Skip to main content


February 19, 2016

Savannah Book Festival 2016


Last weekend hundreds of book lovers flocked to beautiful historic Savannah, Georgia, for the Ninth Annual Savannah Book Festival. With venues situated around Telfair, Wright and Chippewa Squares, the Savannah Book Festival welcomes both fiction and nonfiction authors and readers of all ages who would like to see their favorite authors and add new titles to their reading lists. I attended the festival for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed it. There is just somthing about walking through the historic downton and talking about books that really adds to the festival experience and makes it feel special.

New York Times bestselling author Paula McLain kicked off the festival with an opening address in Savannah College of Art and Design's Trustees Theater. She began her speech with a wonderful story about discovering reading as a child, stating that while adults may need some convincing to enjoy a book, children come primed to fall in love with stories. As a foster child, McLain explained that her "Dickensian childhood" made her a reader. She could not always risk making new friends in new schools, but she was always safe to visit libraries and befriend librarians. When she finally made the leap to writing, it came almost naturally, though there were serious depressions between each book as she sought for new topics. McLain totally dazzled the audience when she admitted that her greatest motivation when wriitng is listening to Eminem's "Lose Yourself" --- which she quoted flawlessly. Her advice to new writers was insightful and succinct: "Do not fear rejection, because it will 100% happen. If you're really a writer, you'll do it anyway and you'll use your rage at being rejected to make your work even better." I had the pleasure of speaking with Paula after her event and it was so nice to hear her speak very highly of Bookreporter!

The next night was an exciting one for me, as Erik Larson was slated to give the keynote address to a sold-out audience. Though I had never heard Larson speak before, I love his books and was so excited to hear about his research methods. Let me say now that Larson was probably the biggest surprise of the weekend. Not only is he smart and well-spoken, he is also wildly funny and has a masterful control of the stage. Larson began his address by explaining that he is not technically a historian, as his goal is not strictly to inform, but to create a rich historical atmosphere that makes the reader experience history as if they were there. His goal is to set the scene of even popular stories so that his readers can follow along as if they do not know the ending, even when they do. He then relayed a humorous story about the one time his authenticity was questioned on national television --- by his very own nine-year-old daughter, who he quipped very nearly did not get a ride home with him that night. I was delighted to see that many authors, including Lauren Groff and Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks, were in attendance and some even asked questions.

Following Larson's address, I had the fortune of attending an invite-only author party, where I met with the aforementioned Paula McLain, Chris Bohjalian and newcomer Malcolm Mitchell. It seemed that everywhere I turned there was an award-winning author and it was truly humbling to see them all minging and congratulating one another on their fine work. 

The next day provided the real "meat" of the weekend as it was finally time for the day-long festival events. Unlike the opening and keynote addresses, the festival is completely free and open to all. I began my day with David Greenberg, author of REPUBLIC OF SPIN, an exploration of everything from the bully pulpit to the calibrated constructions of today’s publicists, pollsters, speechwriters and snakes. Greenberg was very composed and spoke to an intelligent audience who asked wonderful questions. Considering the timely quality of his book, he did a remarkable job of weaving his topics with current events to give a truly riveting presentation. I spoke with him briefly afterwards and found him very gracious and excited to be part of the festival. 

I also spoke with AT THE WATER'S EDGE author Sara Gruen, who shared her love of animals and taught me the best way to pose for a photograph. She turned her head to the side as I counted to three, then quickly turned to the camera and shot me her most dazzling, fresh smile --- which you can see was a total success. This is a trick she says she learned from author Joshilyn Jackson's mother. Although I've attended more than a few book events, I have never seen one before where the authors were so friendly and supportive of one another. 

Following Greenberg's panel I was planning on seeing Geraldine Brooks, but the festival was so well-attended that the room was filled. Luckily, with so many terrific authors speaking, I was quickly able to select another panel and find a seat there. I made the excellent decision to check out children's author Malcolm Mitchell and found him absolutely inspiring. You may recognize Mitchell as the wide receiver of the Georgia Bulldogs, but he is also deeply involved with children's literacy, having taught himself to read at an older age after suffering from dyslexia.

Malcolm explained that finishing his first book changed his whole life, and he wants to help other low-income families experience that same joy, which is why he has written THE MAGICIAN'S HAT and created Read with Malcolm, an organization committed to providing children with books. His goal, he said, is for his stories to transcend his athleticism, because that's far more important. He wants to be the author who played football, not the other way around. Mitchell was one of the most charming, down-to-earth, and focused authors I have ever had the pleasure of meeting and I so look forward to seeing what he does next.

I followed Mitchell's panel with another reading-focused title, THE MILLIONAIRE AND THE BARD by Andrea Mays. Mays's book is about Shakespeare's first folio and the American industrialist obsessed with collecting pieces and editions of it. She explained that she knew she wanted to write about Shakespeare, but found the Bard so overdone that she needed a totally new angle. In her own readings she was accustomed to using the Folger editions of the plays, which have the original words on the right and their meanings on the left, and wondered who Folger was and why he made these editions. Her research into Folger revealed that he became a millionaire through his work with the Standard Oil Company and soon began obsessively hunting and collecting all folios of Shakespeare's work, no matter the condition. Although many of us have studied Shakespeare in school, Mays book makes his work fresh again, drawing us into the past where his plays were stil being discovered.

After Mays's panel I took a quick lunch break, which was a nice treat given Savannah's rich restaurant scene. Over lunch I heard many nearby tables discussing the festival and craned my neck to listen to readers discuss Sara Gruen and Geraldine Brooks. It seemed that everyone was having a terrfic time and was eager to get back to the festival, which is the best compliment an event like this can receive.

After lunch I raced over to Wright Square to secure a seat for Chris Bohjalian, author of THE GUEST ROOM and many other popular titles. I'm a bit of a fangirl for Chris so this was really an exciting moment for me, as he was absolutely charming, funny and heartwarming --- he even began his panel with a laugh-out-loud story about losing his underwear while on tour. Given the timely and controversial subject matter of his latest book, he provided us with some background about human trafficking, explaining that 1.2-1.4 million girls and boys are trafficked internationally as sex slaves annually. Although many may believe that sex trafficking is limited to countries like Thailand, the practice moved west following the fall of the Berlin Walll, as cheap sex equals big business. As well-informed as he is, Bohjalian was adamant that characterization is infinitely more important than research for his books. Interestingly, he explained that he provides first copies of his manuscripts to every lawyer, doctor and morgue-worker he interviews, as the feedback on these first reads often provides him with the "golden nuggets" that make his work memorable. I love that he is so open to feedback and adept at selecting those best to provide it. I was quick to meet Bohjalian after his panel and he was just lovely, always complimenting his readers and asking about their days. He admitted that he loves and even wrote " ROCKS" in my signed book.

Chris Bohjalian was the last author of the day I was really excited to see, so I spent the remainder of the festival taking in the scene and speaking with readers. I heard that many attendees loved Stacy Schiff and others raved about Lauren Groff, who I had the pleasure of seeing in September. Overall I heard very few complaints and met with many happy readers who were returning home with new information about their favorite authors, signed books as gifts and the overwhelming sensation of a day well-spent.