Festivale cruise: Bookworms, crawl in here

There's nothing like four feet of snow over the course of three months to make a dent in your reading list. But it's time for the ice heaps to melt, the robins to move on, and for Charlottesville to rise from its armchair and commune.

So here it is: writers from California sitting down with British journalists to talk about Asian women in print; crossword puzzle editors and bookstore owners gushing about book collecting; essayists from North Carolina and the Sonora desert sharing the marquee in a program that rings of Hitchcock (you figure it out); cartoonists, body artists, biographers, and publicists talking shop.... All you have to do is navigate the five-day literary labyrinth that is the ninth annual Virginia Book Festival.

"We're trying to keep down the number of panels," apologizes festival director Nancy Damon. "After a certain point, people just can't cope with so many decisions about what to go to."

Weighing in at over 150 programs featuring more than 300 authors and a half-dozen poetry panels, this year's festival is the biggest yet. Judging by the swift response for ticketed events, festival organizers forecast a record-breaking turnout as well.

In addition to some high profile out-of-towners (Jill McCorkle, Frank Deford, Susan Ford Collins), expect to see the local literati out in force.

Grisham, Rita Mae, and all the local laureates will be in attendance, as well as some of the area's newest writing talents, like Jessica Francis Kane and Lauren Winner. This year, for the first time, the half-dozen programs on publishing will be open to the public free of charge.

There is truly something for everyone at the multi-disciplinary festival. As Lisa Russ-Spaar, director of the UVA creative writing program, who designed many of the programs, says, "It is not entirely literary. The prodigious range brings an interesting mix of readers and writers together. It's a real town/gown venture."

So, how to cope with the "prodigious range"? After a thorough perusal of the schedule, The Hook has drafted multiple flow charts, traffic maps, and theme parks depicting VA Book 2003. The office is trashed... but some interesting literary day-trips have emerged.

We hope you enjoy one or two of them.

 

Wednesday, Day One: Poets, peanuts, and pigskin (or, George Garrett, John Boy, and a Mensch)

 

 You may know him as Virginia's poet laureate, but in George Garrett's fantasy world, he's a Heisman trophy winner. So expect plenty of football analogies when UVA's professor emeritus of creative writing inaugurates the 2003 festival at noon today at Central Library. Garrett's football fervor is downright wussy compared with the mania of author Stephen Dubner, who writes about the trip from Judaism to Catholicism and back in his memoir, Turbulent Souls. His newest book is nearly as far-out-­ it's the story of young Dubner's stalking obsession with Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris. Dubner discusses his roots at Beth Israel at 6pm.

By now, you're primed for the granddaddy of wholesome American pastimes (make that grandpappy), Earl Hamner, aka John Boy. Come to think of it, though, John Boy was sort of a bookish type himself... and Hamner is the man who wrote the screenplay for the legendary television release of Heidi, which NBC chose to air instead of the final two game-altering minutes of a Jets/Raiders match-up. Keep an eye out at Culbreth Theater for angry fans holding a 35-year grudge.

 

Thursday, Day Two: Southern Comfort (All Lee Smith, all the time)

 Devoted to Lee Smith? If you failed to secure a ticket to the keynote luncheon (sold out last October), well, you're clearly just not devoted enough. So you can either pine and repent in front of the closed doors of the Omni Ballroom at noon, or you can head over to New Dominion and be certain you've got the best seat in the small house when the acclaimed author and her writing spouse Hal Crowther present "The Writing Table for Two." Later in the evening, Smith teams up with Jill McCorkle and George Singleton in what VA Book associate director Kevin McFadden promises to be a "pants-wetting" event. That means funnier n' hell.

Alternative plan for those of you who don't share the taste for southern fiction and cranky redneck humor: Head for the Quest bookstore, where author Lisette Larkin will be coaching folks on talking to extraterrestrials. You snooty, highbrow, kudzu-bashers may feel more at home there.

