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March 9, 2007

Going to Carolina and Books for a Better Life

Posted by admin

One of the nice things about attending book festivals is that I get to see parts of the country that I might otherwise not venture to. My trip two weeks ago to Columbia, South Carolina for the South Carolina Book Festival was an illustration of that. The event was held downtown at the convention center just a few blocks from the state capitol, the building that you may remember got a ton of press in recent years as it still flies the Confederate flag though these days it's positioned in front instead of atop the dome. Columbia was WARM with temperatures in the 70s, which was just heavenly after New York.

The Festival Organizer, Paula Watkins Miller was just terrific. Between she and Mary Harris, who was in charge of author relations, this Festival ran like clockwork. It's always nice when you see an event run this sharply.

The Festival kicked off with an event featuring Dorothea Benton Frank, who grew up in South Carolina and now resides in New Jersey. She gave a lively and animated talk about her publishing adventures, which had lots of personal stories about writing and life on the road as an author. This was followed by a cocktail party where I got a chance to mingle both with the authors who I knew and new ones.

What I love about events like this is that authors are forever bringing me to someone who "I have to meet." Thus Charles Martin introduced me to Dale Cramer whose latest book, Summer of Light had been given a rave by Marcia Ford on Patti Callahan Henry, who seemed to know everyone, introduced me to Annebelle Robertson and Marjory Wentworth, who is the Poet Laureate of South Carolina (more on her in a bit.) Also, Ad Hudler was there looking dapper in some new duds that he had bought in Columbia that afternoon, James Born was fresh from the first leg of his tour, Beth Webb Hart was sharing the terrific news about her pregnancy and Denise Hildreth had members of her family with her to share this weekend.

The setting for the event was the research library at the University of South Carolina, which is open 24 hours a day. For those of you looking at colleges for your children, as I am, you know this is a strong selling point for university folks. I still want to know who is in the library at 3 and 4AM!

Saturday was a day of panels starting with Charles Martin, Dale Cramer, Beth Webb Hart and Patti Callahan Henry who did a terrific hour about Faith in Fiction where they spoke to a standing room only crowd. I have read all of Charles' books, including his upcoming CHASING FIREFLIES, which will be in stores May 27th and as well as all of Patti's. Her new one, BETWEEN THE TIDES, will be in stores on June 5th. Both I highly recommend. I also had read Beth's first book, GRACE AT LOW TIDE, so when they talked about their work, I was familiar with it. The conversation was lively and the time for this panel seemed all too short.

The hard part about Festival events is getting to everything you want to see, since often there are blocks of programming with more than one group you want to get to. The next module on the grid had just this kind of a roadblock for me. I wanted to see Nikki Giovanni, but at these events I often try to catch as many authors as I can in a time block so I headed for another room.

Patti was moderating a panel about Southern Fiction but the room was overfilled by the time I got there so I instead caught up with a panel that Michele Martinez was on about Mysteries and Crime. Michele is an author whose work I respect enormously and I enjoyed hearing her talk about her time with the Federal Prosecutor's Office and how it impacted her writing. She also talked about a blog that she writes with a number of other authors called The Lipstick Chronicles. Cornelia Read, who also was on this panel, writes with a group blog called Naked Authors with James Grippando, Jacqueline Winspear, Paul Levine, Patricia Smiley and James Born. Authors often are trying to figure out how to get their blogs read by readers and these types of blogs that are written by more than one author seem like great solutions for gathering readers. Oh, and clever writing helps too!

After this I caught Ron Rash doing both reading and talking about his work. I was familiar with him from the Southeastern Bookseller Conference in Winston-Salem a few years ago where he won an award for Best Fiction. Usually I do not love to hear authors read, but his writing definitely holds up to his voice. For the last two events I spent time talking to Patti Morrison, who is the assistant manager of a Barnes & Noble in the Charleston area who was such fun to talk to. She had owned an independent bookstore with her mom and thus her reflections on books, bookselling and readers were great to hear.

I skipped the next block of panels to talk to John Thompson, an author whose thriller will be published in 2008. Events like this are great ways to get to know up-and-coming authors as well as published ones.

That evening there was a barbeque dinner for all the participating authors, which gave me more of chance to meet up with writers. What was fun as the weekend was moving on was my various groups of friends all were meeting up with each other. We moved onto cocktails at a bar called Rust where we all tried to overlook the trio of cigar smoking men that clearly were polluting the air and make me wish for the non-smoking laws of New York.

Sunday AM I skipped the Author Breakfast. I never have been, and never will be, a morning girl thus Sunday for me started with brunch with Ad Hudler at the Motor City Co Bistro at noon. What a fun place! He shared more about his new book, which is due in 2008 and is a follow up to his really fun debut novel, Househusband. Ad was on the next panel and I see why attendees had given him raves about his reading the day before. He's a terrific speaker and this panel about Irresistible Characters, was a great topic. Characters can make or break a book. All too often they are wooden or blank slates and thus a book is a lot less exciting to me.

The last panel I had time for was about Books Inspired by Real Life Professions. I knew James Born, better known as Jim Born to many of us, on this panel. His book, Field of Fire, was a huge hit in the Festival bookstore and sold out. Born, besides being an author, and a member of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, is also a terrific practical joker and always makes me laugh. He kindly introduced me to the audience from the panel and said some really kind things. I STILL want him to take me to a shooting gallery to learn how to fire a gun and at one of these conferences I am going to make that happen. Also on this panel was James Sheehan, who had written The Mayor of Lexington Avenue, another title I had heard of from an author who was a pleasure to listen to.

From here I dashed to the airport and watched the cancelled and delayed lights hit just about every northern city except mine. Snow was on its way. Luckily my flight left on time though it was less than fun with the Molloy college baseball team that had most of the seats on the plane. They thought hitting the stewardess call button was a feature that they EACH needed to try. Exactly HOW old are we boys?

Landed in snow. Slid our way home in the car and then hunkered down for the Academy Awards with remote in hand. Liked Ellen Degeneres. Surprised by most of the awards, but still fun.

The next night I attended an event in New York that I really enjoy, the Books For a Better Life Awards. It's a great evening to benefit the MS Society of New York and this year it brought in $200,000. Just great. Meredith Viera is the host and I am happy to report that she is down-to-earth and fun. She has a real commitment to this organization as her husband has MS and throughout the evening she was not only hosting, but also cheerleading. At one point a large photo of Viera was broadcast onto a video screen. She pointed and said, "airbrushed" and pointed to herself and said "real." Amusing.

The awards event itself was upbeat and fun, and fast-paced. The awards are given to books in categories where awards are often lacking --- Self-Help, Relationships and Advice, among them. You can see the entire list of award winners here. The book that won in the Relationship category was one that really struck a chord with me --- THE FAITH CLUB. The three authors met to discuss their different faiths --- Christian, Jewish and Muslim --- and thus forged a relationship among them of understanding and friendship. In these times understanding can often bring tolerance and in this case, a kind of sisterhood transcending religious barriers.

All inspiring to those of us who off to grab my book.....