Books and Writers: the Gaithersburg Book Festival

Never being one to resist the lure of a book festival, I got up at the crack of dawn – okay, around ten – on Saturday to trek to Maryland for the 3rd annual Gaithersburg Book Festival. I get Gaithersburg mixed up with Gettysburg (I’m foreign, remember), so I’d assumed it to be a million miles away. But when my favourite bookshop in the whole wide world – Politics and Prose, in case you’ve somehow missed my enthusiastic tweets – posted a link to it, I took another look at the map. It was just past the end of the Red Line on the metro, apparently. No problem.


Well, except then I took a closer look at the map and it turned out that “just past the end of the metro” was still a bit of a trek. But I’d looked at the programme by then, and decided I wanted to go. I hadn’t heard of most of the authors who were presenting, but Jami Attenberg was going to be there and a few of my writer friends mentioned popping along too. (One of them actually did, and it was lovely to see her.) I toyed with the idea of taking a taxi all the way (hmm, perhaps it’s time to try that driving test again?) but went for the more financially responsible metro-then-taxi. The metro, incidentally, was DIRE this weekend (one Red Line train on average every 24 minutes!) but that’s a subject for another post.

I got there in time for Jami Attenberg’s talk (a small miracle, since punctuality is not exactly my strong point). She was “in conversation with” Jennifer Close, whose book Girls

Jennifer Close (photo from Twitter)
Jennifer Close (photo from Twitter)

in White Dresses I have picked up on numerous occasions in Kramer Books and Politics and Prose and thought I would like to read. Jennifer lives in DC, teaches at GW, and used to work at P & P – I feel like we should be friends. (I haven’t asked her what she thinks about this.) Oh, she also named a character in her newer book, The Smart One, after me. Sort of. Well, she has the same name, anyway.

girls in white dresses

But I digress. It was colder than it had been in DC a couple of hours earlier, and threatening to drizzle. Maybe that explained how few people there were – for a little book festival still in its infancy, GBF was doing well. But for a famous, acclaimed author like Jami Attenberg, it was a little pathetic. Don’t people realise what a privilege it is to get to hear from someone like her in person? As for me, I wished I hadn’t left my cardigan at home. I hoped that Jami and Jennifer would hold my attention enough that I wouldn’t think about it.

No worries there.- their conversation was fabulous, and inspiring, and encouraging. They were warm, engaging and funny. Some of the best things I picked up: the smart one

– Jami uses something called “Freedom” to block the internet from her computer. I have tried “Self Control” before but it hasn’t worked. (Oh, the irony.) I’ll definitely be giving “Freedom” a try – though until I find a way to also block my iPhone and my iPad I may not be able to fully trust myself.

– When she is writing a first draft, she aims for 1,000 words a day. Sometimes it’s done in a couple of hours, and she can go out and play, and other times it takes all day. I’ve heard others say this kind of thing before, but for some reason this time it has really stuck with me. I can do 1,000 words. That is doable. And if it’s good enough for Jami Attenberg, it’s good enough for me.

– People on the Internet are crazy! We knew this, because Aaron Sorkin warned us many years ago. Worth remembering: criticism often tells us more about the critic than about the thing they are criticising. Jami doesn’t read her reviews – I’m not sure I could be that disciplined (or maybe I’ll only read the good ones!). She stopped when she came across one on GoodReads that simply said, “Meh”. “Really?” She thought. “A couple of years of my life went into that and all you can say is meh?” I can see how that would make you want to throw things.

– Jami’s publisher dropped her for The Middlesteins. She says it feels good now, and I’m not surprised. It reminded me of Janel Moloney’s agent, who dropped her after the pilot of The West Wing

Jami Attenberg (photo from Twitter)
Jami Attenberg (photo from Twitter)

– A year ago, Jami was couch surfing. This is both discouraging – she’d already had three books published, after all – and super encouraging: how quickly things can change.

– “When no-one ever reads your book, you’re writing for you, and it’s very pure.” True. Very true. When other people get involved, things get messy. But for anyone to ever read your book, other people have to get involved. So…

– Her job now has changed a lot. There is less time for actually writing – it’s more about getting out there and having conversations with her readers. I can’t wait for that part of the journey (although, travelling for five hours to speak to fifty people might wear thin pretty quickly). I’m lucky that, like Jami, I won’t be simultaneously trying to raise a family (well, unless things change drastically in the next couple of years) – I should still be able to squeeze in some sleep alongside the writing and the signing.