 

Friday, Day Three: Occidental Orient (or, becoming exotic in three easy steps)

 Begin the day with the pet program of festival director Damon. Amy Liu, author of Flash House: A Novel, joins Lesley Downer (Madame Sadayako: The Geisha Who Bewitched the West) for a discussion entitled "Asian Journeys." Liu's fictional heroine is an Indian girl rescued from a brothel only to find herself mixed up in a search for a journalist who has disappeared in a Cold War Chinese cloud. Downer is the biographer of Japan's answer to Isadora Duncan and the inspiration for Madame Butterfly. What do they have in common? If you haven't found the missing link yet, trundle over to a 2pm panel of editors and authors at the Village School for talk of body art and belly dancing, tattoos, and Dorothy Parker's elbow (oh yes she did).

Having indulged in the Western glam attraction to the subcontinent, now invest in the real thing. Bob Hueckstedt and other UVA faculty will read original translations of the works of Udey Prakash, Naiyer Masud, and Zamiruddin Ahmad. Contemporary Hindi humor and Urdu magic realism in all its philosophical and somber regalia.

If at day's end you're feeling a little discombobulated by your new-found eastern sensibilities, come back to the west with the guru of American mystique, that litigious lama, the King of Torts himself, John Grisham.

 

Saturday, Day Four: Publish or Perish (or breaking our rule about not being in two places at once)

 From "The Nuts & Bolts of Book Publicity," to "What are They Doing With My Book!" the Omni Hotel is the place to be for aspiring authors. This is your day to cultivate contacts, take notes, and generally pick the brains of folks who have mastered the publishing industry. Be warned: Attendees hoping to get the full benefit of all the panels will be frustrated by the constraints of their single bodies.

Speakers include editors and agents from Perseus, Rowman & Littlefield, Random House, and Penguin. Other panels around town focus on screenwriting with Stuart Kaminsky (Once Upon A Time in America) and Donald Westlake (The Grifters); young adult book publishing with Sue Corbett, George Harrar, and Rosemary Graham; and small press publishing with authors from Leaping Dog Press and Quiet Storm Publishing.

The publishing day pinnacle is at 4pm, when Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo Press crowns the winners of the Great American Novel Contest. Three budding writers are granted their long-held dream: a professional critique of their works-in-progress. The motto here? Watch what you wish for.

Not interested in the trials of publishing? Here's the "perish" part: four hours of the Civil War with authors Gary Gallagher, Bevin Alexander, and Michael S. Zbailey. That's a lot of battles.

Other events that sparked our interest and don't fit into a cute theme for the day: African American novelists Tracy Price-Thompson and Tayari Jones hold court at Kenneth Coles' Salon at noon. Price-Thompson reads from her racy novels of illicit love, gay passion, and other stuff of soap operas, but Jones promises to keep the ribaldry in check-­ her book, Leaving Atlanta, is based on the horrifying spate of child murders in that city in 1979-80.

At 2pm in the Main Street Market Galleria, enjoy three generations of family taste with Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall, author of Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen. And for something totally different, another good 2pm option is a lecture by Stan Schuchman of Gallaudet University. He'll speak of the trials of deaf people caught in the Holocaust and Nazi sterilization programs.

 

Day Five, Sunday: Back to the Ball Game (or sports as festival bookends)

 We're betting on the boys from NPR as the acme of VA Book 2003's closing day. Join Neal Conan, Scott Simon, and Frank Deford for a discussion of the great American pastime and the subject about which all three have recently written. Can there be too many baseball books written by radio personalities? Probably. But these guys are engaging enough to write about eggplant from three different perspectives. People would still show up.

Incidentally, the most unusual baseball book in the festival is featured on Saturday at Monticello at 8pm. Local author Darrell Howard will discuss his book Sunday Coming: Black Baseball in Virginia. He'll be joined by Mamie "Peanut" Johnson, the female pitcher of the Negro leagues.

Of course there's much, much more. Cruise Charlottesville in pursuit of war correspondents, combat writers, and guerilla experts (call it the Adrenaline Tour.) Try the easy-reading regimen– a five-day diet of poetry for lunch and mystery for dinner. Take the no-growth challenge by boycotting all programs that lack an Albemarle resident... you'll still run yourself ragged.

So pray for no snow, and get out to meet gardeners at Monticello, chefs at Whole Foods, and civil rights historians at Alderman. And don't forget the extraterrestrials at the Quest bookshop.