Thursday’s author breakfast involved time travel, Theodore Roosevelt, storytelling, Chelsea Handler, and even a quote from Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” After the presentation of this year’s PW Sales Rep of the Year Award to Bruce Joshua Miller of Miller Trade Book Marketing, and Bookstore of the Year to Square Books in Oxford, Miss., which in turn gave PW a framed piece of the store’s wooden balcony, Handler took over as mistress of ceremonies.
“I’m very excited to be here this morning. I am not sure how the publishing industry is going, but I’d like nothing more than to keep it alive. I thought maybe I would appear on Kindle,” she said. She offered to read a passage from her new book, her fifth, Uganda Be Kidding Me (Grand Central, Oct.). “But it’s not ready yet. I’m publicly asking for an extension.”
It’s no easy act to follow Handler, a challenge Ishmael Beah, best known for his 2007 book about Sierra Leone’s civil war and child soldiers, A Long Way Gone, took up by moving directly into a talk on the importance of storytelling. “I learned stories are the escorts of our lives,” said Beah, who credited storytellers in the village where he grew up in Sierra Leone with shaping his decision to become a writer. He also spoke about how he would ride on his father’s shoulders as a young boy and his father would pretend to be blind. Beah would have to describe the things around him. “We have a tradition, when you write a story, when you tell a story, it is no longer yours,” said Beah. “You can only be the shepherd of the story. For me, the most important part of my work is to share the story, to write the story. Stories are the foundation of our lives. They’re even how we dream and shape the future.” In his new book, a debut novel, Radiance of Tomorrow (FSG/Sarah Crichton Books, Jan. 2014), he said that he wanted to imagine what it would be like to return home after a village is destroyed.
Storytelling, too, was at the heart of the talk by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin about her newest book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (Simon & Schuster, Oct.). “My belief is, history at its best is about telling stories. I have spent a lifetime telling stories about presidents,” she said. “It may seem an odd profession to tell stories about dead presidents.” Her only fear, she joked, is that in the afterlife, she’ll have to face a panel of presidents. There Lyndon Johnson will attack her for writing a book on the Kennedys that is twice as long as the one on him. Goodwin noted that she chose to write about Roosevelt and Taft for the past six years based on a key criterion for all her books: “I have to live with this character year after year.” And there are some, like Hitler, whom she wouldn’t want to wake up to day after day.
Wally Lamb, the time traveler, in his new novel, We Are Water (HarperCollins, Nov.), said that he revisits two key incidents from his childhood in Greenwich, Conn. One is the death of a black man, folk artist Ellis Ruley, who may have been murdered. The second is a flash flood in 1963 that killed five mill workers and a young mother. Along his journey back in time, Lamb offered scenes from his high school involving escaped fruit flies and dead cats, that convinced him not to choose a life in the physical sciences and to become an English teacher instead—in the same high school and town where he grew up.
Although each speaker thanked the audience for supporting their writing and getting their books into the hands of readers, perhaps Lamb said it best: “I want you to know how grateful I am to every one of you booksellers, librarians, bloggers. The writer and the reader are two poles apart from each other. And you in the audience are the electricity.”