On February 27 and 28th, I attended the South Carolina Book Festival as an invited author. This was especially meaningful to me because I am a native South Carolinian and this is the first book fair to which I have been invited. I spoke on three panels which was great because it gave me a lot of exposure and I was one of the few authors who spoke three times.
The Festival Director said she was sorry to work me so hard. “Oh, I’m happy to do it,” I said. I was more than happy. I was delighted. I wish I could have spoken ten times. They could have put me on the cookbook panel and I could have talked about food on German U-Boats.
My friend, Anne Jennings, came up from Charleston and attended the festival and as usual did far more PR for me than the publisher. Anne has been an incredible help to me in publicizing and marketing my book. We were childhood friends but lost track of one another and reconnected though Facebook of all things when she contacted me having heard I had cancer. Fortunately, I was cured of the monster by then so she set to work to help me with my book and even organized a “Big Chill” weekend for the group of us who had been so close all through childhood and high school but who had lost track of one another.
There were three of us on the first panel which was “Military Books.” I had never participated in a format like this and I was sort of tense. My older brother and his wife were there and that made it easier. Each author says something about themselves then reads from their book. One of my fellow authors on the first panel was James Scott, who has written a fascinating book on the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, which I decided to read after hearing his reading. His father was on the Liberty when it was attacked. James has a very strong background in journalism which shows. He interviewed dozens of people and did a tremendous amount of research such as reading hundreds of pages of Congressional testimony which could not have been much fun.
James has a great feel for connecting the reader with the emotion and humanity in his scenes and is a very smooth writer. He is careful not to overwhelm with details but picks just the right ones to give the “you are there” feeling. His writing reminded me a lot of Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, which is the best narrative non-fiction book I have ever read. (Narrative nonfiction is a true story told in the words of the participants using the dramatic techniques of a novelist.) James is a very impressive young guy with a delightful wife and he will go far.
We talked for a spell about the lengths to which good writers go to get the details right whether its non-fiction or historical fiction. We both share that obsession and I was delighted to hear he has, as I do, an informal group of naval and maritime officers who read his rough drafts and make sure he hasn’t made a mistake. I traveled to New York several years ago to visit with my friend and teacher in all things German, Juergen Meyer-Brenkhoff, Fregattenkapitan, a.D. (commander retired, German Navy) who was in New York with his girlfriend for a week. I sat in the lobby of the hotel with Juergen reviewing all the helm and engine orders given from the bridge during my chapters on the Battle of the Rio Plata. We were looking at a chart of the battle.
“Yes, that’s right,” he would say after I repeated each sequence. At the end, he paused a moment then said, “Charlie, you have the Graf Spee going in the wrong direction. She should be steaming west, not east.”
Even though my vast nautical experience comes from books, I said, “Are you sure?” Juergen has only held every position in the German Navy and spent eight years of his career at sea. He looked at the map.
“What do I do?”
“Just come hard port or hard starboard one hundred eighty degrees and turn the ship in the other direction.” Juergen could see I looked slightly perplexed. “Charlie,” he said, “it’s easy. You’re in the middle of the ocean. You can’t hit anything. I used to do it all the time.”
The second panel was on “Epic Fiction,” which I can’t say I know a lot about except the publisher tells me my novel, An Honorable German, is an epic so I guess that makes me an expert. (Not). There were only two of us authors on the panel. The other author was a young woman named Amy Greene who is from Appalachia and writes about the people there based on all the wonderful stories she has been told over time by relatives and friends – the classic Southern oral storytelling tradition out of which so many Southern writers come from, including your servant. Of course, part of the reason we become writers is to get away from our relatives who won’t shut up.
Her novel, Bloodroot, was published by Alfred A. Knopf, which is quite the coup for a first novelist. I was very envious because her publisher has paid to send her all over the country on a book tour whereas my publisher wouldn’t pay a nickel to see an earthquake. She gave a reading and I leaned over to her after she finished and said it was beautiful, which it was.
Her writing is lyrical and captures the time and place and is haunting in its exposition of life and love, of loss and death – themes which run through so much Southern writing, (I have some thoughts on why Southerner writers tend toward these themes which I will write about later).
