This year’s annual Virginia Festival of the Book will celebrate 25 years when it draws authors and book lovers to …
This year’s annual Virginia Festival of the Book will celebrate 25 years when it draws authors and book lovers to Charlottesville, starting Wednesday and continuing through Sunday. One of its signature events will feature three festival favorites – Lee Smith, Adriana Trigiani and Douglas Brinkley – who’ll share some advice and fond memories of past visits, plus new books.
Produced by Virginia Humanities, which is affiliated with the University of Virginia, the program is co-sponsored by the Virginia Center for the Book. The festival is also made possible via partnerships with bookstores, schools, libraries, other foundations, area businesses and organizations, plus committed individuals.
This year’s festival is dedicated to the founder and first director of Virginia Humanities, Robert C. Vaughan III, who enthusiastically endorsed the creation of the book festival and participated every year. He died March 6.
The festival offers more than 130 programs, most of them free, covering a wide range of subjects, and provides book discussions in every genre and for every level of reader. Events are held in venues throughout the city, Albemarle County and UVA.
“An Evening with Festival All-Stars” will take place Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the Paramount Theater, and is one of a few ticketed events. Margot Lee Shetterly, UVA alumna and “Hidden Figures” author, will serve as moderator with Smith, Trigiani and Brinkley. (For information, go to the website.)
Smith has written 17 novels, many of them set in Southwest Virginia, where she grew up, plus short stories, non-fiction and a memoir, “Dimestore: A Writer’s Life.” She won several awards for her novels “Oral History,” “Fair and Tender Ladies” and “The Last Girls.” She has participated in the book festival at least seven times. (Read below and you’ll find out why.)
Trigiani is also a prolific fiction writer, as well as playwright, television writer and producer and filmmaker. She wrote and directed the film version of her 2000 novel, “Big Stone Gap,” which was shot entirely on location in her eponymous Virginia hometown. This will be her fourth appearance in the book festival.
Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University and the CNN presidential historian, excels at writing about American history for the public. “Monumental in his contribution to American culture, Douglas Brinkley takes the historical lessons of the past and applies them to the present and our future,” wrote one reviewer. Brinkley has written some two dozen books on several presidents and related topics, the latest celebrating the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, “American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race.” This will be his third time participating in the book festival.
Brinkley also will be the guest speaker at Wednesday’s “Read and Lead Lunch” in the Omni Ballroom.
The three authors responded to a few questions from UVA Today about what keeps them writing and returning to the Virginia Festival of the Book.
Q. What was it like when you first participated in the book festival?
Smith: Let me start out by saying that I have been participating in literary festivals all over the country for many, many years now, and there is NOTHING at all out there like the Virginia Festival of the Book! Nothing as all-encompassing, all-inclusive, up-to-the-minute, conceived with both brilliance and imagination. There is nothing else out there in America like this. The fact that it’s all happening in a relatively small area also adds a great deal to the festival’s charm and accessibility.
Brinkley: I had so much fun when I came to the book festival to launch my biography on Walter Cronkite [in 2013] – that was my first public talk about the book – that I wanted to come back and launch “American Moonshot.” It’s becoming an old habit for me now.
Every year you meet other people. It’s fun to meet other authors. I like to go to other talks too. I like to find out about new books coming out.
It also coincides with spring break for my children – I have three, so I’m bringing my 12-year-old son with me this year and we’re going to visit Monticello. I consider it educational fun.
Trigiani: I remember the festival was fun, with lots of authors, but I had a little baby then, so I remember nothing. Forgive me. [It was 2000, right after “Big Stone Gap” came out.] But the festival had authors speaking in classrooms at UVA. I have many fond memories of UVA from my high school years when the University hosted the state forensic competitions, so when I did a presentation in one of the classrooms, I was thinking about that (and losing!).
The second time I was honored to participate – I spoke at the luncheon. I remember a big ballroom, good food and First Lady Anne Holton introducing me that day. I adore Anne and the entire Holton/Kaine family, so it was a special day. Mostly, I love being with authors, including my honorary brother, David Baldacci [a 1986 alumnus of the UVA School of Law and another best-selling author].
