Nantucket Book Festival: Literary rock stars, authors’ concert – Cape Cod Times
The Nantucket Book Festival will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a big party, and the entertainment is a reunion of a band made up largely of best-selling, award-winning authors.
Their bio admits that the Rock Bottom Remainders band has “one of the world’s highest ratios of noise to talent,” but its members are certainly rock stars in literary circles.
Ten musicians on the fluid list of members of the infrequently performing band — first formed back in 1992 — will be on the island for the free, open-to-the-public, age-21+ event June 18 at the Chicken Box: Dave Barry, James McBride, Mitch Albom, Scott Turow, Roy Blount Jr., Susie Essman, Ridley Pearson, Sam Barry, Mary Karr, Greg Iles and Alan Zweibel.
Scott Turow, Mitch Albom unexpected additions to the talks
That enthusiastic response to getting the band back together after pandemic-induced breaks has upped the number of overall authors to 33 on island, 26 participating — likely a high for the area’s largest festival devoted to books. And adding the band members has also added some unexpected talks to the schedule, including by best-selling writers Turow (“Presumed Innocent,” “The Last Trial”) and Albom (“Tuesdays With Morrie,” “The Stranger in the Lifeboat”).
Rare chance to hear author James McBride
McBride — award-winning author, musician, and screenwriter known for National Book Award winner (that became a TV miniseries) “The Good Lord Bird,” the new “Deacon King Kong” and “Kill ‘Em and Leave” about singer James Brown — will talk on the morning of June 18 in what festival organizers say is a rare chance to hear the author speak publicly (or give an interview).
Humor matters: Dave Barry, Susie Essman, Roy Blount Jr., Alan Zweibel
And giving a talk about humor and why it matters — an event that organizers say is different from anything the festival has presented in the past — will be Pulitzer Prize-winning humor columnist/author Dave Barry; Essman, an actress best known for 11 years on TV’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”; Blount, author of 24 books, most recently “Alphabetter Juice” and “Save Room for Pie”; and Zweibel, a five-time Emmy Award-winning writer whose cultural memoir “Laugh Lines — My Life Helping Funny People Be Funnier” recounts some of his TV and stage work with top comedians.
“I think in this day and age, humor might be something that we would be derelict in not bringing in,” observes Tharon Dunn, head of the festival’s literary programming committee that chooses the authors. “I don’t consider it to be just entertainment either. These are some very smart people … and the humor panel, I think, is important.”
Rock Bottom Remainders reunite
Getting the Rock Bottom Remainders on-island was the idea of retiring executive director Maddie Hjulstrom, after she had seen and enjoyed the band at a book festival more than a decade ago in her days working for Barnes & Noble bookstores.
“I just laughed ‘til I cried, it was such a great performance and so much fun,” Hjulstrom says. “They’ve always been in the back of my mind since then, but it’s a big undertaking to bring that many people to the island from all over the country. With this year being the 10th anniversary (of the book festival), I thought, ‘Well, if we’re ever going to do it, it should be now.’ … They don’t perform very much at all anymore … so I think they’ll have fun being together and it’s just the perfect way to celebrate.”
Reaching a worldwide audience
This will be the first festival back in person after two years of virtual events, and while organizers hope people will visit Nantucket for all of the weekend’s talks, gatherings and unusual activities, if you can’t get there (or don’t feel comfortable COVID-19-wise), they’ve got you covered.
The virtual events with prominent authors brought the book festival on a small island worldwide attention in the past couple of years, with Hjulstrom saying people watched the videos from all over the world, including in China, India and Australia.
Broadcast for the whole world
“As sad as it was not to be able to host a festival in person, all of a sudden, though, our reputation (went) across the whole world,” Hjulstrom says. “And that’s the direction we have to go in, to remember that there’s a whole world out there we want to reach with our programming.”
So all of this festival’s free events — which include all of the author talks — will be recorded and broadcast on Nantucket Community Television and available on the festival’s YouTube channel. To see the full schedule for on-island visits or a list that will be posted for later viewing: https://nantucketbookfestival.org/events.
That wider off-island dissemination is important because of the topics being explored by authors at the festival, says Dunn — which include race, poverty, politics, sexual orientation, social justice, mental illness and more. While they want to entertain people with the book-related events, she says, “we feel as though we have a stage, we have an audience that listens to us, that respects us at this point and we have an obligation to bring authors that bring messages that are important.”
And making the sessions available online adds to that. “The messages are just too good to be heard once and never again,” Hjulstrom says.
With both the informing and entertaining missions in mind, the two women offered a guide to some of the highlights of this year’s festival:
Following the history: Nathaniel Philbrick will talk with Ben Shattuck
The first big event on June 17 will be award-winning island author/historian Nathaniel Philbrick talking with up-and-comer Ben Shattuck about “retracing journeys, finding a nation and finding yourself.” Philbrick’s latest book is “Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy,” in which he recounts how he, his wife and their dog retraced a journey by America’s first president. Shattuck, a 2019 Pushcart Prize winner, is author of “Six Walks: In The Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau.”
