Skip to main content


March 25, 2019

Reader Nancy Sharko Reports on the 2019 Montclair Literary Festival

Posted by carol

We love when our readers share with us their experiences about the book festivals and literary events that they attend. Thus, we were so pleased to get this report about the Montclair Literary Festival from our longtime reader, Nancy Sharko.


The Montclair Literary Festival held its third event in Montclair, NJ, this past weekend. It's pretty close to where I live, so even though there were only a few presentations of interest, I couldn't resist! 

Montclair is a beautiful town, with a bustling downtown, and is home to many well-known authors, who are definitely a big part of the event. The aim of the Festival is to raise money for an organization called Succeed2gether that runs literacy activities and events. One way they do this during the Festival is to charge an entrance fee for events for bigger-name authors (although you do get a copy of their newest book as part of the fee), but the vast majority of sessions were free. I didn't attend any of those sessions, but the featured authors included Joyce Carol Oates, Nathan Englander, Sigrid Nunez and Amber Tamblyn.

My favorite session was presented as a conversation about race, education and privilege, and featured author Sam Graham-Felsen, journalist Jazmine Hughes and moderator Dale Russakoff  (who's also a writer and published author). Sam's book, GREEN, is about a 12-year-old white Jewish boy attending a middle school that is predominantly black. They started the session talking about their different experiences in middle school, with the common theme that they all attended segregated schools: Sam (a white Jewish child in a predominantly black school in Boston), Jazmine (a black child in a school with predominantly black students in New Haven), and Dale (a white Jewish child in a school with predominantly white Christian students in Birmingham, AL). While Sam said that the book is not autobiographical, he and Jazmine talked about the limitations they personally experienced in their schools in terms of aspirations. As an example, in neither of their schools was there talk about the students working hard to attend Harvard or Yale.

Before writing the book, Sam also had the interesting experience of working as a blogger on President Obama's 2008 campaign. He got the job by writing directly to the campaign, and after he was hired, he traveled around the country talking to voters. During the campaign, they were not allowed to talk about race, which frustrated him, to the extent that this experience was one of the factors that inspired him to write his novel. An interesting anecdote concerned Michelle Obama. Sam said that he spent more time with her and spoke very highly about her powerful stump speeches. Initially, she included the subject of fear (around children), but that made people feel uncomfortable. The campaign ended up hiring a consultant, with the end result being that Mrs. Obama's speeches started to focus more on motherhood and work/life balance.

Another session I attended was entitled "Crafting Stories from Visual Inspiration," and featured Christina Baker Kline and Fiona Davis. Christina lived in Montclair for 20+ years but recently moved back to NYC. Her most recent novel, A PIECE OF THE WORLD, is about the relationship between Andrew Wyeth, the painter, and Anna Christina Olson, the subject of one of his better known works, Christina's World. Christina talked about the research challenges for the book, which was the first where she had to "inhabit" a character who was a real person, and added that it probably will be the last time she does that.

In A PIECE OF THE WORLD, there's quite a bit of discussion about the fried apple cake baked by Christina Olson. The reality is that the recipe she used is from the Pioneer Woman's website, and Christina Baker Kline said that she's made it and it's delicious (but you need a cast iron skillet).

Fiona does a tremendous amount of research but likes that her books are a mixture of reality and fiction. She talked about the research she undertook for her last book, THE MASTERPIECE, including a behind-the-scenes tour of Grand Central Terminal, where she learned there was an abandoned train car underneath the Waldorf Astoria Hotel that was used to transport FDR. Fiona's next book is coming out on July 30th and is about the Chelsea Hotel; it is called THE CHELSEA GIRLS. She also has a book underway that is about an apartment that used to be in the New York Public Library for the building superintendent. Fiona was intrigued by Christina's stories about going to Australia for research for the book she's currently working on, and thought that would be an interesting change from NYC. 

The third session tackled the timely and difficult subject of immigration and featured fiction writers Irina Reyn and Maria E. Andreu and journalist Suketu Mehta. It was moderated by Marina Budhos, also a published author who writes about immigration. Mingled in the discussions about immigration and their books were a number of poignant personal stories, particularly from Maria, who was undocumented when she first came to the US. She and her mother went back to Argentina for a family funeral, and when the legal process to return was becoming overwhelming, they returned to the US by crossing through Mexico. Her YA book, THE SECRET SIDE OF EMPTY, is a fictionalized story but is based on her own life.

The idea for Irina's newest book, MOTHER COUNTRY, came from the nanny she hired to take care of her daughter. The nanny was from Eastern Europe, and her daughter was stuck in Ukraine, trying to emigrate to join the rest of her family in the US. One of Irina's motivations was to give a voice to people caught up in these immigration battles.  

All three authors on the panel saw their books as an opportunity to educate people about immigrants and their humanity. Suketu's book, THIS LAND IS OUR LAND, will be coming out in June, and when his publisher asked him where he wanted to go to promote the book, his first suggestion was to appear on Tucker Carlson's show on FOX News.

As usual, I left the event with more books for my TBR list (although I currently have Irina's book), and I hope to have my book club add GREEN to our list for this year.