1. Books

Authors talk about what books mean to them at BookExpo America

Published May 19, 2016


When Dav Pilkey, author of the bestselling Captain Underpants books for kids, told an audience of hundreds of booksellers and librarians at BookExpo America about his struggles with ADHD and dyslexia as a child, there was hardly a dry eye in the house. He wanted to thank that audience: "By putting the right book in the right hands, you are changing the world."

Books and their impact were the main agenda May 11-13 at BEA, the annual book industry convention that brings together publishers, authors, booksellers and librarians to celebrate, and sell, the written word.

BEA moved to Chicago's spiffy McCormick Place this year after seven consecutive years in New York City, mainly to encourage booksellers and librarians outside the Northeast to attend. American Booksellers Association CEO Oren Teicher reported that 65 percent of the booksellers who attended in Chicago had not been to BEA in at least two years. Final figures weren't available at press time, but attendance overall was somewhat lower than the 18,000 attendees in 2015, and many New York-based publishing houses sent smaller staff contingents or, in some cases, did not attend. (Big Five publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was a conspicuous absentee.) BEA will return to New York's Javits Center in 2017.

Florida authors were well represented at BEA. James Patterson won the Industry Ambassador Award for his millions of dollars in donations to libraries, schools and literacy programs. Michael Connelly was signing books one morning in the Hachette booth, where images of the cover of his upcoming Harry Bosch novel, The Wrong Side of Goodbye, were on prominent display. And Carl Hiaasen, whose fall book is Razor Girl, was one of the featured authors at BookCon, the one-day fan event that followed BEA, with more than 7,000 attendees.

As always, one of the great pleasures of BEA was listening to author talks and interviews. They're a great way to find out about upcoming books — and to learn a little something about their authors, and what books and writing mean to them.

Bestselling novelist Terry McMillan, whose upcoming book is I Almost Forgot About You, was part of an author panel on audiobooks. It took her a while to warm up to them, she said, but now "I love the idea that someone is telling me a story. It's a very intimate experience; it's like being read a story when you're a kid."

Colson Whitehead, whose October novel The Underground Railroad is a slightly surreal account (think Gulliver's Travels) of the journey of a 16-year-old runaway slave, said he had the idea for the book 16 years ago but only recently felt prepared to write it. Whitehead, an African-American Harvard graduate, said, "I've been stopped by cops, frisked and handcuffed in the modern-day equivalent of slave patrollers exercising their right to demand my free papers."

Acclaimed nonfiction writer Sebastian Junger, whose Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging will be published Tuesday, said books are "kind of sacred" to him. "I think they're the only thing we have that can help us radically reimagine our society."

Amor Towles' upcoming novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, is the story of a Russian count imprisoned for 32 years in a hotel room during Communist rule. Towles, who was an investment banker before he became a novelist, said, "My interest has always been the invention of psychologies, of people I have no experience with."

Florida State University creative writing professor Robert Olen Butler talked about Pearl River, his upcoming novel about "how families and war become intertwined." He said of creating fiction, "Since I'm lying about everything, inventing the whole book, the lies have to interconnect."

Veronica Roth, creator of the hugely successful Divergent trilogy for young adult readers, has a new book, Carve the Mark, coming early next year. "I have this angsty female teenage character," Roth said. "She's very angsty because, well, she's a teenager."

Canadian novelist Louise Penny, who writes a bestselling series (the latest is A Great Reckoning) about thoughtful, brilliant Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, explained that he was based on her husband: "I didn't invent this character, I just transcribed him."

But now, Penny told the audience, her husband has dementia and no longer knows who she is. "When I was growing up, reading saved me. Now writing saves me. I write and I write and I write until my terror has blown itself quite out."

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.