West Virginia Book Festival

“Serious” literature for Halloween? Why not?

In 11th grade, our English teacher had each of us pick an American author and do a big project around him or her. One of my friends wanted to pick Stephen King, but the teacher wouldn’t let him. Stephen King, she said, was not “literature.”

Halloween seems a good time to note that that distinction has become more blurred over the past couple of decades, as “serious” writers churn out books and stories that would previously have been shunted off to genre sections like horror, science fiction and mystery. The latest example is Colson Whitehead, author of such well-received novels as “The Intuitionist,” “John Henry Days” and “Sag Harbor.” His zombie novel, “Zone One,” was released earlier this month to good reviews, and is on several best-seller lists.

Joe Fassler had a great piece in The Atlantic last week that looked at the phenomenon and some possible reasons behind it. In the story, Whitehead said part of the reason is modern-day novelists have a different set of cultural references:

Colson Whitehead told me that he thinks we’re seeing the first tremors in a seismic shift of influences. In his view, novelists and short-story writers working today are no longer afraid to embrace the pop cultural influences that excited them as kids. He remembers growing up when VCRs were a hot new thing, and renting horror movies on Friday nights was a part of his childhood education. For him, writing genre acknowledges influences that were always there—his love for comic books as well as literary books.

“I think that people of my generation are more comfortable making the foray into genre,” he said. “Because of macabre books, Stephen King, and probably cable. Culture changed in the ’70s and ’80s […] Look at the phenomenon of the blockbuster, whether it’s an adventure like Indiana Jones, or something like Star Wars and Star Trek. You’re exposed to that pretty early. And you’re supposed to walk away because you start reading Ernest Hemingway? It’s just one of many influences that makes you into the writer you are today.”

There have always been some genre books have transcended their limits to become classics; Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” come quickly to mind. But the trend has become more prevalent recently, as The Washington Post’s Michael Dirda noted back in 2007:

Over the past 25 years, literary fiction has increasingly disdained the strict tenets of social realism. Our finest writers are now producing what is essentially science fiction (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), alternate history (Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union) and absurdist fantasy (the short stories of George Saunders). A hot author such as Jonathan Lethem proudly introduces the work of Philip K. Dick for the Library of America. Neil Gaiman, creator of the Sandman series, has achieved rock-star status. We are living in an age when genre fiction — whether thrillers or graphic novels, children’s books or sf — seems far more exciting and relevant than well-wrought stories of adultery in Connecticut.

So when you’re adding to your personal list of favorite horror books, or maybe giving away a scary story to someone you love, you might also be reading some serious literature.

Brian Floca and Chuck Yeager

Another loose-ends post from last weekend’s West Virginia Book Festival: I failed to notice author/illustrator Brian Floca’s blog post about the festival. Floca said he was looking forward, as he journeyed to the festival, to flying into the airport named after the man who broke the speed of sound, Chuck Yeager. Floca was “remembering the bit from Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff in which he theorizes that airline pilots across the country speak in a sort of emulation of West Virginia’s own Chuck Yeager”:

That particular voice may sound vaguely Southern or Southwestern, but it is specifically Appalachian in origin. It originated in the mountains of West Virginia, in the coal country, in Lincoln County, so far up in the hollows that, as the saying went, ‘they had to pipe in daylight.’ … Military pilots and then, soon, airline pilots, pilots from Maine and Massachusetts and the Dakotas and Oregon and everywhere else, began to talk in that poker-hollow West Virginia drawl, or as close to it as they could bend their native accents. It was the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.

The whole passage, at Floca’s blog, is worth a read.

Meanwhile, we’d be remiss if we didn’t note that occasional blog contributor Mona Seghatoleslami — who interviewed Floca before the festival — has taken her talents from West Virginia Public Broadcasting to Rochester, N.Y. The Gazette’s Bill Lynch interviewed Mona on her way out the door. We’ll miss her.

National Book Award winner, NBA championship winner, and coming up on Thursday, a Pulitzer Prize winner — it’s a big award-winning week in Charleston.

Gordon S. Wood, whose book “The Radicalization of the American Revolution” won the Pulitzer for history in 1993, will deliver the annual McCreight Lecture, sponsored by the West Virginia Humanities Council. He’ll talk Thursday about the effects the American Revolution had on the American Civil War, 90 years later.

The Gazette’s Rick Steelhammer spoke with Wood last week for a story in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail, in which Wood spoke about the reasons the North was willing to go to war:

But Wood said Northerners who felt Southern secession was worth going to war over were motivated more by a desire “to save the Union and preserve this experiment in democracy” than they were in putting an immediate end to slavery.

“By the 1860s, monarchy had come back to Europe, where Napoleon III was on the throne” as ruler of the Second French Empire, Wood said. “It looked like America was the last, best hope for democracy. We had a responsibility to the world to maintain and spread democracy. I think those were the stakes that made the northern cause.”

Wood said values like liberty, equality and constitutionalism, rooted in the Revolutionary war, motivated Lincoln and other northern leaders to be willing to fight to preserve the Union.

