Nantucket Book Festival -June 2015

Pairing Readers and Authors

by: John Stanton

The guy randomly sharing a table with me at Handlebar Café wanted to know what I thought of the book I was reading.

“I think these are celebrations of books and writing, and I think that’s how both the authors and audiences feel.” Nancy Thayer
He had finished it only a week before and had his own opinions. If you are a lover of books, you have most likely experienced one of those moments. This time it was Helen Macdonald’s “H is for Hawk.” But the same thing happened a few years ago, when I was sitting in a bar in Boston reading Colum McCann’s novel, “Let the Great World Spin.”

“When you see somebody who is reading, you know they’re a person who reads and not everybody is,” said island author Nancy Thayer, whose latest book “The Guest Cottage” is in bookstores now. “I sometimes approach people on the ferry. I love to approach people who are reading and ask them about it. They’ll almost always be happy to talk about it.”

Reading, like the work of writing, is a solitary business. The novelist Kurt Vonnegut once called reading a version of meditation. The novelist Frank Conroy once suggested that writing was akin to being a bear in a cave.

Yet there is the urge to connect as readers outside the world constructed by the author. Sometimes it is the book itself – and we all have our own lists in our heads. Sometimes it is the author – and we all have

our favorites. So we go to readings, which are inevitably on some rainy evening, in the back of a bookstore, where we eat small cubes of stale cheese, sit on rickety chairs and listen to a writer try to read his work in the face of a disappointingly-small crowd.

And then there are book festivals, which at their best bring readers and authors together over a few days, in a celebration of books and the act of reading.

“At a book festival, if you are a reader, you get to talk to other readers,” Thayer said. “You can do that more freely. It’s a much more social occasion, a sort of drawn-out social occasion that goes on for three days. It becomes a kind of world that you’re in.

“I think these are celebrations of books and writing and I think that’s how both the authors and audiences feel. It always just seems like a very happy event. You’re in a world that is all about books for a few days.”

The fourth annual Nantucket Book Festival runs June 19-21. Among the authors in attendance will be Ishmael Beah (“Radiance of Tomorrow”), Anita Diamant (“The Boston Girl”), Kari Ann Holt (“Rhyme Schemer”), Bret Anthony Johnson (“Remember Me Like This”), Azar Nafisi (“The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books”), Scott Turow (“Identical”), and Paul Muldoon (“One Thousand Things Worth Knowing”).

Most of the events are free, allowing for a casual and accessible atmosphere for readers to walk among the different writers and roundtables and genres, and perhaps walk away with those small epiphanies that certain books sometimes deliver.

Authors and books are selected by a four-person committee – Annye Camara, Dick Burns, Amy Jenness and Tharon Dunn. Because of the nature of books, and because unlike a film festival books are not submitted for consideration, this can sometimes be a long and wandering process.

There are advance copies of books to be read, along with The New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books. There are authors to keep tabs on through the Internet, and literary festivals and publishing events to attend in person.

“You get to know who these authors are and say to yourself, if this guy or this woman ever puts a book together about this topic it will be great,” said Camara, who before becoming the owner/operator of Annye’s Whole Foods, owned and operated Books & Company in Ohio.

“So we are very proactive. We think we have a good eye for picking writers who will be stars. Anthony Mara won his award (the National Book Critics John Leonard Prize for first books for “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena”) after he was invited here last year. So we feel proud that we are sort of on the case all the time.

“Dick goes to the Brattleboro and Galway literary festivals. And Wendy (Hudson, the owner of Mitchell’s Book Corner and Nantucket Bookworks) goes to a lot of events. She’ll come back and say, ‘You know I heard somebody who was a really great speaker...’ This past year I was visiting family in Texas and went to a book festival there. A couple who are coming this year are people I met there.”

In his blog for the festival, Burns wrote that, “Occasionally, on NPR, we heard Terry Gross interview a particularly fascinating writer. In the aisles of the Stop & Shop friends would stop us to make author suggestions. Then, someone’s child would voice the wish to meet the author of a special book.”

Both Burns and Camara agree that the main mission of the book festival is to bring readers and authors together.

“I think it’s not so much bringing people together with books, it’s about bringing individuals together with writers,” Camara said. “There are sociable readers and introverted readers. But what a festival is doing is getting people together with the writers. The draw is the writers or their messages. Maybe it’s also about being with like-minded people, or the excitement of seeing someone whose work we all love.”

Thayer, who lives on Nantucket and is the author of 27 books, said that for a writer, the chance to break out of the solitary working life is always a welcome experience.

“I think a lot of (the attraction) is because writers do work in such solitude that when we get to talk at a book festival it is wonderful to see the people who actually read our books, to see real faces and listen to them ask real questions,” she said. “I always enjoy talking to my readers.”

The committee settles on a list of around 100 authors, then whittles that down to about 30, then begins the process of reaching out to those authors and seeing who is available to come to the island for the three-day festival, Camara said.

The festival has only five events that require buying a ticket. The rest you can just walk into. They also have an association with the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, in Washington, D.C., and through it have brought writers – like Jacqueline Woodson, winner of the John Newbery Medal for children’s books and the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature – into the classroom.

“It is also so much fun to bring in somebody here who is not known to a popular audience, and to have people be blown away,” Camara said. “Last year we had Cynthia Bond, and her first novel ‘Ruby’ was just incendiary, beautifully written. We take a lot of satisfaction, and this is the fun part, having people see what is new and fresh.”

When he is in the audience at a book festival Burns said he finds that the reaction is almost always personal, even if he is sitting in a full room.

“I feel the one-on-one connection when I go to readings,” he said. “My reaction to the reading or talk by a writer will be different than anyone else’s. We may try to understand a general overreaching meaning but much of the appeal is like reading a book. It is a personal and private experience.”

The attraction of book festivals sometimes comes down to something simpler, Thayer said.

“I just like seeing what writers look like in person,” she said, only half-joking.

John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker living on Nantucket. He is a frequent contributor to Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror.

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