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Tenth annual Book Festival wows crowds

September 21, 2015 By Rob Abruzzese, Kathryn Cardin and Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The turnout for Sunday's tenth Annual Brooklyn Book Festival is estimated at 40,000. Eagle photo by Rob Abruzzese

Star Power. Brain Power. A Literati’s Love Fest.

B’KLYN was a bibliophiles’ playground Sunday.

An estimated 40,000 people lined up to meet hundreds of authors — including literary lights and celebs such as Salman Rushdie and John Leguizamo — at the tenth annual Brooklyn Book Festival.

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The city’s largest free literary festival took over Columbus Park near Brooklyn Borough Hall and Downtown Brooklyn and Brooklyn Heights venues such as Brooklyn Law School, St. Francis College, St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church and the Brooklyn Historical Society.

Topics for author talks ran the gamut from Internet shaming to new poetry. Publishers from Penguin Random House to the Feminist Press at the City University of New York sold their wares in the open air.


Jonathan Lethem received a Best of Brooklyn Inc. Award, or BoBi, in connection with the festival. Some of his novels such as “The Fortress of Solitude” use Boerum Hill, where he grew up, as their backdrop.

“Book”-lyn is the Numero Uno borough for books, the home to generations of writers from Thomas Wolfe to Truman Capote to Jennifer Egan.

The Brooklyn Book Festival was founded by then-Borough President Marty Markowitz and the Brooklyn Literary Council in 2006. Current co-producers Carolyn Greer and Liz Koch were founding members of the festival on Markowitz’s staff.

 

Paul Holdengräber and Salman Rushdie in Conversation

The novelist with the Ayatollah’s fatwa hanging over his head is flourishing.

Salman Rushdie has published a dozen books since the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini declared a death sentence against the Indian-born author a quarter-century ago because of his novel “The Satanic Verses.” Last year another Muslim cleric reminded worshippers in Tehran the price on Rushdie’s head is $3.3 million.

Rushdie’s new novel, “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights,” is an erudite and entertaining work about the jinn (what many of us think of as genies) waging a War of the Worlds on planet Earth.

Surrealist artist René Magritte and Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buňuel have had a big influence on his work, and his new novel is their kind of story, he told the audience — some of whom lined up an hour and a half early to hear him speak. He had no desire to write the novel in the “painstakingly naturalistic” manner that’s currently in vogue, he said.

The character in his new book who most exemplifies Rushdie’s personal point of view is New York City’s mayor, Rosa Fast, he said.

“She was the kind of atheist who could believe in miracles without conceding their divine provenance,”  is how the novel describes her.

Concrete Jungle — Where Dreams Are Made

New York City has produced an enormous number of famous literary figures throughout history. John Leguizamo, who spent most of his childhood in Queens, and Jonathan Lethem, who grew up at the intersection of Dean and Nevins streets in what is now called Boerum Hill, are two recent examples.

As he sipped from his Lassen & Hennigs coffee cup, Leguizamo described how the city shaped him and his upcoming graphic novel, “Ghetto Klown.”

From kicking in the door to the conductor’s booth on the 7 train and creating what he called his own open mic night as a young boy to encountering real‐life characters who influenced the creation of somewhat fictional characters in his books and one‐man shows, he was able to make up for the lack of history he, as a part of the Latino community, felt in Queens during the 1980s, he said.

Lethem, who presented photographs of 1980s Brooklyn in his novel “Dissident Gardens,” told about a time when he discussed future job prospects with a childhood friend and neighbor.

“You can [grow up] to either be a cop or a criminal — or a writer,” Lethem said. “… I think of New York as this machine for producing Americans. And everyone who is a part of the American story is going to be interested in that.”  

If You Don’t Laugh, You’ll Cry

Comedian Judah Friedlander finds inspiration in the pitfalls of his life.

“For me it’s related,” said “30 Rock” actor Friedlander. “Generally stand-ups are complete mental cases, and there are things I constantly struggle with and I think humor is something that you can do.

I don’t know if it erases or solves things, but it certainly eases things. It’s a way to get through life.

“Having a sense of humor as a survival tactic is good,” Friedlander continued. “There is a lot of stuff out there and if you don’t laugh at it, it can become too much.”

Friedlander’s book, “If the Raindrops United,” uses his quirky brand of humor to poke fun at society’s toughest issues.

The Writer’s Life

Losing her husband of 47 years, Raymond Smith, was a “vertiginous and hallucinatory” experience,  Joyce Carol Oates said.

To best capture her searing grief, she wrote “A Widow’s Story: A Memoir” in the “historical present” with material drawn from journal entries and emails.

In contrast, her poignant recently-published memoir, “The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age,” is a past-tense recounting of recollections of her girlhood in rural western New York and her education at Syracuse University, where she was the valedictorian of the Class of 1960.

