The spirit of Maya Angelou and Martin Luther King Jr., along with a bit of Doogie Howser, hovered over the opening breakfast of BEA, which began with a tribute to Angelou by PW co-editorial director Jim Milliot. He also presented the PW Sales Rep of the Year Award to Teresa Rolfe Kravtin, and gave the PW Bookstore of the Year Award to Pete Mulvihill on behalf of Green Apple Books in San Francisco.
But spirit doesn’t necessarily imply somberness, especially with stage and screen performer Neil Patrick Harris acting as host. He carefully delineated the difference between moderating the BEA breakfast and hosting the Tony Awards (which Harris has done four times) or the Emmys (which he’s hosted twice): no music.
Harris is best known for playing Barney Stinson on TV’s How I Met Your Mother, and as the title character on Doogie Howser, M.D., but his first job was doing bookstore inventory at age 10. That job influenced the format of his memoir, Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography (Crown, Oct.), which was inspired by his favorite children’s book series. “I wanted there to be that kind of magical quality that draws the reader in,” Harris said.
Before discussing her own memoirs, A Story Lately Told and the forthcoming Watch Me (Scribner), Anjelica Huston read Angelou’s poem “A Brave and Startling Truth.” From there, she segued into her childhood in Ireland and how she went on to become an award-winning actress; hers is the only family with three generations of Oscar winners. She spoke about the influence of her father, director John Huston, and her beloved mother, who died in a car crash when Huston was a teenager, and her on-again, off-again relationship with Jack Nicholson. Huston also discussed a car crash of her own that made her realize that “I’d been marginally wasting my life.” Afterward, she applied herself to her acting career with renewed vigor, and has gone on to appear in more than 70 movies and television series.
Tavis Smiley, host of PBS’s Tavis Smiley and PRI’s The Tavis Smiley Show, spoke about how he was influenced as an African-American boy, growing up in a large family among the cornfields of Indiana, by Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise.” Smiley used the poet’s passing to call on those in the audience to publish diverse books. “It’s not enough for us just to celebrate the life and legacy of Maya Angelou,” he said. “[We need] to recognize that every one of us has a voice, a unique thumbprint on our throats, and each of us has a story. I want to encourage all of us in the book publishing world to work a little bit harder to get the stories of people of color told.”
In his new book, Death of a King (Little, Brown, Sept.), written with David Ritz, Smiley warns of the triple threat of racism, poverty, and militarism—a message that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to spread during his final year. At the BEA breakfast, Smiley spoke about there being more to King than one sentence in one speech, and opened and ended his talk with this quote, also from King: “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but because conscience tells one it is right.”
“Welcome to my own personal nightmare,” quipped New York Times bestselling author Lisa Scottoline (Betrayed, St. Martin’s Press, Nov.), speaking about following Smiley, Huston, and Harris. She needn’t have worried. She kept the audience laughing with her tales of her ostracized Aunt Lena, who brought a gun to a wedding, or possibly a communion party, and of a rain storm that caused the cheap red rug on the top of her white car to bleed, turning it into a “blood mobile.” These events inspired her books The Vendetta Defense and Look Again. She quoted director Francis Ford Coppola, who said, “Nothing in my movies ever happened, but all of it is true.” Scottoline added, “It only connects if it’s true.” It’s that truth, she continued, that speaks to readers, “soul to soul.”