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June 12, 2019

Reader Nancy Sharko Reports on the 2019 Maplewood-South Orange Book Festival

Posted by tom

Nancy Sharko, one of our longtime readers, attended the Third Annual Maplewood-South Orange Book Festival in South Orange, NJ on Saturday, June 8th and was kind enough to share her experiences with us. According to their website, the festival “brings together readers and authors in celebration of the joy and diversity of the written word. Our informative author panels highlight the major artistic, social and political issues of the day, while our vibrant and fun-filled children’s area allow our youngest readers to discover the importance and delight of books --- and meet many of their favorite authors!”

This was the third year of the Maplewood-South Orange Book Festival, and it kicked off with Eve Ensler on Friday night. Saturday was filled with panels, primarily focused on nonfiction and children’s/young adult authors. I was able to attend two panels: Mary Norris in Conversation with Kory Stamper, and Julie Orringer and Nell Freudenberger in conversation.

While I liked Mary's first book, BETWEEN YOU & ME, my knowledge of Greek mythology left me a long time ago, but I still have added the book to my TBR list. She described her new book, GREEK TO ME, as a spiritual journey about her attempt to learn Greek, intermingled with stories about her travels in Greece. Mary clearly has a long-standing love of all things Greek. Early in her career at The New Yorker, she took advantage of their tuition reimbursement program to first study Modern Greek, and then moved on to Ancient Greek. Her first trip to Greece, in 1983, was for five weeks, and she covered the country/region, including stops in Athens, Crete, Rhodes, Cyprus and Istanbul, and she's been back a number of times since then.

One particularly interesting discussion for me was around the role of women in mythology. Mary said that her original plan for the book was that each chapter would focus on an individual god. That plan didn't work for her, and after additional thought, she decided it would be better to focus on women. Growing up in Cleveland, she felt that there weren't many role models for women --- either being a mother or a nun. In mythology, she found that there were many different types of women you could be. She particularly likes Athena and characterized her as the first independent woman with whom almost everyone got along. Athena was the goddess of wisdom and war, but would "try the diplomatic route before spear rattling." Aphrodite was another favorite, and during one of her trips to Greece, her focus was on going to the Baths of Aphrodite. On her way there, someone told her that if you swam among the rocks of Aphrodite, you would be beautiful forever (she later realized that the person who told her this was the man who rented her a car). She swam among the rocks and made sure to do it in the nude so that she didn't miss any spots. Leaving the water, everything looked more beautiful to her.

In the second program, listening to Nell Freudenberger and Julie Orringer was actually like listening to two friends. In real life, the two live three blocks from each other in Brooklyn, are good friends, and established a writing group five years ago. Both women have new books out in 2019, although they are very different, and structured the hour as a reading/conversation, which was wonderful.

The Maplewood-South Orange event typically attracts a fair number of authors, and they started their session with a brief discussion about their writing group. Many of the women in the group had babies when they first started, so they needed to establish some ground rules to ensure that their time was spent, as much as possible, on writing challenges. They wanted the main focus of the group to be to help members tackle writing-related problems, and they found that this has been very successful. One rule is that members generally wouldn't read each other's work in the group, although they could make private arrangements. The group also has been a good resource to help members move through all the political changes that have taken place over the last five years.

Julie's newest book, THE FLIGHT PORTFOLIO, is a novel based on the true story of Varian Fry's efforts to save the lives and work of Jewish artists fleeing the Holocaust. She talked a bit about the challenges of writing a book about a real person, and said that when she started researching the book, her options just kept expanding as her learning expanded. Her subject, Mr. Fry, had a very complicated history, and when she could "feel him as a multidimensional human being," she knew that the story could be a novel. Nell raised what she saw as the urgent moral question at the heart of the book: What makes the painter Marc Chagall worth saving more than a young Polish child? Julie felt that Varian hadn't really thought about this until he actually got to France. In her research, she read a letter he sent to his wife saying that hundreds of people were lining up to see him and plead their case to be sent to the US. When he did return to the US, accepting that he could not save more people was very difficult for him.

Nell also pointed out that THE FLIGHT PORTFOLIO is about the Holocaust, but it's also about the lives the authors and painters were living at the time. Julie said that everyone was living in "emotionally heightened states" and that there was a lot of alcohol in their desire to do all those things that reminded them of life.

Nell's newest book, LOST AND WANTED, is about a theoretical physicist who's a single mother, by design/choice, and loses her best friend to lupus. The discussion kicked off with Julie asking why a physicist and why start the book with an inexplicable event? Nell explained that she had actually been working on a different book first, where the main character was a male astrophysicist. The book was rejected by her editor, and in rethinking, she decided she would rather focus on female friendships, but would change her main character to a female theoretical physicist.

I've read LOST AND WANTED (and enjoyed it) and initially wondered how the author was able to so clearly incorporate (what seemed to me) very complicated scientific theories. Nell said that she was initially scared by the thought of focusing on physics because she doesn't have a math/science background. For her research, she read books by astrophysicians that were really for lay people, and then also had meetings and continued discussions with the authors. She found that they loved talking about their research subjects and were a great resource.

Nell described the book as about loss, but also about love. In the middle of her writing process, she said that she lost a very dear friend, who was 42. She had previously made it a point not to cry in front of her young children, but this sudden death so floored her that she found herself crying a lot. Her youngest child then asked her, “Mommy, are you going to be sad forever?” She felt that this innocent question got to the nature of grief and how it evolves, ebbs and flows, and this was key to incorporate into her book.

Both Julie and Nell started out as short story writers. Nell has found that it's easier to sell a novel than stories, but she likes doing both. She may take more risks with short stories, where there's no contract, so she has the freedom to take an idea and see where it leads her.

Overall, it was a fun couple of hours on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I strongly encourage everyone to see what book events are in your area (festivals, author readings at bookstores or libraries) and attend. In my experience, there's no charge for most of them, and they've always been an interesting experience and a great way to support authors. even has a list of festivals, so you don't have to do a lot of research!