Washington D.C.’s 18th National Book Festival

Last weekend, I braved the mobs, so you don’t have to! I spent a full day at D.C.’s convention center standing in line and squeezed into seats. I attended what may be the biggest free to the public book festival hosted by the Library of Congress.

According to the Library of Congress, their 18th annual festival included a diverse lineup of 115 authors featuring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, eminent historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, acclaimed novelist Amy Tan, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, and two-time Newbery Medal winner Kate DiCamillo. As usual, I took another route with detours right from the start.

Entering the grand hall when the crowds were more manageable!


On my way to hear Dave Eggers, the crowd was growing in size, so I slipped into a panel on Spywork and John le Carré. The title sounded mysterious, and since my next novel will include some espionage, I ducked in to get a seat. John le Carré (real name: David Cornwall) wasn’t there. Authors David Ignatius (The Quantum Spy), Joseph Kanon (Defectors), and Adam Sisman (John le Carré: The Biography) with Pulitzer Prize-winning author and moderator for the panel, Kai Bird (American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer) chatted about le Carré’s spy stories and his influences on storytelling.


Afterward, I hustled down three escalators and over to the Fiction room to hear Jeffrey Eugenides (well-known author of The Virgin Suicides) and a new book, Fresh Complaint. After waiting over 20 minutes, we were complaining. Since he was running late, the event was canceled.

With time to kill, I slipped across the hall and heard the second half of murder mystery and spy novelist Hank Phillippi Ryan’s update on her new book, Trust Me. She encouraged fellow career changers like me that it’s never to late to do something else. She didn’t start her writing career until she was in her 50’s. My husband thought Hank was a man. Her real name is Harriet, and Hank was a nickname from college. She has a definite edge since statistics say men writers sell more. Just look at J.K. Rowling: her new books are penned by Robert, not Roberta, Galbraith. A sad fact, since Joanne, of all writers, can afford to be a woman!


At the book fest, authors were grouped mainly by topic or type of book – history & biography, main stage aka big names, teens, poetry & prose, understanding our world, fiction, and genre fiction. A few I didn’t check out – two children stages, and a Library of Congress Hall. Each author or group had an hour to discuss their book with an interviewer and a few minutes for Q&A.

On the right, interviews for TV channels were conducted later:IMG_3132

I met my husband for a book discussion by David Ignatius on his latest spy thriller, The Quantum Spy, about Chinese spies ruling the world via computer. David was part of my first lecture on Spywork. Besides being a novelist, he is a journalist and writes a column for the Washington Post. He might have noticed me if he’d learned more techniques from his characters. Spies supposedly watch their surroundings closely. But with the packed crowd, I blended in and was undetected. But just wait for my run-in with Security!


After another wait for lunch, I returned to the Fiction salon to hear Andrew Sean Greer talk about his novel Less. Less really means More since he won the Pulitzer Prize with his edgy modern travel love story. Congrats! And the award couldn’t go to a nicer guy. Andrew came across as laid back and friendly joking with the crowd. When he found out one of his teachers was in the crowd, he didn’t hesitate to get to the edge of the stage to hug her.


Now my plan fell apart, and I almost pitched my free book tote bag in disgust. I had hurried across what seemed like miles of convention room carpeting while dodging attendees who are either from the UK or prefer walking on the wrong side of the hallways. I followed the signs faithfully to Room 146, but somehow I slipped past the barriers without leaving the building, and had to ask a security guard for help.

After another delay with an extra security check and backtracking, I found one of the hundred plus Ask Me volunteers lingering everywhere. She pointed out the best route to the elusive Room 146. But when I arrived, many others had too, and a large line snaked around the corridor.


Here’s why. Room 146 had a captivating title: Understanding Our World. So necessary anytime, but perhaps mission critical if you live in D.C. I knew I’d missed the Conversation: Americas Great Struggle for Racial Equality featuring Brooks D. Simpson and Isabel Wilkerson. But the next event was at the top of my wishlist: Conversation: Sea Creatures.

What would the authors share with us on behalf of these creatures from the ocean and 70% of planet earth‽  (The ‽, a question-explanation mark combo called an interrobang, is official and grammatically correct. I couldn’t resist using an interrobang for the first time in such a deserving situation.)

The sea creature conversation included an interview with Sy Montgomery, the author of a book I loved: The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. Who knew octopi have such personalities and are as smart as a whip‽ Times eight, of course. Sy has a new book: Tamed and Untamed Close Encounters of the Animal Kind. Juli Berwald’s book also sounds fascinating. Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone.

I hate to admit with these long afternoon lines; I’d lost my festive see-an-author party mood. Instead, I found a seat and watched the long line hover and grow resembling the long leg of you know what. My seat buddy, armed with what looked like an ordinary cane, told me about the good old days in D.C. when it was a two-day event held on the Mall under massive tents. She lamented how much easier it was to see inside and hang around outside the tents if the seats were full. And except for the possibility of rain and mud, or scorching heat and humidity, book lovers managed just fine.

Right next to us, the doors opened for the next session in Poetry & Prose with a short, manageable line. So I went high-brow listening to the panel on Literary Lives and poetry with authors Mark Eisner (Neruda: The Poet’s Calling) and Kay Redfield Jamison (Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire” A Study of Genius, Mania and Character). Fiona Sampson, the author of In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein, was ill and couldn’t leave the UK. Her book was of particular interest since Mary Shelley and Frankenstein are in my second still to be published novel.

My sixth and final event was again in the Poetry & Prose room: How Writers Think and Work. So apropos since I’m a novelist, and I continually compare notes with the experts. But from what I’ve learned in writing, there are no rules, and if there are, no one agrees. Some renegade writers even urge you to break any you happen to find.

This last discussion included authors Lorrie Moore, See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism and Commentary, and Richard Russo, probably best known for his novel and TV show, Empire Falls. His recent book, The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers, and Life was another book I had read. Two, out of about 200 new books, isn’t too bad.


The book fest came to an end. I lacked the energy for the last few lectures scheduled elsewhere. Isn’t this blog exhausting enough?

Karen Stensgaard is the author of the novel AQUAVIT, the first book in the Aquamarine Sea Series with a second novel on the way soon. AQUAVIT is available as a paperback from Amazon and Ingram Spark or as an e-book from almost everyone else. Libraries have free access via Overdrive.  Link to free chapters on Amazon

P.S. If you were hoping to see another library, here is a photo of the beautiful Carnegie public library at Mt. Vernon Square across from the convention center. Since it looks like a beautiful spot, when the renovation is done, I’ll be back. And here’s a photo of me with an adorable portable library behind Union Station on the way to H Street and my favorite D.C. restaurant, Ethiopic.

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