Correction to This Article
This article misidentified the agency staffing the poetry pavilion at the National Book Festival. It is the National Endowment for the Arts, not the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Storied Lives

The National Book Festival brought together readers and authors on the National Mall for readings and signings. Book World asked authors about procrastinating, what excuses they use to avoid writing, and what's on their reading list. Video by Liz Langton and Simon Brubaker/
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2008

There are hard ways and easy ways to get ideas for books, and both were on display Saturday at the National Book Festival on the Mall. The hard ones involved such things as surviving car bombings in Baghdad and hiding in a tiny bathroom for three months during the Rwandan genocide.

As for the easy ones . . . well, all Neil Gaiman had to do was carry his son's tricycle down some stairs.

Gaiman -- tall, dark and handsomely attired in a black leather jacket despite the intense humidity of the day -- has done just about every kind of writing: adult fiction, graphic novels, children's books. He'd come to talk about his latest, "The Graveyard Book," which he considers an all-ages novel. The idea for it arrived 23 years ago, he said, when he was living in England in "a very tall, thin house, which meant that every single room was on a different floor . . . and I had an 18-19-month-old son who had a little tricycle."

Down the stairs they would go, every day. They had no yard, so "I would walk him across the lane to a churchyard filled with big old gravestones," some going back 900 years. The boy looked so at home pedaling around there that Gaiman had an inspiration: "You could take the basic idea of Kipling's 'The Jungle Book,' " of an orphan boy raised in the jungle and taught by the animals, and "slide it over into a graveyard."

You know, orphan boy adopted by dead people and "taught all the things that dead people know."

Excited, he wrote a page and a half, then thought: "This is a better idea than I am a writer." So he put the book off until deciding, a few years ago, that "for good or for ill, I am probably now as good a writer as I am going to be. I may as well write that thing."

First-time author Laura Bush came by her idea easily, too -- though she, like Gaiman, waited decades before turning inspiration into prose. She and her daughter Jenna were at the children's pavilion to talk about their joint effort.

"Read All About It" is one of those Hey, Kids, Reading Is Really Fun efforts aimed at reluctant readers. The teacher-librarian turned first lady said it was written with a particular first-grade boy in mind. Untrained in the ways of school, he would infiltrate her fourth-grade Texas classroom, "yell as loud as he could and scare the whole class."

This was Bush's final year hosting the book festival, which she persuaded the Library of Congress to launch in 2001. (It has numerous corporate sponsors, including The Washington Post.) Librarian of Congress James Billington is hopeful it will continue under a new administration. The library, Billington said last week, "will be looking to all possible ways" to perpetuate this "unique and popular" event.

Popular it certainly was on Saturday, despite continually threatening weather. Dark clouds loomed over the festival's gleaming white pavilions. A night of rain had left the Mall soaked and muddy. But none of that stopped people from overflowing the available chairs for many readings, including the one by novelist Geraldine Brooks.

"Thank you all for loving books," Brooks said, "and I particularly want to thank the wet tush brigade here. Greater love hath no reader than to sit in the mud."

Dionne Warwick also drew a throng. "Will you sing for us today?" asked one fan -- never mind the children's book Warwick just published -- and she obliged with the opening bars of "I Say a Little Prayer." Memoirist-turned-novelist James McBride confessed to his overflow crowd that "if I had known so many people were going to read 'The Color of Water,' I would have written a better book."

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