Northwest Bookfest Attracts Almost 27,000

This past weekend's Northwest Bookfest featured panels and events that were emotional and practical, congenial and impassioned, but yesterday there was one final word for the weekend celebration - success.

Late yesterday, Bookfest executive director Kris Molesworth had counted almost 27,000 people attending the two-day celebration of reading and books, a 15 percent increase over last year's 23,500. Donations at the door, which entirely benefit literacy programs, were expected to increase commensurately.

Maybe the increased bodies even warmed the joint up. Attendees reported actually feeling temperate in Pier 48, the drafty barn that has become the Bookfest's comfortable-as-an-old-shoe home.

Kids flocked to the Bookfest's young readers' area, published their own books and shook hands with life-size versions of children's book characters such as Clifford the Dog.

Several panels, including those featuring writers Pam Houston, humorist Dave Barry, newscaster Jim Lehrer and lawyer Gerry Spence, writers Paul Theroux and Jonathan Raban, sex columnists Dan Savage and Pepper Schwartz, and writers Sherman Alexie and Greg Sarris, were standing-room only.

"This is great," said Houston, fresh from New York, "where everyone is skeptical and cynical. (Here) I always feel appreciated and embraced - if every destination on a book tour was like Seattle, I'd just be on a book tour all the time."

On Saturday, the Theroux-Raban panel, billed as a debate over Theroux's new book about his lapsed friendship with writer V.S. Naipaul, was gently lampooned by Bailey-Coy Books. Their Bookfest booth featured two action dolls with ninja-warrior voices doing battle with each other: "The Fierce Paul Theroux" and "The Mighty V.S. Naipaul."

The dolls were a hoot. But the real Theroux didn't exactly come out swinging. Theroux spoke less about Naipaul than about literary friendship in general. Raban called Theroux's book, "Sir Vidia's Shadow," "the fullest, truest, most accurate account of how one becomes a writer," and then suggested that this is precisely why it has drawn such wrath. Readers, he said, don't really want to know the reality behind the glossy author photo on the dust jackets.

The panel was fun, but a sharper focus on Naipaul himself would have better served the complex and riveting "Sir Vidia's Shadow." As it is, readers persuaded by the book's several negative reviews may not have had their minds changed.

First-time novelist Arthur Golden ("Memoirs of a Geisha") didn't quite fill the Hugo Stage (as Bookfest's opening act, he spoke before the crowds arrived in force), but his discussion of his surprise best seller's origins was the highlight of Saturday's events.

Questioned by Seattle Times reporter Carey Quan Gelernter, Golden was both cool and eloquent as he revealed how he won the confidence of a retired geisha who served as his consultant. There were also details on how he experimented with geisha makeup on himself (in the name of research).

Panel discussions on writing and publishing, both Saturday and yesterday, were top-notch, too, including "Publish and Perish?: The Continuing Consolidation of the Publishing Industry." Literary agent Anne Depue, Chronicle Books publisher Jack Jensen, novelist Matthew Stadler and moderator Matthew Brogan (the new executive director of Seattle Arts & Lectures) avoided knee-jerk doomsaying about the advent of megalithic publishing and distribution chains. They found some chinks in the corporate armor that look like opportunities for niche markets to flourish.

Yesterday, Sasquatch Books editorial director Gary Luke, writer Brenda Peterson and literary agent Elizabeth Wales gave some head-and-heart advice to writers on getting published. Peterson advised writers to write from their hearts, but cautioned them not to expect overnight results. Saying that she gave herself 10 years to become an accomplished writer, she told the audience to "look upon writing as a lifelong apprenticeship."

After some kidding around about who has more chest hair, Sarris and Alexie (both Native Americans) got down yesterday to a serious discussion of what their Indian identities mean or don't mean for their writing.

Alexie issued a final call to listeners to do everything they can to support literacy, the cause the Bookfest was all about. Saying that he'd learned not to expect to change the world through his writing, he told listeners to do everything they can to advocate for literacy and education. "If you want to change the world," he said, "just make sure junior-high and high-school teachers are the highest-paid people in the country."