I think novelists look at other novels in a much different way than those rational people who aren’t novelists. How the other novelist handles the basics and controls the language is something I notice a lot. How did the other writer shift the point of view from first person to third person or to narrator omniscience? Was it smooth or did he/she trip over it? It takes a lot of skill to do this so the reader doesn’t notice the “hand-off” but understands it has taken place.
Amy’s characters both define themselves and speak in the dialect of Appalachia. I can say from personal experience that writing in dialect is very hard to do because you can’t actually write the entire story in dialect or readers would get tired and you would lose them. You have to create the illusion that the story is written in dialect and that takes a sure hand. Amy has that sure hand. She has the gift of words and will be one of the best of a new generation of authentic Southern writers.
These are my impressions from hearing her read but I’m sure I will feel the same way when I’ve read her book. We’re swapping books and I look forward to reading hers. Her husband, Adam, is a sportswriter and I had a wonderful conversation with them after our panel was over and again the next day.
I was more relaxed on the second panel than I was on the first. While we were waiting for the audience to get settled, we had a very literary discussion between us or at least I hope the audience thought our animated discussion was high minded and literary.
We were actually discussing who was to ask the question of the audience at the end of the panel about the door prize. The moderator gave us a book, which she handed to Amy, and said one of us had to come up with the question and then ask it at the end of the panel. The person who answered correctly received the prize.
Amy said she had not been on a panel like this before and so I should ask the question. “This is only the second time I’ve done this,” I said. “I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“Yes, but you’re smart.” (Like she isn’t. I mean she’s on a panel discussing a brilliant novel she wrote).
“You’ve been on the New York Times bestseller list with your first novel in hardback,” I said. (This makes me terribly jealous).
“That was only for a few weeks,” she said. “You do it.” I told her I just looked smart because I’m tall and was wearing a navy blue suit. “Good,” she said, giving me the book at which time the program began.
There was a large crowd and I was especially witty and charming and very authorial. I received a strong round of applause after I did my reading which is very dramatic – which it should be since I typically use the same piece at a reading and I’ve rehearsed it dozens times so it sounds spontaneous. It takes a lot of practice to sound spontaneous. Besides, I’m a novelist for Pete’s sake and am supposed to be dramatic. Then I received four or five questions, which I answered in my witty and amusing and highly knowledgeable way. I was so impressed with myself.
I didn’t sell one damn book afterwards. What’s an author have to do? Juggle? Do magic tricks? Hand out boxes of crackerjack? It was very dispiriting. I went to my room afterwards and collapsed. It really took a lot out of me, much more than I thought.
On Sunday, I spoke with three other authors on a panel about “Book Club Picks.” I thought of wearing a large sandwich board: “pick me for your book club. Free popcorn!”
Again, I was insightful, witty, serious, light hearted, gay, you name it. OK, I wasn’t gay in the sense of being happy. I was gay in the sense of being, you know, gay. (It happens even in the finest of families in South Carolina.)
I suggested the audience read The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer. Turing was a gay man who cracked the German code in WW II and was one of the most influential men in the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. He was hounded literally to death by MI5 in the UK after the war and killed himself. I told the audience that Alan Turing was one of the most important figures of the war, the father of the computer age, and the subject of a very tragic story which was even more personal to me, being a gay man myself.
I also suggested several other good book club reads including, Storyville New Orleans by my mentor, Al Rose, which is a history of the legal red light district in New Orleans from about 1890 to 1917 and the Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat which is the finest novel of war in the North Atlantic in World War Two.
Got a lot of applause, questions, handshakes afterwards. No books sold. What’s an author to do? Stand at the door selling the books?
All of that aside, which is part of my unusual and humorous take on life, I had a wonderful, wonderful time and I was truly honored to be invited. I was a minor – very minor – celebrity for one of the few times in my life. In DC, the only place I am a minor celebrity is Steamer’s Coffeehouse on 17th and R where the owners seemed convinced that anyone who writes a novel makes a million dollars. If only that were true!!!!!!!!!