What they said, at the Bookfest

Memoir A-Go-Go panel at the Woodstock Bookfest. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

The 2019 Woodstock Bookfest featured, as usual, smart panels, bright speakers, and festive parties. I am able to report on a sampling of events, along with my favorite quotes from presenters.

The LGBT panel, “Queer Voices on the Road,” coincided with the late lunch hour on the first gorgeous day of spring and so was lightly attended — unjustly, as it turned out. Both authors happened to have written historical novels and had unusual tidbits of information to offer. Joe Okonkwo’s Jazz Moon, a novel of the Harlem Renaissance, includes scenes on an ocean liner of the 1920s, which was equipped with a carousel and sidewalks lined with potted palms. Okonkwo revealed that the blender was invented in the same decade, enabling milk shakes to also be invented. 


Tim Murphy read from his book Correspondents, featuring a heroine from an Irish-Lebanese family like the author’s own. While researching the novel, partly set during the Iraq War, Murphy visited a refugee camp in Turkey, a way-station for Iraqis seeking asylum in the West. When he met one family again in Toronto, they were not as relieved as one might expect, still profoundly disoriented by the need to flee their homeland.

The crime fiction panel, “Write Like a Girl,” starred Woodstock’s own four-time Edgar-nominated Alison Gaylin. She described how the genre has been transformed in the past few years, as women are no longer expected to write tame “cozy mysteries” or use first initials to hide their gender if they’re writing tougher suspense. In fact, she said, men are writing female protagonists and sometimes using first initials themselves. She read from her new novel, If I Die Tonight, including a scene that takes place in a country jail so small, there’s no holding cell, only a holding bench. Gaylin took the details of the setting from a visit to the Rhinebeck jail, which does, in fact, have a holding bench.

For her book Sophie Last Seen, about the mother of a missing child, Marlene Adelstein researched topics as varied as birdwatching and special-needs children. Frankie Bailey, author of both true crime and crime fiction, including Death’s Favorite Child, said she had figured out a plot device that very day when she was listening to a radio show about a 1939 Batman comic. She is also co-editor of an encyclopedia of famous crimes and trials.

Best quote from Gaylin, on the difference between memoir and fiction: “I write memoir all the time. I just throw in a few murders.”

At the scrumptiously catered evening party, held at Oriole9, I was told Thursday’s Story Slam was, as always, electrifying. This year’s winners, telling stories on the theme “It’s About Time,” were Verna Gillis, Blair Glaser, and Robert Burke Warren.

The Saturday night keynote speaker, Reema Zaman, a former actress, startled the crowd by reading a youthful excerpt from her memoir, I Am Yours, in a perfect three-year-old voice. Former NPR correspondent Jacki Lyden skillfully drew out Zaman’s story of recovery from abuse, complete with the following quotes — Referring to her past career as a model: “There’s a difference between being stared at and being seen.” On surviving abuse: “Art is the strongest way to hold onto our connection to our voice.” How the sense that she had an important message to convey kept her writing despite self-doubt: “Service overrides fear.”

Found on Facebook, a quote from The Friend by Sigrid Nunes, who was interviewed on Friday night by Joe Donahue of WAMC: “Your whole house smells of dog, says someone who comes to visit. I say I’ll take care of it. Which I do by never inviting that person to visit again.” 

The final event was the Memoir A Go-Go panel, moderated by Bookfest founder and organizer Martha Frankel. Jodie Patterson, author of The Bold World, outlined one aspect of adjusting to life as the mother of a transgender boy. After mentioning her activist grandmothers, she said, “My ancestors were revolutionaries, so I decided to make lineage more important than gender.”

Amanda Stern described Little Panic, her book on dealing with profound anxiety as “the autobiography of an emotion.”

Emily Bernard’s Black is the Body is a collection of essays that revolve around having been stabbed in 1994. She said it’s about “how to work with the wound. I’m still in a contest with this thing. Who’s going to win in the end?” Based on how she spoke, I’d say Bernard is going to win, hands down.