The Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University in Northern Virginia began on Wednesday this week and continues through Sunday. Because the time slot I was assigned to read on Thursday was relatively early, and because I also had an event scheduled for Thursday evening, I decided to go up to Fairfax for a couple of days and try to experience more of the festival than just my own reading (which was all I could do when I participated last year).
So I booked a room at the Mason Inn, which is a very nice hotel on the campus of GMU, and I drove up on Wednesday afternoon. I had also been invited by my Chinese teacher (a long story that I may discuss at some point in the future) to attend the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival at the Alexandria Campus of Northern Virginia Community College, after I got settled into my room I drove over there. Driving in Northern Virginia is one of the reason I moved away from DC–I hate it. The whole area is terribly congested and the roads are confusing. Still, I got to NVCC without incident, found a place to park, and found the festival and my teacher. I hung around for about an hour, talked to some people, and then headed back to Fairfax so I could attend the evening reading.
Which I did. I went to hear Karen Russell read from Swamplandia!, the novel that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction this year (no winner was chosen, as you may recall). I sat in the front row a few seats away from Russell and I confess that I didn’t recognize her until the GMU host who made the introductions made mention of coming festival attractions and named me and indicated me, at which Russell leaned over and said Hi. (We also chatted for a while after her reading, talking about our mutual Northwestern University ties.)
Russell read the section called “The Dredgeman’s Revelation” from the book. As soon as she started, I realized that it had been in The New Yorker a couple of years ago, and that I had reviewed it in the blog, as I do with every piece of fiction in that magazine.(See my discussion of the story here. Obviously I was mistaken at the time–it was an excerpt from the novel.) After the reading there were lots of questions, and a very long line of people wanting their books signed. (I bought one, but having already chatted with her, I didn’t get in the line for the signings.)
My reading was the next morning at 10:30 in a tent in the middle of campus. I had been scheduled last year to be in that same tent but that day was stormy and they moved us inside. No bad weather yesterday, but it was a little warm. There weren’t many festival goers at that hour, so our session was lightly attended–about half students (who must get some kind of extra credit for showing up) and half visitors. The other reader in my hour was Edward Belfar, author of a story collection, Wanderers, put out this year by Stephen F. Austin State University Press. After Edward read for about 30 minutes, I decided to make my reading shorter, and I read the beginning few pages of “The Replacement Wife,” from What the Zhang Boys Know. And then we took questions and signed a few books.
As I went to the next reading, I wished I had asked for a session later in the day. I’m not sure that would help draw more people, but I think it would.
But next was the reading by Wiley Cash. He didn’t have a whole lot of people in his reading either, but more than we did (and he wasn’t in a tent). He talked for quite awhile about he had come to write his novel, A Land More Kind than Home, his experience with agents and editors and revision, etc. And then he read a short section from the book (snakes!), and answered questions. Afterward I had a chance to chat with him–we have mutual friends–but then people lined up with books to be signed so I moved on. He seems like a very nice guy and I’m looking forward to reading the book, which I’ve had for some time now.
Then I went back to the tent for the next reading, by Bernice McFadden. I confess that I had not heard of her, but the festival program included a description of her new book, Gathering of Waters, and that sounded interesting. Plus, it seems as though publishers don’t make it easy for readers to discover African American writers, so this was an opportunity to widen my exposure. (Have you seen this blog: White Readers Meet Black Writers?) The audience for McFadden was made up largely of African American History students who had been urged (required?) to attend by their teacher, who introduced McFadden. But there were a few non-students in the audience, as well. McFadden gave a charming and frank talk about her work, read a little from the latest book, and then answered questions. (Once the students got warmed up, they asked a lot of them.) This time I got the book and had McFadden sign.
I returned to the hotel and after a bit it was time to head into the city for my next gig. After my experience driving the day before, and knowing the parking hassles of central DC, I decided to take the Metro (although a rush-hour ride from Fairfax to Farragut West is a shocking $6.10 now–twice or three times what it was when I lived in the District). The hotel had a shuttle to the Metro stop, so that was easy, and I arrived downtown with plenty of time to spare. So I decided to relax a little in a nice looking place called Le Pain Quotidien, which turns out to be a chain. But very nice food, a nice glass of wine, WiFi. Just what I needed.
I then went to the law office where my next reading would occur. The event was hosted by the Northwestern University Club of DC in the penthouse conference space of a DC law firm. Very nice. There was wine and beer and light food, and time to mingle with the 20 or so people who were there. And then we sat in a big circle–the event was billed as a Fireside Chat–and I began to talk. I’m even more embarrassed about it now than I was last night, but I spent a long time recounting my road from Northwestern University philosophy major to my current work writing and publishing fiction. This was a group of accomplished people each, I’m sure, with his or her own interesting story to tell, but they seemed to be engaged by mine, so I kept going. And then, when I got to the end, they wanted me to read a little from the new book, which I did. And then almost everyone there bought a book! It was great. (But embarrassing.)
I then went out for a night cap with some friends who were there, but realized I was cutting things a little tight with the Metro and the shuttle bus back to the hotel. So I hurried to the Metro–it was raining–and got out to my stop just as the shuttle bus was pulling away. (I tried to flag him down but he ignored me.) I didn’t feel like waiting for the next shuttle (and wasn’t really sure there was a next one), so I grabbed a cab–$20, but at least I got there relatively quickly.
And then this morning I drove home.
I wish I could have stayed to hear more of the speakers and readers–people like Neil Gaiman and Michael Chabon and others–but I had to get back.