Writing in retrospect, the author of more than 40 novels said, is “cooler” and more sane.”

David Simon and Nelson George in Conversation

There’s a growing reliance on novelists as writers for television. David Simon and Nelson George are in on this trend.

Simon is an author who wrote and produced HBO’s “The Wire.” George, another author, was the writer and producer of  BET’s “American Gangster.”

The biggest difference in writing for print versus writing for TV, both said, was adjusting to the “writer’s room” where a novelist has full control over the final product, but a television writer has input from many different writers before a show is finished. Each had a different opinion of the practice.

“It’s very frustrating for someone who is used to being able to write what they want to write and now, all of a sudden, you have a few different voices in one story,” George said.

Simon, in contrast, said that the writer’s room reminded him of his days working for a newspaper where a group of editors would argue over every piece in order to improve the overall product. “Argument makes everything better,” he said.   

Retribution

Dennis Lehane is working on a novel set in the present that’s “totally different from anything I’ve done before,” he said.

It’s “concerned with yuppies” and takes place in “upscale Boston, which is kinda weird,” he added.

Past novels of his including “Mystic River” and “Gone, Baby, Gone” are set in working-class Boston.

His most recent book is “World Gone By,” a novel set in Tampa and Cuba during World War II about the fate of former crime boss Joe Coughlin, who doesn’t have any enemies, or so everybody thinks until the story begins.

Lehane told the Brooklyn Eagle he writes his novels in long-hand. No computer. Not even an old-fashioned typewriter.

Modern Families

Four writers sat on stools, shaded from the sun, and discussed their families. What makes a family happy? What makes a family worth writing about?

Augusten Burroughs, Kate Bolick, Robert Christgau and Charles Blow explained to the audience how their families had shaped them — the good and the bad, the tragic and the fantastic — and how this in turn has driven their writing.

Burroughs, author of “Running with Scissors” and other acclaimed memoirs, calmly talked about his mentally ill mother, his alcoholic father and the family of his mother’s psychotic psychiatrist with whom he lived as a young man.

He mentioned the “toilet bowl readings” the family would do on the front lawn with patients while the psychiatrist would sit nearby taking notes.

“They sued me after the book came out,” Burroughs said. “I thought they were going to like it.”

As each author conveyed, the aftermath of writing about family and loved ones can be terrifying, but can also be extremely gratifying on personal and philosophical levels.

Despite the legal headaches, “I’ve been writing since I was 12 or 13, because it allows me to be still and have thoughts,” Burroughs said.

“It’s soothing, like, medicinal in a way. It either helps me in the moment to see what I’m feeling or it appeals to the collector in me.” 

The Lost Middle Class

Pulitzer Prize winner Margo Jefferson grew up in a privileged social stratum in the 1950s and early 1960s that was known by names including “the Negro elite” and “the colored aristocracy,” she said.

When she was a child at the University of Chicago Laboratory School, something a white classmate said one day prompted her to ask her mother, “Are we rich?” and “Are we upper class?”

Jefferson’s mother explained that the proper answer to the first question was, “We’re comfortable.”  

To answer the second question, her mother told her, “We’re considered upper-class Negroes and upper-middle-class Americans. But most people would like to consider us Just More Negroes.”  

Jefferson’s recently published book, “Negroland: A Memoir,” is a mesmerizing evocation of the vanished world of mid-20th Century America’s wealthy African Americans, their hard-won accomplishments and gentility.

Making a Novel from Life

What makes a novel a novel?

These authors can’t agree — which is one of those things that makes the art of fiction interesting.

“Novels modify the way we understand human relationships, cities and space that we don’t come to on our own,” said Valeria Luiselli, a young author who was born in Mexico City and grew up in South Africa.

She read from her book “The Story of My Teeth,” which minutely described a man’s routine, normal morning from his perspective — including all‐too‐personal physical details.

The audience laughed in discomfort, but also seemed to acknowledge the truth in her words.



The other authors on the panel with moderator Molly Rose Quinn also took risks with their novels’ points of view.

Mitchell S. Jackson described a haunting day‐to‐day job search by a middle-aged woman. Sarah Gerard honed in on an eating disorder taking hold of a young, addiction‐prone woman.

The authors recognized the ways in which their personal experiences helped them to see these new points of view clearly, making the risks they took worthwhile and successful in their own ways.

Time Traveling

For author Jami Attenberg, the past influences issues in the present.

“I was really drawn to [the book’s protagonist] Mazie because she was a really good person, but also a deeply flawed person — and I say this as someone who is nursing a hangover right now,” Attenberg said.

“I didn’t set out to write about this time and place, but I was drawn to this character and I thought that there was something to be learned from her,” the novelist added.

Attenberg’s book, “Saint Mazie: A Novel,” follows Mazie Phillips through early 20th-century New York and the Jazz Age.


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