Casual and Intimate: LOC National Book Festival

Over Labor Day weekend, I was a guest of the National Book Festival, hosted by the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.  Here’s a window into what that was like.

National Book Festival Stuff

National Book Festival Stuff

Since we were flying East, Jim and I had to get up at 3:45 to make our 6:23 a.m. flight.  Even for people who routinely get up at 5:30, this was a bit much.  We arrived at the airport to find it much busier than we had thought it would be – probably because of Labor Day weekend. We then flew to Dallas, got a sandwich to eat later on the plane, and flew from there to D.C.  Our flight was fifteen minutes late landing because of turbulence, but otherwise things went well.

We took a cab to our hotel near the D.C. convention center.  When we checked in, we were informed that David and Sharon Weber were already there and were on the same floor.  Once we got into our room, we called them and arranged to take a cab over together to the Gala that was the opening event of the Festival.

The Gala was in the main hall of the Library of Congress.  I’d forgotten just how elaborate that place is: the painted dome, the gilding, the statues.  Add in about four hundred people in various degrees of dress-up clothing, waiters circulating with trays of weird little canapes, and you have the scene.  The four of us happily oohed and aahed, then managed to find a little table and visit before we were all herded into a theater for the formal presentation.

This formal presentation featured video remarks from Laura Bush (who had help found the Festival), and remarks from four authors.  Jim and my personal favorite was poet Kwame Alexander, who managed to be both thoughtful and funny.  David McCullough (noted historian) gave special remarks on the founding of the Festival fifteen years before and on the Librarian of Congress who is apparently retiring after 28 years.

The organizers had allotted an hour for this segment, which was pure lunacy, since it was evident that each speaker had been told to speak for ten to fifteen minutes.  Add in the opening statements, closing statements, McCullough’s talk, and the awarding of a special poster to the Librarian of Congress and they were doomed to go over.  This sort of weirdness characterized the event in general – lots of planning but a problem with the reality interface.

Eventually, closer to 8:30 than the scheduled 8:00 pm, we were sent out to a buffet dinner.  The food was excellent and varied, with selections of beef, chicken, and fish, vegetables, salads, and either an{ a } nice macaroni and cheese or rolls (or all of the above, if you wished).  Dessert featured lots of chocolate, which made me happy.

Additionally, “real” silverware and plates had been provided.  Jim and Weber – who had both had to take off their belts because of the buckles when we went through the metal detector at the entrance – had some choice comments on the logic of this.  However, although at least 400 people were attending, only a very limited amount of seating had been provided.  Most of that was reserved for sponsors and their guests.    Eventually, I scoped out a wide marble bannister, and we used that as a picnic spot.  Weber even found that a high newel post made a good table for him at his great height!

Once fed, we did some touring to see more of the beautiful building and ogle some rare books (like a Guttenberg Bible).  We then chose to depart (by now Jim and I were getting very ragged).  Here we discovered another logistical glitch…  No arrangements had been made for taxis for departing guests.  Traffic at that end of Capitol Hill at that hour on a Friday was minimal.  Happily, a very nice member of the LOC staff flagged one down for us.

The next morning, Jim and I slept in.  We opted to skip breakfast so I could review my thoughts for my talk, which was for shortly before noon.  We then went over to the Convention Center to discover another logistical glitch.  Although we had been told there was an Author’s Pavilion (the terminology was a hold-over from when the event was held outdoors on the Mall), almost no one knew where it was!   We learned that this was because they were protecting the authors’ privacy…  but it seemed extreme to protect us from ourselves.

Eventually, following hints and rumors, rather like Hansel and Gretel following a trail of bread crumbs, we found the pavilion, only to meet up with more security.  However, about this time my assigned escort, a very nice woman named Agata (Polish form of Agatha; she was born in Poland) found us and helped defuse confusion.  We made it into the Green Room just in time to snag a bagel and something to drink before they cleared what was left away.  (Weber and Sharon, who arrived a bit later, found nothing and lunch still being set up.)

Agata informed me that I had several interviews to do – something no one had mentioned to me! I did one with a nice young man who blogs for the LOC.  However, the people who were supposed to be set up in the Media Room weren’t ready and I dodged that one.  Agata had carefully scouted out the terrain in advance and got us down to the room where I was to give my talk with ample time

Now, I’d been told that the tone for the Book Festival was casual and friendly.  I had been told not to read a talk and that, if I was going to read from my book, to keep it brief.  Imagine my astonishment on arriving in the room to not find the “informal” setting I expected but a MASSIVE hall with a stage at one end with two podiums and ENORMOUS video screens on either side, projecting the speaker so that anyone at the back could see all details.

When I got up to talk, I discovered that very bright lights shone on the stage, making it impossible to see the right (my right) side of the hall at all.  NOT at all casual or informal or…

Yeah.  However, I decided that I could still try, so I got up there, bobbled my water bottle (they hadn’t provided anywhere for water to be put down, never mind that we were scheduled to talk for 45 minutes!), and set everyone at ease…  The nice young fellow from the Washington Post who introduced me had been on crutches, so we were in good company.

I talked for about thirty minutes, focusing on my growing up shy in D.C., loving books etc.  Having been turned off by writers who seemed to think it was their job to impress everyone with how young and brilliant they had been, and how they had always been perfect, I focused on overcoming disappointment and failure.  Lots of people told me it was an excellent talk, but I never can tell.

I left fifteen minutes for questions and, happily, there were a lot.  Two microphones had been set up, press conference style, on either side.  I could barely see the people using the one on the right but enough to know if someone was there.   After questions, we had a moment to chat with people before Agata spirited us away to get lunch in the Author’s Pavilion.  There, we were informed (contrary to information given earlier) that ONLY authors and their LOC escorts could have lunch, companions (like Jim) could not.  Sheesh.

I shared my sandwich with Jim, then we went down to the signing area.  I had a nice long line of people wanting books signed.  I was particularly touched by the people who brought their tattered copies of various novels.  Nice to know that my works are among someone’s treasures.

After that, I was off-duty.  Jim and I wandered around a bit, looking for Tom Angleberger whose “Origami Yoda” books I had been reading shortly before.  However, he had a very long line and we didn’t want to get in the way of the kids.  We found Weber down in the signing area finishing off his stint.  We then accompanied him (and Sharon) to his talk.  He did a very nice job, including playing off of comments I’d made, which worked well since we had overlap in our audiences.  Then (since he’d been scheduled to sign before his talk) we were all free.  Sharon coveted an event tee-shirt, but they were out by the time we got there.  (Again, you’d think they could have supplied one to speakers or at least given us a chance to purchase one.)  However, Weber got her a bag, and he and Jim got caps.

Eventually, we went back to our hotel and had dinner, then talked until Sharon needed to go lie down.  We escorted her to their room, then went back to our room with Weber where we sat visiting until 11:30 p.m.  It was really nice…   The next morning, we packed, then met Weber and Sharon for breakfast, before they went to pack and we went to meet my mom so we could visit with family out on the Chesapeake Bay…

3 Responses to “Casual and Intimate: LOC National Book Festival”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Wow, busy time! That certainly deflates any notions I had that DC knows how to do flawless meetings. And I’m glad you’ve got such a large fan base out there

  2. Paul Says:

    I especially liked the secret authors’ pavilion!!

  3. janelindskold Says:

    Here’s a neat P.S. an article based on the interview I gave during the Book Festival on why libraries are like dragon’s hoards — but better.

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