By Kevin Coughlin and Linda Stamato
Every summer, organizers of the Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival pray for sunshine.
And every fall, their counterparts at the Morristown Festival of Books pray for rain.
Or at least, they should. Saturday was grey and damp–perfect for retreating into five magnificent venues to hear 40 authors share secrets of their craft.
“I think the weather helped. Some soccer games were canceled, some golf games were canceled,” said Linda Hellstrom, who founded the event three years ago.
Over that span, the festival has added sponsors and grown its budget from $60,000 to $160,000.
The authors are getting bigger, too–Sebastian Junger (Tribe, The Perfect Storm), suspense queen Mary Higgins Clark, kids favorite R.L. “Goosebumps” Stine–and so are the crowds.
Stine may be the closest thing to a rock star that this event has seen.
Young readers attending the festival’s first Kidfest rushed the podium inside the Presbyterian Parish House, and the autograph lines outside were long enough to give any preacher goosebumps.
Another star: The Bard. A talk by Shakespeare scholar and author Andrea Mays stacked spectators like encyclopedias inside the Morristown & Township Library.
Book sales were brisk for festival authors, according to Hellstrom. Saturday’s talks were free, and we parachuted into as many as we could. Here’s what we discovered.
Video: R.L. Stine gives kids Goosebumps in Morristown
Who says kids are addicted to video games? The printed word (with illustrations) still is king, if one can believe Saturday’s serpentine signing line for Goosebumps creator R.L. Stine.
“I guess they’re pretty creative,” said 11-year-old Kate Baney of Montclair, explaining why she has read eight of Stine’s books. “It’s scary, in a way I wouldn’t normally think of.
Yazmin Beita, 10, of Dover, has read 40 books in the series. ‘They’re very mysterious. He’s a good storyteller!” said Yazmin, who was surprised to hear Stine reveal that his initials stand for “Robert Lawrence.”
Stine, who has 400 million books in print and saw his first Goosebumps movie debut at No. 1 last year, entertained a room packed with readers young and old by reading from an upcoming edition.
Bodily functions never go out of style, as this reading demonstrated, to the delight of the elementary school set. Of course, there’s more to it than that.
“I like how he uses imagination to make his characters come alive,” said Kai Cumberbatch, a Thomas Jefferson School fourth-grader who attended with classmates Madelyn Vizzini and Emma Vanderhof.
Stine wasn’t the only star in the Kidfest signing tent. Youngsters were lining up for Courtney Sheinmel, too. She quit her legal practice in 2008 to start the Stella Batts series.
“My default age is around 12,” joked Sheinmel, who actually is 39.
She started writing on weekends, and got critiques from nieces and nephews. People say nobody on a deathbed laments not devoting more time to work; Sheinmel can’t fathom that. “I feel great when I’m writing,” she said.
So far, she has 15 titles under her belt.
“For the first draft I’m really writing for myself, to prove I can do it,” Sheinmel said, between signings.
“It’s really about understanding that kids have the same things happen as adults. They just process it in different ways. They go through loss and pain the same way adults do.”
Her fans were thrilled to learn a new series is in the works.
“I’m excited. I can’t wait to read it,” said Ella Caruso, 7. That goes for her friend, Cora Minchello of Morristown.
“She writes a lot of good books,” said Cora. — KC
TACKLING COLLEGE FOOTBALL
In Billion Dollar Ball, Pulitzer Prize winner Gilbert Gaul tackles college football. The final score is not pretty, by a long shot.
Before a huge audience at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, the former Washington Post reporter described an enterprise inconsistent with the educational mission of universities.
Enormous investments are made in facilities, coaches and assistant coaches, seemingly without regard to the long-term impact on the schools.
What’s more, Gaul told moderator and former New York Giant Bart Oates, there is a growing disconnect between student players and fans.
Students are attending fewer games than in the past; many sell their seats back to the athletic departments. This raises questions about football as a “collegiate enterprise,” he said
Based on extensive interviews and data analysis, Billion Dollar Ball draws several conclusions:
- College football is a business, and should be taxed. That would require revamping the present financial model, which now allows a tax-exempt contribution for the right to purchase season tickets costing upwards of $20,000 a seat. This tax break “turns the concept of charitable donations on its head,” Gaul said.
