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Thoughts on the Third Annual BookFest St. Louis


The third annual BookFest St. Louis was held in the Central West End on Saturday, Sept. 21. As a writer, editor, and reader, this is one of my favorite weekends in St. Louis, as I get the opportunity to hear several writers talk about their craft for free. These conversations between authors always inspire me and encourage me to get better at my writing and editing.

Here are the highlights from the three BookFest St. Louis sessions I attended this year, as well as some thoughts on the event itself.

Teri Kanefield, Nathan Hale, and John Hendrix

To Tell You The Truth . . . Making Nonfiction Fun for Middle Grade with Nathan Hale, Teri Kanefield, and John Hendrix

The first session I attended was To Tell You The Truth . . . Making Nonfiction Fun for Middle Grade with Nathan Hale, Teri Kanefield, and John Hendrix at the St. Louis Public Library Schafly Branch.

The authors talked about how their backgrounds influenced their writing; for example, Kanefield’s background in litigation and training in fiction writing both focused on telling a story, which helps her craft compelling narratives about historical figures. The authors also all agreed they were terrified of getting a historical fact wrong but that their nonfiction children’s books are ultimately pieces of art, not scholarly research.

I really enjoyed Hendrix, author of The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler, talking about how neat it was to research Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Germany and then actually travel to Germany in March 2016. I studied abroad in Italy and Germany in the spring of 2016 and totally relate to the feeling of studying the architecture, art, and history and then getting to see it all in person. I can only imagine how much the effect is compounded when you’re writing a book about the place you’re visiting.

Someone in the audience asked an interesting question about how the authors got their ideas. Did they ever write about topics that are frequently taught in school, such as common core subjects? All three authors emphatically said no, they write about topics they’re interested in. After all, it’d be terrible to spend years working on a story and/or illustrations on a topic you weren’t passionate about.

Karen Piper, Bassey Ikpi, and Margaret Renkl

Three Lives: True Tales of Remarkable Women with Karen Piper, Bassey Ikpi, and Margaret Renkl

The second session focused on memoirs written by Karen Piper, Bassey Ikpi, and Margaret Renkl.

One of the most discussed themes in this session was how to write about other people in your creative nonfiction. Your memoir can’t be full of one-dimensional characters, but at the same time, you have to be careful about how you portray real people in your writing. It’s not your place as an author to judge other people’s lives or decisions within your memoir. You can’t tell someone else’s story because it’s not all your story to tell. Instead, focus on how you interacted with people, what you remember, how they affected you, what stuck with you.

The authors also talked about the importance of their editors. Piper said her editor was brilliant; Renkl said, “I thank God every day for my editor.” Ikpi talked about how her editor gave her permission to let the story come out the way it came out rather than force the story into the self-help format the book was originally pitched as. As an editor, it was good to hear that authors do value the work of editors, and the discussion reminded me to work hard at creating that experience for each and every author I work with. And as a writer, it was good to hear writers valuing their editors, too: It can be so hard to process feedback on your writing, but ultimately thinking through the feedback and suggested edits will only strengthen your work.

Ice cream break at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams!

In between sessions, I met up with Rachel Skelton for the first time in real life! It’s so fun meeting editor friends from Twitter and getting to know them a bit more. Plus, Jeni’s ice cream is always a good experience.

Shane Mullen, Danielle Dutton, Amanda Goldblatt, and Elizabeth McCracken

(un)Ordinary Survival with Elizabeth McCracken, Amanda Goldblatt, and Danielle Dutton

The final session I attended at BookFest St. Louis was moderated by Shane Mullen from Left Bank Books with authors Elizabeth McCracken, Amanda Goldblatt, and Danielle Dutton. Shane’s questions were amazing (as always) and sparked great conversations between the authors.

One such question was which came first when drafting your book: setting, plot, characters, etc. Dutton’s idea for Margaret the First came from the character Margaret Cavendish in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, who had been forgotten in history. McCracken’s inspiration for her novel Bowlaway was the setting, New England, and candlepin bowling. Goldblatt’s spark for Hard Mouth was when her dad got cancer and she was seeking a voice and specificity in language to find order in the situation.

Someone in the audience asked the authors if they talked to their characters as they wrote. (And I immediately considered whether I’d answer such a question honestly in public, because the answer for me is yes—mostly, “I’m so sorry!”) Goldblatt said no, but the characters have their own rules of existence. Dutton said she said things like “I hope you’re not mad; I hope this is okay to write about” to her character, partially because Margaret Cavendish was once a real person. McCracken said that getting to know characters is like cleaning an oil painting—as she wrote the novel, she got to see each character more clearly—which is such a beautiful and apt metaphor.

BookFest St. Louis’s Promotional Copy and Schedule

I wasn’t super excited when I initially looked at the conference schedule this year, other than the (un)Ordinary Survival session. The session descriptions were lackluster and uninspiring compared to descriptions from BookFest 2017 and BookFest 2018. The descriptions didn’t even specify which book each author would be talking about; I couldn’t really get a feel for what sessions would be like based on the copywriting.

The schedule for BookFest St. Louis this year was less than ideal. There was a storytime for kids at 10:30 a.m., but the main one-hour sessions didn’t start until noon and then had one-hour gaps in between. I understand this is to encourage people to visit festival booths and shops in the Central West End, but it’s at the expense of a good experience for people who are there to attend sessions and hear authors talk. When the sessions start at noon, we don’t need hour breaks to grab food. Luckily, I was able to meet up with a friend during one of the breaks, but if I had been there on my own, I might have just skipped more sessions because I wouldn’t know what to do by myself in the festival zone for so long, especially if I’m on a tight budget.

I’m looking forward to BookFest St. Louis next year. The festival is amazing in concept—I love that this event is free for the public—but less so in some of its execution this year. But I’m always optimistic about next year and look forward to hearing from more authors at BookFest 2020.