VA FESTIVAL OF THE BOOK, 1999
Every Spring in Charlottesville, Virginia, something terrific happens. There's this festival. And it's not a festival that honors watermelons or monster trucks. This festival honors The Book.
For four days, this town is crawling with all kinds of writers and publishers, editors, critics and literary agents. They come here from all over just so they can talk to us -- and maybe sell us a few autographed books. Crammed into those four days are more than 150 programs. Some for children, lots for grownups and all for people who love books.
This is the Virginia Festival of the Book.
I trotted from one venue to the next.
Sharon McCrumb told us a true story from the 1800's about a man who was murdered and then was buried under three separate headstones. Now there's an image that'll stick with you.
For those of us with unpublished manuscripts, these authors give us hope. If we keep at it, then one day we may be up in front of everyone, reading aloud from our hefty books, advising and inspiring other wannabes.
My favorite panel, every year, is the one that features literary agents. It's held at Charlottesville's City Council chambers. The four agents were seated way above us, like supreme court justices, or the Wizard of Oz. They made their pronouncements from on high, and we -- the great unpublished -- hung on their every word.
The piece of advice that makes me laugh, every year, is that the unpublished writer should approach several agents, and interview them all to decide which agency to go with. What a hoot.
Agents are flooded with letters from unpublished writers. They don't even want to look at your manuscript, forget about representing you.
This is like advising someone on how to marry a millionaire. Okay, approach several millionaires, interview them and decide which one you want to marry. As if!
This was the fifth year of the festival. In years past I've sat at the back of these conference rooms, along with my friend, Avery. He's a writer, too. We were like the kids at the back of the classroom, passing notes and sizing up the panelists. Afterward, we'd introduce ourselves to the speakers. You could call that networking. I call it the art of the power-schmooze. You never know who might connect you to the right literary agent, or the right publisher.
Well, this year, Avery's had his first book published, so he was one of the panelists.
This time around, even I got to be on a panel. An essay of mine was published in an anthology and eight of the writers were invited to come to the festival and read. I wondered who'd show up and listen to us, especially when Rita Dove was reading her poetry someplace else at the same time.
Well, seven people showed up to listen to us. And all but one of them was related to one of the writers. But it was fun to wear a name tag and be on a panel. We took turns reading out loud. And afterwards we signed each other's books.
There were big name authors at the Festival, too. David Baldacci, Sharon McCrumb and Alice McDermott. Rita Dove. No way were all those people crammed into the Culbreth Theatre related to them.
There was a 500-person luncheon at the Omni Hotel. Alice McDermott was the guest of honor.
I couldn't swing the twenty-five dollar ticket to the luncheon, but I wanted to listen to her speech, so they let me stand up in the back of the room - and it was packed. I was squeezed in next to a busing station. From what I could see on the plates next to me, it was a pretty good lunch. I think it was salmon.
Now, I should have eaten lunch before I got there. I don't know what I was thinking. But somewhere in the middle of Alice McDermott's speech, I thought I would faint from hunger and from standing in one spot for so long.
The subject of Alice McDermott's speech was Books That Changed My Life. She told us that books don't actually alter the course of your life - after all, you're born, you pay taxes and you die whether or not you ever made it all the way through Ulysses -- but they change how you perceive your life. At least, I think that was the gist of her speech. I was really hungry.
Earlier, I had watched as people poured into the function room. The guest of honor was the last to go in, accompanied by a gaggle of starry-eyed companions. I love this. Because, during an earlier presentation, Alice McDermott told us that she's a housewife and mother who does her writing after she takes the kids to school and decides what house-cleaning to put off in order to get a few pages written.
It's nice to know that the solitary labor that is sandwiched between cleaning a toilet and picking the kids up at school can lead to being the star of a five-hundred person luncheon. I hope everyone fawned over Alice McDermott. I hope she signed books until her hand ached. She deserves it.
On the last night of the festival, there was a wing-ding held at Carr's Hill, home of UVa president, John Casteen. Harry and I had a very good time, what with all the food and wine. John Casteen didn't appear to be home and I don't know what was up with that. If there was a party at my house, you can bet I'd be there.
But it was fun to get together with all the people we'd seen on the panels over the past few days. Only here, they no longer behaved like agents or editors or famous writers. Everyone was friendly and accessible. Sipping wine and laughing. I'm telling you, the opportunities for power-schmoozes were head-spinning.
For me, the best part of this festival was after I read my little essay aloud, when I heard the applause. People listened and they laughed and they clapped. All seven of them. It was great. How wonderful for a writer to hear applause.
And this is what's so terrific about the festival. It's called the Festival of the Book, but a book is an author's voice in print. This is a festival of the author. It honors people who write things down, people who tell stories.
In daily life, most writers are not even honored with so much as a paycheck. My children think that Mum has this embarrassing hobby, as though writing essays and novels is like making jewelry out of macaroni or using decoupage to paper the walls.
But once a year, for four days - right here in Charlottesville - there's a coming together of writers and readers. What a great idea.
By the way, if you like this essay, when it's over, could you applaud? Just this once.