Wartime bookfest: Lit lovers soldier on

The ninth annual Virginia Festival of the Book was a more somber celebration of the word than usual. On Wednesday, March 19, with President George W. Bush's deadline to Saddam Hussein ticking away, the literati explained why books and the humanities are important even with lives at stake and bombs set to fall on Baghdad.

The nation's Code Orange alert manifested itself in a way not seen before at book festival events: police officers at City Hall and the Saturday night Carr's Hill reception, and security guards checking bags of the faithful coming to Culbreth Theater to see John Grisham.

NPR personalities Neal Conan and Scott Simon couldn't make it because they were covering the war. Reassuringly, the majority of authors did venture to Charlottesville despite the uncertainties of what war would bring.

The Lee Smith luncheon on March 20 was packed, but plenty of seats were available at her free reading that night with George Singleton. Was it the rain or the war?

By March 21, the sun was shining and spring was officially here. Day Two of war didn't seem quite so gloomy, and festival-goers could choose to go to events that might heighten their understanding of human nature and war or those that could help them forget.

Here are a very few scenes from the nearly 250 events sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities that beckoned 150 authors to explain why books are important, even in the midst of the inhumanity of war.

An attack averted at the festival's opening ceremony: When a wasp sneaks in to land in the locks of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities president Rob Vaughan, Hook editor Hawes Spencer comes to the rescue by flicking the marauder across the room.

Line to remember after a glowing introduction: "I could sit there and listen all day," Virginia poet laureate George Garrett's response to festival organizer Kevin McFadden's flattering intro.

How to liven up a reading: Waltons' creator Earl Hamner calls upon local actresses Mariflo Stevens and Boomie Pederson to portray the recipe-making Baldwin sisters in a scene from The Homecoming.

Hamner as acting coach: His advice to Stevens and Pederson– "Remember, you're Baptists, and you're drunk."

Almost like a scene from The Waltons : In tribute to the troops in Iraq, Hamner calls upon the audience to sing the hymn In the Garden, probably a festival first.

Little known fact about Lee Smith: She was once a go-go dancer, reveals David Baldacci in his introduction of Smith at the sold-out festival luncheon.

"The voice of the poor white trash": How a Frenchman characterizes Smith's fiction.

Proedz, pre miscue yus, and mearj: Spellings of "prose," "promiscuous," and "marriage" in a well-intentioned, yet distracting, aid for the hearing impaired at the Smith luncheon.

On the way to see Julian Bond... War protestors march down West Main Street in the rain before the "Wednesday in Mississippi" panel that included Bond and Holly Cowan Shulman, whose mother was an organizer of the little-known Civil Rights project that sent middle class black and white women from the north into the heart of segregated Mississippi.

Casualty of war fear: Headliner author Jill McCorkle decides not to leave her family in Boston and journey down for her March 20 reading with Lee Smith and George Singleton.

Best writer you've never heard of: Singleton, who's described as "a big hearted evil genius who writes as if he's the love child of Alice Munro and Strom Thurmond."

Another festival first: Perhaps in a hurry to get home and see the war, no one in the subdued Culbreth audience has questions for Smith and Singleton after their readings.

Panel to scare anyone who has a loved one in the armed forces: "We've left people behind in every war," says Amy Waters Yarsinske, author of No One Left Behind, the story of Michael Scott Speicher, an American pilot shot down in the first Persian Gulf war who still may be alive.

Fusing literature and lager: Author Eric Kraft whips out a bottle of Leroy Lager, "the acme of fictional beers," that features poems on the label by notables such as E. Dickinson from Amherst, Mass., at the "Wiseguys" reading March 21.

One way to decide which poems get into the latest edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry : By how much the reprint rights are, as editor Jahan Ramazani found out when he had to cut $40,000 worth of poems.

What poet laureates are wearing this year: Rita Dove sports alternating red and teal fingernail polish to enliven an otherwise somber black suit at her March 21 poetry reading.

Author who finally fills up Culbreth Theater: John Grisham.

Biggest buyer of A Time to Kill's 5,000 print run: Grisham, who bought 1,000 copies of the first edition, now worth $4,000 each, and sold them out of the trunk of his car.

Author who gives Grisham a migraine: William Faulkner, and "in Mississippi, it's a state law you have to read Faulkner," he says.

Movie Grisham calls a "train wreck": The Chamber.

What to buy if you really want to lose some money: A magazine, as Grisham found out when he bought the Oxford American.

How does Grisham develop his characters? "The critics say I do not," says the self-deprecating writer.

How Grisham learned to type so fast: His 10th grade teacher had polio, and "We had to type 60 words per minute or we'd get hit with a crutch."

What Grisham does not encourage his children to do: Write... or become lawyers.

Fact learned by Mary Motley Kalergis when writing a book about interracial marriage: "Black men don't like skinny women," says the author of Love in Black and White.

Most ironic presence: Two police officers sat in the back of City Council Chambers for the packed "Patriotism and the right of free speech during wartime" panel March 22.

What Robert O'Neil, head of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, regrets about protest during the Vietnamese war: "The way that we disparaged our troops they didn't enlist; they were drafted. That we were so unsympathetic."

What free speech panel members agree on: Post 9/11, it's a whole new ballgame as far as the First Amendment.