BookFest St. Louis is a wonderful daylong event that lets the St. Louis community hear a variety of authors speak for free. I attended the festival in September with my friend Hannah and her sister and had a great time. Here are the sessions I attended and what I took away from them as a reader, writer, and editor.
Noon to 1 p.m. Fresh Fierce Fiction
I started the day at the Fresh Fierce Fiction session in the McPherson Tent and heard Deborah Eisenberg, Rebecca Makkai, Anne Valente, and Lucy Jane Bledsoe in a panel discussion.
The thing from this session that will stick with me is that Makkai flat-out said that going stretches without writing is fine, that fallow periods are good and useful. This was really helpful to hear because I often feel guilty that I don’t write every day. Being reminded by successful authors that I’m not a failure if I stop writing for a while—and that my writing might even be better if I haven’t written in a while—is comforting to hear.
2–3 p.m. Daring Debut Novels
After grabbing a coffee at Coffee Cartel (RIP), we headed back up Euclid to hear Weike Wang, Blair Hurley, Michael Nye, and Melissa Scholes Young discuss their debut novels. This session felt a bit disconnected—there were too many authors and not enough time to delve into their thoughts. The authors read selections from their novels and discussed what made them “daring”: For Nye, it was the autobiographical element of his novel, and for Wang, it was broaching the theme of doubt in marriage and relationships. I left this session excited to read Wang’s debut, Chemistry; since I’ve gotten married, I’ve been interested in reading books about relationships and marriage, and this one sounds good.
3–4 P.M. Wit & Wine With Gary Shteyngart
The first thing that struck me was that the audience for this ticketed event was almost a completely different audience than the attendees of the other BookFest sessions. People ordered cheese boards and glasses of wine under the shady tent of Bar Italia to chuckle at Gary Shteyngart’s sharp, humorous reading of his latest novel, Lake Success. And oh boy, was Shteyngart funny—his reading was so engagingly hilarious that someone asked if he did his own audiobooks. (Unfortunately, no.)
The Q&A session following his reading was as equally engaging and fun as Shteyngart discussed his research for writing the book: months traveling on Greyhound busses and years hanging out with hedge fund managers. I got the sense he could have talked about those experiences for hours and hours—and I would have stayed and listened. This event was definitely worth the price of admission, and although I haven’t read any of Shteyngart’s books yet, I’m very excited to after hearing him talk.
4–5 p.m. Mavericks and Misfits: Essays From the Fringe
Thanks to Shteyngart, I was late to the session of the only author at BookFest who I had read. Still, I managed to make it back up Euclid to Dressel’s Pub in time to hear Rebecca Schuman read a selection from her memoir, Schadenfreude, A Love Story. This memoir was the only book by a BookFest author that I had managed to finish before the event, and it was wonderful hearing Schuman’s reading of it.
I enjoyed the cozier vibe of this session. Michelle Tea and Schuman had a lively conversation about each other’s books; it was obvious they had read them and were genuinely excited to engage each other in conversation. This session had a lot of things going for it: There were only two authors, the space was smaller, and they were physically closer to the audience. These factors made it easier for me, as an audience member, to engage with this session.
Tea and Schuman discussed one of the differences they perceived between big publishers and small presses when it comes to memoir: Bigger publishers push for memoirs to have clean story arcs, while smaller presses are more open to experimental works that aren’t neat and tidy in their arcs. Fragmentary work often makes the reader work harder; this isn’t always what bigger publishers want if they’re selling a book to a general audience. Schuman and Tea said that, as authors, it can be hard to push back on editors if they’re not quite seeing your vision for a piece. Hearing this discussion was very helpful to me as an editor. It reminded me that I want to focus on what the author is trying to do in their writing instead of force my preconceived idea about what their narrative (or any other aspect of craft) needs to look like.
6–7 p.m. Suspense in the City
Left Bank Books manager Shane Mullen led Hank Phillippi Ryan, Rosalie Knecht, and Elsa Hart in a discussion of their books; the suspense, thriller, and mystery genres; and writing in general. The questions were great, and they’re the reason this was my favorite panel discussion even though I hadn’t read any of the panelists’ books and am not even a dedicated thriller, mystery, or suspense reader.
For example, one of the questions was about fact-checking in novels, and this led to a fascinating craft discussion: Thrillers, for example, require accurate timelines because every second matters; for this reason, it’s smart for a writer to keep track of the day and time as they write scenes. One author argued that if the character thinks something is true, then it’s true because that’s what the character thinks. Copy editors often serve as fact checkers, and it’s natural for the author to feel a little defensive when the copy editor queries seemingly nitpicky facts. This was good for me to hear as both a writer and editor: As a writer, I’ve definitely gotten edits back and felt defensive, and as an editor, I know that writers will have that immediate reaction, so I try to be sensitive in my queries and comments to them.
8–9 p.m. They Said: Cross-Genre Collaborations
The final session of the night, They Said: Cross-Genre Collaborations, consisted of writers reading pieces that were written collaboratively. Amy Ash, Amy Sayre Baptista, Callista Buchen, Elizabeth K. Brown, Matthew DeMarco, John Gallaher, Dana Levin, Felicia Madlock, Carlo Matos, Gabrielle Montesanti, Gillian Parrish, and Sylvia Sukop read their pieces that had been published in They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing.
This session invigorated me. Being gathered in the upper room of a pub and hearing other writers read their pieces was energizing, even though I wouldn’t want to be one of the people reading.
This session was even more personal because I could relate to the process of collaborating with another writer and producing something awesome—and the person I had collaborated with was sitting next to me. Hannah and I joked that our collaboratively written tankas (published in Moonchild Magazine) would be right at home with the pieces we heard. And there’s something to that. I haven’t written a novel like many of the authors who I listened to during BookFest, but I have written smaller pieces and collaborated, on some level, with other writers. So ending BookFest on that note—that what these writers were doing was within my reach—gave me hope for my future in writing.