A Look Inside Vermont's 2013 Brattleboro Literary Festival
The first week of October was one I'd had marked on my calendar for a while as the dates for the Brattleboro Literary Festival, and happily I was able to attend for a beautiful autumnal Saturday of books, discussions, and signings. The festival has been active for over ten years – founded by a group of literature enthusiasts from the area – and it was named one of the top upcoming literature festivals by Writers Circle so it seemed like the perfect time to steal away to southern Vermont. Brattleboro's historic downtown was taken over for the occasion, with local theaters, churches, libraries, gardens, and bookshops (there are four!) all hosting events catering to bookworms of every milieu. The options for the weekend were staggering: a poetry slam with Kristopher Jansma at Landmark College, a literary death match with Adrian Todd Zuniga at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden, a discussion with editors and a local author showcase also at the garden, a flash fiction challenge at the Hooker Dunham Theater, readings from Archer Mayor and Hilary Davidson at the local mystery bookshop, a panel on building a literary community with David Abrams. Not to mention the huge list of authors of varying styles and genres who would be reading, signing, answering questions, and sharing insights all weekend. I chose to hunker down in the Center Congregational Church for the day where I had the chance to hear five literary fiction authors read from their books and answer questions from readers.
The first event was hosted by Chris Bohjalian, whose writing I've become a great big fan of this year. He opened his monologue with an incredibly funny account of the hazards of book tours before delving into a detailed discussion of his latest novel, The Light in the Ruins. (By the way, if it blows your mind to think that the guy who wrote The Double Bind could be lighthearted and witty in-person, well, he really is.) He spoke about the inspirations behind The Light in the Ruins, one of which was the opportunity to adapt, in his own way, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; and he discussed what it was like to research the novel, which takes place in Italy in the 1940s and ‘50s. One reader asked if we might see Serafina Bettini in future books, the scarred detective who hunts the ruthless serial killer in The Light in the Ruins. Though he didn't give a definitive answer, he mused on the possibility and on how important Serafina is to him. He also discussed some of his other books when asked about his personal favorites, and I was really surprised to find out that The Double Bind was the only one of his books that he knew the ending of before he started writing. (I think he was the only one who knew how that mind-boggling ending would go!) After the event I queued up to meet Chris where he graciously took the time to chat and snap a photo with me before signing my copy of The Sandcastle Girls.
After a quick lunch break, next on the roster were Massachusetts-based authors Christopher Castellani and Roland Merullo. A primary focus for their discussion was the passions and lives of Italian-American families, and both authors spoke about the influences of their own Italian heritages. Christopher Castellani read from his latest novel, All This Talk of Love, which chronicles a multi-generational Italian-American family’s journey back to the motherland. The scenes he chose – which were from varying points in the book – did a wonderful job of illustrating the vivacity and emotional complexity of his many characters, alternately witty and poignant, and the fluid language of his narrative was beautiful.
Roland Merullo then did a nonfiction reading that told a portion of his trouble-ridden journey through Italy with his mother, wife, and two daughters, which was equal parts endearing and flat-out hilarious. Part of an unpublished memoir entitled Taking the Kids to Italy, the essay was one of several that have been serialized in the author’s newsletter (read it on lunchwithbuddha.com). Told with straight-faced wry humor, the narrative left the audience wondering between peals of laughter how so many things could go so terribly wrong on one vacation. It was relatable, smart, and very funny, mixing the unpleasant challenges and priceless rewards of family travel. In their joint Q&A, Christopher and Roland talked in more detail about everything from Italy and their heritages to the publishing world and the continued popularity of e-books.
The last event I saw before heading home was David Gilbert and Kristopher Jansma’s collective reading and Q&A session. I’m familiar with both authors, though I haven’t had the chance to read either of them yet, so it was a great opportunity to get better acquainted with the natures of their stories and their unique writing styles. The common denominator in their discussion was that both of the novels David and Kristopher would be talking about feature writers as the main characters. They talked about the complex and taboo process of writing about writers, why they chose to do it and how the device has gained such a stigma. David Gilbert first apologized in advance for the choice language he was about to utter in a church before reading from his latest novel, & Sons. He brought to life a fantastic scene set at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with 19 year-old Andy, son of A.N. Dyer, the fictional reclusive author at the center of the book. It had a wonderful balance of charm, humor and intellectual resourcefulness that was immensely entertaining.
Kristopher Jansma read from his debut, The Unchangable Spots of Leopards, which took readers to south Asia through an elegant and sardonic narrative by the book’s unnamed protagonist. It gave insight into the intriguing originality of the novel’s story, primarily the rivalry between the narrator, an unsuccessful and unpublished writer, and his childhood friend Julian, an altogether wildly successful writer. After their readings, David and Kristopher both talked about their writing processes, the difference between writing short stories and novels, and the challenges (read: impossibilities) of writing fiction as a career.
It was a very big day, filled with the sort of lively magic that reminds readers why they love and cherish books as they do - and there were still Christine Schutt and Alexis Smith to do readings in that venue, not to mention an entire Sunday of events for the folks who would be staying in town. Of the whole weekend there were opportunities to meet novelists, short story writers, biographers, memoirists, and poets like Jami Attenberg, Steve Yarbrough, Jo Knowles, Sophie Cabot Black, Lily Koppel, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Daniel Smith, and more. And did I mention that Brattleboro has four bookshops? So not only could you attend signings and all manner of events, but you could just plain old shop for books, too.
In an age when much of our lives are filtered through technology and social media, through our tablets and e-readers, it was a meaningful opportunity for book lovers to get out and truly connect with the literary world in a way that technology doesn't quite have the capability to do. I'm grateful to the Brattleboro Literary Festival for keeping experiences like this alive for generations of readers; events like this have a way of reaffirming a reader’s passion and opening up new doors for our imaginations.
You can find more info on the festival at the Brattleboro Literary Festival website and keep up to date on Facebook. If you have an opportunity to visit a writing or literature festival this fall please do consider going out and supporting it. (And if you're in New England this weekend, the Boston Book Festival kicks off this Friday!)