I only attended two 90 minute sessions, the 12-1:30 PM panel discussion on Middle Grades Fantasy (featuring Kelly Barnhill, A.J. Hartley, and Catherynne M. Valente) and the 2-3:30 reading featuring 2012 National Book Award-nominated author Ben Fountain, debut novelist Jennifer duBois, and recent NYT Bestselling writer Peter Heller. Despite this relative lack of sessions, overall the two Sunday were the best out of the three days, high praise considering the excellent quality of the sessions I attended Friday and Saturday.
The YA/Middle Grades Fantasy panel intrigued me as much because of my work over the past thirteen years as a middle school and high school English and social studies teacher as for my occasional reading of YA fiction, realist and speculative alike. The audience was a mixture of mothers, children, and other interested adults such as myself. The moderator I thought did a good job of creating a mood for active audience participation and there were some excellent questions asked about why the authors chose to write YA fiction (each also is known for their "adult" fictions), how they had to learn how to write for YA audiences, the challenges involved in crafting the stories, and the primal emotions (in particular, fear) that were a featured part of their fictions. Each of the three did an excellent job answering these questions, as they shared how their lives as former children and, in the case of Barnhill and Hartley, parents helped them shape their approaches to writing YA fiction. I find myself wishing I had taken notes during the panel, because there were so many interesting points made that I am failing to recall the specifics here.
After the session ended, I went to the signing, where during the queue I struck up a conversation with a YA blogger about reviewing. I regret that I did not get her name and blog, as it was a good but somewhat brief conversation. I then got the chance to talk with Barnhill and Valente, talking a bit about their short fictions that I liked and about a few friends we had in common. It was a pleasure getting to talk with each of them and I will probably be reviewing their recently-released YA books here in the near future.
The 2-3:30 reading/discussion with Fountain, duBois, and Heller was equally excellent. Fountain and duBois were very good readers, so good in fact that when it was time for Heller to speak, he said that he just "love listening to them read" before talking briefly about the power of auditory reading for him and many other readers. There were questions regarding influences and each of the three noted authors that were among my favorites: García Márquez (Fountain), Nabokov (duBois), and various poets from around the world (Heller). Each made their works (I had read Fountain's and 1/3 of Heller's before the session) sound even more intriguing when they talked about what led to them writing their works.
Again, the signing time led to some interesting conversations, first with a woman who also knew some in the industry (her name I failed to catch, alas) and then with the authors. With Heller, I talked a bit about poetry and asked him if he had read Forrest Gander's National Book Critics Circle Award-nominated book (he hadn't, but was interested in it). Fountain and I talked briefly about García Márquez and how he read in both translation and in Spanish. After he expressed regret about not being able to read some of the emerging Latin American writers in Spanish, I did note there were a few starting to come out, which somehow led into talking about translation, where I did mention my freelance work as a translator, which interested him a lot (I should note that I didn't make myself out to be a big-time translator, but someone who was lucky enough to be offered the chance to translate two short stories).
Two things came to mind when I left: the first is that often even the most successful of writers are fans of literature (the homages paid throughout the three days is testimony to this) and secondly, so many of the writers were humble, perhaps because of the difficulties involved in becoming a writer. It was fun hearing (and briefly, chatting with them) these authors, both on Sunday and the other two days, talking about their love of literature in its many forms. The word "festival" does a much better job in describing this communal sense than the "convention" term I often hear associated with SF/F gatherings. Here there were poets, short fiction writers, novelists, historians, social activists, and singers (I did get to hear a snippet of the TSU theatre group singing a musical version of Alice Walker's The Color Purple; it was excellent) scattered across three buildings in downtown Nashville. There was no real artificial division between the "literary" and the "genre" writers, nor were there any that I saw among the audience members (I did see several at multiple sessions). Sometimes, readers (and some writers, I'll admit) get too caught up in the "us" vs. "them" categorizations that they fail to see the broadness of the spectrum of literature being produced today. That is why the inclusiveness of the Southern Festival of Books appeals to me so much, as there was so much there for so many that my biggest regret was not getting to see another dozen or so authors who also intrigued me. With luck, I'll be in attendance next year. But for now, I have a lot of reading to do, as I bought over a dozen books over the three days.