The Mount Hosts Its Second WordFest

The Literati Gather in the Berkhires

By: - Sep 17, 2012

On Sunday afternoon, wrapping up the weekend long, second, WordFest at Edith Wharton’s The Mount, in Lenox, Mass., the foundation’s director, Susan Wissler was both exhausted and elated.

“WordFest has been a great success” she said. “Moving it to the forecourt of the house has made an extraordinary difference. There has been a great flow of traffic with people attending panels and then making their way up to the terrace for coffee or to hear the Berkshire writers on the porch. They could go down into the gardens for a moment of mediation and then drift back into the panels. It opened it up wide.”

There had been a two year hiatus before this second WordFest. The first WordFest, a three day event, held during high season, presented a learning curve. The readings, interviews and panels occurred in several locations and often overlapped. There were golf carts ferrying people from the Stables down to the house, for readings on the porch, and a large tent set up in the gardens. The scheduling entailed tough choices to be here or there.

Also, during high season, it was challenging to draw enough attendance to balance costs. A rainy spell didn’t help walk up ticket buyers.

We asked Wissler about this year’s bottom line. “I think we ran between a hundred and a hundred and fifteen for each of the big panel discussions” she said. “To be honest, I’m very pleased with the numbers. I’m not sure we met our expenses but with most literary festivals it’s private support that closes the gap. We do it for love not for money. It worked, and I must say, I haven’t heard a single complaint. Just positive things. Moving it down to the house this time made a big difference because everything was within a two minute walk. The last time we had sessions competing against each other and this time we programmed back to back which kept audience size more robust.”

Funding is critical but Wissler stated optimistically that “My goal is to make WordFest an annual event.”

Author Roxana Robinson was among the advisors. As the last visitors drifted off from the final panel she thanked Wissler for hosting “A house party. It has been a great experience to come up with a list of writers you would want to spend a weekend with, here in the Berkshires, at Wharton’s home.” The participants were housed nearby at Blantyre, a country house hotel with 21 guestrooms, set amidst 117 acres of lawn and woodlands.

During panels the participants often referred to dinner conversations from the night before. In addition to sharing insights with the audience, there was considerable networking among the writers.

Which, of course, is entirely in the spirit of Wharton, which provided a connecting thread, and reference in the dialogues. These talking points ranged from Wharton’s taste in architecture, gardening, interior design, and entertainment; to her global travel, issues and causes. Her literary diversity informed many panels which included quotes and references to her writing particularly a pleasure in ghost stories.

During the first WordFest several sessions were built around Wharton. This time, while no explicit sessions were devoted to exploring Wharton, the great author was a subliminal presence and ever apt metaphor. Her influence seemed gracious and natural.

Indeed, it was a house party for all of us, including the audience, as well as the assembled literary luminaries.

Most pervasively one imbibed and reveled in the love of books and literature. What a rare and stunning experience to feel utterly surrounded, not just by New Yorker subscribers and contributiors, but by so many who could quote chapter and verse from notable articles and authors. Just to be an avid reader provided access to a deliciously witty, weekend in the country.

Each session was followed by book signings. I waited my turn to have Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The City of Falling Angels inscribed by John Berendt who appeared to be doing a brisk business.

The man in front of me, with a French accent, proved to be a tedious bore. He was insisting that the author sign newspaper ads and even the WordFest brochure. With an odd and annoyed glance Berendt complied. I then observed this Gallic bounder repeating the stunt over and over; getting every author in sight to scribble something on a scrap of paper.

No doubt today they are all posted for sale on E Bay.

Like the hucksters who foist kids on ball players to get signatures.

The athletes have wised up and save their John Hancocks for autograph shows.

When I showed my treasures to Astrid she already read The City of Falling Angels and had urged me to as well.

One approaches a literary festival like a sponge soaking up all of that juicy wisdom. Mostly, I let it wash over me, while Astrid took notes for a more detailed report.

The pictures, which I snapped intently, will last far longer than my ability to recall so many nuggets of wisdom.

Berendt succinctly dissected the difference between words and images. His publisher had suggested including some images of Savannah. He was horrified to think that readers would look at them and draw conclusions about landscapes, houses, and interiors which he had described so exquisitely. He insisted that a thousand words conveyed more than a single image.

