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North Carolina Festival of the Book

Casual conversation makes literature pop

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Hear Doug Marlette in conversation with longtime buddy Pat Conroy on Sunday, April 20 - COURTESY OF NCFB
  • Courtesy of NCFB
  • Hear Doug Marlette in conversation with longtime buddy Pat Conroy on Sunday, April 20
As an undergrad in the English department at Tulane University in New Orleans, I was fortunate enough to have a decidedly eccentric and heartbreakingly sentimental professor. During one especially long, hot summer-semester class, as most of us were either dripping sweat onto our notebooks or hopelessly lost in daydreams of the frosty Dixie beers that would follow, he offered up a little anecdote.

To him it was just a small aside, the kind of thing you throw out there to spice up a tedious lecture. To me it was everything--it was like when Dylan turned the Beatles on to LSD, or when Sinatra and Kennedy used to chase skirt in Palm Springs. This story of a chance meeting got me through an entire summer of three-hour classes. Enough said.

Back in the early 1970s, my professor was heading up the New Orleans Literary Festival. One day he was in a local hangout--shady characters, sear sucker suits, bathroom out back, you get the picture--when he walked past the bar, and who did he see standing there having a drink but Tennessee Williams. In the other room, he had noticed Walker Percy, author of perhaps the greatest Southern novel of all time, The Moviegoer. He knew that the two had never met, and the idea of introducing the legendary writers and having one or 10 cocktails with them was almost too much for him to handle. He steeled himself and made up his mind to give it a shot. He swung by Percy's table and asked him to come to the bar with him. When they got there, Williams was gone. Dreams dashed my professor apologized to Percy and went back to his fried whatever that suddenly didn't seem all that enticing anymore.

But it was my professors' notion of the possibilities that arise from conversations between artists that stuck with me, and apparently that same idea inspired the new direction of the North Carolina Festival of the Book being held this year at Duke University and throughout Durham from Monday-Sunday, April 24-30.

Tayari Jones will talk about mentoring young writers with Pear Cleage on Sunday, April 30 - PHOTO BY RICHARD POWERS
  • Photo by Richard Powers
  • Tayari Jones will talk about mentoring young writers with Pear Cleage on Sunday, April 30
The NCFB is a joint effort between Duke University, North Carolina State University, UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina Central University. This year it has gone through a complete overhaul at the hands of director Aaron Greenwald. "We just wanted to make the festival feel as accessible as possible to everyone. Everything is totally free, so we felt like we had a duty to build a festival that would attract not only literature lovers but casual readers and fans of other artistic mediums as well."

The festival will be light on the author readings that usually make up the bulk of other more conventional literary festivals. The idea this time will be to pair authors, many who are friends and collaborators, and some who will be meeting for the first time. And a focus on pop culture may help eradicate the air of pretension many literary festivals can suffer from. Musicians, screenwriters, foodies, playwrights and film directors will also be grouped to discuss a myriad of topics. Tony Earley and Alice Randall duke it out in "NASCAR vs. football and which is the more quintessentially Southern sport" (5:30 p.m. on Saturday at Perkins Library), while Roy Blount Jr. and James Seay reminisce on "Twenty years of fishing trips and writing with humor" (4 p.m. on Saturday at the Divinity School). "While it is focused on books, we began to think of the festival as more of a humanities festival filtered through the world of writing," Greenwald said. "As we began to look at the great wealth of writers in North Carolina and the South, we started hearing about these great friendships between writers and artists in the area." From there it was an easy leap for organizers to engineer the program around pairings of friends, collaborators and the like-minded.

One of the most interesting pairings is that of novelist Pat Conroy with friend and Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Doug Marlette (1:30 p.m. on Sunday at Page Auditorium). The two will discuss the lessons and influences of life-long friendship. Friends for over 30 years, Conroy and Marlette have learned from each other as artists and from simply being pals. "Pat rarely talks to me about writing, but when he does I listen," Marlette said in a phone interview last week. Marlette recently published his first novel The Bridge with the encouragement of his friend. "He really taught me how in writing the mundane, the everyday things have the potential to be the most profound, and how important it is to examine those small things." Marlette was drawn to the casual spirit of this year's festival. "I don't really like to read my stuff in person--I don't want to get in the way of the reader's interpretation of the material because that is such a huge part of art. So I was really interested in the way this festival was put together, and the opportunity to do this with Pat was really great."

Let's face it, folks, most books aren't about books or writing. The fact that they encompass and focus on the whole of culture may be their greatest attribute. All artists share insights and inspiration with other art forms, and pop culture is part of the fabric of literature. This is what led organizers to include sports, music, film and food as topics of discussion at this year's festival.

Will Blythe and Daniel Wallace will deconstruct the Duke/UNC basketball rivalry (3:30 p.m. on Saturday at Perkins Library). Blythe is the former literary editor of Esquire magazine and the author of To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever: A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting, and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry. Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish, the novel Tim Burton later adapted for his film of the same title, told me, "I just find the whole idea of this unflinching allegiance to a particular team interesting. I mean, fans might not even like the players or coaches if they knew them personally, so what is it exactly that we're cheering for? That whole dynamic is pretty fascinating."

Wallace is also a fan of the more inviting nature of this festival. "I've been to a lot of these things and most of the time they're more like Star Trek conventions than anything else."

Covering the musical side of the pop culture quotient will be a conversation about collaboration in the music industry and literary fields. The relationship between editor/author and producer/musician will be compared in a round-table discussion including editors Peter Guzzardi and Will Blythe and musicians and producers Don Dixon, Mitch Easter and Chris Stamey (1 p.m. on Saturday at Perkins Library). Guzzardi has edited titles by Tom Robbins and the Dalai Lama, while the producers have worked on albums by R.E.M., Pavement and Yo La Tengo, among many others. Musician and producer Chris Stamey also has experience in book editing and told me that he's been surprised at how much it helped him in his music career. "Editing really taught me how to be a producer. They are both about acting as a translator between the artist and the audience." Stamey also echoes the interest of other participants in the conversational nature of the program: "Artists don't interact face to face as much as they used to, so that's what's really cool about this festival."

This is clearly not your typical literary festival. Don't expect to come listen to snooze-able readings while sitting around with bookworms and "getting lost in your navel," as one participant put it. Be prepared to hear lively debates and conversations between beloved writers who are sure to learn as much from each other as you will from them.

See www.ncbook.org for the event schedule and a full list of participants.

James Bailey is a freelance writer and Raleigh native who recently returned to the Triangle after an eight-year stint in New Orleans.

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