Philbrick “is always coming out with something that’s fun and new and he’s just become such a special presence to us at the festival and somebody we’re just so proud to have as a Nantucket author,” Hjulstrom says. “And I love the fact that Nat is sort of bringing along the next generation of writers.”
Louise Penny: Spoilers from a master mystery writer
Louise Penny is the award-winning, best-selling creator of a series of mysteries featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. On June 17, she’ll be talking about “The Madness of Crowds,” the 17th title in that Quebec-set series that she has said is about terror, but also about goodness, kindness, choices, friendship, belonging and love.
Hjulstrom became friends with Penny (“a lovely person, so gracious, so generous and kind”) through her Barnes & Noble work when Penny was just starting out and says that having Penny back on the island was her big wish for her final festival as director.
Typically, Hjulstrom notes, Penny warns at talkbacks that neither she nor fans should discuss questions that would spoil plot points for people who haven’t read the entire series. But as a big departure, Penny will also hold a ticketed “All the Spoilers!” breakfast on June 18 where no book topic is off-limits.
“We’re just going to have a free-for-all and let people ask whatever they want and have a good time together,” Hjulstrom says. “When I proposed it to her, she said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve never done that before, that sounds like so much fun.’ So I’m looking forward to that.”
Martín Espada: A poet with a message
On June 18, poet Martín Espada will talk about his book of poems, “Floaters,” that won the National Book Award. According to the festival bio, Espada “has dedicated much of his career to the pursuit of social justice and his work gives voice to otherness, powerlessness, and poverty in moving, vivid poetry. This is a reading that just might change your life.”
“Poets have always been important to us. Talk about somebody with a message,” Dunn says. “I think we all do ourselves a disservice if we don’t listen to our great poets.”
Zak Salih: A look at contemporary LGBTQ+ life
Zak Salih’s debut novel “Let’s Get Back to the Party,” about being a gay man in America over the past 50 years, was deemed one of the “must-read books of 2021” in more than 25 publications. He’ll talk June 17 about “queer friendship, love, and what it means to be gay in contemporary America.”
The festival had hoped to put together an LBGTQ panel this year for Pride month, but when additional authors weren’t available, Dunn says, “Zak was one of the first people we asked and he accepted and we’re featuring him solo.”
Authors whose voices we need to hear
The opening-night celebration on June 17 has two parts that Dunn and Hjulstrom say are vital. One is honoring the young writers from Nantucket High School who work with authors that the festival brings in at other times in the year.
The second will be a talk with three authors on the idea of connection, described as “the transformative power of words to inspire, illuminate, educate and connect us to each other through our shared humanity.”
Qian Julie Wang, Mitchell Jackson, Azar Nafisi to be featured
Featured will be short talks by authors featured elsewhere in the weekend: Qian Julie Wang (“Beautiful Country,” an acclaimed coming-of-age memoir about an undocumented immigrant living in poverty in America); Mitchell Jackson (winner for feature writing of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize and National Magazine Award whose “Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family” is about his youth in a small black neighborhood in Portland, Oregon) and Azar Nafisi (bestselling “Reading Lolita in Tehran” author whose “Read Dangerously” is about the power of storytelling).
The overall theme of the event is “intimate strangers,” Dunn says, based on how readers and writers are connected, even though they don’t know each other. “What we’re trying to do is connect people through the messages that these books bring.”
Dunn describes Wang’s book as “a testament to the power of listening to the immigrant voice,” Jackson as a writer who “has become a real social justice advocate” and Nafisi as focusing her book on “writers who are witnesses to history and to truth and the damages of totalitarianism, which I think is on all our minds, (and who are) writers that we really need to listen to.”
The participating writers, too, Dunn says, fit into that category.
Local authors include Nancy Thayer, Natalie Jacobson, Steve Shepherd, Kyleigh Leddy
In addition to Philbrick, other area writers will be speaking, including Nantucket’s Nancy Thayer with her new beach read “Summer Love,” and Skip Finley from Martha’s Vineyard on his “Whaling Captains of Color.”
The morning of June 19 is devoted to local writers, including former Boston TV news anchor Natalie Jacobson with her “Every Life a Story: Natalie Jacobson Reporting” memoir; Steve Shepherd with his “Nantucket Nocturne: A Winter’s Idyll” mystery; and summer resident Kyleigh Leddy’s story of family mental illness, “The Perfect Other: A Memoir of My Sister.”
In addition, more than 30 authors from Nantucket and New England will gather under a garden tent on June 18 to talk with readers about their books.
Contact Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll at [email protected] Follow on Twitter: @KathiSDCCT.