Bad Weather Doesn’t Stop Book Lovers
In the opening hours of the Ninth Annual Gaithersburg Book Festival, the skies were an ugly steel gray and the precipitation shifted across mist, sprinkle, drizzle, and steady rain — and still the book lovers came out in force. Sporting umbrellas and rain ponchos, they were ready to hear their favorite authors read from and discuss books at the different literary tents, browse the new and used bookstores and independent booksellers, get their books signed while chatting with those favorite authors, grab something tasty from the food vendors, and go back again for more.
Of the many book festivals that the Baltimore-Washington area now enjoys, Gaithersburg is my personal favorite. Though it often draws over twenty thousand attendees and attracts many nationally known authors, it still has a very intimate feeling. At Gaithersburg, it’s entirely possible for a book lover to chat with an author they’ve admired for years as they both stroll the grounds and take in all the activity.
Participating in the Festival
This year, I was at the festival for more than just simple enjoyment. I’m a board member of the non-profit Washington Independent Review of Books (WIRoB), which is a sponsor of the festival, so I helped to staff our booth to get the word out about our review site.
Even better, though, I had the pleasure of being on two panels. The first was with Elliot Ackerman, whose second book Dark at the Crossing was a 2017 finalist for the National Book Award, and which I had the pleasure of reviewing for WIRoB. Elliot is a journalist, a White House Fellow, and a Marine, having served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His first two novels take place in and around both of those wars, as well as in the conflict in Syria. His intimate and empathetic stories recognize the shared humanity of all concerned, including those that he once fought against. One point that Elliot made was that we are running out of Afghanis who remember life in peacetime, before the Russian invasion, so that we now have generations for whom war, rather than peace, is the natural state of being.
Shifting gears completely, I moderated a panel called “Drugs, Relationships, and Power,” with two wonderfully talented authors, Kelly J. Ford and Eryk Pruitt. Both of their novels share settings in the South, and both have had their work called “Southern Gothic”.
Kelly’s debut novel, Cottonmouths, centers on a young gay woman who has washed out of college and is forced to return to her parents and their small Arkansas town to pick up the pieces. But she is also drawn back into the orbit of her old unrequited love, Jody, who happens to be running a meth lab on her property.
For Eryk, What WE Reckon is his third novel, and involves the pitched power battle between two fully co-dependent forces, Jack and Summer. The two start out the story with different identities, which they shed like snakeskins, and a kilo of coke in a hollowed-out King James Bible. They are both losing a grip on reality at the same time that they are growing rather tired of each other.
The conversation ranged over issues of identity and the pressure to conform, the sense that even the most seemingly irredeemable characters have redeeming qualities, and the idea that the opioid scourge ravages rural areas in different ways than in urban environments.
Reconnecting with Old Friends, Making New Ones
One of the great pleasures of Gaithersburg for me is knowing that I’ll see a bunch of old and new book-loving friends. I remembered to bring my copy of Leslie Pietrzyk’s acclaimed new novel, Silver Girl, for her to sign for me while we chatted about the challenges of complex plot development. Melissa Scholes Young had already signed my copy of her much-discussed debut, Flood, but she and I were together in the Politics & Prose book tent. And it’s always a pleasure to have a chance to reconnect with Richard Peabody, who continues to be a driving force behind so much of DC’s writing culture.
I’m also a member of the Chesapeake Chapter of the Historical Novel Society, and, because so many of us were going to be there already, we decided to hold our bimonthly meeting right after members Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie finished a panel on their latest book, My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton. (And even after all that planning, I got pulled away and wasn’t able to catch up with the group!)
There were so many exceptional panels and speakers, and I know lots of folks like me were running back and forth between tents to try to catch as many as possible. Bethanne Patrick chatted with one of my all-time favorite authors, Alice McDermott, about her latest book, The Ninth Hour, which I also reviewed for WIRoB. In the Michener Pavilion, C-Span Book TV captured all the panels presented there, including Eugene Meyer (Five for Freedom) and Paula Whitacre (A Civil Life in Uncivil Times) discussing their historical renderings of forgotten figures of resistance with moderator Will Pittman.
I couldn’t drop in on Madeline Miller, since her end-of-day panel was the same time as mine. Author of the acclaimed Song of Achilles, Madeline’s latest novel, Circe, is winning rave reviews from all over, including Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s recent review in WIRoB. But I did get the opportunity to have her sign my copy of Circe and chat with her and Jud Ashman, the festival’s founder and now mayor of Gaithersburg, as the 2018 event wound down around us. (I also got to sign a copy of my novel while standing in Madeline’s line. Photographer Bruce Guthrie offered his back as a flat surface, while others snapped photos. I can’t wait to see those pictures!)
As an extra bonus, many of the huge staff of volunteers participated in an after-party at Greene Growlers, where author E.A. Aymar hosted an episode of “Noir at the Bar”, with a number of festival authors reading from their gritty works. Participants included Con Lehane (Murder in the Manuscript Room), Alma Katsu (The Hunger), Alan Orloff (contributor to The Night of the Flood), Shawn Reilly Simmons (Murder on the Rocks), Aymar (editor and contributor to The Night of the Flood), Owen Laukkanen (Gale Force) and my personal favorites and new-found, book-loving friends, Kelly Ford and Eryk Pruitt.
Save the date for the 10th annual Gaithersburg Book Festival, May 18, 2019. I’ll see you there!