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February 22, 2018

Four Readers Report on the 2018 Savannah Book Festival

Posted by tom

The 11th Annual Savannah Book Festival took place this year from February 15-18 in Savannah, Georgia. According to their website, the Festival celebrates “nationally recognized and local authors through their contributions to literacy, ideas and imagination. Festival Saturday is a free and open to the public event that features solo author presentations in seven venues around Telfair, Chippewa and Wright Squares in historic downtown Savannah.” In this blog post, four readers report on their experiences at this year’s Festival and share their thoughts on the author presentations they attended.

Nancy Bader


The Savannah Book Festival has a unique format. There are keynote presentations on Thursday night (this year, Diana Gabaldon of Outlander series fame), Friday night (Lisa Ko, THE LEAVERS) and Sunday afternoon (Jodi Picoult, New York Times bestselling author), with a $20 admission fee for each event. (Tickets for Gabaldon in an 1,100-seat theater sold out in a New York minute.) On Saturday, approximately 40 bestselling, local and debut authors offer individual presentations that are free and open to the public. None of the participating authors are paid speaking fees. That holds true even for such past speakers as Stephen King, James Patterson and Walter Isaacson, who command five figures and more elsewhere. Ninety percent of the Festival’s funding comes from individual donations and supporters. 

Since its inception, the Festival has always run over Presidents’ Day weekend. We’ve had snow, rain and, this year, 80-degree weather with non-functioning air-conditioning in one of the six venues. The Festival is so good at what it does that C-SPAN, which films some of the nonfiction authors, calls it one of the best book festivals in the country. I volunteered on the publicity team for the Festival for seven years. Now that I no longer live in Savannah, I’m free to simply attend and enjoy myself. And what enjoyment it is!

There are no panel discussions. Six authors speak in the same time slot at six different venues throughout the Historic District, mostly churches and museums. They’re supposed to talk for a half-hour or so, with another 15 minutes for questions and answers, which are often more enlightening than the presentations. Multiple book-signing tents are set up in one of Savannah’s squares, and authors rush over there after their presentations. Only books bought at or through the Festival can be autographed. After each set of presentations is done, there is a slight break, and then another six presentations begin.

I usually go to Festival Saturday with my friend, Kathy. We do our homework ahead of time to figure out who we want to hear, where and when, and usually split up to go to different presentations. We brown-bag lunch to eat on the run, if necessary, although Savannah now allows food trucks at events, and they offer everything from pizza to exotic foods. I did not go to any of the keynotes this year. When I have gone in the past, it was with my book club. We always choose a book by one of the speakers for our February discussion.

One of the stipulations in the Festival author contract is that they talk, and not read from one of their books. Unfortunately, this year, a number of the authors I went to see ignored this rule. Joe Hill, who attracted a large audience, presumably partly for what people thought he’d talk about and partly because he is Stephen King’s son, was the worst. He read a short story for 20 minutes and took questions for 10. He said that he used a different name initially to give himself the confidence that he could succeed on his own. It took him numerous attempts. In answer to a question on how to get youngsters interested in writing, he suggested, “Give them good things to read, that heighten their imagination and get them thinking, Hey, maybe I can do this, too.”

My definite favorite presentation and the book I can’t wait to read is Tayari JonesAN AMERICAN MARRIAGE. Her presentation was exceptional, including her telling how Oprah herself called her to tell her that she had selected her book for Oprah’s Book Club. The novel is about a recently married young black couple. The husband is sent to prison for five years for a crime he did not commit. The story asks the questions: How do you balance love with responsibilities? Is it harder for the wife to wait all that time while her husband is incarcerated, or for the husband to tell his wife she doesn’t have to? When she was asked about “Life Before Oprah” and “Life After Oprah,” Jones said that the hardest thing was keeping the news secret between October, when Oprah called, and February, when it was announced. She said she knew the news would be life-altering, but she didn’t want it to change her relationships with family and friends. The biggest game-changer so far for Jones, who has written three other much less successful books? “A lot more people come to hear me now,” she told a packed audience.

I attended two nonfiction presentations. First up was Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment attorney who represented the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case. His latest book is THE SOUL OF THE FIRST AMENDMENT.  Surprisingly, he said we almost didn’t have a Bill of Rights. Ten framers of the Constitution voted against it; only one voted in favor, initially.  Other surprises in his presentation: He feels that some --- not all --- of what Eric Snowden has made public has actually been a good thing. He also said that while the Supreme Court has voted in favor of hurtful, disgusting and despicable speech, it would be more dangerous if the Court did not support that right. In the Colorado case currently before the Supreme Court, in which a wedding cake baker refused to bake a cake for a gay couple, saying it went against his religious beliefs, Abrams expects the Court to vote 5-4 in favor of the baker.

