I love book festivals. Today I'm off to the Montana Festival of the Book, in Missoula, where I'll be reading with the short story writer and essayist Charles D'Ambrosio and the novelist David Long and sitting on a panel to talk about fiction writing.
In November I'll read at the Miami Book Fair International. Last week I read at Thin Air, the Winnipeg, Manitoba book festival, where one of the Canadian authors told me that almost all of the Canadian readings are done at book festivals — each city has a book fair and authors just make the rounds. It certainly sounds more civilized than sitting in a Barnes and Noble in some suburban mall, hoping a few shoppers from The Gap happen to stumble in while you try to read over the sound of the Orange Julius machine.
Festivals are a great chance to see several authors at once. I remember at the L.A. Times Book Festival one year having to decide whether to go see Francine Prose or George Plimpton, Ray Bradbury or Dave Eggers. (One thing that wasn't fun at the L.A. festival was signing books at the same time as Bradbury. My table was set up next to his. His line went halfway around the UCLA campus. My line, if you can call six people a line, was just a bit smaller.)
My hometown, Spokane, has a great festival called Get Lit, where any given year you might hear David Sedaris, Kurt Vonnegut, or Marilynne Robinson, along with dozens of other regional and national authors. Portland's Wordstock is another great festival, which used to be held in the spring and now — I understand — is moving to late fall.
Not every author can stand up and read his or her work and have it be as powerful as encountering it on the page. And usually, authors have to do more than just read. I was excited one year to hear the great Russell Banks read at Wordstock but that's pretty much all he did — read for almost an hour in a hot ballroom — while heads bobbed and people snored.
With that in mind, here are the best festival readings I've ever seen (and heard):
3. Joyce Carol Oates (L.A. Times Book Festival). Here's this tiny, bookish woman reading from her novel, Blonde, and straining to answer questions, and it was enthralling. Everyone knows how prolific Oates is — she even gets knocked for it — but to see someone so committed to her craft that she can't stop writing was inspiring.
2. Marilynne Robinson (Get Lit, Spokane). Her reading style fits her prose — a quiet, powerful perfectionism that has you leaning forward in your seat. As she read from a scene from Gilead (in which a horse falls into a tunnel used to smuggle runaway slaves), she burst into laughter and said, backing away from the microphone, "I still can't believe I made this up."
1. Salman Rushdie (Get Lit, Spokane). Like his best fiction, he was funny and smart and challenging. He fielded questions, read nonfiction and fiction (including a riotous sex scene that consisted mostly of unfinished thoughts), and completely commanded the stage. I arrived thinking he might be dry and left thinking: Oh, right. Brilliance.
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Jess Walter is the author of eight books, including Beautiful Ruins and We Live in Water. He's been a finalist for the National Book Award and PEN/USA Literary prize and won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best novel.
Books mentioned in this post
Jess Walter is the author of Beautiful Ruins (P.S.)