Spreading the words: The Virginia Festival of the Book

This year's festival aims to start conversations between authors and readers. This year’s festival aims to start conversations between authors and readers.

Every March thousands gather in Charlottesville for the Virginia Festival of the Book, now in its 22nd year, to celebrate storytelling and literacy. With most events free of charge and open to the public, the festival encourages book-lovers from all over to attend readings and panels, to see some of their favorite writers up close, learn about their process and ask questions. And for authors, whose profession is largely practiced in solitude, it provides the opportunity to meet and discuss their work with their readers.

Finishing the conversation

Writer opens up about free expression
Kelly Carlin Photo: Courtesy subject
Kelly Carlin Photo: Courtesy subject

Growing up the daughter of comedian George Carlin, Kelly Carlin was always interested in writing and storytelling.

“But I really didn’t take any of that seriously until my mom’s death in 1997, which was a huge awakening,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “Truly. One of those moments where you’re like, ‘Wow, this is real. I guess I need to get on with pursuing my dreams in a serious way.’”

As a result, Carlin, 52, began writing her first one-woman show called Driven to Distraction, which was about how her childhood, so frequently disrupted by her parents’ drug use, distracted her from her true self, and the distraction continued with her own drug use and poor decisions until her mother’s death from liver cancer. When she showed the script to her dad, he was uncomfortable with the fact that it revealed things even he had not known.

“That’s kind of a big theme in the book,” Carlin says of her memoir, A Carlin Home Companion: Growing Up with George (2015). “My dad was a great truth-teller and taught me to tell the truth, and yet in our family—because of our dysfunction—we never learned to tell our truth to each other.”

She did a limited run of the show. “There was something for me about being on a stage,” she says, “…being seen and heard, having been invisible my whole life.”

Then she went on to graduate school to earn a master’s degree in Jungian psychology. There, she says, while interning as a therapist, she was able “to practice the art of creating a space, an unconditional space, for other people to have their experiences,” beautifully paralleling the cathartic space that her one-woman show had created.

After graduate school, she told her father she was working on a memoir and he expressed a similar kind of discomfort as he did with her show. Because he was also suffering from heart failure, she decided her book could wait.

Kelly Carlin, A Carlin Home Companion
Kelly Carlin, A Carlin Home Companion

“I just knew that there wasn’t an extended period of time he was going to be on the planet, and I knew my relationship with him and his comfort was way more important than me writing this book at the time,” says Carlin. “So I put it on the shelf.”

Writing and publishing the book, she says, is like finishing a conversation.

“I feel like there’s a real ending here with this book being out and that I can not only move on from my family’s story and the story of my life up until my dad’s death, but I get to let go of having to be George Carlin’s daughter kind of in a public way,” she says.

Part of her father’s legacy, though, continues through her as she serves on the board of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, and through her position there she has become acquainted with Charlottesville.

“I’m thrilled to be coming back,” says Carlin. She will discuss her work at 10am on Saturday, March 19, at City Council Chambers.—R.L.

Academic pursuits

Former electrician shines light on intellectual freedom
Jen Swann Downey Photo: Ryan Jones
Jen Swann Downey Photo: Ryan Jones

In the fictional realm, a local author’s work is also concerned with truth-telling and freedom of expression. In Jen Swann Downey’s first book, The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand, young protagonist Dorrie and her brother Marcus stumble through a magic door in their local library that lands them in the headquarters for the Lybrarians, a group that travels through time defending those under threat for what they’ve written or said.

Downey says she was inspired to write her middle-grade adventure series because, “Libraries are my amusement park and I’ve always associated librarians with being protectors of intellectual freedom.” The idea for her book began with a vision she had “of people from different times, in their burnished historical forms, sitting down together and doing something prosaic, like eating pickles, and discussing their different views,” she says.

In this fictional world, “I get to explore an issue that has always been important to me: freedom to express one’s beliefs and opinions,” says Downey. “It’s fascinating to me that we embrace that value when looking to the past, but it is much more of a challenge to honor that principle in our own lives.”

