I’ve lived in New York for three and a half years, but I only recently heard of the Brooklyn Book Festival. What rock have I been hiding under?! The festival technically runs all week, with events hosted at different bookstores throughout the borough during the week and a Children’s Day on Saturday, but my recap will be of Festival Day on Sunday, September 17.
I’m glad they had nice weather for Festival Day, because a lot of the festival is held outdoors in front of Borough Hall. Some of the panels are outdoors as well, while others are in surrounding buildings, like the Brooklyn Historical Society, Brooklyn Law School, and local churches and synagogues.
I decided to check out all of the stalls when I first got to the festival. They had soooo many stalls! Of course I had to pick up a book, so I decided to get We Gon’ Be Alright by Jeff Chang, which Rincey at RinceyReads has been raving about. Mostly, though, I just walked through and looked around. Some of the stalls were for local bookstores, but a lot were for indie publishes and writing organizations. I also saw some for university presses or just universities in general.
The first panel I decided to check out was titled “Structures of Power: Politics, Science Fiction, and Fantasy.” I went because N.K. Jemisin was on the panel, and while I didn’t care for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I’m really excited to check out the Broken Earth trilogy. Also on the panel were Eugene Lim, Malka Older, and Deji Bryce Olukotun. There was a massive line to get in, but I was lucky enough to snag an empty seat near the front.
I thought this panel would be really interesting based on the title, but I actually found it rather disappointing. I didn’t think the moderator prepared very good questions — the authors had to ask what she meant by her first question — and I disliked that she took time to ask specific questions of each author, instead of more open-ended questions that each author could chime in on. And the moderator asked a lot of questions about technology that didn’t seem to relate back to the topic of the panel.
Honestly, the whole thing was so boring that I’m struggling to remember anything they discussed, other than a comment by Malka Older that her relationship with Twitter is love-meh because she loves how it can be used to find information she wouldn’t otherwise find, but it can be very negative.
After that panel wrapped up, I tried to buy a copy of The Fifth Season so I could have N.K. Jemisin sign it, but the bookseller at the event literally sold their last copy to the woman in front of me, and I couldn’t find a copy at any of the other booths in the main festival area. I didn’t want to buy a later book in the trilogy when I haven’t read the first one, so I wound up skipping her signing line, which I’m disappointed in, but I’m sure I’ll have another opportunity to meet her after I’ve actually read her book.
I wound up dropping in for a panel titled “Rock, Race, Influence and Appropriation,” which isn’t normally in my wheelhouse, but the author of the book I bought that morning was on it and I had time before the next panel I wanted to hit up. I actually thought that one was pretty interesting. The moderator encouraged a lot more discussion and each of the panelists had some interesting insights into the history of music and the role that appropriation has played and where the line is between homage and appropriation. I don’t really listen to a lot of music, so there were definitely large parts of the conversation I couldn’t properly appreciate, but I did enjoy listening to the panel.
I left that panel a little early to get to one titled “Dark Magic,” featuring Holly Black, Rin Chupeco, Tochi Onyebuchi, and Rhoda Belleza. While I’m not sure how much this panel really discussed dark magic, it was lightyears ahead of the first panel I went to. It’s amazing the difference that a great moderator can make! The authors went through and discussed what drew them to fantasy and how intentional the elements in their books are. They also talked about how to build worlds around their plots and the roles of family in their books (the moderator had a great quip about family being the darkest magic of all).
I wasn’t a big fan of some of the audience questions (I personally dislike the writing advice questions since I’m not a writer and I think a lot of writing advice can be found online rather than asked at a Q&A), but someone asked a great question about why these authors chose to write YA and what they think of people who look down on the genre. Belleza said she doesn’t have time for people who don’t think YA is a worthy genre and all of the authors said there’s a lot happening right now in the YA genre that they’re excited to be a part of and that they’re writing the books they would have wanted to read as teenagers.
Another audience member asked them what books they’re reading now that we should be reading. Onyebuchi recommended Mr. Fox, Chupeco answered The Belles, Belleza said The Hazel Wood, and Black responded with The Astonishing Color of After. So all of these books are now on my Goodreads TBR…
The last panel I attended was called “Worldbuilding” and featured N.K. Jemisin, Daniel Jose Older, and Fiona Maazel. I figured this would be a good one after I enjoyed Older so much at Leigh Bardugo’s signing, and I wasn’t wrong. He had a lot of great jokes and insight, and he got Jemisin making jokes, too. At one point she tried to refrain from swearing because there were children in the room, but Older’s like “She’s my niece! She’s heard it all from me already!” The audience was laughing so hard.
The panel opened with author readings, which I thought was kind of a waste since they had three authors to go through and limited time. As for the actual discussion, they started out talking about where they get their ideas and what inspires them, as well as what they notice most about world building in other books and what’s important to them in their books. They all answered that the people are the most important thing they notice in other books, because so often authors just create flat characters and don’t put any effort into them.
They also talked about how long they allow themselves to research and when they finally have to stop and start writing, which was really interesting. One of the panelists (I think Maazel?) joked that they love the research stage because they can say they did a lot of work while just going down rabbit holes. Older’s ultimate rabbit hole is apparently Wookieepedia, which he had to delete from his phone while he was working on a Star Wars story because he wasn’t actually getting any work done because of it (it’s back on his phone now), while Jemisin spoke about the joyful realization that research trips are tax deductible and how she took a trip to Hawaii solely to look at volcanoes for the Broken Earth trilogy. She also did a lot of research for one of her Egyptian-inspired books at the Brooklyn Museum and then did a research trip to London to visit the British Museum.
When they opened it up to audience questions, someone asked how they write about people who are different from themselves. Jemisin had a really good response about how she wrote a character who wound up being confined to a wheelchair and felt like their life was over, and she didn’t realize how harmful that was until readers wrote in and told her. As a result, she put a lot of effort into creating another character who is also wheelchair-bound but doesn’t have those same harmful stereotypes. They all emphasized the importance of research and feedback from beta readers.
And that was it for the day! While I was disappointed in the first panel, the second two were much more what I was looking for and were a lot of fun. I’m really looking forward to next year’s Brooklyn Book Festival and definitely recommend checking it out if you have the chance. Let me know in the comments if you have any specific questions about the festival and I’d be happy to answer them!