This past weekend, I escaped the ten inches of snow we received in Charlotte, North Carolina, to attend the seventh annual Savannah Book Festival in Savannah, Georgia. On the way down, I was stuck in traffic for two hours, as a tractor trailer had hit a guard rail and caught on fire. Thankful for my obsession of never falling below half a tank of gas on a road trip, I made it to my destination in one piece and with gas to spare.
Like a child anticipating the presents they’ll unwrap on Christmas morning, I found it difficult to sleep. I used the time to plan my festival itinerary. I planned to see Alice Hoffman, Wiley Cash, Hugh Howey, Anita Shreve, and Megan McArdle. Thirty-four authors were scheduled to appear, with up to four presentations running simultaneously. Authors were given an hour time slot, and following their presentations, they were available to sign books that attendees had purchased at the event.
The festival took place in Telfair and Wright Squares among a handful of churches and museums in historic Savannah. The sun shone brightly, but the wind was sharp and reminded me how grateful I was for having worn long sleeves and a sweater. I would have been more comfortable with a jacket, but the sun was very deceptive and lured me into a false sense of security for the day’s weather.
I and my companion arrived late to Alice Hoffman’s presentation in the Trinty United Methodist Church. We settled into some folding chairs in the balcony, as Ms. Hoffman had a packed house. I initially thought I had never read or owned one of her books. I knew she’d written Practical Magic (yes, the one that inspired the movie of the same name), but I’d never linked her as the writer of Here on Earth, a book that has sat in my vast library of books waiting to be read. Like so many of the books I own, I’m not sure how it came into my possession, but like chance encounters with strangers, I feel it has been placed in my path for a reason, so I have held onto it.
Ms. Hoffman won my heart when she declared herself a reader and said that the books we read when we are twelve years old are the ones that stay with us. Yes, I believe this too, and know that without those books, I would be a very different person. Those books helped to shape me in ways I’ll never understand. Ms. Hoffman spoke of her love for “the magic in the language” found in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
An audience member asked if Ms. Hoffman takes breaks between writing her books. Ms. Hoffman laughed and excitedly explained that she has so many books in her head that the stories wait in line to be cued for takeoff like airplanes at the airport. Once those stories have been written, she moves on and leaves the stories and characters for her readers.
I was excited to hear another writer say that they often forget details about their stories and characters. I have a very long memory about the most mundane things of everyday life, but I can hear a sentence read back to me from a story I’ve written, and I’ll be the first to ask who penned it. Friends and family are quick to point out that I did, and they cannot understand how I could forget writing it. I explain that writing is the only way in which I can truly release myself—rid myself of those feelings and emotions I pack up and carry with me every day. Once I’ve written it down, I’ve released it.
Our short time with Ms. Hoffman ended, and we were quickly on our way to hear Wiley Cash speak. Wiley Cash, in his plaid shirt and jeans, was relaxed and personable with the small audience that gathered in the Telfair Rotunda. Surrounded by works of art, Mr. Cash spoke about his latest book, This Dark Road to Mercy.
I traveled to the festival with his book in my bag. I often visit the setting of the book, Mr. Cash’s native Gastonia, a city west of Charlotte, North Carolina. Mr. Cash read from his novel, his southern accent bringing his characters to life. Nothing compares to hearing the author read his or her own work. The emphasis placed on certain words and the pause of a breath is so much more profound than one can ever experience from a recording read by someone else.
As questions of dialect and language arose from the audience, it was wonderful to hear someone speak about the slight variations in speech between counties in North Carolina, specifically Buncombe County, where my book Manual Exposure is set. Mr. Cash diligently strives to reflect the truest vision of the people and places he writes about, and his attention to detail was not lost on those who had read his books.
Asked how he felt about self-publishing and the success of fellow author Hugh Howey, Mr. Cash said that he knew self-publishing was a hard path. “The reason you know Hugh Howey’s name is because there are so few of them.”
When you write a book, you don’t know what’s gonna happen. You have to make decisions early on. What do I want? What am I gonna be satisfied with? The night we got the call that my book had sold, my wife and I decided this is gonna be the best moment…. So—self-publishing—you really have to decide, what’s gonna be my ‘best moment.’
I agree with Mr. Cash. Writers should choose what that best moment is for them and seek to attain it. In doing so, writers must also understand what that means for their work and future works. Some writers never aspire to see their books in Barnes and Noble. If they are content with seeing their work available online at Amazon.com in the form of an ebook, then that is their measurement of success and they should have that moment and embrace it. However, if a writer does want their book on that bookstore shelf, one has to accept that there is no time for complacency.
Asked about his writing process, Mr. Cash said that he encourages writers to have an event to pace the book against—a method he utilizes in This Dark Road to Mercy, as he believes it forces the writer to focus. I have to agree, as I used one semester of school as the bookends of my story, and it kept me on point and pace. Forcing yourself to tell the story within a frame of time eliminates the unnecessary elements of your work. Additionally, knowing that the story needs to be completed by a certain time helps maintain reader engagement. This method helps create an element of suspense and excitement in your storytelling.