Jen Swann Downey, The Ninja Librarians
Jen Swann Downey, The Ninja Librarians

Though Downey has worked as a community organizer, electrician, lamp shade-maker and repairer of old lamps, and co-owns Carpe Donut with her husband, Matt Rohdie, she says, “Writing was there from the beginning.”

The beginning came in the form of “a little blue diary with polka dot paper on the inside,” says Downey. “I don’t know who gave it to me, but just the idea of, ‘Oh you can write in this,’” was a revelation to her.

In her early 20s, she made a misguided attempt at writing picture books, thinking it would be easy. “I typed up truly terrible, didactic stories, popped them into envelopes and sent them to publishers,” she says. “One starred some talking raisins that escaped from a grocery store.” She shakes her head and laughs as we sit in a coffee shop on the Downtown Mall.

As for who inspired her feisty, sword-wielding ninja protagonist, Dorrie, she says, “It’s hard not to write your first protagonist without having yourself in mind, drawing from struggles you remember, what affected you as a child.” Downey remembers the Vietnam War and Civil Rights strife from her own childhood, and questioning what she could do as a child. “And that informed where Dorrie started out.”

Already, some reviewers have compared Downey to J. K. Rowling. Having raised children of her own, Downey says she’s been reading Harry Potter and listening to the audiobook for 10 years. “I’d be working in some room and off in the distance there was that voice, the master at work.”

Downey will be talking to students at Walton Middle School on Thursday, March 17, and Walker Upper Elementary on Friday, March 18, and will be on the panel at the StoryFest & Pub Day for teen writers at 10am on Saturday, March 19, at Village School. Her second book in The Ninja Librarians series will be published in June.—R.L.

Playing with the past

An author’s alternative history of America
Jeffery Renard Allen Photo: Courtesy subject
Jeffery Renard Allen Photo: Courtesy subject

Professor Jeffrey Renard Allen, who joined the University of Virginia faculty last fall, stumbled on the subject of his most recent novel in a footnote. In 1998 he was reading neurologist Oliver Sacks’ book, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales, when he came across the mention of Blind Tom, or Thomas Greene Wiggins, a 19th-century pianist, and likely autistic savant, born a slave.

Song of the Shank (2014), which took Allen 10 years to research and write, follows Tom from his boyhood through his career, during which he performed for such well-known figures as Mark Twain and President James Buchanan.

But Allen is quick to point out that Song of the Shank is not a strict historical novel. “I take historical facts and use them as points of departure for my imagination,” he says. “Song of the Shank is an alternative history of America. The idea was to capture the time without sticking to strict facts of the time.”

Jeffery Renard Allen, Song of the Shank
Jeffery Renard Allen, Song of the Shank

“Elements of fantasy play in all of my fiction,” says Allen. “I’m really interested in levels of reality and how these levels are intertwined. I’m interested in what fantasy can reveal about human experience.”

Allen says he was “less interested in the period than in Tom as a character.” But the Civil War draft riots that rocked New York City in 1863 provided an “interesting parallel to Tom’s life and have not been addressed much in popular imagination,” Allen says. “A lot of fiction has been done about slavery in America but comparatively little about Reconstruction.”

Allen will speak on a panel about historic fiction at 10am on Thursday, March 17, at the JMRL Central Branch. As for what’s next, Allen has penned an essay about the Black Lives Matter movement to be published in the revamped Evergreen Review on April 7, an essay on music in a forthcoming issue of Poets & Writers, and he is working on his next novel now that he has settled into life in Charlottesville.—R.L.

Planting the seed

Historical research leads to new novel
Tracy Chevalier Photo: Courtesy subject
Tracy Chevalier Photo: Courtesy subject

Tracy Chevalier was inspired to write her latest novel, At the Edge of the Orchard (2016), by a historical figure she came across while researching the setting for her previous novel, The Last Runaway (2013). Chevalier (author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1999) tells me during our Skype call from her London home that she learned “Johnny Appleseed wasn’t quite the myth that we learned about as children.”

“We learned that he was eccentric and that he wore a tin pot for a hat and went barefoot, and he also spread apples around and told everybody to eat lots of them because they’re good for you,” says Chevalier. “And the reality is that he actually was quite a shrewd businessman and he also sold apple trees that were grown from seed.” She learned from further research that apple trees grown from seed tend to produce sour apples, which are only good for making hard cider.

