Monday, September 27, 2010

What’s the Good Word from Brooklyn?

The fifth annual Brooklyn Book Festival was finally brought to a close on an overcast Sunday, September 13, at Brooklyn’s historic Borough Hall. Despite the weather, thousands of readers congregated at this geographically massive event, which spanned several blocks and occupied both state and city government buildings and the local St. Francis College. Perhaps more significant for this writer, the 2010 festival offered a greater number of crime-fiction panels than the four prior festivals. Let the good times roll!

First out of the box at a fitting one o’clock in the afternoon (leaving plenty of time beforehand for brunch) was “Poetry of the Gumshoe.” That panel discussion, held in the Borough Hall Courtroom, featured Michael Connelly (The Reversal), Gabriel Cohen (The Ninth Step), and Paco Ignacio Taibo II (The Uncomfortable Dead). It was moderated by Charlotte Abbott of Publishers Weekly. Each author read briefly from his work and then answered questions posed by the moderator or else offered up by people sitting in the packed audience.

Taibo regaled his listeners with stories of intrigue involving his co-writer on Uncomfortable Dead, Subcomandante Marcos, a member of the Zapatistas in Mexico who he keeps his identity and whereabouts well-hidden. Marcos chose to communicate with Taibo through a series of letters exacting peculiar demands on their joint writing project. Those communiqués were always delivered by mysterious men under unusual conditions. For example, a knock would come at Taibo’s door, he would answer, and a man would hand him a letter, then simply walk away. On another occasion, Marcos made Taibo (shown at left) wait well past the deadline for his next chapter, because it was arriving “by burro.”

Gabriel Cohen’s new novel, The Ninth Step, is the fourth in his series about Brooklyn South homicide detective Jack Leightner. He told the audience that part of his inspiration for that novel came in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when many of the Pakistanis who lived in his Ditmars Park neighborhood were rounded up by authorities and held temporarily in detention centers. “No one knows about this,” remarked Cohen. He then read from his book’s exhilarating first chapter and most likely won many buyers for his work that morning.

Connelly is a pro on the book-promoting circuit. His presentation that afternoon was concise and to the point. He read a section of his soon-forthcoming new novel, The Reversal, which finds defense lawyer Mickey Haller and Los Angeles police detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch joining forces to stop a child killer. Connelly’s reading came from the beginning chapters of his book, which showed his skill at mixing themes that are often the milieu of his stories: politics, criminal intrigue, and an up-tempo plot. When an audience member asked Connelly how he had created Harry Bosch, he replied that the character came “from hanging around cops” when he covered the crime beat as a newspaper reporter.

Following immediately on the heels of the “Gumshoe” panel was “Doing Time With.” That panel featured performance artist Lemon Anderson (County of Kings), defense attorney Daniel Serrano (Boogie Down), and novelist Alafair Burke (212), and was moderated by Marcela Landres. The intent of the discussion--taking place on the festival’s outdoor Main Stage--was to present authors who have either been behind bars (Anderson) or have worked the halls of justice (Burke and Serrano). A light rain developed at the outset and continued steadily. But this is Brooklyn. Listeners simply pulled out their umbrellas and sat in rapture amidst the moisture on the courthouse steps.

Burke (shown on the right, with Anderson) read an emotionally charged scene in which her fictional creation NYPD detective, Ellie Hatcher, gives notification to the family of a young homicide victim. Burke later commented that she had lost part of the material she was going to read, but no one would have guessed that. She nailed her reading as it was. Anderson chose to read a passage detailing a jailhouse character with whom he become acquainted at Rikers Island. He read his piece in a hip-hop sing-songy rhythm that blended well with the narrative of hardened men in an unforgiving setting. Serrano, meanwhile, delivered to the audience a section from his book that was at once violent and heartrending. He informed the audience that his fictional female NYPD detective, Cassandra Maldonado, was not an intentional creation but rather one who exerted her dominance during the course of rewriting his book. Burke added that she had always been a storyteller and that writing novels was a natural extension of that talent. Plenty of which she has, by the way.

The St. Francis Auditorium at 5 p.m. was the setting for one of the highlights of this year’s festival: a discussion with Dennis Lehane (Moonlight Mile) and Connelly, as moderated by Burke. The last time I had seen Lehane on a panel was in October 2001. He was being interviewed by fellow author S.J. Rozan at the 92nd Street Y, in a city that had not yet recovered from the terrorist attacks. I found him to be down-to-earth in his commentary and entertaining to listen to. He easily became my favorite panel author at this year’s festival for the same reasons. He was entertaining, funny, informative, reflective, and honest. Commenting on the writing of his new Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro novel (a long-awaited sequel to 1998’s Gone, Baby, Gone), he stated: “It was like putting on that old favorite pair of jeans ... but then discovering that you put on some weight and they didn’t quite fit the same anymore.” In response to a question about the benefits of attending a Master’s of Fine Arts program, he said: “It won’t make you a writer. You either go into the program having it or you don’t.” Lehane remarked at various times that he doesn’t suffer from writer’s block, but rather suffers “a coma” that he eventually comes out of, and it doesn’t bother him that it happens; that all writers should “write the book you want to read”; and that he doesn’t read fiction right now, only non-fiction. Echoing that last note, Connelly said that reading fiction while writing a novel was “intrusive.” He added that his reading suffers as a result of this, and that it was perhaps ironic for a writer to not be able to read.

Both authors also had several things to say about American filmmaking. Lehane mentioned that every time Hollywood has made a movie from one of his books, the studio big-wigs “wanted to change the ending,” though both Clint Eastwood (Mystic River) and Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island) went to bat for him. Connelly let it be known that he was not pleased with the 2002 film version of Blood Work and hopes to fare better when The Lincoln Lawyer is brought to the screen, with Matthew McConaughy slated to play the role of Mickey Haller.

It was still raining when I left the festival at its close. I found that a proper dénouement to a day of crime-fiction panel presentations. I knew the rain would never wash away the Brooklyn grit, or the good vibe I carried from the day.


Ali Karim said...

Fantastic write-up Tony, sounded like a fantastic event, with Lehane and Connelly! Thanks for writing up, felt like being there


Man of la Books said...

Great post, thank you very much for the great report.

Jack Reidy said...

Great write-up on the Brooklyn Book Festival. I also attended “Poetry of the Gumshoe" and liked Gabriel Cohen's reading and talk so much I read and reviewed his new book. -