Sally Mott Freeman spoke about THE JERSEY BROTHERS, the true story of three brothers who served during World War II and the long and sad attempt to find out what happened to one of them. The story couldn’t have hit closer to home --- the three servicemen were her father and uncles. Shockers from her presentation: the story that the military told her family about her uncle was completely different from what had really occurred. This happened with many other families as well. Another surprise from her presentation: we hear so much about Nazi atrocities, but, in reality, only two percent of Nazi POWs died, while more than 40 percent of POWs of the Japanese died. I have read this book, and found it fascinating and sad. My husband read it and is recommending it for his men’s book club.

Chloe Benjamin did a great presentation on THE IMMORTALISTS, the story of four young siblings who are told the dates that they will die by a fortune-teller. I just finished reading this book and highly recommend it to book clubs. I think that it fits in with STILL ALICE, when Alice’s children had the opportunity to be tested to see if they would develop early-onset Alzheimer’s. What would you do in that case? What would you do if you could learn when you were going to die? How would it change how you live your life? Benjamin said she wanted to look at the changing dynamics of siblings when they are young and older, close and distant. I teach memoir-writing, and this is a topic that we get into in class, so the book fascinated me for that reason, as well as others.

I would have liked to have heard Ben Coes (TRAP THE DEVIL), Jamie Ford (LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES), Brendan Mathews (THE WORLD OF TOMORROW), Daniel Golden (SPY SCHOOLS), and especially Jodi Picoult (SMALL GREAT THINGS), who is one of my all-time favorite authors. I never read or watched any of the Outlander series, but friends who went to Gabaldon’s presentation said she was a terrific speaker. She knew from the time she was seven that she wanted to be a writer, but said she was smart enough not to tell her father. She has degrees in zoology, marine biology and behavioral ecology, and decided to write a “practice novel” at age 35. It became the first in the eight-book Outlander series. The rest, as they say, is history. I only heard from one friend who went to Lisa Ko’s presentation for THE LEAVERS. She said that Ko played the immigrant trump card, even though she herself is a first-generation American.

One last point: Savannah is a wonderful city, full of history, culture and great restaurants. The Book Festival is held in the Historic District, which is easily walkable. It’s a great excuse to come visit.

Susan Winterton and Dory


Here are our thoughts on Jodi Picoult, who we heard speak at this year’s Savannah Book Festival:

She was a charismatic speaker who held our attention for the entire presentation.

Her talk pretty much followed the topics of her book, SMALL GREAT THINGS.

She explained in detail how she, as a white woman, could write from the point of view of a black woman and a white supremacist man with any authority.

She talked about the five things never to say when you’re in a conversation about racism, and the two that registered with us were:

  1. I’m not racist. I have friends who are ____________ . (Fill in the blank)
  2. How can you call me racist? You don’t even know me!

She gave ways to advance ourselves with regards to racism in 2018 America:

  1. Read a book by a black author.
  2. Go see a movie with predominately black actors, etc.
  3. Engage in conversations about what we see, read or think, however uncomfortable they may be.

While we may not have agreed with everything she said, we did think that she gave an intelligent, strong presentation of the issues she wrote about in her book and helped the audience with concrete ways to grow as human beings.

I also thought that her talk leaned in the “politically correct” direction of today’s social climate and that the other side of things was not addressed at all. But in fairness, she wasn’t there to debate --- just to present and sell her book.

Dory and I both thought that one of the best things that came out of her very good presentation was one of the final comments from a man in the audience during the Q&A, who said that we are ALL “tribal” in nature and that we should be aware of that in ourselves.

We’re definitely glad we went and look forward to next year’s Festival!

Susan Keeler


I attended the Savannah Book Festival, which was packed with authors I wanted to see. I had attempted to read all the books for the events I scheduled, but did not obtain a copy of Tayari Jones’ book in time.

I enjoy debut authors, so I saw Cherise Wolas and Danya Kukafka, both of whom gave the most engaging presentations NOT reading from their books. They had in common writing from a really young age, with parents who were proud and supportive of their early attempts. Cherise, whose novel is THE RESURRECTION OF JOAN ASHBY, spoke of her life experience informing her work, but Danya is just a young thing who wrote YA lit before publishing her novel, GIRL IN SNOW.

The weather in Savannah was really hot, and the church sanctuaries were stifling. Tayari Jones said she felt like she was really at church with all the southern ladies fanning themselves with their programs.

Chloe Benjamin spoke extensively of the research done for the characters in THE IMMORTALISTS and humorously told of her obsession with a jellyfish she learned can be reborn, but she had to abandon it because it could not work in the story.

Lisa Ko gave a moving speech about immigrants, which is as timely now as when she began her debut novel, THE LEAVERS, 10 years ago.