- Women’s rowing was created to offset schools’ giant commitment to football. It’s a unique interpretation of Title IX. In 1995, up to 150 women rowers were recruited at the University of Michigan, with similar numbers at other big football schools, as athletic directors started worrying that low numbers of female athletes would impair their legal ability to recruit and retain football players.
- The money that supports elite football programs comes from three sources, roughly split: TV coverage, ticket sales and donations.
- Costly academic support centers—including tutors, life skill counselors, psychologists—are restricted to athletes, not the general student population. Other practices and offerings aimed at keeping players eligible including “walkers” to awaken them and get them to class.
- Recruitment is a big, highly competitive business. Gaul cited Notre Dame, which generated 174 hand-written letters in just one day in an effort to recruit a player from Tennessee.
- At least 65 schools that are unlikely to win games or fill stadiums continue sinking money into football programs. Western Michigan University built a gigantic stadium, costing millions, for a team that can’t compete. And so sits mostly empty of fans when its team plays at home.
Gaul, a Fairleigh Dickinson University graduate and native of northern New Jersey, struck a nerve with audience members, who questioned the health and safety risks for players, and why universities tolerate such steep investments for so very little return. –L.S.
Video: Amy Ellis Nutt discusses reader reactions to ‘Becoming Nicole’
Books can change attitudes–and lives.
“Familiarity breeds acceptance,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Amy Ellis Nutt, whose back story about Becoming Nicole brought tears to some listeners inside the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer.
Her book traces the emotional and legal struggles of a transgender girl and her family.
Nutt, a former Star-Ledger reporter who covers science at the Washington Post, recounted moving responses from two readers of the book.
One was from a 70-year-old trans-female who had lived his entire life as a man, with a wife and adopted children. At 67, he finally came out to his wife, and Nutt’s book emboldened them to go public with their story, in the Post.
The other response came from a self-described conservative man who runs a tech company in New Zealand. Nutt’s book stunned him, he told her.
“He said ‘I was reading employee applications for a job, and there was one with a lot of LGBT stuff all over it.Ordinarily, I would have put that aside. I not only interviewed this man. I hired him. I wouldn’t have done that before I read your book.'”
Nutt said she read that email and cried.
“It’s the power sometimes of language to make little changes and little movements like that,” she said. –KC
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
As a child, Colson Whitehead imagined the underground railroad as an actual railroad. He always hoped to write about the subject, and now he has, in a fictional work titled simply, The Underground Railroad.
In a conversation at St. Peter’s with author Allyson Hobbs, a Stanford professor and graduate of Morristown High, Whitehead related the story of his latest novel’s protagonist, a 16-year-old slave named Cora.
The Underground Railroad traces her journey from slavery — living under her master’s shadow as property akin to a dog, with no birth date noted or remembered– to emancipation.
Cora’s search for freedom is a kind of pilgrimage, full of carefully drawn characters who make their way on the railway hoping to escape the life-draining pain of slavery. It’s an unending quest, a continuous striving for a home—a rest—that the slaves, in bondage or free, are denied.
The novel has rated an Oprah Book Club selection for Whitehead, a best-selling author and recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships.
He read portions aloud at St. Peter’s, and explained that the book’s railroad destinations —
Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Indiana– were chosen as places with alternative views of race in America.
Whitehead contends vestiges of slavery remain; whites merely have shifted their methods of controlling African Americans. He compared the slave posses that once roamed southern states stopping slaves for any reason to modern “stop and frisk” police tactics, which too often prove deadly.
Some railroad destinations in the book are fantasy. Georgia is drawn the most realistically, Whitehead said, to honor his own family roots.
The Underground Railroad is not intended as a political or historical tract. Rather, Whitehead said, it affords “an opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes,” to encounter the “white supremacist face” in various time periods, and to realize that brutalized slaves were permanently damaged people trying to survive.
Noting the recent opening of the Museum of African American History in the nation’s capital, Hobbes asked Whitehead how –and if–we should remember slavery.
Julian Lucas may offer a partial answer in the New York Review of Books, where he suggests that Whitehead is creating “new black worlds to know.” –L.S.
