Sunday, June 30, 2013

Notes From the Third Row: Nantucket Book Festival, Part I

When I was growing up, my father planned many family vacations around "business," which typically meant that one afternoon -- while my mother and I lounged poolside in Miami Beach or California -- my father went off for lunch with an old buddy in the polyester industry (it was the 60s and early 70s, folks).  I think the closest they got to discussing business was a quick "How's business?" followed by "Pretty good," then "I'm going to try the lobster."

In other words, just enough business to justify expensing the whole trip. (Of course, if anyone reading this works for the IRS, this is meant strictly as irony).

I learned a lot from my father.  

Last week I went on a vacation "business" trip, only I didn't take the family along.

Could there be a nicer place than the island of Nantucket, off the Massachusetts coast south of Cape Cod, for a business-combined-with-pleasure trip?  In June? As the guest of someone who had rented a sweet cottage, planned all meals and outings, and made sure we had wifi but also that we didn't use it much. I spent four relaxing days there, combining a much-needed mental and physical break from my regular life (can you say stress?), with a lovely plunge into the gathering of folks in love with books, authors, and writing, that is the Nantucket Book Festival.

Here are a few of the gems that stuck with me.

> At his keynote, Dennis Lehane (author of many bestselling novels including those that became the films Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone) said he had 20 reasons for why he writes. Numbers 1 through 10, he said, were all "because of libraries" and the role they played in his literary development, beginning with an impoverished childhood immeasurably enriched when a library card was placed in his hand. Numbers 11 through 20 all had to do with telling stories.

> Will Schwalbe, author of the memoir The End of Your Life Book Club (I was listening to his book on CD on my drive from NJ to the ferry in Hyannis, MA), made me sit up straighter when he said, "We are all in the end-of-your-life book club. We never know what will be the last book we will read." (Fun fact: Schwalbe is the founder of Cookstr, a terrific recipe site.)

Maggie Shipstead, author of the novel Seating Arrangements (which I'm reading now), discussed putting characters in  tough situations. Referencing her book's protagonist, she said, "He wanted sons, so I have him daughters. He wanted the wedding to be perfect, so his daughter is pregnant. He wanted everything perfect, so I made everything difficult." She said that "torturing" him was a way to reveal his character all along the narrative line.

I got to talk informally throughout the weekend with Schwalbe and Shipstead; I love finding out authors whose work I admire are also lovely people -- fun, funny, warm.

A few of the presentations, panels, and readings I especially liked:

Ann Leary, author of the novel The Good House.  She read just a few short sections,  interspersed with stories about writing inspiration/process.  The opening lines of her book are from a conversation with a realtor she once consulted during one of her "I'm depressed so I'll look at houses" moods. She had her early morning audience laughing and nodding. She writes mostly in bed.

Charles Graeber, author of the nonfiction book The Good Nurse, about serial murderer/nurse Charles Cullen, admitted it was slightly "creepy" to be the only person the jailed convict would speak to. He wrote the second half of the book in the voice of the detectives, who honed their police skills on violent Newark streets before moving on to suburban New Jersey. Was it fun learning how Cullen killed so many people in hospitals near my home, including the one where my kids were born?  Nope. But based on the excerpt Graeber read, I will read his book; excellent reportage combined with storytelling.

Amy Brill, author of the novel The Movement of Stars, based on 19th century Nantucket astronomer Maria Mitchell, had a big audience filled with members of the local scientific society. It took her more than 10 years of research, thought, writing and rewriting to craft the final manuscript, and she once lost a huge cache of hard copy research materials on an overseas flight.

A group presentation, led by poet Wyn Cooper, on the "intersection of poetry and song" examined the connection between what panelist Charlotte Pence, author of the anthology The Poetics of American Song Lyrics, called the "sister genres" of poetry and lyrics. Cellist and vocalist Jody Redhage described how she composes original music to accompany poems in a manner I cannot possibly explain, but at the moment, felt I completely understood. I have a love of lyrics and greatly admire those who can write narrative song lyrics. 

I'll have more highlights from the Nantucket Book Fest in another post soon.

This is part of a very occasional series on interesting stuff I pick up while sitting in the audience at a literary event of some sort. 


ElaineLK said...

Sounds wonderful, Lisa! I just love conferences. I'm tentatively planning to go to the AWP in Seattle next year. Ever been to that one? It's excellent--way too many sessions to get to!

Lisa Allen Lambert said...

Oh, I am so envious, Lisa! I grew up on the island, in the days when the island emptied on Labor Day weekend and there were only 2000 or so of us left for a long, gray fall-winter-spring. The children's room at the Atheneum Library was my refuge -- I read every single biography, as well as fiction. Am putting this on my calendar for 2014 with high hopes.

Lisa Romeo said...

@ElaineLK - I've been to AWP before and it's a wonderful, chaotic, busy, exhausting, excellent way to spend a few days! Don't know if I can make it to Seattle though. Enjoy.

@Lisa Allen Lambert - Oh, lucky you to have spent so much time there. Loved the Atheneum, and so much else. Definitely put in on your calendar next June!