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October 2, 2014

Morristown Festival of Books 2014


This past Saturday, September 27th, readers and writers arrived in downtown Morristown for a beautiful, sunny day of books and author talks at the inaugural Morristown Festival of Books. The downtown location was a particularly great venue because of the easily accessible parking and literally dozens of places to eat during the lunch break.

Carol Fitzgerald, fellow intern Matthew Burbridge and I were there along with reviewer Vivian Payton and my mom, Martha, who is an avid reader. Starting at 10 AM, authors assembled in four different locations to talk about their latest releases and answer questions about their inspirations, writing styles and experiences. Following all author talks, readers were invited to purchase books from the tent that was manned by two Indie booksellers, [word] from Maplewood and The Bookworm from Bernadsville, and to get them signed. Shopping was brisk and well organized, and it was lovely to see so many people inspired to buy after hearing from the authors. Best of all, personalization was encouraged, and event workers handed out Post-Its to ensure proper spellings.

To maximize our experience we each attended some events independently, as well as some together. Each of the four venues was within walking distance of the others, offering us some pretty views of downtown Morristown in between talks. Vivian, Martha and I started with Marta McDowell in the Morristown Public Library. Marta’s book, BEATRIX POTTER’S GARDENING LIFE: The Plants and Places that Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales, guides readers through the intersection of gardening and classic literature. During her talk, McDowell explained how she approached her research and told some charming tales about Beatrix Potter’s life --- and even offered some gardening tips to those of us with less-than-green thumbs.

Carol, meanwhile, was off to see Breena Clarke, author of ANGELS MAKE THEIR HOPE HERE, a novel about a young black woman who finds refuge in a racially-tolerant area of New Jersey during the Civil War. Breena’s extensive research about the Civil War era was enlightening to all --- particularly New Jersey residents. She researched her book for four years, and the entire writing process took six years!

At 11:15, the next group of authors began their talks.  We all met up to see Martha Woodroof, who released her debut, SMALL BLESSINGS, this year, which was featured on's Women's Fiction Author Spotlight. Carol had met her at Winter Institute in Seattle back in January when she was previewing her book to booksellers, so for her, this meeting took them full circle in the promotion process. Martha started her talk with a brief history of her life up until she wrote her novel (she has lived a fascinating life), and then read the opening chapter, which garnered many laughs and smiles from her audience. Typically when authors read, it can change the energy in the room in a bad way. With Martha, it just made her more endearing. She was keen to answer any and all questions --- book-related or not --- making her talk a great end to the morning. We all felt we would have wanted to continue the conversation over lunch.

During the lunch break, Carol slipped off and went yarn shopping at Trillium, which had just moved to their new downtown Morristown location, which she considered total kismet.  Meanwhile, Vivian, Martha and I stopped to get our books signed by Martha Woodroof. It’s safe to say that we were all a bit starstruck after hearing Martha talk, but she was so friendly we immediately felt like old pals.

After getting our books signed, we stopped for a bite to eat before meeting up with Carol and Matthew for Dorothea Benton Frank, who spoke in the beautiful and elegant St. Peter's Episcopal Church. A note of humor here: events were taking place at two churches, and Carol accidently went to the wrong one and had to hustle to meet up with us. The idea of Dottie (as Carol knows her) addressing a crowd from just in front of the altar was amusing, and she frequently said, “God, don’t strike me down….” Addressing a thoroughly enchanted crowd, Frank discussed the motivations behind her works, her book tour (which is nowhere as glamorous as one might think) and what drives her to keep writing, and a hilarious story about her debut as an author.

Vivian, Martha and I are big Dorothea fans, so we raced to the tent to buy her books and get them signed. She was as pleasant and lovely as her writing, and we were lucky enough to get a few books signed at once. Unfortunately for Carol, Dorothea’s line was long, and she had to duck out to race to one of the final sessions where Caroline Leavitt, who was wearing her signature cowboy boots, talked about her latest book, IS THIS TOMORROW. Her stories about researching life in the 1950s had the crowd nodding and smiling. Especially fun was her telling of the meatloaf train, which was special, to be served at dinner parties. You can watch her tell the story here.

There never is enough time to see everyone that a reader wants to see at a book festival, thus Carol had to miss hearing Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, the author of BITTERSWEET, but she was able to meet her at the signing and nab a photo of her.

There were two things that were particularly interesting throughout the day. First, Carol, who has been to a number of book festivals, was impressed with the number of audience questions and the sophistication of them. The other was the number of times the fiction authors were asked if they had ever considered writing a memoir or nonfiction. Clearly the audiences were impressed with their depths of their research and its accessibility.

All in all, it was a wonderful day for both readers and authors. All of the authors we had the fortune of meeting were cheerful, polite and, most of all, gracious.

It was nice to note how many of the authors make their homes in New Jersey. Marta McDowell, for example, writes and gardens in Chatham and teaches at Drew University, while Dorothea Benton Frank is a proud resident of Montclair, Caroline Leavitt lives in Hoboken, and Breena Clarke resides in Jersey City. The weather was certainly the icing on the cake, but rain or shine, this was a book festival that did itself proud, both with the quality of the program and the organization of the entire day. We look forward to the Morristown Book Festival growing in attendance and recognition and, most of all, becoming an annual event.