Florida-favorite authors Michael Connelly and Kelley and Thomas French draw crowds at Festival of Reading

Photo taken at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading 2016.
Photo taken at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading 2016.
Published November 12 2016
Updated November 12 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — In a packed auditorium at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, a crowd of hundreds grew antsy as it waited to hear from three of the marquee authors at Saturday's Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading.

Their books are about completely different subjects, but the festival was buzzing to see them on stage.

One book, Juniper, tells the story of a child born at just 23 weeks and was written by Kelley Benham French and her husband, Thomas. They are former writers for the Tampa Bay Times, and the journalists' nonfiction book about their daughter has drawn rave reviews.

Festival attendees seemed equally enthused to hear and meet Michael Connelly, a famed crime fiction writer whose latest work, The Wrong Side of Goodbye, returns to a familiar character, the aging detective Harry Bosch.

The Frenches took the main stage first, followed by Connelly, while roughly 30 other authors read passages and gave speeches across the downtown campus.

"It's such a great event that the only problem is: there are too many people I want to see and I can't get to all of them," joked Sandy Clenney, of St. Petersburg.

Connelly — who moved to Florida when he was 12 — guessed that the crowd there to greet him was one of the biggest groups he has seen during his travels. When asked by a member of the audience how much he sees himself in his character Bosch, Connelly said not much.

Though, of course, it depends on what book you're talking about: he's written about 20 on the character.

The texts Harry gets from his daughter are much like the ones Connelly gets from his own daughter, he said.

"Parenthood makes you join a big group of people who hope for a better world," Connelly said.

The Frenches, meanwhile, were welcomed by a crowd that included former colleagues, friends and even the nurses who saved their daughter's life when she was born a "micro preemie" in St. Petersburg.

Their daughter Juniper — who was also the focus of a series of stories in the Times called "Never let go" — was born weighing about 1 pound, 4 ounces.

Click here to read the Frenches' heart-wrenching story of fighting for their daughter's life

That's about the weight of their memoir, Benham French said.

"At its heart, it's a love letter to our daughter," she said of the book. "We wanted her to know how strong she is, and how hard she fought, and that no one gets through this life alone."

The Frenches fielded questions about what it was like to write one book as a couple — the process has it's ups and downs, they said -- while Connelly's fans pressed him for answers about what they could expect next from their favorite characters.

He said he has a new character and book in the works and that the next season of "Bosch," a TV program based on his novels, could come out as early as the second week of March. And even though the eponymous character just turned 66, Connelly promised fans that they would never see the grizzled detective fighting crime in an assisted living facility.

The festival brought book lovers together from across the region, with standing-room-only crowds and people willing to wait 30 minutes or longer for a chance to meet their favorite writer. For those like Carole Baird, who waited for Connelly's autograph, the annual festival is a can't-miss event.

"As soon as I know the dates, I block out my schedule and make time to come," said the 66-year-old Baird, of Hudson. "I love to read and it's an amazing festival."

Times Staff Writer Anthony Cormier contributed to this report. Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] Follow @sara_dinatale.