It was something he tried to explain during his brief encounter with director and eratz pundit, Clint Eastwood. How would the camera ever convey the sense of the unique squares of Savannah built around a grid of small parks? Particularly as they were surrounded by trees. He described with dismayed humor the day that a bevy of Clint's helicopters hovered above the city.

Asked about the film, separately, during two different sessions, the responses were oblique. He said that he “liked” the film but mostly for the fact that it bought him a town house in New York.

There is a rhythm to a festival. The sessions fade in and out of each other with a sense of the passage of time, season, and place. The forecourt, actually an architecture anomaly as it is not the grand entrance to the house, more like the delivery gate and loading dock,  was put to brilliant use.

The forecourt, surrounded by brick walls, was a perfect dimension to enclose a temporary greenhouse with transparent roof and walls. There was a large tarp over the top protecting us from the intense penetration of sunlight. On Saturday afternoon, during an interval of high wind, it blew off dramatically. For a time we were steamy and scorched before the arcing sun ducked down behind tall, shading trees.

In an effort to post the first report of the opening night, while the event was still in progress, we missed the first, Saturday morning session, but attended the following five, ending with jazz and cocktails on the porch.

On a previous occasion, at Williams, we heard New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik. Then he spoke about food, but this time, more about the joys and enigma of parenting and what it means to be an American living in Paris. Kate Bolick, as was also the case later with Heidi Julavits, proved to be a skilled and well informed interviewer.

Gopnik explained his mantra that it takes 10,000 hours, or six years, to establish professional credentials; be it  in law, medicine, or a Ph.D. He wrote and submitted a story once a week for six years before the first one was accepted at the New Yorker. Gopnik has been a staff writer ever since.

During one of the breaks we interacted with Bolick, a contributing editor for The Atlantic, and discussed her preparation. She was already familiar with Gopnik’s writing and caught up in depth with that of Heidi Julavits. While nicely retaining her charming persona and point of view that elided smoothly to highlight those she was conversing with.

Unfortunately, Bolick's degree of skill and understated style was not always equaled by other sessions. There was an emergency as radio commentator Joe Donahue, scheduled to interview both Matthew Pearl and John Berendt, cancelled at the last minute. The substitutes did their best when pressed into duty but Pearl, while stunningly brilliant and precocious, was often off point and needed more control and guidance. Berendt, however, is such a skilled raconteur that he could have talked with a post and held us spellbound.

As an undergraduate at Harvard Pearl thought about enrolling in a creative writing class but that entailed submitting writing samples in order to be accepted. It was a tough class to get into an Pearl backed off. Later he pursued a degree in law and has since taught literary law at Harvard Law School as well as creative writing at the arts oriented Emerson College. There he taught a course on non fiction literature just because Emerson, he said, is so poorly organized that there was nobody else to teach it.

A hastily thrown together syllabus errantly included a work of fiction which he had not read. He confused it with a non fiction, similar book by the same author. He related succeeding in squirming out of that fix when outed by a perceptive student.

During another panel Pearl described the dilemma as a young author of being pigeon holed by the sucess of your first book. He discussed writing a thumbnail bio intended to flack The Dante Club. His next two books also explored authors in The Poe Shadow and The Last Dickens. He discussed the early days of MIT the basis for a quite different subject The Technologists. 

Expanding on that theme Julavits pointed to the success of Peter Benchley's Jaws. He later struggled with publiushers and audiences to get away from writing about large, menacing sea creatures. The point was made that once literary success had been achieved (a best selling author is sufficiently rich) there is the liberty to write what you damn well please.

Julavits humorously added that after Jaws she had been terrified by sharks; such as those sighted near Cape beaches this summer. And mayonnaise. Don't ask.

The most disastrous session combined the low key, reserved, and aristocratic Francine du Plessix Gray with the manic, campy, pretentious, smothering interrogation of Angeline Goreau. She was so busy basking in the spotlight of deluded grandeur that we were allowed only glimpses of du Plessix Gray. Too often when she evoked something interesting from the author Goreau plunged back in with yet another nugget of wisdom and diverting tangent.

