It started in 1996 as an annual showcase for Texas authors. Most of the authors were the favorites of then-Texas First Lady Laura Bush, who, despite her husband Governor George W. Bush’s cheerful admission to never having read a book in college, was a former librarian and ardent advocate of literacy. Now, six years later, things are quite different: George W. is our president, Laura Bush is the First Lady, and the Texas Book Festival has morphed into one of the premier literary events in the country.
What’s great about this two-day festival, aside from its delicious collection of authors, is what it does for its community. In addition to having featured over 600 authors primarily from Texas since its inception, the festival is free and open to the public and has contributed more than $1.35 million to public libraries around the state (the cash comes from big-ticket fundraising events prior to the festival). What’s even cooler is that most festival events take place inside the Texas capitol building, which encourages families, friends, and pets who attend the festivities to learn about Texas history while wandering the halls of the state Legislature, peeking into ornate, chestnut-wood-laden congressional hearing rooms, and gazing up at the grandiose dome of the capitol building, which is proudly 7 feet taller than the U.S. capitol. Yes, everything is bigger in Texas.
This year, as 170 authors rotated between rooms inside the capitol offering readings and panel discussions on issues ranging from baseball to three-legged cats, from the art of food writing to American roots music, a winding line of white tents crept around the edges of the state grounds outside like a giant caterpillar snoozing under a pile of sheets. These tents welcomed wandering visitors into author book-signing spaces, a packed-out book fair with over 90 vendors, a lively children’s activities area, a spoken-word forum, and, highlighting what Austin does best, a live music stage.
But let’s get to the meat: the author line-up.
The source of excitement for nearly 25,000 festival-goers, this year’s writers included Annie Proulx (The Shipping News), Sandra Cisneros (The House on Mango Street), Fannie Flagg (Fried Green Tomatoes), Ethan Hawke (yes, the actor, but he writes books now!), Kinky Friedman (Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch), Ann Patchett (Bel Canto), children’s book writer James Howe (Bunnicula), and even a panel of commentators from National Public Radio being moderated by Sharon Robinson, the daughter of baseball great Jackie Robinson.
Books being discussed were also present at panel discussions, including Liz Carpenter, the charismatic former press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson, and Sarah Weddington, the attorney who successfully argued Roe v. Wade before the U.S. Supreme Court.
While the warm, balmy afternoon made it difficult to want to leave the grass and breeze for squeaky wooden seats in a stuffy congressional hearing room, it didn’t keep people from cramming into the capitol on Saturday to hear a panel of novelists discussing their approaches to writing fiction. When an audience member asked about what their biggest roadblocks were in writing a novel, all four panelists seemed to agree on “The crisis of confidence.” “Just thinking it is all stupid,” said Antonya Nelson, author of Female Trouble. “It’s not because the material is wrong, maybe your approach is off. You have to tell yourself, ‘the material is worthy, the material is worthy,’ make it your mantra.”
Novelist Ann Patchett chimed in that acknowledging you’ve made a wrong turn with your writing is difficult. “It’s sad throwing away all those pages. You’ll never have as good of an idea about starting a novel as when you start a novel.” After a few gushing reactions from the audience about her newest book, Bel Canto, Patchett drew laughter from the audience with her sincere comment, “M goal in life is to see someone reading that book on a plane.”
Meanwhile, Sandra Cisneros stood small behind a podium in the Senate chamber and read from her newest book, Caramelo, to listeners who filled the Senate seats, lined the walls, and crammed into the chamber balconies like witnesses to a Salem witch trial. Cisneros was a lone, echoing voice in the huge congressional chamber and, backed by green velvet curtains and rich oak wood paneling, looked more like an inspired politician debating a bill on the Senate floor. Cisneros’ animated reading clearly had an effect on the audience: I didn’t have to eavesdrop too obviously to hear people start chattering about all things related to writing, including academic writing programs they’re looking into, friends they know who write fiction, and stylistic comments on Cisneros’ stories working well in short formats because they are “so filled with sound and emotion.”