“There’s no single American ethnicity,” he said. “What holds us together are these ideals and the special relationship we have with a group of people who fought for them more than 200 years ago. We ask all the time what George Washington or Thomas Jefferson would think of things like affirmative action. They don’t do that in England.”

The lecture is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Culture Center.

The day after

In the West Virginia Book Festival marketplace, James Casto of Huntington (right) shows his new book, "Highway to History," to Charleston resident Chuck Daugherty at the West Virginia Book Company booth. Photo by Chris Dorst.

Confession: I missed much of the West Virginia Book Festival this past weekend with “flu-like symptoms,” as they say in professional sports. But in the few hours I was there, it seemed like things were hopping pretty good.

The marketplace was full, both of vendors and of customers. I caught a few minutes of Lee Child’s talk, and he hit all the right buttons with his fans. I heard secondhand that nearly 1,000 people showed up to hear Jerry West., and that he was fantastic with the people, particularly the kids, who lined up for him to sign their books. People raved as they were coming out of the talk by ex-JFK Secret Service agents Gerald Blaine and Clint Hill. And I heard the Dave Pelzer session on Sunday was attended by more than 200 people, and Pelzer was very good about making time to talk with everyone who wanted to talk.

(The Gazette’s Megan Workman and Chris Dorst had some coverage here and here, and Kenny Kemp had some additional photo coverage here; the Daily Mail’s Bob Wojcieszak has some photos here. West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Adam Cavalier has some coverage focusing on the book sale here.)

Jaimy Gordon reads from "Lord of Misrule" at the West Virginia Book Festival. Photo by Chris Dorst.

But my lasting memory of my abbreviated Book Festival will be Jaimy Gordon at the annual Mary Lee Settle Session. She talked about her experiences in West Virginia, and how they affected her Northern Panhandle-set, National Book Award-winning novel “Lord of Misrule.”

Apparently, you can work out from the geography in “Lord of Misrule” that the main site of the novel’s action — the fictional Indian Mound Downs racetrack — is, in fact, the location of the former state penitentiary in Moundsville. Gordon said several people have figured this out and mentioned this to her. There are plenty of other recognizable West Virginia landmarks: the Natrium plant, the Poky Dot cafe, the Ritzy Lunch diner.

Gordon — who remembers seeing the Marsh Wheeling Stogies sign in Wheeling as she was driving from her Baltimore home to college in Ohio — said she’s always “aspired to be a West Virginian.” Is there a committee for that somewhere? Because we’d love to have her, right?

Anyway, thanks to all of you who came to the festival and made it a success, and thanks to the dozens of workers and volunteers who put this event together. As always, it’s much appreciated.

Same time next year?


It’s here: The 2011 West Virginia Book Festival

Well, here we are. The 11th annual West Virginia Book Festival starts in a matter of hours.

I was going to link to everything we’ve done here on the blog about this year’s authors, but that would be an awful lot of links.

Many of those links would involve the Book Festival headliners — Lee Child, Jerry West, Jaimy Gordon, Dave Pelzer. That’s only natural; they are the headliners. But they’re not the entire festival, not by a long shot.

So if you come for Lee Child or Jerry West, don’t forget to take some time to look at the other programs and wander through the marketplace. There are a lot of people in West Virginia and the surrounding region writing and publishing books, and they’d love to talk to you.

You can find out where and when all the programs are here, and where everyone is in the marketplace here.

We’ll be tweeting throughout the weekend with the hashtag #wvbookfest, so look for that.

And enjoy. Hope you hear something you like, and you find something good to read.

With the West Virginia Book Festival less than 24 hours away, there’s some last-minute coverage of the festival marketplace to mention:

| The Charleston Daily Mail’s Zack Harold has his second Book Festival story in two days, this one on one of my favorites in the festival marketplace, book appraiser Jim Presgraves of the Wytheville, Va., bookshop Bookworm and Silverfish.

| WOWK-TV has an interview with Dan Foster, who’ll be signing copies of his book “In the Crook of the Oak” at the Shadetree Publishing booth during the festival.

In a recent conversation with someone preparing to delve into the Jack Reacher series, by West Virginia Book Festival headliner Lee Child, I suggested his latest novel, “The Affair,” as a starting point. After all, it’s a prequel, the first chronologically in the series, so why not?

After finishing “The Affair” earlier this week, I think that’s not the best idea. It wouldn’t be terrible; as Susan Maguire noted yesterday in her paean to Jack Reacher, any of the books can be an entry point to the series. But you’d miss out on a nice level of contrast with the previous books.

The setup of the new book: Reacher is told by the Army to investigate a murder in a small town outside an Army base. There’s an official investigation inside the base, but Reacher is undercover in the town, in civilian garb with unkempt hair and beard.

If you’re a new Reacher reader, and you’ve heard about what a lone wolf he is, you might read “The Affair” and think, yeah, that guy sure is a lone wolf.

Old Reacher readers might have the exact opposite reaction.

In “The Affair,” Reacher is in the Army, in a hierarchical command structure. He works with other people, and sometimes even seems to enjoy it. He takes orders from people. Longtime Reacher fans may find those things incredible.

