BOOK FESTIVAL PREVIEW

John Lescroart: Searching for a story that 'beats me'

Author John Lescroart, 55, never intended to write professionally– least of all mysteries. But "I think it's in my genes," he says.

Lescroart's string of best-selling detective mysteries includes The Motive, The Hearing, and his latest, The Hunt Club.

At 23, after much boyhood writing and majoring in English at UC Berkeley, Lescroart penned his first mystery, Son of Holmes. He initially didn't submit it, he explains, because "I wasn't a mystery writer. I was writing the great American novel."

Thirteen years later, after many publishers' rejections, a jettisoned musical career, and countless "terrible" jobs, what kept his spirits buoyant, he says, was that he "married the right woman."

At 36, Lescroart wasn't writing fiction, and he desperately wanted to stop working day jobs. When his wife suggested that he submit Son of Holmes for publication, he insisted, "I'm not a mystery writer. I'm tryin' to write real stuff."

But he relented, and after being submitting, Holmes promptly sold.

International success followed in the form of Lescroart's longest-running characters, lawyer Dismas Hardy and Abe Glitzsky. They arose "without any planning," he says. "I didn't know I was going to start a series. I just wanted to write a redemption story that had a crime in it. And so I wrote Dead Irish," about washed-up, alcoholic lawyer Hardy.

Lescroart explains that detective Glitzsky, Hardy's begrudging comrade, began his fictional existence as "a guy I just threw on a page because I needed a police presence." Several novels later, Glitzsky took center stage because Lescroart wanted to drop Hardy. He considered that his brainchild was dead, since The 13th Juror, a Hardy mystery, had suffered numerous rejections. Thus Glitzsky became the protagonist of A Certain Justice and its follow-up, Guilt.

The 13th Juror ultimately went on to become an international bestseller, sparking Hardy's resurrection.

Lescroart's latest, The Hunt Club, arose from his yen "to write a younger, faster book." A hallmark of his earlier books, he says, is their middle-aged, married protagonists, burdened with commitments. "And I wanted to write a book about a guy who was a little less encumbered."

Hunt Club was written partly out of sympathy for his beleaguered regulars: "I wanted to give Hardy and Glitzsky a little rest," he says, "because they had been through so much."

At this point, what inspires Lescroart? "I like to find a story that beats me," he says. "If I conceive of a situation that I find extremely difficult to solve, or interesting in terms of a set-up, that's what carries me through the books."

Read more about the author's life and work at johnlescroart.com.



PHOTO BY WILL MOSGROVE


Nancy Damon- The force behind the festival

"We always try to have a smorgasbord of authors to entice readers of all tastes and ages," says Nancy Damon, 57, program director of the Virginia Festival of the Book. And this year, she and the Festival will deliver exactly that.

Its rich and wildly varied range of literary guests includes new faces like Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art (Maus) Spiegelman; and one of science fiction's current leading lights, Mary Doria Russell (Sparrows).

But the VFB's major coup in 2006, Damon says, is an appearance by one of their most-requested guests, author Barbara Kingsolver, who has agreed to do a fundraising performance with musician John McCutcheon. Unlike the Festival's usually free offerings, tickets for the Kingsolver event start at $39.

Pricey? Perhaps. But Damon claims "It is really worth it!"

Damon herself began working with the Festival on the volunteer steering committee during the Festival's debut year, and has been program director for five years– the same length of time that Kevin McFadden, associate program director, has worked there. Fortunately, familiarity has not bred contempt.

"We finish each other's sentences," she says.

Though the authors and seminars change each year, the Festival's basic format, Damon explains, has "a kind of structure in our heads which seems to work." That structure includes readings at various times and locations all over town starting this year on Wednesday, March 22, and finishing on Sunday, March 26. The website, vabook.org, has expanded each year and now features program guides by topic, Damon says, "from graphic novels to romance, from gardening and cooking to world affairs, from sports to science."

The 2006 Festival also marks the 10th anniversary of the Voices of Adult Learners, writers who'll read their personal essays, Damon says, about their lives and learning to read.

