A Woman of Substance Eats a Croque-Monsieur While Sleeping Around

Unbelievably, in the 20-some odd, off and on years I’ve lived in Chicago, I’d never been to the Printer’s Row Book Fair, now known as Printer’s Row Lit Fest. 

This year, I decided to change that.

A few weeks back, I perused the scheduled events with no particular agenda, but waited to see what would catch my eye.  And what did follows:

Barbara Taylor Bradford
I’m not sure why, but I decided to register for a ticket to hear a talk from Barbara Taylor Bradford, the New York Times Bestselling author of 27 novels.  Now, I’ve never read a Barbara Taylor Bradford book or seen one of the numerous movie/TV adaptations of her books.  Yet, I thought, what the hell, she’s British, so she’ll likely be funny and/or charming and I’ll probably glean an insight or two into the craft.

The event was held in the cavernous Pritzker Auditorium at the Chicago Public Library and surprisingly, it wasn’t packed to the rafters.  All told, there were maybe about 100 people, give or take, who attended the event.  As I expected, BTB was lovely and entertaining.  She shared her writing schedule (up every day at 4:30 a.m. to edit the previous day’s work, with a stop at 7:00 to make two hardboiled eggs for her husband, then back to the typewriter until 4:00 p.m.) reveals she hoards her particular brand of typewriter, just in case they stop being made (typing on a computer give her writer’s block) and what she believes is the heart of fiction writing (CHARACTER DRIVES PLOT, not the other way around).

“A Woman of Substance” was BTB’s first novel and from what I could gather, the one she’s most well-known for.  A journalist by trade who always wanted to write fiction, BTB revealed that when she was trying to figure out what to write, she sat down with a yellow legal pad and asked herself a series of questions, the first of which was what kind of book she wanted to write.  She came up with a “traditional old-fashioned saga,” and after answering the litany of questions she’d peppered herself with, at the bottom of that page she wrote, “A Woman of Substance.” 

And thus, a second career was born.

BTB’s advice to aspiring writers is “Don’t try and write a bestseller,” because inevitably you’ll fail.  She dismisses critics who say her books rely too much on coincidences “because life is full of them.”  True.  True.

I didn’t buy any of her books today, but I do plan to check out “A Woman of Substance.”  As soon as I read the 37 books stacked next to my bed waiting like impatient children to be read.

Gillian Flynn
A happy accident was getting to attend the presentation by Gillian Flynn (that’s a hard “G” like “guilt” not “gem”).  I wanted to attend her talk, but it was sold out, though I was informed I could stand in something called a “rush line” (kind of like flying standby) and space permitting, I’d be allowed in.

I was allowed in.

Gillian Flynn’s third novel, “Gone Girl” has been getting crazy good buzz, including glowing reviews on Amazon (no sarcasm here, but it’s usually a pretty good barometer for weeding out the crap from the roses) and a love letter from the New York Times." There was a butt in every seat (about 75) and we were all rapt. Held at Grace Place, an Episcopal Church,, Gillian read a few paragraphs from “Gone Girl,” and as is usually the case with those of us attracted to the dark and ugly side of life, she was a funny, sunny, intelligent young woman. 

She classifies herself as a “highly inefficient writer,” who goes through draft after draft after draft and can be thirty pages out from the end and still have no idea “whodunit.”  What a relief from all the strict writing advice that mandates a ninety page outline before drafting a novel.  Gillian with a hard “G” had won my heart.

I was bold enough to venture a question about what authors or books inspired her in her own writing and she came back with Stephen King, Tana French, Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates (note to self, load up my Kindle with the aforementioned).  Someone else asked if she bristled at being pegged as a “mystery writer,” and she said while her books are light on procedure, unlike a lot of popular mysteries, she doesn’t mind at all being classified as such.  She was quick to point out that anyone who snubs their noses at “genre” books are really missing out on some terrific books, pointing to Laura Lippman and Kate Atkinson as two authors shaking up the genre (Atkinson’s Case Histories just knocked me out.  Fantastic book.)

When an author garners the kind of kudos Gillian Flynn with a hard “G” is getting, you know Hollywood will come calling.  It looks as though the movie rights for “Gone Girl” are an inevitable conclusion and Amy Adams is attached to an adaptation of “Dark Places,” which will be helmed by French director, Gilles Paquet-Brenner.  Gillian relayed a story about how she took the director on a tour of the Kansas heartland where “Dark Places” is set.  They finished the day at a local restaurant and ordered grilled cheese, something he’d never heard of (“It’s like a Croque-Monsieur,” Gillian told him as he sniffed around the suspicious slab of Velveeta smashed between two buttery, golden brown wedges of Wonder Bread.  As she devoured her sandwich, he leaned over to inform her “You know this isn’t real food, right?”)  To which I say, “Yes…yes it is.”

I almost never buy hardcover books, but I plunked down $27 and some change for a chance to have Gillian sign “Gone Girl” for me.  I have decided to move it to the position of “favorite child” and read it sooner rather than later.  And then wait for the movie.

Raymond Benson and Friends
I made a last minute decision to attend a panel of thriller writers moderated by Raymond Benson (he wrote the James Bond Novels from 1996-2002) about female protagonists in thrillers. The stars of the panel were Julie Kramer, Jaime Freveletti, Libby Hellmann and David Ellis I’ve never read any of these authors, but have heard of a few of them, and I was interested to learn their take on female protagonists in the modern American thriller.

The small room was packed and the audience was quite engaged with the panel and the panel was quite engaged with each other.  I’d heard of Raymond Benson and Jaime Freveletti, but was unfamiliar with the others.  In addition to his standalone and series legal thrillers, David Ellis co-wrote a book you’ve probably heard of by an author you’ve probably heard of, Libby Hellmann writes thrillers that jump around in time and are both series and standalone, Julie Kramer as a former news producer, sets all her books in the frenzied world of media (apparently, they’re termed as “media thrillers,” a new term for me) and Jaime Freveletti writes high-concept thrillers about biological warfare and has been commissioned by Robert Ludlum’s estate to ghostwrite under his name.

The topics varied from whether or not it’s okay for a female protagonist to cuss (by and large, no was the consensus, which I found strange) to whether or not they could have sex (yes, but not as much as James Bond did, lest they be sluts who swear like sailors.  I dunno.  I’d probably buy that book.) Who to kill (never children) being a woman writing believable male characters (note: male cops will not take note of the curtains in a room) and being a man writing believable female characters (is it a shirt or a blouse?) were all of great interest to both the readers and the panelists.

I didn’t buy any of their books, having spent my book budget for the day on the hardcover of “Gone Girl,” but I was entertained and intrigued enough to explore these authors further in the future.

I did a courtesy lap around the main area of the actual Lit Fest, but truth be told, I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to paw through the wares of the dedicated booksellers lining Dearborn Street.   Overall though, I would give my first Printer’s Row Lit Fest a resounding A +.   I got a little of what I came for and then some. I will be back in 2013.

Now, please excuse me while I go read some books.