Event reporting: Great Read in the Park

I’ve been to enough panels to expect that for the most part, there isn’t a lot of variance. The moderator keeps the discussion going; the panelist answer basic questions and mention their books; the audience is entertained to some degree. And at the mystery/suspense panel at yesterday’s Great Read in the Park, things began fairly uneventfully, as Bill Goldstein (a last-minute substitution for David Carr) opened things up by asking the assembled panel about whether plot or character guides them in their writing.

Sandra Brown went first, and then it was Carol Higgins Clark’s turn. But just as she was about to elaborate on her collaboration with mother Mary Higgins Clark, the panel got interesting. Namely, the lights went out, the power went off, and things ground to a halt.

Mary Reagan and I were sitting amidst a packed house — or rather,

tent, as everything on the grounds of Bryant Park was housed in

makeshift tents — and for the next five minutes we alternated between

talking to each other and watching the panelists. And in a weird way,

it was almost more fun to sit back and see the ensuing conversations

between Kate White, Peter Spiegelman and Donald Westlake (one group)

and Brown, Clark, and Tami Hoag (other group.) I’ll never know what

they said, but when you’re lucky enough, as was Spiegelman, to be

sitting next to Donald Westlake and having the chance to speak to him,

that’s really all that matters. And to be able to witness that was more

than memorable.

Then the power came back and the panel returned to normal, with

differing opinions on series characters vs. standalones, writing

processes and whatever Westlake wanted to talk about — Dortmunder’s

genesis, why “Watch Your Back” means different things to New Yorkers and the rest of America, and why he wrote back-to-back Dortmunder books. I think each author won over new fans and certainly delighted old ones (especially the happy camper thrilled to hear that Clark’s next book, HITCHED, marries Regan Reilly off to her longtime cop boyfriend.)

Then again, if that was the case, it wasn’t reflected in the signing booths. While Great Read gets points for the location and for luck — the weather was gorgeous — it lost more because too often the authors sat in their tents, forlornly looking for someone, anyone to come by and sign books. We walked by, Mary taking pictures, and the lines were small to non-existent. And those tents got hot fairly quickly and easily. And with books only available in the B&N booth, it meant that people had to wade into the crowd to find the books, then endure long lines to pay for them — a process not exactly conducive to getting them signed by their favorite authors.

But I did get the brief chance to talk to Westlake about his next book, which will be written under the Richard Stark pseudonym. Was it another Parker book, because the title — ASK A PARROT — sounded quite un-Parkerlike. Westlake smiled and said that it was, but that the title came from a saying which I’ll probably completely paraphrase wrongly, but I think it was something like this: ask a parrot what it feels, and it will say nothing — nothing of importance. It made sense at the time, and the sentiment’s certainly more like what Parker might think…

One thing about Great Read that amazed me in particular was the turnout for readings. The organizers set up a main stage for authors to read from their work — poetry, prose or otherwise — and dozens, if not hundreds, of people listened attentively. There’s a belief that New Yorkers will find any excuse not to go to a reading (it’s too hot outside, it’s raining, it’s too cold, something’s on television) but this crowd was plenty enthused, whether for Toure or Anthony Bourdain or Maureen Corrigan.

But all you had to do was look at the huge lines for the carousel to know what they were up against. So I almost wonder if the next time this event takes place — and there are rumblings it could become an annual festival, what with NY is Book Country a mere memory — it may move to another park. I suggest Riverside Park near 72nd Street, although Fort Tryon would be pretty cool, if a tad inconvenient…