WORDfest 2012 at Wharton’s The Mount

May Become A Yearly Event

By: - Sep 25, 2012

It started on a delightful note with a Literary Laughs Evening on Friday, September 14. Kevin O’Hara read from his hilarious A Lucky Irish Lad and The Last of the Donkey Pilgrims.  We encountered him repeatedly throughout the festival, and listened to other Irish stories of wry humor.

Alison Larkin performed passages from her bestseller, The English American. She has turned her journey to find her American biological parents into a comedy program, and is currently also writing the screenplay for a movie. Oddly enough, Larkin has ended up raising her children in the Berkshires. How wonderful!

The evening and following cheese and wine reception was attended by more than 200 people. We chatted with several friends and new acquaintances, and the first book signing got underway, which was a very good omen for the days to follow. Susan Wissler, the Executive Director of The Mount, was very encouraged. She admitted to me at some point that only 20 people had signed up by Friday.

Wissler and Christine Triantos, the Festival Director, were still standing and smiling at the end of the three day celebration. In fact, participants, writers and poets, staff and volunteers and attendees seem to have had a wonderful time and all contributions were often gratefully acknowledged.

Of course, such an event takes many months to prepare and a commitment by board members and advisors; then individual donors and foundations had to be identified. WordFest, hopefully in the future a yearly event, is a perfect fit for the National Historic Landmark and scheduling a weekend after the cultural summer storm in the Berkshires has subsided, makes good sense.

Saturday and Sunday started with Books and Bagels at 9 am, readings by Berkshire Poets and Writers followed, free, on the terrace of the Wharton Mansion, and ended late in the afternoon. Individual panel discussions (@ $ 25/ea plus weekend passes available) were scheduled under a two story high, opaque tent in the Forecourt, with approximately 100 chairs set up for the audience. At least a couple of panel presentations had a full house.

Our morning on Saturday began with In Conversation: Adam Gopnik with Kate Bolick. These two writers shared animated stories. Bolick, the best interviewer all weekend, was well prepared. Gopnik is a longtime New Yorker writer and has heard criticism over time that he’s always writing about his children. His answer: ‘Why’s not everybody writing about children.’ He spent years living in Paris and London with his family, while writing for the New Yorker. What lucky fortune! 

Among his books are: Paris to the Moon and The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food. He utters his sentences as carefully as he writes. Here are a couple of memorable quotes: ‘If you are writing for a magazine, you are not writing into the void.’ And, when writing a piece: ‘A left turn into traffic must be sustained, otherwise keep the idea for a book.’ Indeed, food for thought for all writers and readers.

Bolik, on the other hand, suggested to ‘Claim a story now.’ She had entertained a party with musings about Facebook and Death and two people encouraged her later that she must write about it, and so she did! She’s currently working on her first book. Meanwhile, she’s a contributing editor for The Atlantic, her recent cover story: All the Single Ladies may become a TV series.

The next conversation: Matthew Pearl with Joe Donohue, the radio personality, would have been a lively hour, with Pearl having to match Donohue’s energy. Twice, substitute panel moderators did their best, when Donohue cancelled due to an emergency. Pearl’s subdued demeanor, note that he studied law, only proves that successful book authors come in many stripes. He is the author of The Dante Club, for which he has been on international book tours, and admitted that he wrote the book in secret. I found his candor refreshing that he was too intimidated to apply for fiction writing classes during his student times at Harvard University.

He’s become an accidental and very successful writer, who still seems to be stuck with his subject matters in the 19th century, as he put it. His other books are:  The Last Dickens, The Poe Shadow and his newest publication, The Technologists is now on my ‘Must Read List.’ The subject centers on early technology, application of science to our lives, Harvard University and MIT beginnings with founder Roger Barton. (I spent formative years of my adult life at MIT.) Pearl is currently writing The Buccaneers, a chase for a novel around the world by 19th Century literary bounty hunters.

From Insider to Informant: Conveying Culture Through Literature brought us in proximity to writers, who search out really tough settings. Suketu Mehta ‘befriended’ fanatic religious killers and contract killers in India for his book, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. We were later exploring the moral difference - if there is such - between killings and murders and came to no conclusion. The Indian court system does not differentiate. All killings are treated as murders, if they can be prosecuted.

Roxana Robinson’s research led her to drug dens and dangerous looking hidden away AA-meetings for hard core drug addicts. She was welcomed to observe and has received gratitude from addicts or former addicts, who struggle daily with their destructive needs. Robinson has written with respect and admiration about them.  Among her eight books are, Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life and This Is My Daughter.

Gopnik also participated in this panel, which was led by Harold Augenbraum, the Executive Director of the National Book Foundation and presenter of the National Book Awards. His several publications center on Latino literature in the US.

Mary Jo Salter was the featured poet under the tent. She read light or thoughtful poems from her 2008 book A Phone Call to the Future, such as 'For my Daughter' and 'Rickety Dignity of Furniture.' The final poem 'Unbroken Music,' in several parts, came from her recent publication as editor of The Selected Poems of Amy Clampitt.

Salter spoke about The Amy Clampitt Fund, which has partially made this WordFest possible. She and Karen Chase are caretakers of the foundation. Clampitt’s husband left the Berkshire house in 2001 after his death available to residencies for one or two Poetry Fellows yearly. Clampitt, a revered poet, published her first poetry book at age 63 and by the time of her death at 72, her oeuvre had grown to six volumes.  Salter remarked, that they never know the age of the selected poets, who arrive at the Clampitt House and she is moderately optimistic about the future of poetry in America.

