Author-finder: Damon tells Festival secrets

The war in Iraq began on the first day of last year's Virginia Festival of the Book, so program director Nancy Damon can handle just about any disaster.

Usually the disasters are not quite so international: An author's books don't show up at the signing; a property manager threatens to tow illegally parked cars during the Festival luncheon. That sort of disaster Damon takes in stride. And there's a reason there have been so few at the 10-year-old book fest: "Details, details, details," she chants.

Actually, keeping track of all the details for the five-day festival is her least favorite part of the job, which she "begged and groveled" to obtain back in 2000.

"Imagine you live your whole life for five days in a year," she says. And if you really want to annoy her, ask what she does the rest of the year.

Her job does give her a great conversation starter: Who do you read? And those answers often lead to festival guests.

"Usually most well-known authors come because of personal connections," she says. For instance, an excerpt of Michael Chabon's new novel, The Escapist, which is going to appear in the Virginia Quarterly Review, led to his appearance this year. And one of the Fellows at the Virginia Foundation of the Humanities offered, "Michael Ondaatje is a friend of mine."

Walter Mosley, Bill Bryson, and John Irving are on Damon's current wish-list.

Damon tries to read as many festival authors as she can, but with 160 adult programs scheduled this year, "That's completely impossible," she says.

And as devoted as she is to the care and handling of authors, "I don't tell anybody I like their book if I don't," she admits.

She has learned to get some sleep during the five-day Event. "The first couple of days, I'm in a state of high anxiety. Then by Friday and Saturday, it's a state of whatever happens, happens. I mellow out."

She's not in that state yet. And ever the Festival booster, Damon ends an interview with "a shameless plug" for money: "If everyone who attended gave $3..."

Age: 55

What brought you here? My husband, Fred Damon, got hired in the anthropology department at UVA in l976.

What's worst about living here? It is a little scary how much development is taking place, with so much traffic.

Favorite hangout? I love intimate dinners with friends any one of a number of restaurants is great for this.

Most overrated virtue? Self-righteousness

What would people be surprised to know about you? I didn't learn to drive until I was 34 or maybe people wouldn't be surprised! Also my husband and I once rode our bikes from Minneapolis to New Jersey.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? My body would not have its current aches and pains, but my mind would still have the experiences of 55 years.

What accomplishment are you proudest of? 15 years of programming at the Senior Center, plus pulling off 3 and 11/12s book festivals along with Kevin McFadden, the VHF staff, and many volunteers.

What do people find most annoying about you? I talk a lot and interrupt other people when they're talking.

Whom do you admire? Fanny Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and other civil rights leaders who risked their lives so people could have the rights accorded them in our Constitution. Also General Joseph Stilwell.

Favorite book? I do the Book Festival how can I only mention one book? Two books that most changed my life are the Autobiography of Malcolm X and All Quiet on the Western Front. My favorite "comfort" writer right now is Elinor Lipman, who is very funny, and the most interesting novel I have read in the last week is The Cloud Atlas, by Liam Callanan, which will be out soon.

What subject causes you to rant? Political leaders who misrepresent what they're doing and lie about other people's records and policies.

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? Little kindnesses people show each other in crazy times. (I'm not optimistic about the present course of the world.)

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? World leaders and individuals are more willing to be destructive to life and our environment than ever.

What do you drive? Saturn station wagon, Volvo, and my bicycle whenever I can

What's in your car CD/tape player right now? Something my son left when he was here at Christmas

What's your next journey? Paris and Besancon, France, with my husband in May

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? Some things have to remain unmentioned.

What do you regret? Not taking more family vacations with our kids when they were young. Now they're 28 and 20.

Favorite comfort food? Definitely homemade popcorn and ice cream

What's always in your refrigerator? Food that needs to be thrown out

Must-see TV? Don't watch TV we use our TV to watch movies.

Favorite cartoon? I loved Herblock and mourn his death.

Describe a perfect day. Has to be in spring or summer, lots of physical activity, maybe gardening, biking, with husband and friends, a good meal, and time to read.

Walter Mitty fantasy? I play well for the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team.

Who'd play you in the movie? Sally Field? I flatter myself to think maybe Goldie Hawn? If cross-dressing, I think Billy Crystal would be perfect.

Most embarrassing moment? High school debate– I completely lost my train of thought, and my mind went totally blank. Then, when the judge was giving comments, he acted like I wasn't even present, which was even worse!

Best advice you ever got? Three things: 1) Document everything. 2) Treat everything as data. 3) A soft answer turneth away wrath.

Favorite bumper sticker? I Read the Book

Nancy Damon