As always, the Monday Book & Author Breakfast—hosted by Parker Ladd and with the theme, "Captivating with Wit and Grace"—drew thousands of enthusiastic booksellers.
The first speaker, Sister Helen Prejean, emphasized that she didn't know "I was going to be a writer" although she has always kept "spiritual journals." She attributed the success of her Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States (Vintage) to her ability, as her editor, Jason Epstein, put it, "to bring people to both sides" of the debate about the death penalty. Her next book is about "three innocent people on Death Row." At the core of both books, she said, is the ambivalence in the U.S. about crime. "Granted the outrage we feel over terrible crimes," she explained. "Is the death penalty the only thing we can do as a society and what does that mean to us?"
Following Sister Helen, Roy Blount Jr. joked that he was trying to "summon up the gravity to talk about my little dog book," I Am Puppy Hear Me Yap: The Ages of Dog (HarperCollins). He at least "felt bad," admitting that he had been in New Orleans for three days and hadn't "really risen from the dead yet."
As for his yappers, Blount noted that as he was growing up, "we had funny dogs." When members of his family had trouble talking to one another, they put words in their dogs' mouths.
Bebe Moore Campbell talked about inspiration, which, she said, comes in many forms. Her first inspiration was her father, whom she wrote about extensively in Sweet Summer: Growing Up with and Without My Dad (Berkley). Except for summers, when Campbell left her mother's home in Philadelphia and visited her father in North Carolina, she and her father stayed in touch through letters. Because he was "a horrible correspondent," sending "infrequent, illegible" letters, Campbell made up stories in her letters to him, ending them with cliffhangers to encourage him to write back.
She told the audience, "I hope you all will stay inspired to reach as many people as possible."
Rick Bragg, author of All Over but the Shoutin' (Vintage) and the forthcoming Ava's Man (Knopf), a biography of his grandfather, said he enjoyed being on this panel because he knew most of the writers and "it's liberating to look an author in the eye and say, 'I read your book.'" After all, he continued, "writers lie," particularly about reading each other's works.
Bragg spent much of his time describing a day he spent with one of those fellow writers, Sister Helen, visiting Death Row. As he told the surprisingly hilarious story, in the background she raised or lowered a thumb, depending on her opinion of the veracity of the tale. In his folksy style, he said he was all of "20 to 45 seconds" late meeting her that day, earning her wrath for much of the drive. "She gave me what in the South we call a parrot mouth," he continued. "You suck your lips into a tight little ball. It's a way of letting someone else know you're unhappy but not having to say it."
With a thumbs down, Sister Helen preened and sucked her lips into a perfect ball.