The Book Lovers Take Brooklyn

A Few of our Favorite Writers Prepare for the Annual Festival

Hannah Pittard (photo by Carissa Russell)

This Sunday is the eleventh annual Brooklyn Book Festival, and we can’t wait to enjoy the largest free literary event in New York City! Six amazing HMH authors are appearing: Angela Flournoy (The Turner House), Chinelo Okparanta (Under the Udala Trees), Amy Gentry (Good as Gone), Alexander Chee (Queen of the Night), Hannah Pittard (Listen to Me), and Iris Smyles (Dating Tips for the Unemployed). We asked them a few questions about Brooklyn and book readings to help you get in the mood.

Why are you coming to the Brooklyn Book Festival this year?

Angela: I live in Brooklyn, and the book festival is one of the highlights of the fall for me. It’s an opportunity to see so many of my favorite writers without leaving my home turf.

Chinelo: Because the Brooklyn Book Festival is a gathering of amazing authors from all different backgrounds, and it’s lovely to be in such a warm and all-embracing space.

Amy: As a Texas-based writer, I could not be more thrilled to participate in a festival so close to where the action is! Not to mention that it has a fantastic line-up…

Chinelo Okparanta (photo by Kelechi Okere)

Alexander: From the start, it has been a place for me to go and see my friends and check out what is happening with the literary magazines — the panels are great but I’m always really there for the stalls, personally, and the conversations I have there in the merchant stalls.

Hannah: I’m on a panel with the insanely talented Manuel Gonzales, who happens also to be my colleague at the University of Kentucky. We’ll be talking about mishaps and disasters in fiction, but I think hijinx and hilarity will ensue…

Iris: I am coming to the Brooklyn book festival because I wrote a new book and want it to sell in order that I’m able to write and sell my next book.

What are you excited to see and do there besides your own panel?

Angela: One of the best parts of the festival for me is the unplanned sightings and run-ins I have with authors I admire, and friends I haven’t seen in years. I look forward to strolling the book fair and seeing both new and familiar faces.

Chinelo: Barring conflicts in scheduling, I’m looking forward to attending the events of Imbolo Mbue, Okey Ndibe, Masande Ntshanga, Solmaz Sharif, and Jacqueline Woodson, all very beautiful writers.

Amy: There are so many amazing authors at the fest that I’m having a hard time deciding. Libba Bray (on the “Magic and Mayhem in New York” panel) is one of my all-time favorite authors to hear in person. She’s full of divine wisdom and is, moreover, a complete and total hoot. Tessa Hadley, who wrote the quietly astounding book The Past, makes the “A House Is Only a Home” panel unmissable for me. Add in the horror panel with Joyce Carol Oates and Marjorie Liu (“Hearts of Darkness”) and the panel on diversity in science fiction with Catherynne Valente (“Not So Generic”), and I’ll have to split into four or five Amys to see them all. This could get interesting.

Alexander: The conversation between A.O. Scott and Jackie Woodson, for sure. And then the poetry panel, with Camille Rankine, Ocean Vuong, Monica Youn and Rickey Laurentiis, that is going to be heaven. Also the Octavia Butler panel with Daniel José Older.

Hannah: We have an amazing independent bookstore here in Lexington, but one of my favorite things to do in Brooklyn is visit all its bookstores. I’ll also be consuming as much great food and as many good cocktails as the city will allow…

Iris: I’m excited to see my books for sale and talk to people about my books and about how they should buy them.

What’s your relationship to Brooklyn? Do you have a favorite part or place?

Angela: Besides my apartment, where I do a lot of very valuable sleeping, I love all of Brooklyn’s parks. Prospect and Fort Greene parks are my favorite.

Chinelo: I began my love affair with Brooklyn by making regular visits to my friend’s place on Henry Street. I didn’t know until recently that the Haagen Dazs on Montague is the first ever Haagen Dazs in the country. Once, when my phone died, because I had been traveling all day to see my friend, the clerk allowed me to charge my phone there. (I’m an ice cream addict). My favorite street in Brooklyn just might be Montague, which if you follow leisurely, leads to the promenade.

Amy: My relationship to Brooklyn is one of visiting many friends there over the years and envying their artsy, literary, city-proximate-yet-cozy lifestyles. Austin is a wonderfully literary town, with four MFA programs and numerous indie presses and lit mags; yet deep down, we all feel a bit on the margins of the publishing world. Brooklyn has always held a fascination for me as a kind of alternate life I might have had, if I’d chosen a slightly different and more direct path to publishing. That said, I’m usually pretty exhausted after a visit (but very well-fed — any hip little farm-to-table restaurant or bakery is basically my favorite place in Brooklyn, for the duration of a meal).

