"Book groupies are like bird watchers. We collect author sightings for a life list," said Caroline DeMaio, Danville School librarian and former owner of Northern Lights Bookshop. She was speaking at the Vermont Library Association's Celebration of Vermont Authors and Illustrators on May 16. One of DeMaio's fondest memories from her bookselling days is a "sighting in the store of Toni Morrison, confirmed by her Mastercard."
Toni Morrison wasn't at the VLA event. But for watchers of local literary plumage, it was an opportunity to expand their lists exponentially. The Celebration was the centerpiece of the organization's annual two-day conference, held at the Sheraton Burlington Hotel and Conference Center in South Burlington. The Emerald Ballroom was lined on all sides with tables bearing name cards and exhibits. That was nothing unusual, except that the "wares" being hawked tonight were books, and the reps on hand to discuss them were local literary pros: close to 90 local authors and about a dozen illustrators. The event was closed to the public, giving the 570 Vermont librarians and others at the conference unprecedented access to the local writers whose books they order and recommend.
Chandeliers sparkled on writers and librarians schmoozing over hors d'oeuvres and jostling for places at the chocolate fondue fountain. Several generations of Vermont creativity were on display. Franklin D. Reeve, the Wilmington professor and poet, was there, with the same patrician bone structure as his late son, Christopher. "If you'd read my book, you'd know that!" said Ann McKinstry Micou, whose encyclopedic Guide to Fiction Set in Vermont features biographical tidbits about Reeve and many others. Though the Vermont Humanities Council published the book last fall, Micou's still hard at work updating her list of Vermont fictions. (See the link on http://www.vermontlibraryconference.org for a capsule version,)
Katherine Paterson, the Barre author of young adult classics such as Bridge to Terebithia, was getting ready to fly to Sweden to receive the Astrid Lindgren Memorial award -- a prestigious honor for lifetime achievement that comes with the hefty sum of 5 million Swedish krona, or about $640,000. She talked enthusiastically about her work with a literacy project in Venezuela, Leer para vivir, or Read to Live, which offers bibliotherapy to kids affected by the 1999 landslides.
Younger writers, such as Sarah Stewart Taylor of Hartland, attended, too; her third Sweeney St. George mystery, Judgment of the Grave, was chosen as a Book Sense Notable last August. Taylor recalled writing for the Valley News while she polished her first novel, O' Artful Death, which took her two and a half years to sell. She wrote fiction from six to nine each morning, then went out and covered local events. "A friend told me to stick with journalism for three years," she said. "After that, it'll affect your style."
By the time the evening's speeches got under way, some book folk were a bit giddy from the fruits of the cash bar. DeMaio kept the presentations from getting dry by turning them into the local equivalent of the "Night-Table Reading" column from Vanity Fair. She started by asking featured speaker Governor Jim Douglas what he's reading these days. "My golly, I didn't realize there would be a quiz here tonight!" the governor demurred. He confessed that his current fare was a compilation of the bills passed by the General Assembly -- "I'm pretty swamped" -- but put in a plug for a recent favorite, David McCullough's 1776. An uncontroversial choice, no doubt, and Douglas polished his amateur historian's credentials by pointing out that one of the nation's first best- sellers was Ethan Allen's captivity narrative.
When it was Secretary of State Deb Markowitz's turn to take the podium, she delivered a message to the assembled authors from her kids: "Thank you, because without you we'd be really bored." Markowitz also made a confession: Her favorite genre is science fiction. Why? "I was a philosophy major," Markowitz explained, then asked other sci-fi fans in the audience to raise their hands. "I had to get it off my chest," she said, as if she'd just copped to an embarrassing personal habit on "Oprah."
Markowitz might be interested in Danville author Don Bredes' current work in progress. It's a "futuristic YA novel" in which peak-oil scenarios become reality, "fundamentalists take over the country, and the coastline sinks," he said.
Vermonters are likely to know Bredes as a mystery author -- he received kudos from the New York Times last year for his dark Northeast Kingdom whodunit The Fifth Season, and his third Hector Bellevance mystery is already in the pipeline. Still, Bredes is no stranger to young adult fiction. In 1979, a year after he moved to Vermont, his YA novel Hard Feelings became a cause celèbre for its frank treatment of teenage sexuality. The book was challenged at school libraries, including the one at Lyndon Institute, and the Free Press covered the controversy.
All this was a surprise to Bredes, who was "working as a waiter at Carbur's on St. Paul Street in Burlington" when the book took off. With the proceeds -- Hard Feelings was made into a film in 1981 -- he bought land locally and settled into a life of writing and teaching at Johnson State College. Although his current agent isn't sure what to do with a YA novel, Bredes thinks it's a good way to explore the dystopian possibilities that keep adults awake at night. "Young adult novels can have a longer life," he noted.
Kids today are still thinking about library censorship, though the offending topic is perhaps less likely to be sex than sorcery. Katelinn Jacavino, a senior at St. Johnsbury Academy, added a fresh perspective to the proceedings when she presented her senior project on book banning. "Kids have an imagination of their own, so does it really matter if we stop them from reading a book with magical things in it?" Jacavino asked, presumably referring to fundamentalist challenges to the ubiquitous Harry Potter saga.
It was a good reminder of what librarians do for all of us -- preserve a quiet space where imagination has free rein, and even state legislators can take time out from "serious" reading for a spot of quidditch.
Also at the Celebration was Burlington author Marc Estrin, whose last novel was the darkly comic The Education of Arnold Hitler. Estrin's next book, Golem Song, is actually the first one he wrote. The agents he queried at the time were more interested in his plans for Insect Dreams, in which Kafka's cockroach gets a second chance. So the original novel, about a man of "girth and compulsion" determined to wipe out anti-Semitism, went on the back burner. Although Golem Song goes on sale November 10, Estrin's publisher, Unbridled Books, is taking a novel step -- it's serializing the book online. For $8, you can read chapters as they're posted at www.unbridledbooks.com; for $15.95, you get that plus a signed copy of the trade-paperback original. Three chapters are currently available.
While delivery on the Web may be new, the serialization concept is old -- most of Charles Dickens' works appeared chapter by chapter in periodicals. Explaining the reasons for the May-to-November schedule, Unbridled co-publisher Fred Ramey tells us in his blog that "Golem Song, which is also about messiahs made of clay, opens on Passover and ends on Kristallnacht -- November 9, the same day in history when the Berlin Wall fell." He also hopes that "Maybe . . . serializing a novel on the Internet can take us back to an old, lost sense of literary anticipation."