It was time for lunch, and my friend and I were off to explore. I was surprised to see McDonald’s and CVS among the independent shops and historic buildings. We strolled to River Street and found more shops and eateries squeezed along the scenic view. We dined at the first café I found that offered a veggie burger. Vegans, you can find food to eat among the seafood and barbeque offerings.
Having grown weary of the afternoon wind attacking us, we quickly walked to the Lutheran Church Fellowship in Wright Square to hear Hugh Howey speak. I’ve only recently become aware of this author, in part because of his timely article on self-publishing. He has had great success with his self-published books, and has been lauded for signing with Simon and Schuster to distribute the Wool series while maintaining full digital rights of the book.
Prior to the start of the presentation, Mr. Howey walked among those who had arrived early, asking if they were in the right place. He stopped to engage with the attendees and speak with them in private conversations. Readers of his work were visibly excited to meet him.
He spoke about his experience self-publishing Wool. Comprised of five previously self-published novellas, Wool has been compared to The Hunger Games, and the film rights have been sold to 20th Century Fox.
Asked about his success as a self-published author, Mr. Howey stated that he doesn’t actively promote his materials by asking people to read his work. He appreciates the fact that his readership has grown by word-of-mouth suggestions—from one friend passing his book along to another. He believes this organic growth is inherent of a good story, but he acknowledges that his tale is a lucky one.
We made our way back to the Trinity United Methodist Church to hear Anita Shreve speak. Ms. Shreve is a favorite author of mine, and I was very excited to see and hear her. Happy to find a window seat, I enjoyed the warmth of the sun and felt like I had been welcomed into her home. She spoke candidly about her work and experience as a writer.
Ms. Shreve spoke about her journalism career in Africa and her decision to follow a different path as a fiction writer. As for her writing process, she prefers to write in the morning, avoiding any distractions or interruptions as she wakes from bed and makes it to her desk. She writes her works by hand and uses the computer for editing. I’m thrilled to share the love of writing in longhand with her.
An audience member asked for advice for those who are attempting to make it as writers, and Ms. Shreve didn’t hesitate to say that there are no shortcuts or magic formulas. She acknowledged the difficulty that writers face and spoke about the advantages of being lucky enough to have two of her novels featured as selections in Oprah’s Book Club.
Megan McArdle’s new non-fiction book, The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, informs the reader that failure makes success possible. Ms. McArdle explained that in order to discover what works, we must first learn what doesn’t work.
She spoke of the way in which many parents hover over their children in an attempt to eliminate any opportunity for them to experience failure or pain. She argued that those actions do not contribute to the success or growth of the child. For example, the way in which humans learn to walk—the fall is inevitable, but we must learn to get back up and try again. The small failures we experience as we learn to walk teach us about both our bodies and our environment.
Growing up, I was never given the green light to fail. Failure was not rewarded with a gold star. If you failed, that meant you didn’t properly prepare, you didn’t do your best, and you came up short against those who succeeded. Success and failure were the only two paths in front of me, and I was expected to succeed in every task that I attempted. Failure meant that you were a failure, and you should move on and try something else.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned that failure is a tool for learning. Failure is inevitable. We won’t always succeed, and instead of seeing it as an end to that interest or aspiration, we must take a step back and learn from the reasons we failed. If I could go back in time, I’d teach young Jeannie this, and perhaps prevent her from having stomach ulcers at the age of eighteen.
While she doesn’t believe that everyone is a winner at all things, Ms. McArdle believes that we can become winners by learning from our failures. Our failures hold secrets that we never would have learned had we not dared to try. As we learn to overcome our failings, we venture to take new paths that may not have been available on the straight path to success, and these experimental avenues may hold answers to questions we’ve never thought to ask
The hour with Ms. McArdle came to an end, and with that, the festival came to a close. I, who had worried that attending the presentations of five authors wouldn’t be nearly enough, was thoroughly exhausted.
As I processed the events of the day, I found a unifying thread that ran through each of the authors’ presentations: luck had played a major role in their successes. Whether they had been successful as a traditionally published or self-published author, they each acknowledged that it is hard to become a successful author. While talent and hard work are requirements, they alone are rarely enough.
Sadly, I didn’t walk away from the festival with a recipe to guaranteed success. However, I did benefit from the companionship of fellow book lovers and writers. I feel lucky to have been able to attend, and I doubly enjoyed it, as I was with a childhood friend whose love of reading is a new occurrence, and it was interesting to experience the event with her by my side. While I don’t love the bridge to Savannah, I thought the city was beautiful and inviting. I’d love to spend more time exploring the city, and if you ever get the chance, I encourage you to do the same.
More Photos from historic Savannah, Georgia:
Additional Links and Information:
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil comes to mind when I think of Savannah, Georgia.
The current issue (Vol. 14, No. 3) of Five Points – A Journal of Literature and Art features Alice Hoffman’s short story “How to Eat a Pie.” Scroll down to the bottom of the page and read it for free.
Hugh Howey offers WOOL – Part One for free on Amazon.com
Discover more about the Telfair museums.
Check out the art that is exhibited in the Telfair Rotunda.
Alice Hoffman is a breast cancer survivor. The Hoffman Breast Center at Mount Auburn Hospital is named for her.
Watch C-SPAN coverage of the festival.