Last weekend was sunny and chilly for another lit-filled day at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge. As usual, the schedule was jam packed, so instead of rushing around this year, I just picked a few key things to see and took it easy. Not on the list is listening to master Ernest Gaines talk about writing, getting scoop on a “Zodiac” movie based on author Gary L. Stewart’s book and munching on gummy hot dogs in preparation for the East Baton Rouge Parish Library’s spring Big Read of A Confederacy of Dunces.
1. Life Advice From Jill McCorkle
I arrived at the festival just in time for Jill McCorkle in the Senate Chamber of the State Capitol talking about her most recent book Life After Life. Her first novel in 17 years is set in a North Carolina nursing home, and McCorkle says she got the idea 21 years ago when her father was dying. She has also struggled with her mother’s Alzheimers and so has thought a lot over the years about aging and facing death. “At the end, we basically are our memories,” she says.
She also read an excerpt from the novel that is essentially a former schoolteacher’s rant about the state of literature today. A creative writing teacher at NC State University, McCorkle says she wrote the passage after reading one too many vampire stories that day. “Where are the good old-fashioned stories of betrayal?” she asks. Asked about the state of Southern literature by a member of the audience, she said all we can do is “keep people telling the most basic stories.” She encourages oral storytelling in her classes and reminds her students about the very real stories that are already in their lives.
2. Following in the Footsteps of Solomon Northup
The main event at this year’s festival was the release of an app for the Solomon Northup Trail and live press conference with “12 Years a Slave” Director Steve McQueen and audiobook narrator Lou Gossett Jr. participating via Skype. Frank Eakin, whose mother Sue rediscovered Solomon Northup’s narrative as a child and originally created a trail of central Louisiana sites related to him, said that after the movie won an Academy Award, there was such enormous interest that he knew it was time to revamp the trail. Signs had become rusty and only a black-and-white pamphlet on the trail existed. The new app brings the trail to life, and McQueen thanked the town of Marksville for holding a public celebration for Northup last Sunday.
McQueen, who lives in Amsterdam, said he was upset with himself for not knowing about Northup’s story, especially with its similarities to Anne Frank’s, which is known so well around the world. He wanted to get the book out there and certainly accomplished that with “12 Years a Slave” but says it was his dream to make the book mandatory reading in schools. With the help of Penguin and Montel Williams, the book is now being distributed to public high schools . “Dreams can actually come true,” McQueen said.
Meeting Queen Sugar Herself Natalie Baszile
A few days before the festival, Director of the Louisiana Center for the Book Jim Davis asked if I’d want to introduce Natalie Baszile since I’d already interviewed her. Our interview was by phone from her home in San Francisco, so I was already excited about seeing Natalie in person and even more thrilled to get to introduce her. She told the story of how Queen Sugar came to be in such vivid detail and shared her own love affair with South Louisiana, the home of her father. She told how her grandmother would ship them a box of items like pralines and boudin in California each year and when she was in college she accompanied her father and grandmother on a road trip through South Louisiana. She says she just sat in the back and listened to them talk, soaking up the family stories and dialect.
In our interview in September, Natalie stressed how important it was to her to get her story of a woman who inherits a sugarcane farm in Iberia Parish “right” and pay homage to her literary heroes like Ernest Gaines. During her book festival talk, she said that in writing this book she felt a “tremendous desire to be part of the Southern literary tradition.” I think she’ll be accepted with open arms, especially since she revealed at the end of her talk that she’s looking for a house in Louisiana.