While she's excited about the big names and the slew of topics covered at this year's festival, it's the audiences that give Damon the most pleasure.

"When someone has a great time with an author or learns something new," she says, "I feel the festival has succeeded."


Tickets for the Kingsolver benefit performance (Sunday afternoon, March 26) are available from the Paramount theater's box office: 979-1333. Proceeds from the event benefit the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities literary programs.


* Damon's special picks:


*The programs at the Culbreth this year: a double-feature history program with Fintan O'Toole, Lindsay Robertson, Melvin Patrick Ely, then Rita Dove and John Hope Franklin, the 91-year-old African-American historian.


*Thursday: Science fiction writer Mary Doria Russell (The Sparrow and Children of God), who is now writing a fantastic historical novel about Italy during World War II.


*Friday: Mystery writers Michael Connelly, Paula Woods, Karin Slaughter, and Jeffery Deaver, always a big draw.



PHOTO COURTESY VFB


Joel Agee: Not an about book

"I've always written from personal experience," says author Joel Agee, 66. His inspiration, he says, "is increasingly now experiences for which I have no reference in other people's writing, many of which are non-verbal. I'm trying to find a language for them."

Considering his lineage, Agee's career as a writer seems inevitable. The son of author James Agee (A Death in the Family), Agee was raised in East Germany by his mother and his stepfather, noted German author Bodo Uhse.

"I grew up in a literary household," Agee explains, "and reading was a natural way of being for me."

Under the Communists, literature was both encouraged and censored. But Agee's family held "privileged" status, which granted them access to the works of forbidden writers like Nietzsche and Kafka. "These prohibitions made me very curious about what else was being withheld from people," he says.

After arriving in New York City, Agee fell into the '60s drug culture. His latest book, In the House of My Fear, is a harrowing, yet frequently comical, account of the bizarre spiritual journey he undertook after dropping a massive dose of LSD, involving the suicide of his younger brother, and his own temporary descent into madness.

Writing the book taught him that, "The very attitude of directly engaging with fearful material defuses it. It's resistance that makes it terrible," he says.

Agee coined the expression "about books," meaning theme-driven novels and standard non-fiction. In the House of my Fear, he says, "is not about the '60s, because it's as much about the search for God, about friendship and love, and about the fathomless strangeness of our own minds."

That's why, he says, it's a work of poetry as much as the telling of a story.

Agee wants readers to consider In the House of my Fear "a voyage... It's a re-examination of a path I took through extreme confusion to a fundamental discovery of the nature of identity and of a sane relationship to the world, to life, and to my surroundings."



PHOTO COURTESY VFB


David Ives: The funny business

What do miniature golf, midgets, a monkey mistaken for a Frenchman, and Leon Trotsky have in common? These disparate elements all figure prominently in the enormously popular comedies of award-winning playwright David Ives, 55.

In his youth, Ives plunged "headlong" into writing for the theater, he recalls. Aside from Shakespeare, his favorite playwrights are "Shakespeare, Shakespeare and"– pausing reflectively– "Shakespeare."

After studying at a seminary, Ives decided against pursuing the priesthood. Why? "I suppose I can put it in two words: 'out' and 'girls,'" he says.

Despite his association with comedy, for his 15 years or so as a professional playwright, Ives' output was "deadly serious," he says. Then, for what he describes as "some unaccountable reason," he began writing comedies, including several collections of one-act plays.

One-acts became his signature works, particularly his omnibus All in the Timing, which was being performed in the mid-'90s almost as frequently as his idol's works.

Ives seldom writes in that format now– he says it's because there's not much a market for one-acts anymore. But for a time, "I just found it a rich way to have my say," he says.

This master of the form relates that constructing one-acts is infinitely more exacting than writing full-length plays: "In a one-act play, every period and pause and every word has to be perfect. There's a lot more slack in a long play. You have a lot more room to move around in.

"In a one-act play, every moment has to count."

So beyond the stories, what's the theme? For that interpretation, he says, "You'll have to ask somebody who actually sees the plays."

Pursuing comic writing per se wasn't Ives' overriding initial desire; he simply wanted to write for the theater: "It was the most exciting thing I knew."

