Saturday, October 17, 2009

Of magicians, elephants, and the undead...

Hello, readers.

Very recently a book festival stopped by Nashville. It was the Southern Festival of Books. The thing took place at the state capitol, pretty much overtaking the legislative plaza, various serious looking committee rooms, and at least one War Memorial Auditorium. Many exhibitors were there, of which several I chatted to about, among other things, zombie superheroes, job openings, and the prevalence of verse in young adult fiction.

The New York Times Review and Oxford American booths were memorable for the very memorable sunglasses their boothees wore. The New York Times man wore a pair very sleek and shiny. The Oxford American girl wore a pair very big and slightly fluorescent.

Many cool authors attended the festival. Kevin Wilson, author of Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, wore a very Dilbert like outfit (patterned shirt, thin red tie) and read a funny story about late night hand-jobs and mayonnaise. Alex Beard and Elizabeth Dulemba, a pair of illustrators/writers, talked about iPhone apps, connecting with readers, and the proper amounts of ego and stubborness necessary to be a successful writer. Buzz Aldrin (a man who was on the moon!) was also at the festival, but I got lost in talking to Bob of The Tennessee Writer's Alliance about the aforementioned zombie superhero.

The best bits of the festival, though, were Kate DiCamillo and a panel called, "Young, Fanged, and Undead: Novels Teens Can Sink Their Into."

Ms. DiCamillo spoke in War Memorial Auditorium. It is a big place. It was full.

She read an essay about the first magic trick she ever saw. It involved her being very sick in a hospital, trees outside being very scary, and her father being the bearer of a model village made entirely from wood. There being a wooden church, a wooden moon, a wooden cow, and so forth. Everything was brightly colored and the same size. This made sense to her, Kate said, in her feverish state. The rooster being as big as the church, the pig as round as the moon.

"What if," her father asked, "if the rooster fell in love with the pig?"

"I don't know," Kate said. She didn't want to answer incorrectly.

"What would the farmer think?"

Kate thought about this. "He would be happy."


"Yes. He would want them to get married."

And so it went, Ms. DiCamillo making up a story in answer to her father's questions until he left and she was alone again, sick in a hospital outside of which there very scary trees. But it was okay now, because the whole world sat on the bed with her and she could ask herself as many what if's as she wanted. She could tell as many stories as she could imagine.

That was the first magic trick she ever saw.

She said her new book, The Magician's Elephant, was a book about a magic trick, which is to say it was a book about love, the greatest magic trick of all.

And then she finished her essay and people asked a lot of questions and Ms. DiCamillo answered them with a modicum of self-deprecation and just a hint of sarcasm. She was lovely.

A great many people, myself included, stood in line for an hour or so, waiting to say hello and thank you and have her sign our book. Come to think of it, this may have been the real, non-zombie related, reason I missed Buzz.

It was worth it.

Ah, and then there was the Young, Fanged, and Undead, a panel consisting of Daniel Waters, Melissa de la Cruz, and David MacInnis Gill, not to forget introducer Alethea Kontis who warmed up the audience with author bios that only occasionally bothered to be all that biographical. Little known fact about Daniel Waters, he once served in the Revolutionary War.

The audience was a fair mixture of kids, teens, parents, and adults of indeterminate origin (of which, I suppose, one could include myself). They asked many questions ranging from who's your favorite character to, "Besides Stephen King, which classic book is your favorite?"

"I didn't realize Stephen King was such a classic book," David MacInnis Gill said. "I'm too old, I guess."

Their answers. Mr. Gill: To Kill A Mockingbird. Mr. Waters: Infinite Jest and Cather in the Rye. Ms. de la Cruz: War and Peace.

Escapist fun, as you would expect.

It was light-hearted. The panel comradic. They riffed off each other and the questions in a manner I hadn't noticed at other panels. Perhaps that was because people here were not burdened by literariness and life, or maybe it's because I'm biased.

I asked the panel why they had an affinity for monsters.

Ms. de la Cruz mentioned Stephen King (as they all did), as well as the many fantasy and genre-ific books she read. Mr. Gill spoke of genre, as well, of what boundaries you could cross, what rules you could break. "You get to make up your own world," he said. He also admitted, as Mr. Waters, had earlier, of the satirical possibilities. "I put a message in my books and then hide it under demons and humor. Adults don't get it. They think it's escapist. But kids understand."

Mr. Waters responded that, at one point, while trying to write a book about the cruelty and violence of teenagers, he stared at the ceiling. He felt depressed. Burdened, you might say. It occurred to him that if zombies existed, they would not fair well in high school. The old Romero zombies, the voodoo zombies, he said, were slow and dumb and easily picked on. "If you had a baseball bat you were fine."

And so he wrote about zombies as his book's "Other." He found a way to be funny and serious at the same time. He was less depressed. "Zombies were a coping mechanism for me, I think," he said. "Also, they're cool."

Well, said, Mr. Waters. Well said.

Happy Friday, readers.


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