Yesterday I went to the annual National Book Festival in Washington D.C., organized by the Library of Congress. What an exciting experience! Huge white tents representing each genre, hovered like parachutes over the Mall, serving as pavilions for hundreds of book lovers listening to their favorite authors talking about their work; dozens of volunteers in orange T-shirts handing out to attendees bookbags and bookmarks, programs of the events, brochures with information on the U.S. copyright, e-books, various reading programs, and whatnot. There were activities galore for all ages of readers.
I had the pleasure of listening to Joyce Carol Oates (connect with her on Twitter here), an award winning author of 70 works, 40 of which are novels. She is just as brilliant a speaker as she is a writer.
She talked about her latest book, The Accursed, a historical novel with elements of the supernatural, set in Princeton, early 19th century. She brought into it some famous people, like Woodrow Wilson, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Oscar Wilde, presenting them as they were, instead of idealizing them, she said. I felt intrigued. I’ll certainly read it.
Her answers to the questions from the audience were fascinating. Here are some of them (I paraphrase):
“We writers are so narcissistic and self-absorbed! When we have a problem with a novel in progress, we think, Oh, I have to finish it at all cost because if I don’t, what will happen to it if I die? But when we finally do finish it, we become melancholy, missing that angst…”
“There are times when we feel like we’re in a state of paralysis: we can’t find the right voice for our character. But when we find it, it feels sudden, like striking a match.”
“I like to write about something in American history that has never been solved.”
Her advice to aspiring writers: “Take time between writing the drafts of your novel and editing it. Take days or weeks. When you get back to it, you’ll look at it with fresh eyes.”
I was happy to “discover” Roxana Robinson, the author of several novels and collections of short stories. She is also a wonderful speaker and a very good writer, judging by a big crowd of listeners she had gathered and the praise of her work she’d garnered.
Robinson introduced her latest novel Sparta, which is about the estrangement from society and normal life that modern soldiers experience upon their return from the war. I put it on my reading list.
The author talked extensively about her research for the book—reading documents, meeting with war veterans and their families, as well as the enormous challenge that she, a Quaker with a conscientious objection of any war, had faced while writing the novel.
Here are some of her quotes that I especially liked:
“As a novelist, my job is not to judge, but to understand what it’s like to be a marine and to fight in war.”
“As a novelist, I’m compelled by complex themes and experiences. When you write a novel, you go places where you’ve never been to, in order to depict people and their experiences (being a heroin addict or a policeman).”
To a question if it’s easy for her to write, Robinson said: “No, it’s not easy. You’re trying to do two things: First, you’re trying to put something beautiful on the page and do it the way you’ve never done before. Secondly, you’re trying to convey exactly what’s in your head and heart, and it’s hard.” I totally agree.
It was my fist time to attend a book fest on such a grand scale, and it certainly wasn’t my last. I’m hooked! 🙂