Alexander: I lived in Brooklyn for about ten years — mostly in Park Slope but also Williamsburg and Fort Greene. I wrote my first novel there, in Park Slope, on 7th between 14th and 15th, from 1995–2001. I made friends I still have. When I lived there I loved the bookstores, the yard sales, the neighborhood bars — it isn’t really the same now, but what is still there are the parrots of Greenwood Cemetery, this community of abandoned, lost and runaway tropical birds that have found each other and stays warm in the crypts there in the winter.

Hannah: I love WORD Bookstore and Greenlight Books. I’ll definitely be visiting each a few times.

Iris: My favorite places in Brooklyn are all the places in which my books are for sale.

What’s your favorite part of book festivals or readings in general?

Angela Flournoy

Angela: The best thing about a festival is how easy it is to fall in love with a new writer or book. You go to a panel on a topic that sounds interesting, or to see an author you’re already familiar with, and you might walk away enchanted by someone else who was on that panel, thereby opening up a new world.

Chinelo: Disappearing into the crowd. It’s always a lovely crowd.

Amy: Good as Gone is my debut novel, so every part of doing readings and book festivals is shiny and new to me! I think my favorite part is just being invited to the conversation. I was a book journalist and English PhD first, so imagine a lifetime of writing and talking about other people’s books — and then one day getting to talk about your own. It’s heaven.

Alexander: Meeting the readers. Writing a novel is like making a world you can never really visit the way they can, and they come and tell you stories about it. I especially like hearing what people did while they were reading my novels.

Hannah: The best part about any festival is being a member of the audience and catching up with friends.

Iris: My favorite part of readings and book festivals in general are when people buy my books.

Alexander Chee

Do you have a funny story or special experience from one?

Angela: It’s always fun to be on panels with humor writers. It’s an immediate challenge — either you bring the jokes or expose yourself to being the butt of them. I generally choose to bring the jokes. 
Chinelo: My first time at the Brooklyn Book Festival, I met Edwidge Danticat (whom I absolutely adore) and she gently pinched my cheek and told me how much I reminded her of her younger self, owing to our baby faces. It’s my best festival moment to date. I love her writing, but beyond that, I find that she is an amazingly intelligent and warm and kind and generous person.

Amy Gentry

Amy: At every reading I’ve done so far, there’s been at least one person from my past I wasn’t expecting to see — a best friend from 3rd grade, my freshman roommate at college, my first high school boyfriend. Eventually I’ll run out of surprise visitors, I suppose, but in the meantime, there’s a special, heart-squeezing feeling that comes when I catch a glimpse of a face I thought I’d never see again. I cannot tell you how touching I find it that people are willing to travel long distances — and in some cases, it feels like time travel, too! — just to show their support of me and my novel. That will never get old.
Alexander: At last year’s Brooklyn Book Fest, on the Center for Fiction panel, I was surprised to find myself crying during an essay I was reading, a passage about my late father. He’s been gone about 33 years now, but grief is a funny thing. I was so embarrassed — it is just awkward to cry during your own reading — but everyone there was so kind. The toughness of Brooklyn audiences can get a lot of attention, but I would say the kindness is real too — the kindness you can find in Brooklyn is a great thing.

Hannah: At my reading in Cleveland I was taken to task by the host (in the sweetest way possible) for my less than generous portrayal of the Ohio highway systems in Listen to Me. In general, my rule for readings and panels is to start as many fights as possible!

Iris Smyles

Iris: The last time I was at the Brooklyn Book Festival, my first novel Iris Has Free Time had just come out. In it, there is a scene at the Brooklyn Book Festival in which “Iris” an aspiring writer, meets an alcoholic memoirist at the Brooklyn Book Festival and goes with him on a drunken spree and later smokes pot with him in a bar bathroom. The last time I was at the Brooklyn Book Festival, an aspiring writer told me how much she admired my novel moments before she spotted the alcoholic memoirist on whom I based my character of the alcoholic memoirist. She did not know he was the alcoholic memoirist on whom I’d based the character of the alcoholic memoirist in my novel, and ran over to him. They disappeared for a time. Later she returned, cloudy eyed, excitedly confessing to me that she’d just smoked pot with the alcoholic memoirist.