Though comedian Faith Salie (Approval Junkie, Crown Archetype) kept the laughs coming in her opening monologue at the Thursday author breakfast, making jokes about the “adult” author breakfasts in the old days at Book (S)expo—where people used pick up lines like “Want to look for typos in my galley?” or “I just want to blurb you”—the event, which also featured Sebastian Junger, Colson Whitehead, and Louise Penny, was surprisingly moving and touched on difficult subjects, from slavery to the continuing divisions within our country.

Whitehead, who first attended BEA 24 years ago when he was an assistant at the Voice, said that he came up with the idea for his new novel about an escaped slave, The Underground Railroad (Doubleday, Sept.), 16 years ago. He wanted it to be a real railroad, not a metaphor, one which would combine Gulliver’s Travels and The Odyssey. At the time, Whitehead didn’t feel like he had the writing chops. But he couldn’t let the project go and pulled it out every two years. When he felt ready, Whitehead had already sold a book about a Brooklyn writer going through a midlife crisis. In discussing it with his wife, she told him that The Underground Railroad sounded like a “cool” idea. His agent, his shrink, and the head of Doubleday, his editor Bill Thomas, all agreed, he said.

“I was seven years old when I saw Roots,” Whitehead said. “I was acquainted with slavery’s reverberations. I’ve been stopped by cops, frisked, and handcuffed.” Whitehead gained a deeper understanding of what it was like to be a slave so that he could write about 16 or 17-year-old Cora (slaves don’t have birthdays) by reading Harriet Jacobs and slave narratives collected by writers for the WPA. He also turned to a book that has been a touchstone throughout his career, 100 Years of Solitude, to determine how to create the fantastic effects for each state that Cora and Caesar pass through in their attempt to escape to freedom.

Penny’s inspiration for A Great Reckoning (Minotaur, Aug) came from her childhood. “I blame my mother for a happy childhood,” she said. “Yet I was frightened of everything. What saved me was reading. I knew if I read enough books, I’d be brave.” Her reading of poetry, in particular two lines from Auden’s poem about Herman Melville, form the core of all her books: “Goodness existed: That was the new knowledge/ His terror had to blow itself quite out.” Family is also key. And when she spoke about her husband, Michael, who served as the inspiration for the book’s protagonist, Armand Gamache, who suffers from advanced dementia, many in the room cried.

Junger, whose slim new volume, Tribes, has its roots in a Vanity Fair article about PTSD, said, “I believe in books. We have lost the conversations humans have had around the campfire. We have that through books.” In his new book, he attempts to find a way back to that communal feeling. “This country is not together right now,” he said. “It would be great to blame one candidate for our problems. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is that simple. I feel we’ve come to a crisis of self-definition. We literally don’t know who we are and what we want to be.” For him, the contempt with which people hold their opponents is more dangerous to our country than ISIS.

The breakfast also served as the backdrop for giving out this year’s PW Awards. Michael Tucker, president and CEO of Books Inc. in San Francisco, accepted the award for Bookstore of the Year, and Lise Solomon of the Karel/Dutton Group took home the plaque for Sales Representative of the Year.