How many poetry books were actually sold at WordFest that weekend? Generally speaking, a good number of participants lined up at each book signing.

John Berendt, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1995, started out reading a story about rat poison! He is the author of the international bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, his first book, for which he moved temporarily to Savannah, Georgia. On location, he seeks to penetrate the people, to find the real stories and details for his books; the freaks, outcasts and oddballs. In case of Savannah, the most interesting life happens on and around the city squares.  Berendt, a New Yorker, now owns a townhouse in New York, which the Clint Eastwood movie afforded him. The true story is still the book!

Berendt moved to Venice, in search of writing his second book there, The City of Falling Angels, which chronicles lives and activities of newcomers, many Americans, and Venetians alike. The centerpiece in the book, in fact he’s slowly solving the puzzle: Was the fire of the Fenice Opera House accidental or set to ignite? By chance, Berendt arrived in Venice three days after the fire.

I discovered the book and devoured its content a few months after we had been to Venice and the Venice Biennale in 2008 and urged Charles to read it. Now, I will borrow his copy of Midnight and he will first read Falling Angels. Berendt signed both of his newly purchased books at WordFest.

The author’s current interest is New Orleans, where he has rented an apartment in the French Quarters. As he said, he is drawn to eccentrics and eccentric cities and New Orleans fits the bill! Berendt held up a little yellow book (currently No. 14), where he notes interesting encounters to advance his plots. During Q & A I asked him to read a few lines from his entries. He did, typically New Orleans, he remarked with apology.

The evening relaxation began with Music After Hours: Jazz and Funk performed by the Zack Cross Quartet and Jessica Freeman, when participants settled down with a glass of wine on the terrace.

Arriving early Sunday morning, we happened to sit next to Marianne Swenson and her friend Terri Smith and started to talk. Swenson, who lives in Natick, near Boston, had so enjoyed the first WordFest in 2010 that she became a donor for this literary weekend. She urged her friend Terri, in Albany, to attend as well and so the two met in the middle, enthralled as the program continued to unfold.

Take Me There: The Power of Place was the title of the first discussion, with approximately 50 in attendance. Nancy Novogrod, the moderator, discussed Wharton’s work, who wrote about the rich and famous of her time in delicious details. Wharton felt as an outsider here and in Europe, and so observed keenly. A couple of the panelists admitted to watching programs of the same 1 % today, their lifestyles and houses. Of course, only for research!

Mary Morris’s remark: ‘Every Bottle of wine tells a story as you drink it,’ if one considers the wine’s history and place, my thought, yet it is a fabulous metaphor. John Berendt spoke again about the film In the Garden of Good and Evil and that it does not capture Savannah very well. A response was: A picture is not worth 1000 words.

Claire Messud has set her books and characters, such as The Emperor’s Children and When the World Was Steady, on different continents, where Place must be clearly in the author’s mind. ‘I come from a homeless lot, where your place is your family,’ she said. Her background is French-Algerian and eventually the family settled in America.

Francine du Plessix Gray was interviewed by Angeline Goreau. Plessix Gray’s books include: The Queen’s Lover; At Home with the Marquis de Sade: A Life; Lovers and Tyrants, and she can also be read in the New Yorker. Plessix Gray subjects are women and men, who had to reinvent themselves, which is a matter in her own life. In, Them: A Memoir of Parents, she chronicles growing up painfully with famous parents. Her own family background, which is Russian and French, informed her family and historical research for her publications. She also confessed having become an accidental writer.

Her interviewer, Angeline Goreau, presented her biographer’s side throughout the conversation. She is also a critic and essayist and among her books The Whole Duty of a Woman: Female Writers in Seventeenth-Century England points to her own interests.

The Conversation: Heidi Julavitz with Kate Bolick was zany and smart. Julavitz  being the one with eccentric taste as in The Vanishers, which references the Salem Witch Trials. She has researched psychic self defense, psychic power, all encompassing psychic with possible physical effects. Her other novels, The Mineral Palace, The Effect of Living Backwards, however also speak to her serious commitments as a writer. She is a founding editor of The Believer, a digital magazine, dedicated to writing and criticism, which has already been online for 10 years!

Julavitz also participated in the last discussion, A Sense of Menace, with Matthew Pearl, Gerald Elias and moderator Jonathan Santlofer. Again, she was the delightful wild card in the conversation. The best mystery, crime, ghost story or zombie writers are the ones, who use a template over a structure and not a formula, was confirmed by all panelists. Elias left parts of his music world behind, disillusioned. He was a violinist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and has since written award-winning Daniel Jacobus mysteries, which, of course, take place in the classical music sphere. Santlofer, is a well-known artist and writer. Among his books: Anatomy of Fear.

Of the 16 Berkshire poets and writers I had the chance to hear only two. During my visits, the audience was small. Clearly the downstairs competition was more enticing. There should be a way for future planners to integrate the Berkshire authors cohesively and so allow for more listeners.

The year-round bookstore carries the current Sept/October issue of Vogue Magazine, which contains a story and four double-page photo layouts by Annie Leibovitz. Wissler had contacted Vogue in January and proposed a historical storyboard about Edith Wharton and friends. She received a call on June 1st and on June 12th Leibovitz with crew and artists descended on The Mount.

Given, that only 20 guest passes had been sold by Friday evening, at the beginning of WORDfest, the total of nearly 600 attendees is a remarkable result. Visitors came from Boston and New York and the writers arrived from around the country. Wissler is very encouraged, it takes years to build a large audience, we agreed. All at The Mount are ready to get to work on WORDfest 2013.