Two barbecued sausages and a grilled corn on the cob later, the author readings were over for the day, but folks just didn’t seem to want to leave. Most people were still laying around the grassy fields behind the capitol building, munching on soft pretzels or ice cream, watching giggling children roll down hills to the point of nausea, while others rose from naps on picnic blankets or reattached a prosthetic leg to run after an unleashed dog to eventually wander over to see local musicians like Patricia Vonne finishing up on the music stage. Go home, people!
Day two. Fannie Flagg in da house! No really, Fannie Flagg was in the House Chamber on Sunday morning, reading from her newest book, Standing in the Rainbow. Drawing chuckles from the audience at nearly every line of her book with her sassy Southern appeal, Flagg frequently broke from reading to offer personal commentary on her characters. “I often think that Neighbor Dorothy was the first Martha Stewart. But she didn’t play the stock market,” Flagg said of the protagonist in her new book.
Flagg drew a sizable crowd, but many a young lady was biting her nails, waiting for Flagg to finish, in preparation for storming the House Chamber to see the next author, Ethan Hawke, transform from silver screen pretty boy to downtrodden literary figure. Dressed in a forest green corduroy jacket (were those patches on the elbows?), a stitched cowboy shirt, and understated slacks, the Texas native took questions from the audience about his transition from film to literature, balking at the manner in which mainstream culture glorifies books based on their worthiness to be made into films. “It’s as if literature is a giant audition for the movies.” Hawke, who is perhaps best known for his performance in Dead Poet Society, acknowledged the difficulty he has had in finding a publisher to take him seriously as a writer, noting that he yanked his first book from a publisher because they didn’t even want to read past the first draft before publishing the celebrity’s work. Instead, he waited a year and found another publisher that would go through a more thorough editorial process.
Even though Hawke’s debut novel, The Hottest State, got so-so reviews, his second book, Ash Wednesday, is actually getting some acclaim, and Hawke is now working on his first screenplay. “I leave it up to the readers to decide if my writing is worthy.” His advice to aspiring novelists? “Read a lot of mediocre fiction, read a lot of contemporary fiction. Don’t just read the classics because you’ll feel like you can never write as well.” Not bad advice. And he is married to foxy Uma Thurman, so maybe there is more to this actor than just acting. But then again, this is the same guy who said, “I think both of my novels have really thin plots.” Hmmm.
Quick, what’s the only thing George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have in common? That’s right, Kinky Friedman. This rough-n-tumble author from the Lone Star State is the favorite of both. With his trademark cigar and black cowboy hat, Kinky (he gets the name from his wild hair) looks and feels like a friendly Bob Dylan with a million and one stories to tell, all of which get cranked out on his rickety typewriter. Delightfully irreverent, Kinky read silly excerpts from his newest book, Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch, which is broken into three chapters (Larry, Curly, and Moe) and touches on Kinky’s love of animals with its story of a three-legged cat named Lucky that he feeds “egg bits and sauce” as they sit together, amid swirls of cigar smoke, downstairs from “Winnie Katz’s lesbian dance class.”
Definitely one of the more eccentric authors on the premises, or maybe even in the whole darned state, Kinky kept everybody snickering as he wondered aloud why his comical stories drew silence from a seemingly traumatized crowd. When asked which of his books was his favorite, he replied, “The one you haven’t bought yet.” But, despite his delightfully irreverent humor, and despite the amusing display of “Kinky Friedman Salsa” jars for sale on the side table, Kinky concluded his reading with a surprisingly touching essay about feeding hummingbirds as a young boy, a story slated to appear in the January 2003 issue of Texas Monthly. The story is about a band of hummingbirds that sought out food at a juniper tree next to a cabin his parents owned, and when his mother died, the tree died, but the hummingbirds continued to come to the barren tree, as if they were “little pieces of his mother’s soul.” It was in this moment that Kinky shined as a storyteller, moving the audience from pant-splitting laughter to silenced nostalgia in a matter of minutes.
Ah well, the festival had to end eventually. Time to go read Kinky Friedman and smoke something.