IN CONVERSATION WITH THE 2014 PEN/FAULKNER AWARD WINNER
This was a Q & A session with Karen Joy Fowler, author of the award-winning novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Her book is about the long-term effects of a human/chimpanzee twinning experiment (I reviewed it last December, and you can read my review here).
To get the session started, Fowler read an excerpt of her book—the prologue and first page of the first chapter. Here is a video of her reading (my apologies for the poor sound quality—we were in a very large room in an old, marble-filled courthouse):
Fowler answered questions posed by the Executive Director of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation (who, in a very small-world coincidence, was in Teach for America with me in South Louisiana).
On how she got the idea to write the book:
On her use of an unreliable first-person narrator:
The issue of the book is the blurred line between what is human and what is nonhuman. Having her first-person narrator withhold information from the reader at the start of the book allowed her to make this argument more persuasively. Fowler was able to control the story. Rosemary’s unreliability is based on the truth about memories: they simply aren’t always trustworthy (Fowler told a story about describing one of her very vivid memories . . . only to be told that it didn’t happen that way or in that place or even to her).
On the character Harlow, Rosemary’s rowdy friend:
Fowler teaches her writing students about “character templates”—characters that are distilled down to their essence—which she likes to use in her novels occasionally. Some of her examples of “character templates”:
- Eeyore (“He doesn’t think anything good will happen and is not surprised when nothing good happens.”)
- Mr. Toad: (“He thinks very highly of himself for reasons that are opaque to everyone else.”)
And Harlow? “Harlow is the Cat in the Hat, the bringer of chaos.”
My main takeaway from this session: Karen Joy Fowler is one smart lady. Upon leaving, my husband said to me, “She’s the kind of person I’d want to be stuck at a dinner party with. She’s incredibly unassuming but very smart. And she has this very quick, dry wit.” All true.
WHAT’S THE POINT OF BOOK REVIEWS?
On Saturday afternoon, my husband and I hit up a panel discussion on book reviewing. The room was filled with a very vocal group of book bloggers and self-published authors.
On the panel (from left to right):
Lev Grossman: chief book critic and lead technology writer for TIME magazine and author of the bestselling Magicians Trilogy (The Magicians, The Magician King, and the recently released conclusion, The Magician’s Land )
- Valerie Boyd: she teaches review-writing at UGA and is the author of the critically acclaimed Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston
, which won the Southern Book Award
- Kate Tuttle: a book critic for The Boston Globe and a Board member of the National Book Critics Circle
- Parul Kapur Hinzen: she is a fiction writer and arts journalist, whose essays and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, Newsday, The Wall Street Journal Europe, Guernica, Esquire, GQ, ARTnews, The American Book Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
- Tray Butler: a book reviewer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Some of the topics discussed:
- The difference between professional reviews (like theirs) and amateur reviews (like mine):
- Lev: “All professional reviewers read book blogs and take them very seriously. There’s not a distinction.”
- Valerie: “The democratization of book reviewing [like on Amazon and Goodreads] enriches the conversation.”
- What makes a good book review:
- Lev: “I’m less interested in aesthetic opinions of books. Opinions are pervasive; we’re soaking in opinions. I try to think of a book review as a story about reading, which is normally a very solitary experience.”
- Valerie: “The best critics don’t tell us what to think, but what to think about.”
- Lev: “A good book review makes you a better reader.”
- Writing bad reviews:
- Tray: “Negative reviews are easy; it’s harder for me to write a positive review.”
- Valerie: “Nobody sets out to write a jacked-up book . . . There’s a real human being on the other end of that book.”
- The process of writing a book review:
- Kate, Parul, and Valerie all take copious notes while reading a book (Kate takes her notes directly in the book; Valerie can’t write in books, so she uses post-it notes or half-sheets of paper to write her notes: “Page 71, lyrical writing”) and then write their reviews immediately thereafter, incorporating their notes and other research.
- The Amazon v. Hachette debate:
- Lev: [on being very pro-Hachette] “I’m not sure market forces are the only forces we want determining our literary choices.”
Lev and Valerie were the stand-outs on this panel. They were brilliant, engaging, and funny. Lev’s trilogy has been on my to-read list for a while. Hearing him talk convinced me that I need to read his books sooner, rather than later.
THE KITCHEN STAGE
This year was the first year the Decatur Book Festival introduced a cooking stage for cookbook authors, and I volunteered to work the stage on Sunday afternoon. I was there for several hours, watching demonstrations and assisting with book signings.
Best of all, I learned a new and very easy recipe from food blogger The Messy Baker, Charmian Christie, from her new cookbook, The Messy Baker: More Than 75 Delicious Recipes from a Real Kitchen
Here is the recipe (which I scribbled while she was cooking—for a more detailed version, buy her cookbook!). NOTE: I’ve included “PRO TIPS” throughout the recipe, which she mentioned during her presentation.
DOUBLE-STUFF ÜBER-OREO COOKIES
- 1 1⁄2 cups unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 1⁄2 cups confectioners’ sugar
- 1⁄2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2 egg yolks (PRO TIP: she suggested freezing your egg whites and using them later—for omelets or angel-food cake!)
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1⁄2 cups Dutch-processed cocoa powder (PRO TIP: you can use regular/natural cocoa powder and just add ½ teaspoon baking soda to it, which will neutralize the acidity)
For the filling:
- 1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 3 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
- A pinch of fine sea salt
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Make the cookies first!
- Use a stand mixer fitted with a paddle. Beat the butter, sugar, and salt together until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks and vanilla and beat until well incorporated and light in color.
- Sift the flour and cocoa together. Blend the flour mixture into the butter mixture (PRO TIP: she put all the flour mixture into the mixing bowl at once. To avoid the big POOF of flour and cocoa going everywhere, she covered the bowl with a tea towel and turned the mixer on at its lowest setting).
- Divide the dough in half and spoon onto plasticwrap. Form each half into a round log (about 10 inches long and 2 inches wide). Refrigerate for 2 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 325°F and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Use a knife with a thin blade to slice the dough into ¼-inch-thick rounds. Place them on the baking sheets about 1 inch apart (they will not rise or spread very much). Bake for 15 to 18 minutes–until the cookies are firm when touched in the middle. Cool on racks.
While the cookies are baking/cooling, make the filling!
- Use a stand mixer with a whisk. Beat the butter until smooth. Add the confectioners’ sugar, salt, and vanilla and beat on low speed to incorporate the sugar (PRO TIP: use your tea towel again to avoid the POOF!). Increase the speed and beat for about 5 minutes, until it’s really fluffy and almost white (the color of Oreo filling).
Now, assemble your Oreos!
- Place 1 tablespoon of filling on the bottom of a cooled cookie (PRO TIP: she used a melon baller/mini ice-cream scooper), place a second cookie on top, and gently press (PRO TIP: don’t press too hard, or the stuffing will squish out the sides. Not cute. This is also important because the cookies are fragile and will break. BE DELICATE!)
And they turned out looking scrumptious–like classier and less chemically-laden Oreos!
All in all, this year’s book festival was a resounding success: smart authors/presenters, great topics, and a fun/delicious new cooking stage.
One final note: If you’re feeling generous, you can support the Decatur Book Festival by clicking here! It is certainly worthy of your donation dollars. And, if you live in the Atlanta area, you should definitely visit the festival (and consider being a volunteer) next year!