Speed Dating with the Authors presented by the Massachusetts Center for the Book was lots of fun on the opening day of the Massachusetts Library Association Annual Conference, for the third year in a row. This year, six books in each category – Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Children’s/Young Adult – were selected as Must-Reads by Massachusetts Book Award judges.
Nine authors of 2013 Must-Read books graciously agreed to speed-date with a sunny roomful of library people looking to fall in love with a new author or with all of them. The nine authors cheerfully rotated around nine tables to meet everybody, squeezing as much information as they could about themselves and their books into their allotted five minutes per table. (Ten authors had been lined up, but children’s book author Penny Chisholm, an MIT professor, sadly needed to attend the community’s memorial service for MIT police officer Sean Collier that morning.)
William Landay wrote two crime fiction novels before hitting it big with his latest novel Defending Jacob (Delacorte, 2012). With his earlier books, he said, his prose style “was too genre for the literary crowd” and his topics “were too literary for the genre crowd.” Like his narrator-character Andy Barber, the author had a career as an assistant district attorney (right down the street from the Cambridge Hyatt where we were sitting.) Defending Jacob (“a novel about an ordinary suburban family that lives in Newton”) delves into the topics of nature vs. nurture, behavior, and parenting when the Barbers’ 15-year-old son Jacob is accused of a horrendous crime against a classmate. As a parent of two young sons, he said, talking about family in the context of a criminal case makes sense, when you consider the similarities of the legal system and parenting. “When you think about it, criminal law is an attempt to make people behave the way you want them to.”
Maryanne O’Hara, author of Cascade (Viking, 2012) created the fictional Western Massachusetts town of Cascade for her work of historical fiction about the deliberate flooding of small farming towns to build the Quabbin Reservoir in the 1930s. She wanted to write about a town that was more of a cultural center than the “quiet farming towns” that were actually flooded, so Cascade is loosely based on the town of Lenox. She based the playhouse in Cascade on the Folger Library in D.C., but emphasized that everybody in the book is completely fictional. “My husband is nothing like Asa.” Maryanne considered herself a short story writer when she started Cascade, but she is researching a second novel now, set in Washington, D.C. and (maybe) in Prague in the 60s.
Shortly Thereafter (Main Street Rag, 2012) by Colin Halloran is the author’s first published poetry collection. An engaging speaker, Colin served with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and then became a high school English and French teacher. His book is “a record of one man’s deployment, service, and return from war. “Afghanistan,” he said, “is unlike anything. I try to convey it in the book, but it’s just impossible.” Some parts of Afghanistan did remind him of some parts of Canada, though, strangely enough. He understands that some people will be reluctant to read a book about the war in Afghanistan, but noted, “There is lots of terribleness chronicled in the book, but also so much beauty.” He added, “I don’t say war is bad. I say war is.”
Originally from New Bedford, poet Karina Borowicz, author of The Bees Are Waiting (Marick, 2012), now lives in Western Mass. The collection starts with a poem about New Bedford, she said. Karina spent five years in Russia, coming back in 2004, teaching and studying poetry. Her teacher “emphasized clarity and communication” and taught that “there is something at stake in poetry.” This was an eyeopener for her, she said. Karina holds strong views about most contemporary poetry, saying it seems like a “game or a puzzle,” having “no meaning and no emotional core.” She said, “I want a poem to communicate its meaning. It should not be a search.” Now Karina visits schools to talk with students about poetry, “hoping to make a difference.”
Matt Rigney describes his nonfiction book about endangered ocean game fish, In Pursuit of Giants: One Man’s Global Search for the Last of the Great Fish (Viking, 2012), as “a combination of travel/adventure narrative and investigative reporting.” Oceans, he said, make up 70% of our planet, and yet most people don’t know much about them or the fish that live in them. Matt himself has been a recreational fisherman for years but he began looking into why once-healthy fish populations were decreasing drastically in size and number. In his book, he takes readers to six different locations – Mexico, Nova Scotia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the Mediterranean – to encounter the great fish of the sea (marlin, bluefin tuna, and swordfish).
David Yoo, author of the humorous memoir The Choke Artist: Confessions of a Chronic Underachiever (Grand Central, 2012), has already made a name for himself as a YA author. He said he approaches the writing all of his books the same way, but that The Choke Artist is definitely for adults. Two factors about his youth, he said, led him to become a self-described “underachiever”: 1.) he was always “the token Asian” among his classmates and 2.) his older sister was “the very definition of the model minority.” Asked what his favorite of his books was, he said, “I’m the kind of writer, the second a book comes out, I can’t really look at it again. But [The Choke Artist] is the most personal.”
Carol Antoinette Peacock, author of Red Thread Sisters (Viking, 2012) drew on the experience she and her husband had of adopting two daughters from China during the 1990s to write this middle-grade novel about Wen – an 11-year-old Chinese girl adopted by an American couple – and Shu Ling – the friend Wen left behind in the orphanage. Wen worries both about adapting to her new life and about what will happen to Shu Ling if she doesn’t get adopted. Carol said that when her own daughters were in their 20s, they went as a family to tour the orphanage they had been adopted from. Carol is a practicing psychologist and the author of several other fiction and nonfiction books for young people.
Massachusetts Book Award nonfiction judges describe Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom (Knopf, 2012) by Stephen R. Platt, as “a riveting narrative account of a fascinating chapter in Chinese history, the Taiping Rebellion of the mid-19th century that nearly toppled the Qing dynasty.” The rebellion’s leaders considered themselves Christian, Stephen said, so at first the “Christian missionaries in China were delighted and amazed by the rebellion.” They soon realized that the rebels held some pretty unorthodox beliefs, though, such as that their leader was the son of God and they were less delighted. Stephen offered the table of librarians the helpful reader’s advisory suggestion that readers who are interested in the American Civil War but have read all of a library’s books might be interested in reading about these events in China that took place at exactly the same time.
It was great to hear all of the authors speak so passionately about their books. It could certainly be said that they each delighted and amazed in turn the hundred or more readers in the room. And good sports that they were, they agreed to pose outside for a group photo. (Click on the photo to enlarge.)
The full list of Massachusetts 2013 Must-Read Books is online at the Massachusetts Center for the Book. Massachusetts libraries may request copies of the Spring 2013 newsletter and the Must-Read Books 2013 poster online at http://goo.gl/FjDRD.