Despite this post’s headline, I recently spent a few days at the Virginia Festival of the Book in great company. I was honored to be a presenting author on a panel, Le Fiction en France: France in Fiction, sponsored by Alliance Française Charlottesville (AfC). Also on the panel was Michael Keenan Gutierrez (The Trench Angel), who teaches writing at the University of North Carolina (UNC) and Bonnie MacBird (Art in the Blood), an EMMY award-winning screenwriter/actor/author from LA. The panel was expertly orchestrated and moderated by AfC director, Emily Martin.
This was my first author’s appearance at the Festival so we met briefly the day prior to our panel. Emily suggested Marie-Bette, the best little French bakery-cafe in Charlottesville and over coffee and pastry we found that even though we’ve moved in different spheres professionally, shared experiences made it easy to establish rapport. I know a little about Michael’s world because my daughter earned her Masters’ from UNC and Chapel Hill was on our regular itinerary. In addition to Bonnie’s impressive literary accomplishments, she wrote the story for the classic sci-fi movie, TRON. For my husband, Granville, that fact made Bonnie beyond cool. Emily’s broad knowledge of France touched on the experiences each of us had with the country and the language. We were comfortable with each other as people and authors however, would our characters and our books be as compatible?
The characters and stories in our books are unique—as authors we shared the common thread of Paris as the creative backdrop during distinctive periods in the city’s history. Bonnie set Art in the Blood in the year 1888 and writes in the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about famous fictional private detective, Sherlock Holmes. Critical scenes in Michael’s, The Trench Angel, unfold in Paris during the 1920s after the Great War and, the characters in my novel, Provenance, are part of the frenzied art scene in Paris between 1931 and 1938 as the prospect of World War II looms large in the City of Light.
All of our protagonists are male, all are broken men in some manner, fighting inner demons that threaten to destroy them. Holmes is hopelessly addicted to cocaine, mystery and mayhem; Neal Stephens’ secret marriage and anarchist father connect him to murder; and in my novel, a father’s secret reveals a devastating legacy of lies that threatens to destroy his family. The differences in our three books were obvious but the similarities, like gems, were harder to find but delightful to discover. Our protagonists—a junkie, an anarchist and a liar— facilitated an organic, interesting and successful panel during the Festival.
For more than 22,000 book lovers, across 250 programs featuring more than 400 authors, there was discovery and exploration of surprisingly common elements in literature and people who seem to share no DNA. However, like our panel, if done right—as the Virginia Festival of the Book was— authors and readers have the opportunity to get to the heart of what makes books and book festivals so wonderful—they celebrate the diversity as well as the shared experiences of us all.