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September 25, 2013

An Interview with Reader Denise N. from Rockville, MD About Her Experiences at the National Book Festival

Posted by Shannon

On September 21st and 22nd, thousands of book lovers gathered in Washington, D.C. for the 2013 Library of Congress National Book Festival. Among those in attendance was reader Denise from Rockville, MD, who tries to make it to this national celebration of all things reading every year. Luckily, for those of us who weren’t there for the fun, Denise agreed to chat with us about her experiences. Here, she gives a recap of her favorite panels, shares which authors she was dying to meet most, and chimes in on the Franzen-Weiner Twitter controversy, which, in case you missed it, is the most recent literary spat grabbing headlines. She also reveals what surprised her most and gives advice for folks thinking of saving the date for next year. What did you think of the National Book Festival?

Denise N.:  I loved the book festival --- it is such an over-the-top, enthusiastic celebration of all things reading! One of my favorite things about the festival is the sense of connection between the author and the reader --- it has some elements of a fan club meeting. I have not read Don DeLillo --- and found myself close to tears as he talked about the assassination of JFK unintentionally changing the direction of his work, as he realized only after the fact that his work has a theme of living in dangerous times.

There is something for everyone at the festival --- and I am such a sucker for how much children are impressed with the idea that reading is cool! Some kids (and adults) even attend in character costumes!

BRC: Was this the first time you attended? If not, how did it compare with other years?

DN: I attend most years --- it was, until the last two years, a one day, not a two-day affair. And I still can't decide which iteration I prefer!

Here's an earlier post on the 2009 festival.

BRC: What spurred you to attend the event?

DN: Past (great) experience.

BRC: Who joined you at the event? What were their comments about it?

DN: I went by myself on the first day --- for maximum, selfish flexibility to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. I usually have a plan when I get there, and deviate a lot! I love just walking up and down the tents, to see what is going on. My husband joined me for the second day...and he could have happily camped in the "history and biography" tent for the rest of his life.

BRC: Was there one panel that stood out to you? If so, what was it, and why? (If there was more than one, please feel free to cite them.)

DN: I could listen to some authors talk about how they select cereal in the morning. Margaret Atwood and James Swanson are firmly in that category. Literary giant Margaret Atwood calling out Jonathan Franzen on his Twitter dismay was fairly hilarious. She first said she refused to respond to the controversy (the Twitter forces General is the remarkable Jennifer Weiner, another of my most adored writers), then plunged in. She even accused JF of Twitter snooping, since he seemed to know so much about it! She asked how many in the audience were on Twitter; many hands raised high. Later, she gave recommendations for some of her favorite Twitter feeds--including Chaucer Doth Tweet.

James Swanson has written a YA book about the assassination of President Kennedy. For his crowd, 50 years ago might have been a million years ago, in terms of how we learn about breaking news. Newspapers that described places in detail, as there were not pictures! His family had a television, and some of their neighbors who did not watched news coverage at his home.

And the Literary Lights Readers Theatre is a highlight for me --- my children are now 20 and 22, and my favorite memories are of reading to them! The good ideas I could have stolen from this theatre! Here's a description, but it doesn't quite give justice to a panel featuring a daughter of a former President of the United States dressed as a Cowboy, and the head of RIF dressed as an Octopus: “The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress and its reading promotion partner, the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance, will present a young people’s Literary Lights Readers Theater program. Mary Brigid Barrett, NCBLA president, will moderate the program. Readers Theater is a dramatic presentation of a work in script form, similar to a radio play. Literary Lights presenters include favorite young people’s authors Katherine Paterson, Jon Scieszka, Grace Lin and Susan Cooper, and the program will showcase their books. Special guests Carol Rasco, president and CEO of Reading Is Fundamental, and literacy advocate Lynda Johnson Robb will also take part."

BRC: Was there one author you really wanted to meet? (If there was more than one, please feel free to cite them.)

DN: Margaret Atwood (and I didn't meet her!).

BRC: Did you get books signed? If so, by whom and how were the lines?

DN: I did not get any books signed! DC is fortunate to have an independent bookstore, Politics and Prose, that attracts most of these same authors --- so I get most signed books there. (In fact, Margaret Atwood left the festival for a reading and signing at Politics and Prose. The signing lines were crazy, but festival organizers were smart to cut them off. That disappointed some readers, but better to be disappointed before standing in line forever! (I did get a photo with one of my favorite authors: SuperGrover!)

BRC: Did you get to speak with readers other than those in your group? If so, what were their reactions?

DN: One of my favorite things about the event is that the crowd is friendly and sociable, so I spoke to lots of readers. Lots of people were helping strangers up and down from their seats on the ground --- one chased me down to give me my dropped phone!

BRC: What book did you walk away wanting to read most?

DN: A handful of good suggestions, and this one at the top of the list because the author just won me over: THE GIRLS OF ATOMIC CITY: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, by Denise Kiernan. I really just attended her reading to keep my World War II-crazy husband company; and my jaw dropped listening to the program. The people working had no idea what they were working on? And didn't realize it until President Truman addressed the nation? I can't get her (enthusiastic) presentation out of my head!

BRC: Any other thoughts on the event?

DN: If you are a family who loves to read, consider coming to DC for this weekend! The sight of little kids lined up to ask their authors a question is one I treasure!  It is a kids' heaven --- photos with stuffed characters, concerts, readings, games, book giveaways.

BRC: Would you attend this kind of an event again? And is there anything that would make it more special for you?

DN: I will go every time I can! (If I had press credentials from, it could make it more fun for me!)

BRC: Anything that you think could have been done better?

DN: I think it is organized bedlam, and I don't know how it could be better. It might be fun, at some point during the festival, to have a 10-minute DEAR. But could it work in that sort of crowd?