Bethesda Literary Festival features local writers

April 24, 2013

Writing can be an isolating profession, and reading is a solitary pastime.

But last weekend, the Bethesda Literary Festival brought readers and writers together to celebrate literature in all of its forms — from the illustrated children’s story to the personal essay. Three writers featured at the festival are residents of the area.

Best-selling novelist Alice McDermott, award-winning children’s book illustrator and writer Susan Stockdale and personal essayist Barbara de Boinville participated in the festival, organized by the Bethesda Urban Partnership. The three women’s careers reflect the range of the festival, which tries to engage all kinds of writers and readers.

As a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of a National Book Award, McDermott is well known to fiction fans as the author of “Charming Billy,” “After This” and “That Night.” After three decades of writing, McDermott has come to see these public events as part of the writing process, as well.

“The nicest part is that you get to talk to readers one on one,” said McDermott, who lives in Bethesda. After working alone on a novel, she enjoys hearing from readers about how her books affected them. Bethesda is a particularly rich environment for literature lovers, she said.

“There’s an intellectual energy,” said McDermott, 59, who teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. She says writing is a “very fluid process” for her and that she is constantly rewriting.

Her latest novel, “Someone,” is scheduled to be released in September and, while McDermott is a veteran novelist, she said that does not make beginning a project routine.

“The terrifying and delightful thing about a profession like this is you really are a novice every time,” she said.

Much of Stockdale’s intended audience cannot even read, but that doesn’t mean they appreciate her work any less.

The colorful and detailed illustrations in Stockdale’s books are reproductions of freehand acrylic paintings she does on paper. Stockdale, 58, a Chevy Chase resident, enjoys bringing the vibrancy of nature to children through her books. She has published six.

“I love to spotlight these incredible animals and help children celebrate the world around them,” Stockdale, 58, said.

While raising her two children, Stockdale, who majored in art in college, worked as a textile designer for many years. Every Friday, she took her children to the library and checked out 20 books. That ritual made Stockdale realize she wanted to write a children’s book. Her first, “Some Sleep Standing Up” was published in 1996. Her latest, “Stripes of All Types,” combines her passion for nature and painting with her love of words and rhyming. On Saturday, she demonstrated to a crowd of about 30 at the Bethesda Library how a book is created — explaining the process of researching, drawing and painting each page.

“It can be very lovely,” Stockdale said of writing. “You have to be very comfortable being by yourself,” Stockdale said.

For de Boinville and other personal essayists, you also have to be comfortable revealing yourself.

“I love . . . that kind of cathartic writing,” de Boinville, 60, said. She read “Pantry Suppers,” which earned honorable mention at the festival and is about one of her happiest memories of her mother, who now suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. It is an “emotional piece,” she said. “I worked on it for about five months.”

The essay, one of four chosen to be honored from about 150 entrants, will be a chapter in a memoir she is writing, de Boinville said. De Boinville is a festival veteran; she enters the contest every year and won the personal essay contest a few years ago.

A Bethesda native who graduated from Walt Whitman High School, de Boinville worked as a freelance editor while raising her two children. After her youngest went to college, she focused on her writing and took workshops at the Writer’s Center, on Walsh Street. There, she met like-minded writers who have become the core of a group that has met every six weeks or so for the past eight years, she said.

“We’re all writing different things,” fiction and nonfiction, she said. “It’s great to be part of a writing group. It’s really fueled my writing. . . . It’s so energizing being around other writers.”

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