St. Louis just hosted its first annual book festival, BookFest St. Louis, in the Central West End. As a reader, writer, and editor, this event was a dream come true. We don’t get a lot of literary traffic down here in St. Louis, so to have this many authors and book-focused events in one space on one day was amazing.
It’s pointless to describe each event I attended—that would be boring to read. So instead, here are some observations about the various BookFest St. Louis performances and panels I attended.
Panels are fascinating when the authors have read each other’s books.
All three panels that I attended were unmoderated; instead, the authors talked amongst themselves and asked each other questions about their writing and books. I haven’t been to many events or panels like this, so I can’t say whether this is a typical approach to panels, but I thought it made the discussion honest, open, and genuine. It was so cool to see authors genuinely interested in what their fellow authors had gone through and thought about while writing their books. This approach to panel discussions elevated the discussions beyond the typical “What was your inspiration for writing this?” questions that readers tend to ask. Authors asked each other how they picked the selections from their novels to read out loud, who they showed their drafts to while writing, and whether they lost their mind while writing.
St. Louis has some serious readers.
I was impressed by the high-quality questions that readers did ask of authors during Q&A sessions. I loved that there were children at the middle grade authors panel with questions about the books, like how the authors came up with riddles or which characters are their favorites. The questions in the literary fiction panels were deep and interesting: How do you feel about the label literary fiction? What’s a question you want readers to ask you about your novel? What was the difference between writing about a subject from a journalistic point of view versus from a fiction writing perspective? These questions further propelled the authors on each panel into good discussions about their writing process, their books, and themselves.
Second novels are hard.
Authors on two separate panels talked about how difficult it is to write a second novel. Kat Zhang and Trenton Lee Stewart agreed that the first book is more fun to write, but the second book is harder to write as you’re under deadline for the first time. Robin Sloan and Edward Kelsey Moore discussed how they approached writing their second novels: Sloan said that he was cognizant of touching on some of the same themes and elements from Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore in his second novel, Sourdough. Moore noted that as he was writing his second novel, he was more aware of his audience and their expectations for his second book. He chose to write about the same characters as his debut novel, The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat, instead of diving into a completely new world of characters.
Writers can’t be afraid of heavy revision.
Gabriel Tallent, Shanthi Sekaran, and Whitney Terrell discussed how drastically they revised their novels: Tallent cut his point of view down to just one character’s voice, Terrell completely reversed the order of the scenes in his book, and Sekaran started with scenes in chronological order and then moved them around to create tension. As any writer knows, these are HUGE revisions, and the panelists’ discussion of these structural changes reminded me that writing is hard work and not for the weak of heart.
Poetry performances are underrated.
I attended two BookFest St. Louis poetry performances. The first was a reading of Jane Ellen Ibur’s latest poetry collection, The Little Mrs./Misses. I missed most of this section, but I was fortunate to see Emily Kohring, Hassie Davis, and Kathi Bentley perform Ibur’s poetry about Mrs. Noah (of Biblical origins) while soundscapist David A. N. Jackson created a background of sounds and music. This performance fascinated me; the mingling of sounds and powerful voices breathed meaning and life into the poetry about Noah’s wife, and it made me consider what her life must have been like in a way I hadn’t thought of before.
The other poetry performance that I attended was the Prufrock & Other Observations event in the upper room of Dressel’s Pub. Various local poets picked a poem by T.S. Eliot and read it for room full of eager listeners. And honestly? It feels like a cult, sitting in a room listening to poetry. I can see how some have dabbled with calling poetry their sacred texts. How odd it really is to sit in a room and recite words that someone wrote 100 years ago—how magical and unreal. Why do these words have such power a century later? And which words that are being written today will be recited in a century?
Writing about food is also underrated.
Sloan and Moore discussed food as a theme in their books. They noted that how people deal with food says a lot about them, from what they eat to how they eat to their attitudes about eating. This was a fascinating topic of discussion as Sloan and Moore seem to understand the human interaction with food well and explore it intelligently in their writing. And it makes sense to use food as a way to write about characters; after all, food is something that everyone needs, so everyone interacts with it. If you write about food, pretty much anyone who picks up that book can relate to needing food, picking which foods to eat, and all the emotional baggage that can come with food.
Book signings are awkward.
I’ll admit: I don’t understand why having your book signed is a thing. I write in my books anyway, so it’s not like signed books will be worth anything if I’ve read them. I suppose it’s a souvenir to prove that you’ve met the author, but the words the author has written and the words spoken in a panel or speech are much more important to me than a name scribbled across a page.
Nevertheless, it was cool to have Trenton Lee Stewart, Kat Zhang, and Sherman Alexie sign books, but it was SO awkward because I hadn’t read anything by them and didn’t have anything interesting to say to them.
Sherman Alexie is a really good performer.
I went to Sherman Alexie’s keynote speech on Friday night of BookFest St. Louis. I wasn’t sure what to expect; I suspected it would be political, but I didn’t know much more than that as I hadn’t even read 100 pages of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I wanted to hear him speak mostly because he’s big on the literary scene right now, and as someone aspiring to understand and work in the publishing world, hearing his stories and ideas was important to me.
He was definitely political, almost uncomfortably so at points. (But I’m allergic to politics these days; it’s terrible, but I’d rather not think about it.) But what struck me was that he was funny; his timing and storytelling skills were impeccable. The stories he wove together about his mother’s death, what their relationship was like, and what it was like writing and touring for You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me were moving. The way he went off on tangents and brought the narrative back to the same scene reminded me of Mike Birbiglia’s stand-up special My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. It amazes me when people who can write such moving words are also capable of standing up and reading them well. I think I could possibly write words like that, but I know that I would never be able to stand up and read them as well as Sherman Alexie or several of the authors and poets that spoke at BookFest did.