The subject matter in each of the books introduced at Thursday morning’s Adult Book & Author Breakfast is serious, but the authors certainly made a packed ballroom of booksellers laugh during their lively presentations, beginning with moderator Rachel Maddow, the MSNBC journalist, whose second book, Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and The Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth (PRH, Oct.), ties together the connections between the oil and gas industry and Russia’s interference in this country’s governance. Noting that “there’s a destructive dynamic at work,” Maddow said that the industry not only poses a threat to democracy in the U.S., but also democracies elsewhere in the world because it “bends the rules” while destroying the environment. It’s not that people profiting from oil and gas are necessarily evil, she noted, the entities themselves are evil—and there are “warm seats in hell” for Rex Tillerson, former Secretary of State and former ExxonMobil chair and CEO, as well as other ExxonMobil executives.

Malcolm Gladwell disclosed that the inspiration behind his latest pop psychology book, Talking to Strangers (Little Brown, Sept.), was the death of Sandra Bland, an African-American woman from Chicago who was stopped by a police officer while driving through Texas. Bland was arrested for arguing with the state trooper and was subsequently was found dead in her jail cell. “I decided to write a book about what happened between those two people,” Gladwell said, noting that while there was truth to allegations that the officer was racist and perhaps even “a bad cop,” there was more to the miscommunication between the two, just as there was between Amanda Knox and Italian police after Knox’s housemate was found murdered. “What is it about the dynamic between strangers that is problematic?” Gladwell asked, pointing out that people often do not know how to talk to strangers, and misunderstandings can have a profound impact on people’s personal lives and society itself.

Karin Slaughter introduced her latest thriller novel, The Last Widow (Morrow, Aug.) by describing her childhood, growing up in the South, the youngest of three girls. When she was a child, her father would give her a quarter for every story she wrote, the grislier the better. Her father loved to tell stories “to take us out of our lives,” she said, especially during road trips to visit her grandmother. Slaughter’s talent for writing thrillers was further developed because her grandmother was a fan of True Crime magazine. Although she would hide it when Slaughter and her family visited, the girls would read it “to scare each other to death.”

Marjorie Liu began her presentation of her Monstress graphic novel series, volume 1 of which is being reissued as a hardcover in July, with a shout out to illustrator Sana Takeda, whom she called her “better half.” Like Slaughter though, it was Liu’s grandparents who inspired her to write a fantasy full of magic and terror. Her grandparents grew up in China during World War II, and Liu repeated stories they told her of war, hunger, and death. Even though their tales were “traumatic,” Liu said, they were also memories of love and hope; her grandparents’ experiences taught Liu that what really matters in life is family and friends.

The morning’s last speaker, Ta-Nehisi Coates, introduced his debut novel, The Water Dancer (One World, Sept.) by discussing how the “Lost Cause” myth about the noble intentions of the Confederacy in the Civil War inspired him to write a novel about a young man’s confrontation with slavery. Coates wrote Water Dancer with the intention of “disrupting the myth.” Myths shape people’s view of the world, Coates said, insisting that anyone who subscribes to the myth of the well-intentioned Confederacy believes “on some fundamental level that black people are not human beings.”