You know you’re at a book festival when you hear utterances such as “Even as a child I was very suspicious about speech and language that is clearly identified with politics,” and “I was having lunch with (best-selling author) Donna Tartt recently….”  The speakers were Hayan Charara, author of The Personal Is Political Is Poetic, in a discussion of his book, and Ann Patchett, headliner of the Fifth Annual San Antonio Book Festival.

The daylong event was held Saturday at the Central Library and the Southwest School of Art, on Augusta Street between the two and in the school’s parking lot.

Patchett’s longtime friend and manuscript reader, author Elizabeth McCracken, posed questions about the construction of her novels – especially the most recent, Commonwealth, and Bel Canto, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2002 – and about her experiences running an independent book store, Parnassus Books, with business partner Karen Hayes in her hometown of Nashville, Tenn.

McCracken said she thinks Patchett writes the best openings to novels.

“For months I kept polishing chapter one of Commonwealth because I didn’t know what was going to happen in chapter two,” Patchett explained. The audience of approximately 200 readers laughed at the insight. Laughter was frequent, as Patchett is bright, animated and pretty, more like the hostess of a book club, talking while uncorking the Chardonnay, than the author seven novels and three non-fiction books.

Writer Ann Patchett (right) smiles at her good friend and moderator writer Elizabeth McCracken in front of a large crowd at the San Antonio Book Festival.
Writer Ann Patchett (right) smiles at her good friend and moderator, writer Elizabeth McCracken, in front of a large crowd at the San Antonio Book Festival. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

She said all reviews have mentioned the incident of six step-siblings who steal gin and a gun from their parents’ car, drug the youngest child with Benadryl, and don’t get caught – a detail McCracken insisted she include in the book.

“This is very much based on my childhood,” Patchett said, dead-pan.

The reading filled the library’s third floor West Terrace, one of the most crowded sessions at the festival, which was expected to draw 18,000 people. The audience listened to Patchett as though they were at church, certain the preacher would reveal the meaning of life in any second.

Writer Ann Patchett speaks with her good friend and moderator writer Elizabeth McCracken in front of a large crowd at the San Antonio Book Festival.
Writer Ann Patchett speaks with her good friend and moderator, writer Elizabeth McCracken, in front of a large crowd at the San Antonio Book Festival. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

If not the meaning of life, Patchett did speak to the changing nature of fiction since the days when beloved mid-century American writers such as John Updike, John Cheever, and Saul Bellow were writing “remarkably masculine and misogynistic” fiction.

“(Their) characters were representative of a culture,” she said, “so we should remember not to judge them against our own time. And (we) can extrapolate that to our own day and think about what are we doing culturally that is marking our own writing.”

Since opening Parnassus Books five years ago, she said, she has stopped reading 19th century authors she enjoys in favor of books not yet published that she and Hayes might want to promote.

“I read novels now the way I read the newspaper,” she said, “with an eye toward the cultural moment. I feel like I’m reading now to see the world,” and mentioned several new novels about the immigration experience.

“What an amazing gift to get from fiction because we think all of that is in non-fiction and in the newspaper, but it’s in fiction as well,” she said.

It was not just for big name draws like Patchett that readers descended upon downtown, but also for authors of local and global history, politics, culture, business, nature and sports, and for children’s and teen literature.

Freda Flax escorted her granddaughter, Jessica, whose Woodridge Elementary class was visited Friday by children’s author Nikki Loftin. Jessica hugged her just-purchased copy of The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy.

The Dominguez family drove from Laredo because daughter Neela is an avid reader, her mother, Erica, said, and dad, Jerry Dominguez, is “an avid cooker.” They had just attended The Tacos of Texas session in the breezy Central Library Plaza where co-authors Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece prepared a brazier of pork and shared it with the audience. Attendees Bill Davis and Oscar Camacho picked bites of meat from the pork bones. With more free time since closing OnMain/Off Main, they came to the festival for the cooking demonstrations and to see what was new from Trinity University Press.

In the parking lot of the Southwest School of Art, the scene was a lot like the Fiesta Arts Fair, with food trucks and earring booths but also fare displayed from Texas presses, Gemini Ink and other literary concerns. At the table of the Eckankar Center of San Antonio, seekers spun a Spiritual Wisdom Wheel. Down the way, a sign announced Cold Beer.

Two local self-published authors, Gene Ames Jr. and Richard Bennett, hawked their books, A Wildcatter’s Trek and Have I Got a Story to Tell You, successively.

“It’s a book of 25 true stories about murder, cattle thieves, bleeding to death on a running horse, the Six-Day War, and hunting in Kenya with Ernest Hemingway’s number one gun bearer,” said rancher and raconteur Bennett about his book.

Book Festival planners, including 500 volunteers and a staff led by executive director Katy Flato, literary director Clay Smith and managing director Sherry Layman, work year round to plan the single day event, raising money and organizing events, volunteers and community engagement.

“If I thought I was doing all this work all year long and the life of the Book Festival ended at 5 p.m. on the day of the event, I would probably stab myself,” Smith said earlier in the week. “So when readers realize the festival isn’t a bunch of dry lectures but a series of really engaging conversations between writers and readers, that really makes my day.”

Readers discover new authors and ideas, writers meet and share ideas and, as reader Sara Budarz observed at the Patchett session, “Books stick with people for a lifetime, or just while you’re jogging or biking.”

Reader Kate Crone added, “Books transform you,” and spoke about a book on Queen Victoria that had given her hope for today’s world.

Smith said one of the hidden but vibrant ways in which the festival lives all year long is in influencing the city’s already vibrant culture.

“Part of the trick of my job,” he said, “is featuring writers who I know our audience will love but also presenting them with writers they may not be aware of and who I hope they will listen to and pay attention to and engage with.”

Unlike the act of reading itself, the noise, excitement and even reverence felt at the San Antonio Book Festival is a shared experience, Smith said, which creates a community among readers.

“And that’s a pretty rare thing because reading is normally such a private act,” Smith said. “I think it makes San Antonio stronger over the years to see and be around other readers.”

Nancy Cook-Monroe is a local freelance writer and public relations consultant. She has written about San Antonio arts and civic scenes since she could hold a pencil.