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November 1, 2018 Reader Nancy Sharko Reports on the Texas Book Festival

Posted by tom

Spread throughout the grounds of the State Capitol and along Austin’s iconic Congress Avenue, the 23rd annual Texas Book Festival took place on October 27th and 28th. Founded in 1995 by Laura W. Bush, a former librarian and then First Lady of Texas, along with Mary Margaret Farabee and a dedicated group of volunteers, the Festival set out to honor Texas authors, promote the joys of reading, and benefit the state’s public libraries. The first Festival took place in November 1996 and has grown into one of the nation’s premier literary events. Nancy Sharko, one of our readers, was at the Festival and attended eight panels, featuring such authors as Chloe Benjamin, Sarah Smarsh, Casey Gerald, Tommy Orange and R.O. Kwon. In this blog post, Nancy reports on her three favorite sessions.

I do love going to book festivals but haven’t actually traveled to one in the past (Washington, DC doesn’t count as traveling to me since I go there fairly regularly). But a good friend from high school and I go on a mini-vacation every year around this time and have been talking about going to Austin for a number of years. Once I saw the timing for the Texas Book Festival, it didn’t take a lot of convincing to get her to agree (two years ago, I brought her to her first book festival at Newburyport and she loved it, even though she’s not that avid of a book reader). We met in Austin on Thursday and left on Monday, so there was definitely time to see other area attractions. When we made our plans back in August, the list of participating authors wasn’t published, and I was so excited when I saw the actual list/schedule a few weeks ago.

This was the 23rd year for the event, and it’s held right in the streets of Austin and the State Capitol Building (which is a beautiful building but required going through security each time you wanted to enter). There were tents for kids, YA, Latinx Lit, Cooking and Texas authors, along with 100+ exhibitors, including many excellent food trucks. The Festival does something else I thought was interesting. If you donate $100 or more, you get a Festival Friends Pass for two people --- kind of like the Disney fast pass for designated sessions. The weather was beautiful, which was especially great since the tents were outdoors and you needed to walk a bit. We northeasterners also really appreciate the warm temperatures since a nor’easter was hitting home over the weekend.

As usual for me with these events, there were too many interesting sessions and not enough time, even though the Festival was held on both Saturday and Sunday. The timing was also a little different and seemed awkward, in terms of easily moving from session to session. Perhaps that was intentional since you sometimes had a fair distance to walk to get to different sessions (and also go through security if you were going into the State Capitol Building).

I attended the following panels:

Other authors I would have liked to have seen included Celeste Ng, Fatima Farheen Mirza, Susan Orlean and Martin Philip (head bread baker at King Arthur Flour).

I was especially looking forward to seeing Tommy Orange, Chloe Benjamin, Rebecca Makkai and Rumaan Alam (authors of some of my favorite books of the year). They did not disappoint, with my favorite session being Chloe Benjamin and “Indie Next Authors.”

The moderator/interviewer for the session with Tommy Orange was an indie bookseller with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, which translated during the session. The three authors seemed very open and honest in talking about their backgrounds, books, challenges, etc. I loved Tommy’s description of his first interaction with indie booksellers: it felt like being around a family he wish he had. R.O. Kwon and Nicole Chung both spoke about not being exposed to Asian authors until later in their lives, which Kwon described as “like finding Korean food in a book.”

Something unexpected: Tommy likes reading books with lots of characters and doesn’t mind if his readers are initially confused (as long as they have it figured out by the end). He said that the paperback copy of THERE THERE will include a character map (his publisher’s decision). After he finished the novel, he started writing an autobiography, but then another book came to him that is moving very quickly and is a continuation of THERE THERE.

Chloe Benjamin’s interview was wonderful, and she really is just too young to have written such a wonderful book! The session was the first one on Sunday and sponsored by the Jewish Book Fair. She asked to start with a moment of silence in honor of those affected by the synagogue attack in Pittsburgh. The police presence at the event on Sunday was visibly increased, and there was a uniformed officer in the room for her full session. 

Chloe said that she is drawn to heavily researched books and started her new book two years ago, but progress is going slowly, partly because she has spent a lot of time this year promoting THE IMMORTALISTS. She said that she prefers research-driven books because she doesn't think there's anything that interesting about her life that would get a reader to commit to reading her books. There were a couple of aspects of her life that found their way into THE IMMORALISTS. For instance, she was a ballet dancer earlier in her life, and became involved with the Jewish religion more intently when her father remarried a woman where the religion was more impactful in her life. She also mentioned that she struggled with anxiety throughout her life, and THE IMMORTALISTS is a case study about dealing with uncertainty.

An interesting question from an audience member was if Chloe felt that the sex scenes in Simon's section were necessary. She said that she didn't do it for the shock value, but because it felt like it was a natural development in his life (and she didn't get any pushback from her publisher).

The most surprising session I attended was “The Unraveling American Dream” with Casey Gerald and Stephen Markley. I had heard mixed reviews of OHIO (although it's on my TBR list) and knew nothing of Casey Gerald. I thought it was unique to pair a novelist with a memoirist, but they were a wonderful combination and clearly loved each other's works (they quoted or made references to each other's books throughout the session). The moderator said that one of the reasons they got along so well was because both of their books have been said to call into question the concept of the American dream. Casey's background is fascinating. He comes from poverty, parents with challenges, and was essentially raised by his grandmother, but driven to do everything correctly (unlike his parents and the friends with whom he grew up). There was lots of great discussion and audience questions during this session (Casey has done a TED talk and is a wonderful speaker), and it went quite a bit past the 45-minute time frame.

Other than Casey's book, THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE, I didn't come away with any new additions to my TBR list, and I think part of the reason is that the authors never mentioned (or were asked) what they were reading or the names of some of their favorite writers. I did get a new podcast to check out (“Cooking By Ear”) from the moderator of the session with Edward Lee.