Q. Where were you in your writing career?
Trigiani: The first visit was at the beginning of my career with the publication of “Big Stone Gap.” The later visits were “Very Valentine” and “The Shoemaker’s Wife.” I think of the visits in terms of the titles, which is always a dead giveaway for where I was at the time in my career.
When I look back, it was a joyful time, and now, it’s also a wonderful time with “Tony’s Wife.” I can only be grateful for this career. I am being given the opportunity to write full-time, direct and produce the work and be of service. I have no complaints, then or now.
Smith: Frankly, I can’t even remember the first actual year that I participated, but I do remember being terrified and also awestruck by being asked. Like all Virginians, I was mighty proud to have an invitation to speak at Mr. Jefferson’s University. Also, while I was a student down the road at Hollins, I had come here to readings by William Styron, James Dickey, George Garrett, Mary Lee Settle, Peter Taylor, you name it, so this was pretty good company for a mountain girl.
Two later festivals come particularly to mind. One was in 2000, when I brought a gang of high school students and their English teacher, Debbie Raines, with me to celebrate the publication of “Sitting on the Courthouse Bench,” an oral history of downtown Grundy which they compiled and wrote (I cheered them on and edited), just before the town was changed forever by a major flood control project.
Another was more recent. I joined my writer friend Jill McCorkle and our singer-songwriter buddies Marshall Chapman and Matraca Berg for “An Evening of Songs and Stories” on Saturday night at the Paramount. This is a long-term collaboration begun years ago when we all got together to write our show, “Good Ol’ Girls,” which the New York Times called a “feminist literary country musical.” We had a ball at that festival, too!
Q. How did you become a writer? Can you give one tell-tale sign?
Trigiani: I became a writer because it’s my calling. It’s not just a desire, or a hope or a wish, but a belief in the word. The ability to communicate with words is uniquely human. The way we communicate with words puts us on the path to wisdom.
There are signs along the way always, and evermore, that indicate you’re on the right path as a writer. There are also things that happen that remind us to stick with the work, to trust that inner voice. … If I had to winnow it down to one abiding belief, I believe in the lifelong pursuit of learning. Curiosity is a gift. That hunger, the hunger of the curious, can only be fed from a lifetime love of reading.
I owe everything to my mother, a great librarian. She taught me that stories were magical, that art was an expression of the soul and that an author was a person to be respected, as she read the author’s name whenever she read a book aloud. “Heidi,” by Johanna Spyri, for example. My parents respected teachers and librarians, in fact, all educators, which set an example for me to do the same.
I also owe a great debt to the public schoolteachers in the Wise County School system here in Southwest Virginia who encouraged me and were tough when need be. I owe a great debt to my librarians. … And how lucky was I when the C. Bascom Slemp Memorial Library was built in Big Stone Gap, down the street from where we lived.
Brinkley: I grew up in Ohio. My mom was a high school teacher. I liked to read about historic figures, and it became a passion. I majored in history all the way. My interest in the presidency has been a major part of my life. I have zero regrets. I like to visit places, go to archives, and it’s fun to find documents of our past.
A good historian should be academically sound and able to develop a readership. I like to read fiction. I like books that have a flow to them, but as a historian, I want to see the footnotes.
Before NASA, Langley Research Center was created by President Woodrow Wilson. Virginia has pioneered in aviation and space development, so this place has great meaning.
History literacy is a crusade of mine. We talk about past to understand the present.
Q. Do you have any advice for new writers, or those new to the Virginia Festival of the Book?
Trigiani: It says a lot that you attend the festival, are interested in listening to others who might spark the light that will illuminate your own path. It says everything that you are eager to learn from a wide variety of authors who write in all genres. No matter the stage of career, whether student or professional, it is important to gather in community and share knowledge. I hope that newcomers and new writers will come to our panel and ask questions. Margot, Douglas, Lee or even I might have the answer you are looking for, or send you off in the right direction to find out what you need to know.
Brinkley: Have fun and good luck! Publishing is a complicated business. Now we’re competing with everything online, too. The book festival gives you a stage to present your book and your writing, and the people are wonderful. It really is a heroic event.
Smith: Attend EVERYTHING you possibly can! This festival is an open invitation for all of us to close our computers and open up our horizons.