– “You write the same thing over and over again for along time, then you either stop writing or go on to the next level”. For Jami, this meant moving from 1st person POV to 3rd person POV (and, for the next one, to multiple 1st person POV). There is a gear shift. For The Middlesteins, she felt like she was “upping her game”.

– Book recommendations: Instructions for a Heat Wave, by Maggie O’Farrell; The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

– “I’m always on Twitter, tweeting.” She’s not kidding, either. @jamiattenberg, for those interested. (I’m @clairelyman, have I mentioned that?)

I had promised myself I wouldn’t buy The Middlesteins, because I already own it on Kindle (for which, see below, I now feel duly chastened, particularly as I bought it middlesteinsridiculously cheaply). But I wanted Jami to sign it and I wanted to get to chat to her a little. So I bought it anyway. It was so nice to get to talk to her – it’s always so amazing when an accomplished writer takes you seriously as a writer and asks about your work. I told her what I should have told Michelle Obama about my books – that they’re doomed love stories set in the political world of DC – and she reminded me that novels do need some hope at the end. What I should have said (I always think of these things afterwards!) is that Inevitable started as an attempt to show that getting your man is not always synonymous with a happy ending, and not getting one doesn’t mean your life is a failure either – but that Kate turned out a lot sadder without Brad than I had expected her to be. Oh well – she’ll find out when she blurbs my book. (Look, a girl can dream!) I chatted to Jennifer, too, having finally bought her book. Another one for the ever-expanding summer reading list; The Middlesteins was always going to be next.

It’s just so very inspiring to meet successful authors in the flesh, particularly when they turn out to be personable and friendly and fun. It makes me want to read their books, and to write good ones of my own. For that alone the trek to GBF was worth it.

Jami Attenberg will be back in DC, at Politics and Prose, on 10th July, and you can find details of her other events around the country here.

Writing workshop

Bethesda’s Writing Center were offering a few free workshops. I took one on setting in the short story – my current work-in-progress needs a lot of work on the setting front, and short stories in general are something I need to learn a lot more about. I was mostly just freezing by this point, and starting to worry – because of how cold I was – about how I would get home, given my rapidly depleting iPhone battery (and thus imminent inability to call a cab). It turns out, though, that the nice folk at GBF had thought of (almost) everything: there was a free iPhone charger facility. Genius! But I digress – back to the short story workshop. My main takeaways were that:

– setting is not about time and place so much as it is about mood and atmosphere

– concrete details are a great way to build mood and atmosphere

– the same concrete details can be used to convey all sorts of different moods.

Panel on independent bookshops

Cold, though no longer hungry thanks to the enormous packet of freshly made popcorn I had just bought, I was about to go home when I remembered there was another talk I was interested in. This one was about the state of independent bookshops. Good news! They are alive and well. And in fact, according to Mitchell Kaplan, they will never die, because they are a “third place” we need. A good independent bookshop, like Politics and Prose, is embedded in the very fabric of a community – which is why many were so nervous when the last owners of P & P retired, and delighted that Lissa Muscatine and Bradley Graham bought the shop and kept its very essence, while also expanding the events and various other activities of the shop. It is an amazing place. Thanks to them, I’ve met Michelle Obama, shaken Al Gore and Sonia Sotomayor’s hands, bonded with Ian Rankin over my tartan iPhone case and a mutual love of the West Wing, and met the fabulous Karin Tanabe. Oh, and did I mention Michelle Obama? They run countless book clubs – including a Spanish-speaking one – and run classes and trips and writers’ retreats. They also have a fantastic ideas for gifts: for mothers’ day, for example, they were offering to send a book a month for a year, based on the recipient’s taste, and handpicked by a bookseller, not an algorithm. Politics and Prose are AMAZING.

from The Altantic
from The Altantic

And as if I wasn’t going to be starstruck enough, Lissa Muscatine has also had an illustrious career as a speechwriter, including for Hillary Clinton. (She was also the Director of Speechwriting in President Obama’s first term. I went to thank her for all her work with P & P, but really what I wanted to say was “please please please can I have a job?”. I restrained myself, though. Maybe we’ll casually get talking over the bestsellers’ table one of the many times I will be popping into the shop this summer.) So when she tells me that “it’s really important not to buy from Amazon”, I listen. I’ve bought wayyy more books (and certainly wayyy more hardbacks) from an independent bookshop since living here than in the whole of the rest of my life put together, but still I have plenty to feel guilty about. Just when I was thinking about self-publishing through Amazon… Sigh.

So, was the day worth it? Totally. Only, next year, I’ll take a cardigan, and see if I can scrounge a lift from someone.

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