HOW TO WRITE WHODUNNITS LIKE MARY HIGGINS CLARK
Video: Mary Higgins Clark and Karin Slaughter share Bill Clinton stories
Yes, you too can write like the Queen of Suspense, Mary Higgins Clark.
The secret? Stop talking. Start writing.
“You have to start doing it. You have to start on page one,” Clark, 88, told a huge crowd inside St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.
She has written 53 books and sold 100 million copies, but the most inspiring story of all may be her own. The former flight attendant was determined to become a best-selling author after her husband died, leaving her to support five children.
Every aspiring writer, she told moderator and fellow author Karin Slaughter, has countless “valuable excuses” for procrastinating:
“When the children grow up. When I quit my job. Even, When the dog dies. But the fact of life is, there will be another set of excuses, equally good, after you run out of those. The trick is to sit down, and start it, and maybe go look at books that you really like, and say, ‘I’d like to write like that.’ And analyze them,” Clark said.
She remembered scrutinizing a favorite novel, chapter by chapter. How, she wondered, did the writer cram in so much suspicion, and so much worry, without any actual violence in the story?
“So what I did is, I took that book, I took the first paragraph of every chapter, the last paragraph of every chapter, and what happened in between, to show how she built that. And it’s a very good exercise,” Clark recommended.
Clark added that novel ideas are as handy as your local newspaper. Just take a hot story and turn it around by asking, “What if?”
That’s what she did for Where Are the Children?,” her first best-seller. She took the true story of a woman convicted of murdering her two children, and imagined an innocent person facing the same charges.
Older folks don’t even need to scour the headlines.
“Write the story of your lives,” Clark suggested, “because your children and grandchildren will be enthralled and delighted to have it, and so will the next generation….Don’t worry about having a plot or killing someone. Write down, ‘As it was in the beginning…,’ and start to tell your own story.”
Got that? No more excuses! –K.C.
Video: Mary Higgins Clark turns headlines into best-sellers
SHAKESPEARE REIGNS SUPREME
Video: Why Shakespeare is No. 1
The fabled playwright even gave us knock knock jokes. Which might have been lost forever, if not for something called the First Folio, lovingly compiled in 1623 by the second- and third most important people in English literature, John Heminges and Henry Condell.
Those actor friends of Shakespeare assembled 36 of his 37 plays into the First Folio, to honor him after his death.
At least 18 of those works–including The Tempest, Macbeth and Hamlet–otherwise would have disappeared, or survived only in fragmentary, inaccurate form, Andrea Mays told a throng at the Morristown & Township Library.
Mays, an economics professor, is the author of The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio.
It’s the true tale of a Standard Oil executive’s quest to acquire every copy of the First Folio he could find, during the last century’s Gilded Age. Despite Henry Folger’s wealth, he needed 700 loans for his buying spree, which eventually became the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC.
That library houses 84 copies of the First Folio. One of them will be displayed this month at Drew University, home of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.
Moderator Bonnie J. Monte, artistic director of the theater, credited Shakespeare with coining 1,800 words and terms.
“If you’ve ever sent ‘someone packing,’ if you’ve ever found yourself ‘in a pickle,’ all of those are expressions out of Shakespeare, not only Shakespeare, but plays that would have been lost without the First Folio,” said Mays.
We would have lost Kiss Me, Kate, too– Cole Porter was inspired by The Taming of the Shrew. William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury would have required a new title; it came from The Tempest.
Without The Tempest, Mays continued, we also would have lost poetry like this:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Video: What’s a First Folio, anyway?
BURNING QUESTIONS ABOUT SALEM WITCHES
Video: A burning question about Salem’s witches
They burned witches in Salem, right?
That misconception has roots in the Civil War, as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff explained at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer.
Schiff’s latest book, The Witches: Salem, 1692, took 18 months to write– after three years of rummaging through archives.
This tragic drama proved a worthy challenge for the biographer of Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Ben Franklin and Cleopatra.
Our enduring fascination with this dark period in American history says as much about modern society as it does about our ancestors, she tells a questioner in this video clip:
Video: Why we still obsess about the Salem witch hunt