Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Montclair Literary Festival

I grew up next door to Montclair, the cool bohemian town with the bookstores and antique shops, and now I live there. Recently we've had an influx of New Yorkers fleeing the rents of Park Slope for our comparatively inexpensive housing, and I've poked fun, but let's face it, one good thing about an influx of affluent residents is that they sometimes fund the arts, as patrons always have. Montclair has a Film Festival (made famous by resident Stephen Colbert's support) and now we have a Literary Festival supported by Succeed2gether, a charity that offers free tutoring and education to children in need. Co-directors Jacqueline Mroz and Catherine Platt have put together a great festival, much of it free to attend, that has drawn authors from all over the world.

This year I volunteered as a venue manager and general go-fer. As a project manager I know that having a "floater" who can spot problems and offer an extra set of hands can head off problems. Yesterday, the last day of the festival, was the biggest event. Rocker and author Patti Smith filled the First Congregational Church, with 960 tickets sold. Each ticket came with a copy of her book in the Why I Write series, entitled Devotion. The church has three entrances but they funneled everyone through the accessible ramp, and this made a bottleneck as people traded tickets for books, so I grabbed a stack and handed them out in a second mini-line.

There's something therapeutic about handing out books. I think the booksellers and librarians are onto something.

The event itself was wonderful and casual. I'd never heard Smith speak or sing live before, and she knows how to work an audience. She alternated between reading poems and prose from her books, from Just Kids to her newest, and singing songs and playing guitar with Lenny Kaye. Hearing her recite poetry in a church, the stained glass backlit by the setting sun, and then lead us in hymns like "Because the Night," "I Can't Help Falling in Love with You", and the finale, "People Have the Power," which she dedicated to the teenagers marching to end gun violence in the March For Our Lives events all over the nation this Saturday, March 24th. 

The other big event this year was Tom Perrotta in conversation with actors Patrick Wilson and Dagmara Dominczyk, who are also part owners of Word Bookstores in Jersey City and Brooklyn, so in other words, saints. Perrotta is best known as the author of The Leftovers, Little Children, and Election. His latest book is Mrs. Fletcher, and I can't wait to dig in. The panel title was Sex, Schools, and Suburbia. Most of his books deal with sexual transgression of some sort, but his sense of humor and excellent explorations of character make his books quite compelling. His genre would be literary fiction or commercial, depending on how you like to categorize, but he's story-driven enough for me. 

Perrotta talked about his beginnings. He had written three novels and none had hit big, he was in trouble of being dropped, and his publisher rejected a manuscript. Then he went to a literary festival and read from the beginning of his novel The Wishbones (which is funny as hell) and caught the ear of two producers. He wasn't done with Wishbones, so he passed them the manuscript of Election and they wanted to make a movie of it. Then all of a sudden his publisher wanted to publish it. It was not a big hit either, but the movie got some buzz which saved his career, and eventually Little Children (which he was nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar) and The Leftovers would hit big. So, don't think that literary conferences can't make a difference. You never know who's in the audience. Always read something striking.

Patrick Wilson, Tom Perrotta, Dagmara Dominczyk

Speaking of, Megan Abbott was on a panel with Samantha Hunt (Mr Splitfoot) moderated by Alice Elliott Dark, entitled "The Dark Side of the Short Story". Get it? Three women who know their way around a short story, dark or not. Abbott read from her Anthony winner, "Oxford Girl" and Hunt's reading from her collection The Dark Dark was so good that I bought all her books (I already have all of Megan's, the PhD of Noir's books are a mainstay on my shelves). I was the venue manager for the room, keeping people quiet, arranging the chairs between panels. I'm a Montclair author, but I'm relatively new, and now I know all the people involved with the festival. If they don't put me on a panel next year, I'll still volunteer. It gives me access to the authors and other publishing professionals, and I like to help. 

Megan Abbott, Samantha Hunt, Alice Elliott Dark, and co-director Catherine Platt

What a lot of people see as cliqueishness and "pay to play" is also known as "making your bones" or "paying your dues" in my opinion. A lot of people show up after not being part of a community and want the support of its structure and institutions that took a lot of work to build (especially politicians) without contributing anything themselves. Sometimes a star rises alone and gets the adulation of the community without having worked from the ground, but it's less common than you think. It's not a pyramid scheme where we all support each other. It's increasingly difficult to get work noticed as more and more people write, and working as part of a community is one way to meet people whose work you may enjoy, and who may enjoy yours.

Bouchercon is always looking for volunteers, and you get to meet everybody! If you don't know many attendees, this is a great way to do it. You get out what you put in, as they say...

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