ST. PETERSBURG — She wore blue jeans and a maroon blouse and her long, reddish-brown hair barely hid the dime-sized peace symbols that hung from her ears. She sat in the fourth row, rapidly chewing a piece of gum, and explained to the woman two seats over why she preferred hearing from writers of nonfiction rather than novelists.
She liked to learn about the research and the reporting, the process required to tell a true story well. Her friend seemed to agree. The woman checked her pink-encased iPhone and chatted with another neighbor.
Outside of that ballroom in the University of South Florida St. Petersburg's student center, thousands walked around the campus and nearby streets amid a postcard-worthy fall afternoon. They bought books and ate kielbasa and soaked in the collection of literary talent that had once again descended on the city. Saturday marked the Tampa Bay Times' 21st annual Festival of Reading, and it included a schedule of more than 40 authors. Since morning, the lines at tents and for book signings stretched long.
But as 12:30 p.m. neared, the woman in the fourth row wrapped a baby-blue shawl around her shoulders and waited, along with more 100 others, to hear from a writer of nonfiction.
Then to the stage came David Finkel, a MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize winner. A tall screen behind him displayed the image of the front cover of his latest book, Thank You for Your Service. The acclaimed work is a sequel to his 2009 The Good Soldiers, which chronicled an infantry regiment's deployment to Iraq.
The woman's eyes fixated on him. She creased the program and slipped it under the book on her lap, Gilbert King's Pulitzer winner Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, The Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.
Finkel opened with a joke, an embarrassing incident experienced during the course of reporting that he mentioned, perhaps, to lessen the weight of what he would say next.
The woman laughed and kept chewing.
He then spoke about Adam Schumann, who had been in combat for nearly 1,000 days when Finkel met him. He talked of Schumann's nausea and shame, not pride, as he boarded the helicopter that began his trip home. He showed his picture on the big screen. He read the beginning of his book: "Two years later: Adam drops the baby. The baby, who is four days old, is his son... ."
People in the crowd gasped. The woman quit chewing. She pulled the pile on her lap — program, book, cellphone — into her.
Finkel went on to describe his book's characters, the damaged souls struggling to survive at home, far away from war's danger: a soldier shot in the head, subsequently unable to be near his daughter because of his inability to control impulses; a soldier who had nightmares about the one man he didn't pull from a blown-up, flaming vehicle; a soldier who, in a suicide note, told his children how proud he was of them moments before deciding he didn't want to die.
As the discussion ended, many in the crowd scurried from their seats, some to shake Finkel's hand and others to get in line so they could get his signature.
But the woman in the fourth row lingered in her chair. She began chewing. She looked at her phone and inspected the program and, at last, she stood. She walked down the stairs and through the back door. Outside, she paused, then wandered toward the water.
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @JohnWoodrowCox