“So most of the settlers he sold trees to were growing apples not for healthy reasons, but in order to make alcohol to kind of numb the pain of the harsh life they were living,” Chevalier says. “And when I read that I just thought, ‘Wow, that’s really different.’ And I had this vision of a pioneer couple arguing over apples, and one wanting apples to eat and one wanting apples to drink. And that was the basis—that was how the book began.”

From the catalyst of the argument, the characters within the marriage began to take shape, and around them, the landscape. Because of where Johnny Appleseed traveled, Chevalier knew the novel would take place in Ohio and she was intrigued by the idea of the Black Swamp, “the last part of Ohio to be settled because it was so awful.” She says the detail in her novel about inns being built in Ohio simply because that’s where people got stuck in the mud is historically accurate. “One particular road had a reputation,” she says.

Tracy Chevalier, At the Edge of the Orchard
Tracy Chevalier, At the Edge of the Orchard

The novel follows this couple, James and Sadie Goodenough, as they try to tame the land, and their son, Robert, as he leaves his family to stake his own claim in California. Chevalier writes James and Sadie in distinctly different ways. “Most of the book is third person, except for Sadie because she is such a strong character that I just felt her voice immediately and I knew that she needed to tell her own story,” she explains. Chevalier came across the English surname Goodenough in her research. She was drawn to it because “It’s a hard name to have,” she says. “All compromise. No one’s expecting too much from you.”

As this is her eighth work of historical fiction, she has by now developed a system and a rhythm. She tends to research for at least six months before putting pen to paper (yes, she actually writes her drafts by hand). For Girl with a Pearl Earring she studied Vermeer, for The Last Runaway it was slavery, for Orchard it was Ohio apple trees and California sequoias. But, she says, “characters build in her head” while she’s researching. Then, after the writing begins, “the story itself throws up questions” and she must return to research. “The story shows you what you don’t know,” says Chevalier. For Orchard, she had to stop writing to learn how to graft trees.

Writing historical fiction “is a convenient and easy way to leave myself behind,” she says. “I don’t want to write autobiographical novels. I could have written science fiction to move to another planet, or I could’ve written about other countries, but I chose to go to the past because I’m interested in my own family history. The more I learn about the past the more I learn about the present, and it makes me feel a part of something bigger.”

Chevalier will appear on the panel with Flournoy pertaining to writing about the American family on Sunday, March 20, at the Culbreth Theatre.—R.L.

Personal connection

Past and present intersect in The Turner House
Angela Flournoy Photo: Courtesy subject
Angela Flournoy Photo: Courtesy subject

Debut novelist Angela Flournoy’s inspiration for writing The Turner House (2015) came from personal experience and recent history. “I come from a big family and am interested in how that contributes to the way you think about identity, belonging and place,” says Flournoy, from her Brooklyn home. The setting of her novel is Detroit’s East Side. Her father’s family is from Detroit, and through visits there she became interested in the changes that the city has gone through during her lifetime.

When the novel opens, the oldest brother in the family of 13 has seen a haint (or a ghost) from his childhood while driving his semi-truck and it causes him to wreck. The youngest daughter has just been evicted from her apartment and tries to win rent money by playing roulette, while the family learns that their childhood home is worth less than they owe the bank, and the matriarch is no longer well enough to live there alone. The novel addresses the American dream in the face of the economic crisis and the enduring pride of place, in spite of its decline. Flournoy writes in an opening chapter that the arrival of spring reassured the youngest daughter “that the ghetto could still hold beauty, and that streets with this much new life could still have good in them.”

Angela Flournoy, The Turner House
Angela Flournoy, The Turner House

The Turner House eschews categorization as either a domestic or social problem novel. “None of us lives in a vacuum,” Flournoy says. “We all live in society and are affected by legislation and policy.”

Flournoy will appear alongside Tracy Chevalier on the panel pertaining to writing about the American family at 3pm Sunday, March 20, at the Culbreth Theatre.—R.L.

Troubled teen

Zack Bonnie tells story of abuse academy
Zach Bonney Photo: Ryan Jones
Zach Bonney Photo: Ryan Jones

As a 14-year-old, “I was an enormous pain in the ass,” Zack Bonnie admits. Still, he didn’t see it coming that his father would drive off and leave him at a boarding school for troubled teens in Idaho in 1988. Twenty-eight years later, he says he’s still dealing with the damage.

Bonnie, son of UVA law professor Richard Bonnie, wrote Dead, Insane or in Jail: A CEDU Memoir about the 30 months he spent at Rocky Mountain Academy. CEDU is a for-profit company that promised to help difficult adolescents and was founded by a follower of the man who started Synanon, a drug treatment program that became a full-fledged shaved-heads cult by the ’70s.

“Abuse was the treatment model,” Bonnie says. The facility “was acting in all ways a cult, disguised as a boarding school for teens.”

In his first few minutes after discovering his father had left, Bonnie is grabbed by the wrists, his hair is cut, and he is told to take off all of his clothes so he can be searched for drugs. He is told to bend over, just in case he is carrying contraband rectally.

He goes to a group therapy session, called a rap, which a staff member tells him is a safe environment to share private things—only those disclosures are used against the teens in shouted, profanity-laden attacks. “There were unbelievable amounts of shame attached to our program,” says Bonnie.

And the students were encouraged to rat each other out for violations of the rules, only in CEDU-speak, they’re called “agreements.”

“I was absolutely brainwashed,” says Bonnie of the behavior modification program.

It took him years to process the experience, and the decision to write about it was difficult. “I knew this was not on people’s radar,” he says. “I knew what I experienced wasn’t right.”

Zack Bonnie, Dead Insane or in Jail
Zack Bonnie, Dead Insane or in Jail

There was other fallout. “My relationship with my parents has been affected by Rocky Mountain Academy and the decision to send me there,” he says. “They were duped, they were lied to, they were defrauded out of thousands of dollars. I was harmed and they paid a cult without knowing it.”

Richard Bonnie, who is the director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at UVA, declined to comment for this article. In the book’s forward, he says his son was out of control and he and his wife were desperate when they enrolled Zack at what an educational consultant recommended as a “therapeutic school.”

“[W]e were not aware of the emotional abuse and heavy-handed behavioral conditioning Zack describes in this book,” writes his father. “I do not doubt Zack’s account of his experience or its detrimental impact on him.”

Rocky Mountain Academy closed in 2005 facing two lawsuits alleging abuse. According to the suits, parents paid $5,000 a month to have their troubled teens there. “Outsourcing the problem kids of the wealthy is a booming business,” a $2 billion-a-year industry, Forbes reported in 2002.

Bonnie says he just wanted to give an accurate account of his experience, and he wants more study of the troubled teen industry.

He’ll be discussing his work at “Hope and Criticism in the Practice of Mental Health” panel at 2pm Friday, March 18, at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library Central Branch.—Lisa Provence

Yours, mine, ours

Panel addresses the human realities of immigration
David Martin Photo: Courtesy subject
David Martin Photo: Courtesy subject

Last year, when my son was in the fourth grade, I dropped by his school to have a surprise lunch with him. Across from us at the table sat another father and son. Esteban (not his real name) is one of the kids in the group my son hangs with at school. His dad happened to be visiting that day as well.

The father was wearing work clothes, and he was covered in what looked like dust from a construction site. We didn’t do much more than smile and nod. I could barely hear my son sitting next to me, let alone the two sitting across the table. But I could tell they were talking in Spanish. Esteban had that same look my son had—self-conscious, a bit jazzed by the unusual situation, but really happy. The dad looked uncomfortable, like he felt out of place. But he was there despite his discomfort, to spend time with his son.

I don’t know if the father speaks English. I don’t know where he was born. I don’t know if he’s a naturalized American, or if he’s here on a work visa, or if he’s undocumented. But, after sitting across the lunch table, I can tell you exactly two things about him: I know he works a very hard job, and I know he loves his son.

