Texas Book Festival Wrap-Up

The harmonies and seeming dissonances of last weekend's Texas Book Festival

Carolyn Banks discusses the search for Mr. Right while fellow panelist Carol Dawson looks on.
Carolyn Banks discusses the "search for Mr. Right" while fellow panelist Carol Dawson looks on. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

When Horton Foote accepted the Texas Book Festival's Bookend Award for lifetime achievement last Thursday, he mentioned his East Texas hometown's lack of a library and the exertions he had to make to get his hands on books. Since the book festival sends its profits to Texas libraries, Foote's acceptance speech should have received its own award: Most Apropos Book Festival Moment for 1999 -- and this was two days before the festival's panels and readings began in earnest. What Foote had to say was so fitting it seemed as if a PR wizard must have scripted it, but since this was Horton Foote speaking, the moment was innocent in a thoroughly genuine way and set the stage in an authoritative but endearing way for other, perhaps more intimate, connections that would be made between authors and book lovers during the book festival.

Like Louise Redd (Playing the Bones, Hangover Soup) confessing during the "All the Wrong Men: Women Writers and the Search for Mr. Right" panel that her mother once said to her after reading one of her occasionally bawdy novels, "Well sugar, I can tell this book is beautifully written, but I wish someone else had written it." Or during the first novels panel when an audience member asked the panelists whether they were reluctant to put their characters through horrible experiences and Scott Zesch (Alamo Heights) said, "Better them than me." Or Bill Minutaglio (First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty) commenting on the governor's "enormous mantle of expectations" during the "Mighty Men: Three Biographies" panel. And shouldn't the tribunal of Tom Grimes, Jane Smiley, and Chris Offutt discussing the Iowa Writers' Workshop be officially designated a highlight in the history of the House Chamber (although "Will You Please Be Quiet, Jane Smiley, Please?" might have been a better title for that particular panel)?

There were harmonies. On Saturday morning, during the "Deep in the Heart of Texas: A Literary Journey" panel with fiction writers Donley Watt and Annette Sanford and Texas lit scholar Tom Pilkington, there was a pleasing disengagement from younger authors' concerns about procuring agents and rising above the midlist. "Agents: They're not worth a damn," Watt said. But then 15 minutes later in the same room, the first novels panel took place and the joy of having published a first novel, and surviving it, were evident. For all its seeming dissonance, the sight of Mary Higgins Clark and her daughter (and fellow suspense novelist) Carol Higgins Clark chatting with Scott Turow at the Authors Party on Saturday night says something about the Texas Book Festival, which is unique among the nation's book festivals for its number of social events. (More social events where fans can meet authors means, well, more connections between authors and readers and more money for libraries, the thinking goes.)

Everywhere, people seemed to be taking notes. That either means that media coverage of the book festival has reached a new high or that the audience for the book festival is reacting to the high quality of authors the festival is attracting (note taking as in notes on how to get published). For the first time this year, the festival had a major publisher exhibiting in the tents (Random House, with 27 authors at the festival), and Bertelsmann, the parent corporation of Random House, decided to sponsor the Authors Party, a $10,000 investment.

But all that business stuff melts away in the face of poetry readings by Kathleen Peirce and Naomi Shihab Nye and children meeting the man who wrote the latest book of Madeline's adventures and speculative fiction fans meeting speculative fiction authors and historical fiction lovers listening to authors of historical fiction and -- the connections go on and on.

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More by Clay Smith
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