So if you’ve already chosen “The Affair” as your first Lee Child read, don’t stop. But after you’ve read a few more in the series, go back and take another look at “The Affair.” It may look very different.

Brian Floca and “Ballet for Martha”

Occasional blog contributor Mona Seghatoleslami of West Virginia Public Radio scored an interview with children’s author/illustrator Brian Floca, who’ll be at the West Virginia Book Festival on Saturday afternoon.

As Mona notes, Floca’s projects include a variety of subjects, including music and dance:

One of Floca’s recent projects was illustrating the book “Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring.” His images help to tell the story of the artistic collaboration between choreographer Martha Graham, composer Aaron Copland, and set designer Isamu Noguchi.

“I felt like I needed to learn the dance, well enough to give it to the readers in my visual ‘voice’ if you will. The most interesting and exciting part of that process for me was I got to go sit in on rehearsals by the actual Martha Graham Dance Company that exists today in New York and watch them perform … and that, it’s … I’ve really benefited so much over so many books with people’s willingness to share their own interests and concerns and process to help me, a total outsider, to make a book.

In 2004, 2-year-old Alex Bostic and 3-year-old Alexis Harmon helped their mothers peruse the children's section at the Kanawha County Public Library's used book sale at the West Virginia Book Festival. Photo by M.K. McFarland.

Three parts of last year’s West Virginia Book Festival were popular enough for people to stand in line. Besides the Nicholas Sparks and Diana Gabaldon events, there was — as there is every year — the Kanawha County Public Library’s annual used book sale.

No reason to expect anything different this year. A few hundred people will again be in line in the Charleston Civic Center lobby when the doors to the sale open at 9 a.m. Last year, a few hardy souls got there before 5 a.m. But the sale is so huge that people who don’t come until much later still find some desired books amid the long tables.

In Thursday’s Charleston Daily Mail, Zack Harold writes about the work that goes into the sale every year:

Once a month, maintenance workers take boxes of books to the library’s storage unit on Bigley Avenue, where the books are shrink-wrapped and placed on pallets.

[Sale coordinator Sandy Frercks] doesn’t know how many books will be for sale this year, but there are more than 1,000 boxes and other materials in storage waiting to be set out.

So there will be a lot of books, cheap (hardcovers $2, big paperbacks $1, small paperbacks 50 cents). Plus the collector’s corner, where you might find, say, a 300-year old Bible. All good, right?

It’s also true that if you like libraries, you should support them. The book sale raised $42,000 for the Kanawha library last year, according to the Daily Mail. Some people — OK, me — will buy a bunch of books, read them and re-donate them for the following year’s sale.

But there’s a larger issue, as a blogger at the new Bookriot website writes in a post aptly titled “All Hail the Library Book Sale.”

[A]s I shopped the sale on Saturday, I felt truly like I was actively participating in and contributing to my community with the loudest voice I’ve got – my money. Did I need all six books? No, most definitely not. But I supported a worthy cause, mingled with my neighbors, chatted with a librarian about whether I would enjoy “The Mists of Avalon” (she talked me into it), and recommended one of my favorite authors to a fellow shopper (John Irving – and she bought three of the books I suggested). In a city (Washington, DC) where everyone is from someplace else and it’s easy to feel isolated, even though everyone spouts activism and participation, being able to participate in my community in a small but significant way gave me lots of warm fuzzies.

I hadn’t thought much about this before, but I’ve been to few events in Charleston where I see strangers talking to each other as much as they do at the book sale — to say nothing of the friends and acquaintances who haven’t seen each other in a while, then find themselves on opposite sides of the paperback mystery table. The sale gets crowded, and there are some long lines, but I’ve been going for almost 15 years and everyone’s usually in a pretty good mood.

Last weekend, I went to the Rail Road Days celebration in Hinton, and stumbled upon the Summers County Public Library’s book sale. I found a couple of books. One of my companions found a couple more. Another found a bookshelf.

With a lot more to choose from this weekend, I’m looking forward to what I might find — and hoping I can carry it home.

Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher novel, “Killing Floor,” takes place mostly in small-town Georgia. His latest, “The Affair,” is set in northeast Mississippi. The first Reacher book I read, “One Shot,” finds the ex-MP in Indiana, and the one I’ve liked the best, “61 Hours,” is set in an isolated South Dakota town.

Hmmmmm … those are some pretty rural settings. And Reacher is a drifter, so he doesn’t stay in one place for long. As Child told Bill Lynch for a story in Thursday’s Gazette:

“One of the smart things I did was I decided in the beginning Jack should have no job and no location. He’s not a cop in L.A. He’s not a private eye in Chicago. He can do anything anywhere.”

So, when can we expect Jack Reacher to visit West Virginia? It could happen, Child said:

“West Virginia is definitely a very Reacher type of place … It’s a no B.S. place where people are very real. I’ll be there for two or three days, so maybe those first impressions will get filed away and pop again in a few years.”

In the meantime, we’ll enjoy having Jack Reacher’s creator with us. He’s at this weekend’s West Virginia Book Festival at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday.