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Books in Brooklyn: A-list, crowds expected at annual festival

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By AP

By Beth J. Harpaz
AP Travel Editor
NEW YORK — The Brooklyn Book Festival, scheduled for Sept. 23 and now in its seventh year, has rapidly become one of the top events of its kind in the country, with 280 writers taking part, including A-listers like Mary Higgins Clark, and crowds expected to approach 40,000.

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The festival’s success has earned it comparisons with more established book fairs in places like Los Angeles, Miami, Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, but its buzz is partly due to Brooklyn’s latest incarnation as a trendy hotbed of hipsters and artists. The borough is home to many well-known contemporary writers like Martin Amis, Jhumpa Lahiri and Jonathan Safran Foer.

As it does every year, this year’s schedule includes some writers with Brooklyn connections, like Colson Whitehead and Paul Auster, who live here; Pete Hamill, who was born in Brooklyn and is receiving an award at the event called “Best of Brooklyn, Inc.”; and Edwidge Danticat, whose fiction about the Caribbean often portrays the immigrant community in Brooklyn.

But while organizers are proud of the borough’s literary prowess, they also stress that “the Brooklyn Book Festival is in no way, shape or form just about Brooklyn,” said Johnny Temple, chairman of the Brooklyn Literary Council and head of a Brooklyn publishing house called Akashic Books.

“We go out of our way to ensure the authors we invite appeal to everyone,” said Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, one of the festival’s founders. “They include intellectuals as well as authors that have greater mass market appeal, and celebrities.”

In addition to Higgins Clark and her daughter Carol, who is also a bestselling mystery writer, other authors on the roster range from Terry McMillan and Joyce Carol Oates to Judith Viorst and Sapphire. Celebrities taking part include actor Tony Danza, whose new book, “I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had,” recalls his year teaching at Philadelphia’s largest high school, and Jimmie Walker, who starred in the TV sitcom “Good Times” and wrote a memoir called “Dyn-O-Mite.” In a phone interview about his upcoming appearance, Walker said fans who come to his book events love to “talk about the show — they grew up with it.”

The festival is also committed to programming that reflects Brooklyn’s diversity. Many events have an international flavor or explore serious themes. This year, one session focuses on African novels with child narrators and another features leading Indian writers. Two events honor the 50th anniversary of independence in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, with one curated by Jamaica’s legendary Calabash literary festival, and the other presented by Trinidad’s groundbreaking Bocas literary festival. Another seminar looks at poetry and narratives in light of the Arab Spring, while Isabel Wilkerson will talk about her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” about the 20th century migration of African-Americans from the American South to the North. There’s also an extensive schedule of children’s writers as well as writing workshops.

The festival takes place Sept. 23, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., in and around Brooklyn Borough Hall in downtown Brooklyn, but related events will be held beginning Sept. 17 in other venues around the borough.

The festival started in 2006 and quickly grew to fill a void left by the demise of an annual Manhattan book festival called “New York is Book Country.” When that event ended, Markowitz recalled, “I said to myself, ‘You know what, we’re going to pick it up and make it bigger and better than it ever was in Manhattan.’ We’re already home to so many writers, it was a natural place to launch a book festival.”

Evan Hughes, author of the book “Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life,” says Brooklyn is experiencing a “golden age” of a literary community, comparable to postwar Greenwich Village or Paris in the 1920s.

“Greenwich Village was the beating heart of literary New York at one time and in a way Greenwich Village moved to Brooklyn,” Hughes said. “I know a lot of people hear that and say, ‘Oh boy, that sounds like a lot of hype.’ But I do think those comparisons are fair. It’s sometimes hard to see the big sweep of history when you’re in it. And it’s fashionable to roll your eyes at it. But I think it was fashionable in Paris in the ‘20s to roll your eyes at it, too.”

Why do writers move to Brooklyn? Yes, real estate is cheaper than in Manhattan, though the borough has plenty of million-dollar homes and apartments. But it’s not just about paying the rent. “It’s got the brownstones and the well-preserved streetscapes, many of them from the 19th century that have a real appeal, a sense of small town within the city,” said Hughes. “The neighborhoods are very distinct from one another. The buildings don’t crowd out the sky. There’s less clamor. I think those things prove very attractive.”

Bestselling crime novelist Walter Mosley, who will appear on a panel with Danticat and Dennis Lehane to discuss their characters, said in a phone interview that he’s been to the Brooklyn event a few times and he loves the “strong sense of community.” The borough also has “such a strong identity,” said Mosley. “It’s always been a place where writers have come and worked partly because they wanted to feel anchored.”

For book-lovers who can’t make the festival, the borough is a good destination for a literary pilgrimage any time, with a long history of local writers going back to poet Walt Whitman. Whitman worked at a Brooklyn newspaper in the 19th century and his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is engraved in a waterfront railing at the foot of Old Fulton Street in Brooklyn’s DUMBO section.

Hughes says Brooklyn Heights also has a lot of interesting literary spots: W.H. Auden and Carson McCullers lived in a commune at 7 Middagh St., Truman Capote lived at 70 Willow St., and Norman Mailer lived at 142 Columbia Heights. Other residents of Brooklyn at various points included Richard Wright, Marianne Moore, Thomas Wolfe, William Styron, and Arthur Miller. Children’s writers Maurice Sendak and Ezra Jack Keats grew up in Brooklyn, as did Jonathan Lethem and Henry Miller.

For visitors looking for some fun places to hang out with the 21st century literary crowd, Hughes recommends Greenlight Bookstore, 686 Fulton St., a “terrific indie store” in the Fort Greene section, and The Brooklyn Inn bar at 148 Hoyt St., which he describes as “a favorite of the publishing community.”
 

IF YOU GO ...
Brooklyn Book Festival: Sept. 23, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Brooklyn Borough Hall, 209 Joralemon St.; www.brooklynbookfestival.org. Other events begin Monday, Sept. 17.