We would have enjoyed less of Goreau and more of the elderly and worldly du Plessix Gray. It was fascinating to hear about her mother and grandmother’s famous lovers, from the poet of the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), to her step father Alexander Semeonovitch Liberman (1912–1999) the Russian-American magazine editor, publisher, painter, photographer, and sculptor. It was moving to learn of the French governess and tutor who refused to let her meet children of her own age or eat ice cream. She started as an art student and married the renowned abstract painter Clive Gray.

The session “From Insider to Informant: Conveying Culture Through Literature,” moderated by Harold Augenbraum, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, including the panelists, Adam Gopnik, Suketu Mehta, and Roxana Robinson was riveting. Mehta discussed researching religion inspired murders of the most horrendous kind. While Robinson explored the terror of penetrating dangerous, urban drug cultures. The authors underscored the risk taking entailed in researching harrowing subjects.

As a diversion from interviews and panels we much enjoyed the often humorous and accessible poetry of Mary Jo Salter. It was a bit of refreshing sorbet providing a respite in the dense programming.

On Sunday morning. the forecourt programming started at 10 am and wrapped up after three. The day began with “Take Me There: The Power of Place” with moderator Nancy Novogrod, appropriately, the editor-in-chief of Travel & Leisure, moderating John Berendt, Claire Messud and Mary Morris. Of course, the travels of Wharton created a thread stitching together specific notions of place in contemporary literature.  Messud’s novels have been sited in greatly varying locations which reflected growing up with traveling parents who never quite planted roots. Berendt discussed choosing places- Venice and Savannah- where he enjoyed living long enough to research a novel. Currently, he commutes from New York to an apartment in New Orleans. There was an exploration of the interconnectedness of character and place.

Kate Bolick seemed particularly on top of her game with the  amazing Heidi Julavits who was, by far, the most energized and compelling dynamo and persona of the weekend. It would take a team of experts to break down and discuss her many interests and accomplishments. The insights and ideas just catapulted off her like atoms in a centrifuge. You hung on her every notion; from growing up next to a cemetery in a truly strange, Victorian, sea captain’s house in Portland, Maine, thoughts on changing generations of feminism, strange encounter with a psychic as a part of research, editing a magazine without an office. And mother. (That whooshing sound was just me gasping for air.)

Sessions tended to run a bit late so there was a thinning audience for the final, splendid “A Sense of Menace: Fears, Foes and Felons” moderated by the artist and mystery writer, Jonathan Santlofer, and a panel including Julavits, Pearl, and musician/ author Gerald Elias. Santlofer raised questions followed by equal time to each author. But, not surprisingly, it just zinged off when the ball landed in the court of Julavits. You could just sit back and listen to her for hours and hours.

When it came time for questions I asked about the process of researching and digging into very dark places and then getting back out to a state of normalcy. Is there some part of an author that is left behind? Is there a lingering and blurring process that starts to break down the integration of whole self and intact personas?

It is one of my stock questions for actors who take on dark roles. They are never really straight about giving an answer. One actor told me the role washes off like taking a shower. I never quite believed him. Others have refused to go there as the protected turf of professional secrets. I was curious to learn how authors of dark works would respond to the question. Julavits responded with a complex and detailed analogy then the moderator took another question.

Elias caught up with me as the audience thinned to a trickle. He told me that he wanted to answer my question as it relates to his career as a classical violinist.

We had interacted the day before when he spotted my Tanglewood sweat shirt. He introduced himself as a former BSO musian. Six years ago, largely through frustration with the current state of the classical musical world, he started writing his award winning Daniel Jacobus mystery series set in “the dark corners of the classical music world.”

He described the experience of performing a Beethoven symphony many times. At the end of the concert the musicians pack their instruments and wonder if there is time for a beer on the way home. Then there are the performances, more or less by rote, that excite audiences, or those that, conversely, excite the musicians more than the audience.

In particular, he explained that Aaron Copland wrote his best music while trying to be clear and accessible. When he later attempted to compose in other directions he became frustrated and quit. Eliasd described the impact of an inspiring conductor and a performance that lingers and becomes a part of you. There was a sense of his pent up energy and complex emotions now being channeled into writing.

It was a great and fruitful conversation but occured at the very end of a full and exhausting festival. We exchanged cards and e mail addresses. Perhaps we can continue the dialogue and share it with you.

That parting exchange, among so many lingering insights, will keep the flame of WordFest alive until the next time. Most of us left with a ton of reading to catch up on and contacts to follow through with.