Any time I hear politicians proposing to round up and deport 11 million people, or talking of the “rapists” coming across our border, or spewing some small-mindedness about the billion proponents of a world religion, I think about Esteban and his dad having lunch together. I mention it not because I think that my (admittedly) progressive sentimentality holds a solution to any of our political dilemmas. Recognizing a father’s love for his children doesn’t help us decide what to do about those who are here illegally. It doesn’t help us decide how many legal immigrants our country can comfortably allow, or how many refugees we should embrace. But what it can do is help us keep our humanity about us as we talk about those things. In this season of narcissism and vitriol, when knee-jerk dehumanization wins news cycle after news cycle, that little glimmer of shared humanity seems like a lifeline.

Tom Gjelten, A Nation of Nations
Tom Gjelten, A Nation of Nations

“A State of Many Nations: Immigration and the Changing Face of Virginia” will be held at 6pm on Thursday, March 17, in Culbreth Theatre (admission is free, but advance tickets are required). The panel is part of a larger Virginia Foundation for the Humanities program operating under the rubric “Humanities in the Public Square” that will kick off at the festival, but will eventually extend to events around the state. According to festival director Jane Kulow, the focus of the program is to explore the human realities of immigration in Virginia. “The idea of the program is to provide an opportunity for conversation,” says Kulow. “We want to raise questions. We may not find any easy answers, but we want to provoke a discussion that offers some chance for civility.”

The festival panel features veteran NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten, whose book A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story recounts the fraught history of immigration law in this country, and interweaves that history with the personal stories of a number of immigrant families whose lives have intersected in the burgeoning melting pot of Fairfax County. Joining Gjelten on stage will be photographer Lloyd Wolf, whose Living Diversity: The Columbia Pike Documentary Project gathers the work of a number of street photographers who are documenting the cultural ferment in the most dynamic multicultural hotspot in neighboring Arlington County. Also featured is Columbia University professor Gustavo Pérez Firmat, whose books Life on the Hyphen and A Cuban in Mayberry explore the strangeness and the richness of the life of the cultural exile yearning for and eventually building a sense of home and a sense of cultural identity.


These are beautifully humane books. Each one of them has a lot to teach us, natives and newcomers alike, about the challenges and opportunities of living together in a plural society. That’s the point the panel’s moderator, David Martin, hopes the discussion will underscore. Kulow tapped Martin to lead the panel because he’s been on the front lines of immigration law and policy for his entire career, both as a professor of international law at UVA and during multiple stints working on national immigration policy—including appointments in the State Department’s human rights bureau, in the Immigration and Naturalization Service and in the Department of Homeland Security.

The whole issue is inescapably political, especially in an election year. But Martin is quick to point out that the focus of the panel will not be law, or policy, or (thankfully) politics. “We’re not here to debate policy proposals,” Martin says. “We’re here to look at some of the human things that have happened as a result of earlier policy changes.”

These books and their authors offer a way to escape the corrosive abstractions of our political dialogue. “It’s a very diverse set of books, but I think there are some strands that hold them together,” Martin says. “Amid all the negative talk about immigration, there are a lot of positive things happening in communities and neighborhoods—stuff that doesn’t fit the pattern at all. People are adjusting and learning how to live together. Let’s focus on that.”—Lawrence A. Garretson

Book review haiku

For some of the other books being featured at this year’s festival, C-VILLE staff wrote short reviews for your reading pleasure.


Click on the link below to watch our chat with Preston Lauterbach, author of Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis, and Jon Lohman, director of the Virginia Folklife Program for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.


5:11 — Learn about Lauterbach’s main character, Robert Church, who was born a slave and became the South’s first black millionaire.

12:14 — Learn how the book’s plot evolved out of Lauterbach’s research.

13:07 — Hear how Ida B. Wells, a journalist who helped found the NAACP, “found herself” on Beale Street.

14:25 — W.C. Handy takes Beale Street to another level.

17:50 — Hear more about the Reading Under the Influence: Blues and Brews event, which takes place from 9-11pm Friday, at Champion Brewing Company.

24:35 — Learn how music first drew Lauterbach to Beale Street, a place where everything from swing to lowdown blues could be heard.

28:20 — Learn what W.C. Handy, the father of blues, and hip-hop artists today have in common.

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