that buys me precisely six hours of naptime and watching television on the internet.

Personal regrets from past book festivals

The following luminaries were in Charlottesville on March 24, 2004, for that year’s Virginia Festival of the Book: Michael Chabon, Edward P. Jones, Clyde Edgerton, and Michael Ondaatje. Did anyone who reads this blog see them in person? Did anyone buy them a drink, or if they don’t drink, a club soda? Did anyone gush nonsensically to Chabon about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or to Jones about The Known World like I would have done? Did anyone spray them with joyous spittle while welcoming them to Charlottesville’s Omni Hotel? And did any of you girls high-five Lois Lowry in 1997 and then tell her at length about your first menstrual periods?! I can only hope you did. Meanwhile I will try to make up for lost time when VABook 2009 starts tomorrow.

Dereliction of literary duty

Not only did I publish zero books this year, thereby contributing nothing to the Virginia literary economy, but I have also been shirking my blogging duties for the Virginia Festival of the Book 2009. “What a punk!” says Michael Dirda. “She should be fired!” says Rita Dove. “I’m going to teach her a lesson!” says John Grisham. “I am totally okay with that!” says Wistar Murray.

Yesterday I finally assembled my “Book Bag” thanks to an ingenious tool on the VFB website that lets you create a personal calendar of book events. I always get a little trigger-happy with the Book Bag and end up cyber-committing to readings that conflict with work, meal-times, my personal taste, and each other. If the Virginia Festival of the Book had a VIP gift lounge like the Sundance Film Festival’s, I would be in there loading up on Ugg boots and snowboard bindings and Mariah Carey CDs just because they were free. But fortunately for my legions of fans, my Book Bag also contains events that I will 100% definitely attend (unless it’s raining or I’m sleepy). I present them here in chronological order:

Business Breakfast: Predictably Irrational with Dan Ariely (At the ungodly hour of 7:30AM! But there will be donuts. And I’m going to wear my only pair of business-style pants, loved by my husband because they give me the appearance of making a salary.)

Doctors Who Write (Dad, you’re my date. Heads-up. I am also expecting dinner and drinks afterward.)

What Are You Driving At? Cars, Culture, and an Impending Crisis (I’m hoping this event’s moderators will focus on fixing my muffler, which is in critical condition.)

Lifting Depression: Have Important Clues Been in Our Hands All Along? (Yes, if you substitute “Prozac” for “Clues” and “My” for “Our” and “Off And On Since 1994” for “All Along.” Then you’d have to go back and change “Have” to “Has” in order to get the verb to agree with the subject. I guess you might as well just start the sentence over.)

The Late-Night Story Slam (This event combines three of my favorite things: drinking, narrative, and heckling. I mean “audience participation.”)

So Many Books. . . The Pleasures of Reading (I’m looking for recommendations to replace Frank Herbert’s Dune, my book club’s latest pick, chosen after five bottles of wine.)

The Oceans (I would be there if I could be in multiple places at once – like the great white shark, my arch nemesis.)

Book Review Superstars (Does the fact that I don’t think the word “superstars” in this context is hyperbole make me a dork?)

Regular and Decaf: One Friend with Schizophrenia, One Friend with Bipolar (I’m not trying to belittle the importance of mental illness education, but where there’s coffee there’s usually pastries.)

Annual Book Fair at the Omni (Last year I was given a lot of promotional items, chiefly candy, and met an author who said that the black race would disappear within 20 years. I was so disturbed by this pronouncement that I spent an hour Googling him and his book – to no avail because after our encounter I’d promptly forgotten his name and the name of his book. I actually don’t think he was invited to the festival or to the Omni; he was just a man with a bizarre idea and a fold-out table.)

Agents Roundtable (It can’t hurt.)

Authors’ Reception (The party to end all parties! Except it only lasts until 8pm.)

Truth, Justice, and the American Way: An Evening with John Grisham and Stephen L. Carter (I will be there unless Grisham’s restraining order goes through.)

Virginia Arts of the Book Center: Open House (I will be there if I haven’t been up all night partying with Grisham and company. My buddy Kristin is moderating. I will try not to heckle her like the story slam people.)

Francois Coty: The Perfume Magnate (I will say “That’s funny because MY perfume is a BOY MAGNET” and we will all cackle in French accents.)

Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World (But only because I’m a huge Jerry West fan. And because I coached the 1960 USA Rollerblading team.)

Hating to write is not so unusual in the writing business

In a recent Guardian interview with Colm Toibin (a 2008 VA Festival of the Book participant), the Booker-shortlisted author says, “I write with a sort of grim determination to deal with things that are hidden and difficult and this means, I think, that pleasure is out of the question.” Writing is “never fun,” according to Toibin, but it’s necessary.

The interview reminded me of something Dorothy Parker once told me: “I hate writing, I love having written.” Sometimes writing is what you have to do in order to get the monkey off your back. And sometimes you have to adopt another, more vicious monkey like a drinking problem in order to get the first monkey off your back. And either way you’re probably going to turn out an unpublished loser.

Speaking of writing quotes, Opium Magazine is collecting them as part of its Network of Writers Experiment. You have until 5 o’clock today to beat the following quote by “pr,” an HTML GIANT commenter: “If you are not getting ass fucked nightly by aliens, you will never be as good as Hemingway.”

The VA Festival of the Book contains more human interest stories than the Oscars

We all know that John Grisham used to practice law, but did we know that Harley Jane Kozak, a VA Festival of the Book Crime Wave headliner, was the beautiful Buckman wife serenaded by Rick Moranis in Parenthood? You remember – “Nathan, we’re trying so hard to keep these kids off drugs.” I loved her in that movie. She was also in both Arachnophobia and When Harry Met Sally. But in the past five years she’s published four novels. It was about time she got a real job!

Ms. Kozak probably hates it when people remind her of her sordid past as a stunning and critically acclaimed Hollywood actress, but I’m not in this blogging game to make friends. Speaking of which, if I tried to collaborate on a blog with my five best friends like Harley does in The Lipstick Chronicles, I would surely lose my marbles. If writing was a team sport, I would be playing third string in the d-league of a junior college. And I’d probably have to pay for my own uniform. And my name would be misspelled in the roster. Go on, you say? And I’d spend most games hanging out by the vending machine waiting for candy to fall out. But here in this circumscribed writing world where every day I play myself for the championship title, my pitching arm is strong and I’m chewing Big League Gum and I’m going to knock that other girl’s teeth out if she dares to step between me and home plate. Score: zero, zero. Winner: me!

Maybe Harley will let me be her ballgirl. I can at least bring her a bottle of Gatorade when she reads on March 21st.

The Virginia Festival of the Book is like Bonnaroo but for sexy people

Why do I say that? No reason.

I’m outrageous!

The truth is the Virginia Festival of the Book is better than any music festival you can shake a porcupine pie at and that’s because the VFB doesn’t buy into the whole concept of “cool” or even that of “music festival.” The VA Festival of the Book doesn’t try to wow you with its “Clean Vibes’ Trading Posts” or its Yoga Classes or its rock ‘n’ roll or its Yeah Yeah Yeahs. People don’t bus onto the festival grounds because they want to get a henna tattoo and smoke weed with John Grisham. They come because I’m here. In my capacity as a headlining VFB blogger, I demand that you join me for this important event, March 18-22, 2009. Here are some highlights:

Stephen L. Carter of Yale and John Grisham of My Pants are going to have a handsome contest and I don’t know who’s going to win, but I will be judging strenuously. I feel bad for the writers who aren’t given enough credit for being sex objects. I want to print their book jackets on giant posters and distribute them to teen girls.

Doctors are going to bridge the gap between medicine and writing. I am going to grow a hernia thinking of something funny to say about it. Then the doctors are going to operate on me and I’ll be cured! Haha!

Rita Dove is going to read from her new book of poetry accompanied by a member of the Dave Matthews Band, Boyd Tinsley. He will be jamming on his electric poetry violin which will plug into his poetry road amp, nicknamed Will-jam Butler Yeats. Maybe Nikki Jamiovanni. Oh god.

Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, is going to eat croutons and peanut butter sausages or perhaps something even more unexpected at his business breakfast.

I am going to have an awesome time shmoozing at the Authors’ Reception, just like last year when I met these precocious young ladies and ate my weight in hors d’oeuvres and (swoon!) got a literary agent’s e-mail address. The VFB Authors’ Reception is my Vanity Fair Oscar Party.