Thursday’s authors breakfast at BEA in New York City started out sedately enough. Random House Group sales reps Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness politely received their awards as Publisher’s Weekly Reps of the Year, and Roberta Rubin, the owner of the Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, Ill. offered a few words of thanks after receiving her award as Bookseller of the Year.
And then television host and comedian Jimmy Fallon came to the podium – and tore away the event’s veneer of gentility. Fallon became only the first of several speakers to get bleeped after uttering obscenities during an event that was being taped for later broadcast on C-Span’s Book TV. And he was also only the first to joke about a book that has become more than simply a popular read, but also a cultural touchstone.
“Hey everybody, I’m E.L. James!” Fallon announced. Recalling that he had appeared at BEA last year to promote his book Thank You Notes, Fallon called Thank You Notes 2 “the sequel,” and bragged that if the reader touches a button, the book “plays piano music.” (He wasn’t kidding: there indeed is a button on the inside front cover, that, when pressed, plays music). Next year, Fallon promised, the next Thank You Notes volume will “will read the book to you,” when the reader presses a button. After reading a few selections from Thank You Notes 2 to piped-in music, Fallon drew applause and laughter by concluding, “Thank you, Kindle, for holding 1,400 books, but it’s not as good as holding one real fucking book in my hands.”
Actress Kirstie Alley, the morning’s emcee, kept the laughs and curses coming after she took to the podium to talk about her memoir about her relationships with the male species, The Art of Men: I Prefer Mine Al Dente (Atria, Nov.).
“I’m honored to be here, because I’m not from this world,” Alley said, “I’m standing in front of the movie stars and rock stars of the literary universe.” Admitting that she came from a family of non-readers, Alley described in detail her evolving relationship with books over the years with self-deprecating anecdotes that endeared her to the audience.
“In high school,” she disclosed, “I read 50 books. They were all yellow and were written by Mr. Cliff. I’m sure you’ve heard of him.” Explaining that she also read, a "real book," A Separate Peace by John Knowles by senior year, she admitted, “It made me feel important that I’d read a book.” As an adult, Alley said, she read Stephen King’s novels, and “started to fall in love with books.” She even thought she could write a book herself. She had “stories to tell,” she said, about the men in her life -- husbands, directors, and lovers, including a former boyfriend “who made Christian Grey look like Justin Bieber.”
Described by Alley as having written Telegraph Avenue (Harper, Sept.) the “great American novel we’ve all been waiting for,” Michael Chabon disclosed that he’d had to “come up with a legend about [Telegraph Avenue] and how it started. This is my first attempt.” While Telegraph Avenue is set in 2004 in the neighborhood along the Oakland/Berkeley city line, the genesis for the novel began further south, in Los Angeles, on October 3, 1995, when O.J. Simpson was acquitted in the murders of his wife and a friend. Chabon, who lived in L.A. at the time, recalled being saddened at the time at the “apparent jubilation” of black people that Simpson was acquitted, despite so much evidence that he had in fact committed the murders. The aftermath of the verdict caused Chabon to realize that while he had grown up with black friends in an integrated planned community, Columbia, Maryland, during the 1960s, as an adult, his “connection to black people had been cut.”
After moving to Berkeley, Chabon tried to find the same kind of integrated community in which he’d lived as a child, by frequenting the kinds of places described in Telegraph Avenue, the gritty “flip side to Berkeley’s “Utopia.” It's a neighborhood of used bookstores, used record stores, lunch counters, and other places where black and white alike both gathered, “just shooting the shit, passing time, talking about something they loved.” Describing one used record store that he’d loved, which has since gone out of business, Chabon admitted to feeling “obliged to recreate in fiction this lost Utopia, that I’d been longing for all my life.”
Class and race “and desperation” are social issues Zadie Smith also confronts in NW, only, in her novel (Penguin, Sept.), the action takes place in London, a “city of speech and slang.” Describing Virginia Woolf as the writer she most admires, Smith said, “She was my inspiration, my good luck charm.” Smith models her writing style upon Woolf's, consciously focusing upon language to create realistic characters, and noted that she feels as if she finally succeeded to her satisfaction in NW.
“NW is an exercise in style,” Smith said, “Our lives are also an exercise in style.”
Referring to Shakespeare’s “problem” play, Measure for Measure, Smith disclosed that the Bard, too, influenced NW’s plot line. Just as in Measure for Measure, in which one character spends much of his time in prison, while the other characters are “seeking their own happy endings,” four of the five characters in NW make it out of the northwest London housing estate in which they've grown up, achieving varying degrees of success; one doesn't.
“Happy endings are never universal,” Smith pointed out, explaining that oftentimes, “there’s no happy ending” for young black men.
“I like writing that makes you hear voices,” Smith concluded, listing by name the characters portrayed in NW, “I hope you hear the voices of characters that mean nothing to you now.”
Finishing up the morning’s offerings, J.R. Moehringer described Sutton (Hyperion, Sept.) as a “historical novel about the most interesting bank robber in history.”
Musing over his initial ambivalence towards casting a positive light on a notorious criminal like Willie Sutton, whom he described as “the James Patterson of bank robbers,” because he was “feverishly prolific,” Moehringer called him as a “trickster figure,” who “changed society by breaking its rules.”
Sutton was a cross between Robin Hood and Jackie Gleason, Moehringer said: he never killed anyone, although he caused the death of Arnold Schuster, a young man who was murdered shortly after pointing Sutton out to the police.
Moehringer drew gasps from a rapt audience when his presentation turned from “writing this novel” into a real-life story about his “vague, visceral connection” to Sutton. While Moehringer was writing Sutton, he discovered that in 1957, his mother was almost caught up in a mob hit upon the criminal who had ordered Schuster’s execution for causing Sutton to go to prison five years previously.
“I felt as if this book had chosen me,” Moehringer said.