"Besides," Ives adds, "Shakespeare was a playwright, and it's nice to be in the same business with the greatest artistic genius of all time."


Ives recently wrote a children's book, Scrib. His first translation of a play, George Feydoux's French farce, A Flea in Her Ear, is about to open at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.


Kevin Brockmeiier: Making books a way of life

Kevin Brockmeier's career as a fantasist was born of "a lifetime of reading both fantasy published as science fiction and fantasy, and fantasy published as literary fiction," and nurtured by influences ranging from Leo Tolstoy to J. G. Ballard.

A multiple O. Henry Prize-winner, Brockmeier, 33, recently published his third fantastic work, The Brief History of the Dead, as literary fiction. "But like all of my books," he says, "I think it's the kind of book that straddles the divide between realistic fiction and fantastic fiction."

Brief History's outré plot-line follows "two strands," Brockmeier explains, set on an earth depopulated by plague. One "strand" involves an isolated woman in the Antarctic who discovers that she's the last woman alive. The other occurs "in an in-between place, between life and what we conventionally think of as death," whose ghostly inhabitants exist solely because the book's heroine remembers them.

Among his own unique fiction, which has been compared to the works of Jorge Luis Borges, Brockmeier is most satisfied with The Truth About Celia, though he feels tempted to praise Brief History to the skies "because it's the new one," he says. Celia, is "very close to my heart, because it has this kind of heartbroken tone to it that kind of rings some sort of bell with me," he says.

Brockmeier half-jokingly admits that his personal criteria for outstanding writing change almost monthly. Nonetheless, he offers up the current ones: "Fidelity to one, if not more, of three things: to the language in which they're working, to their own obsessions, or to the human experience."

Writing was always part of Brockmeier's nature, he says: "It was something I always did to entertain myself, when I was growing up." It became his vocation following graduation from high school, "simply because I took more pleasure in reading books than in I did in just about anything else."


Kevin Brockmeier
PHOTO COURTESY VFB


Kyra Gaunt: Double dutch hip-hop diva

Former UVA professor Kyra Gaunt was driven to write her first book, The Games Black Girls Play, by a burning desire to discuss "women's role in hip-hop culture."

Gaunt recalls that she and her female friends loved rap music in the early '90s, when, she says, "It seemed like it was not... cool, as a woman, to be interested in rap music or hip-hop culture." At that point, the music was being accused of "misogyny and exploitation in its representation of women," she says.

In trying to discover hip-hop's attraction for women, Gaunt, 43, came to realize that the music bore marked similarities to beats and rhymes that young black girls learn to perform in distinctly feminine childhood games. Hand-clapping games, cheers, and double-dutch jump-rope chants became the core of Gaunt's research, as well as other "aspects of culture that people wouldn't ordinarily look at."

Today, Gaunt, who teaches ethnomusicology at NYU, is an honorary member of an adult women's double-dutch team, The Double-Dutch Divas, and has the nickname "Dr. Diva."

Games, Gaunt says, is about everyday culture as well as aspects of the black perspective on music-making, written in terms of gender. She hopes that her research will shed new light on a major musical genre that is usually approached from a strictly racial standpoint, where people "don't look at gender. So when we look at hip-hop, we assume it's male," she says.

Games, according to Gaunt, "tries to take the lens of black girl's musical games to look at the ways in which black music-making is learned, as opposed to being something biologically driven. And that black music culture is shaped by men and women through embodied behavior and practice, and through oral practices."

Her book isn't solely concerned with hip-hop, Gaunt points out: "It also allows us to understand how black musical style is learned, and how black popular taste is formulated," she says. "Black girls' musical games and the chants they perform are the earliest formation of a black popular music... before it becomes commercial, and after."

And, above all, she wrote Games because "Gender is my life," she says.


Gaunt's new CD is "Be the True Revolution." One press announcement inadvertently stated that Gaunt will be personally demonstrating double-dutch, in conjunction with the VFB; she will in fact only be hosting a double-dutch demonstration.



PHOTO BY BILLY HUNT


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