Book Festival Surprises? Funny You Should Ask.

Joyce Carol Oates had her audience laughing at the National Book Festival. Seriously.
Joyce Carol Oates had her audience laughing at the National Book Festival. Seriously. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2007

We're ashamed to admit it, but we had no idea Joyce Carol Oates could be funny.

There she was at Saturday's National Book Festival on the Mall, being introduced as one of America's greatest writers. She looked frail and elongated and deadly serious, as befits a venerable literary figure who seems to have cranked out an average of 37 books a year for the past 50 years and whose fictional worlds inspire reviewers to employ the word "grim" with great frequency.

"It was the greatest introduction, but I wonder if I heard correctly," Oates said. "Did you say I have been some sort of writer for -- did you say 50 years? Did he say 50? Okay. Ohhhh.

"Well, I guess I've been around a little too long."

She talked about her latest novel, "The Gravedigger's Daughter," which was inspired by the life of her paternal grandmother. Oates discovered, many years after the old woman's death, that her grandmother had been Jewish. ("When I told my friends in Princeton about it, they said, 'Well of course. You look Jewish.' ") The family had emigrated from Germany in the 1890s and settled in the freezing Snowbelt that is Upstate New York.

"They had a very unfortunate life, it was a hellish life," Oates said. "But as I say, it was Upstate New York, so you can't always tell that."

As for that great literary figure thing: "I live with two cats who are completely unimpressed. They just don't care at all. Like, major American writer -- yawn."

To wander the Book Festival on a brilliant, blue-sky day was to be surprised by more than Oates's comic timing. And as always, the annual festival -- the seventh since Laura Bush teamed up with the Library of Congress to launch it three days before Sept. 11, 2001 -- was overflowing with appealing authors. (Full disclosure: The Washington Post is a festival sponsor.) We felt a lot like one of those supermarket prize-winners who'd been given a shopping cart and told they had 15 minutes to fill it up.

Quick, let's zip down the Fiction and Fantasy aisle to pick up Terry Pratchett and Thomas Mallon! On to History and Biography for Ralph Ellison (represented by his biographer, Arnold Rampersad) and Diane Ackerman! But wait, there's Patricia MacLachlan over in Teens and Children!

MacLachlan, who's best known as the author of "Sarah, Plain and Tall," talked about how she became a writer.

"My father acted out books with me every single day," she said. She would play Peter Rabbit and he would be the angry gardener, Mr. McGregor. Her father was "a terrifying Mr. McGregor," but he was also a philosopher, so after the game "we'd have a dialogue. . . . He would say, 'Peter, why are you so mischievous? Are you bored, alienated?' "

"So this is how I grew up," MacLachlan said. "Books were as real as my everyday life."

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