If you don’t count the year I wrote my first novel and wandered aimlessly around the Javits Center with a pass that said “Author,” this was my 13th BookExpo. And since this is my inaugural column, and the first BookExpo I can remember when I wasn’t on lockdown in the pressroom, I’m considering 13 a lucky number.
My goal with this new column is to expand PW’s reach into the future: to talk with editors, agents, publishers, and scouts about the books they’ve just acquired; to find the backstories; to hear what makes them take chances on debuts, or how they face sophomore efforts. I’m hoping to move in several directions, here and abroad, and to sometimes just say what’s on my mind.
So in anticipation, I started BookExpo on Wednesday, thinking to get a jump on reporting the big books story. I was specifically looking for a copy of Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl, the one she’s moved to Norton with. Messud’s been a big name since her bestselling The Emperor’s Children (which I didn’t read in my decision to avoid all novels having anything to do with 9/11), but this one is about two friends, a theme I’ve always been attracted to in reading (one of my absolute favorites: Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind) and in writing.
I arrived to an unopened show, chaotic with sealed boxes, half-finished booths, forklifts, and carpenters. But under the Simon & Schuster banner, I saw Nan Graham, who handed me a finished copy of The Graybar Hotel, a story collection by Curtis Dawkins, a guy incarcerated for a drug-related homicide who’s never getting out. “It’s terrific,” she tells me. “Most prisoners learn to write in prison; this guy went to prison with an M.F.A.” I’ve heard about this book, but with Graham’s endorsement, I can’t wait to read it. (At BEA 20I4, we talked about Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, which never stopped selling and won the Pulitzer.)
I bump into David Unger from the Guadalajara Book Fair. He’s excited about the New York Rights Fair that PW is launching with Combined Book Exhibit and BolognaFiere in 2018. “This is good news,” he says, pointing to the Rights Center on the BookExpo floor map. “Look at the size of that, it’s shameful.”
We agree to meet at the rooftop launch party that evening but the first person I see at the party is Sally Richardson, St. Martin’s president and publisher; she mentions a book she’s hoping to get (watch for the story here if it happens). I spend time with the belle donne from Milan, Claudia Mazzucco and Carmen Castillo Bazan of Atlantyca.
At the Random House party that night, I sit for a while with two young women from Lit Hub, who take selfies. I talk with president Gina Centrello and publisher Susan Kamil, and am introduced to Sam Graham-Felsen, whose debut novel, Green, mines his own story of being the only white kid in an all black school in Boston. A galley goes into my bag. I thrive on this kind of serendipity (and the parties).
Thursday is not about serendipity but about sincere publisher efforts at promotion. The Little, Brown lunch is feting five authors across a range of genres and subjects, from the thriller Heather, the Totality by veteran TV writer and producer Matthew Weiner (I read it in one sitting last night and it’s terrific) to Janet Fitch’s saga The Revolution of Marina M., but Lee Boudreaux pulls me aside and seduces me with Red Clocks by Leni Zumas: “The Handmaid’s Tale for the 21st century,” she says. It’s not the first show book to be compared to the Atwood classic, but when Zumas gets up to speak and talks about her experience of being obsessed with having a baby and buying sperm on the internet, I’m enthralled.
I sit next to Patty Neger from ABC and see Robin Sanders from CBS. And when I speak to Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch, the conversation goes right to the James Patterson–Bill Clinton collaborative novel The President Is Missing, due June 2018, for which both Pietsch and Knopf editor-in-chief Sonny Mehta are editors (it will be copublished by Knopf and Little, Brown).
Back on the floor, with noticeable empty spaces and sparser crowds than in previous years, I search for the Indie Insights Stage, where I’m moderating—or, more accurately, introducing—a group of speakers discussing literary fiction from independent houses. Thankfully, they all cooperate and stick to the five minutes allotted to each of them (which from my past experience is the toughest job of a moderator).
And I finally get my Messud galley, encouraged by Norton president Julia Reidhead, who says, “Any person who’s had a best friend and wondered about the relationship will find Messud’s novel filled with ‘aha moments.’ ”
I bag Thursday’s mess of parties for the Simon & Schuster dinner in honor of Alice Hoffman (The Rules of Magic); Nelson DeMille (The Cuban Affair); Mary Higgins Clark (All by Myself, Alone), who, at 89, stole the spotlight; and debut author Danya Kukafka (of love-and-obsession novel Girl in Snow). All four are authors of editor-in-chief Marysue Rucci. I sit next to Kris Kleindienst of Left Bank Books in Saint Louis, Mo., who tells me that “it was a more friendly show, with independent bookstores having more access to publishers, more opportunities to actually meet face-to-face,” which BookExpo’s website predicted would happen with smaller crowds.
Another BookExpo, another pile of anticipated books to read. Oh, and a final word on Messud: I met her at the Paris Review party—she was delightful.
I’d like to hear from you about this new column. Please send suggestions.