The Literary Life

This week, Sara Nelson returns from Book Expo where the Michael Crichton tribute was moving, Lorrie Moore overcame her fear of public speaking, and Craig Ferguson stole the show.

06.02.09 6:21 AM ET

HarperCollins, which usually throws a big bash at Book Expo America, held a different kind of party last Thursday at the Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Terminal—easily the most emotional of the fair. Billed as a cocktail reception “in tribute to Michael Crichton, our friend and inspiration,” it was indeed a celebration of the bestselling author who died last November at the age of 66; Harper had put together a video montage of Crichton and his work, which literary luminaries such Chip Kidd, (who designed Crichton’s covers for Knopf, including the iconic Jurassic Park jacket) and Maria Campbell, queen of the foreign scouts, watched with real fondness. The evening was less about selling books—although a new Crichton novel, Pirate Latitudes, is due out in November, and, apparently, a portion of a manuscript that will be turned into a book later—than about remembering the writer who, as CEO Brian Murray, pointed out, was truly the king of all media. There was one period, Murray noted, in which Crichton had the No. 1 bestselling book ( Rising Sun),  the top-rated TV show ( ER) and a blockbuster movie ( Jurassic Park) all at once. Among the attendees, of course, were many Harper staffers and—just as obviously, for those in the know—Jane Friedman, who was ousted as Harper CEO a year ago. (Friedman had grown personally close to Crichton when she’d worked with him at Knopf; one of her major moves as CEO of Harper was to bring him to that house.) Friedman had just come from visiting Crichton’s widow, Sherri, and his newborn son, John Michael Crichton, a visit a clearly emotional Friedman termed “bittersweet.”

In response to a notecard full of revealing information about her personal life: single mother, not a lot of money, angry interactions with ex-husband, Moore turned to the audience and said, faux-primly: “I never discuss my personal life.”

Putting together the perfect panel of writers at BEA (or anywhere) is an art, akin to designing the perfect promotional dinner party. You have to come up with a mix of people that will appeal to the broadest audience (booksellers and reporters come in all types) and you don’t want one panelist to overpower another. (All of the above may be why the fair organizers take this process very seriously and enlist lots of help assembling the panels; full disclosure, I was one of those helpers this year.) But still, there are no guarantees—sometimes the greatest writer is the most timid speaker, sometimes vice versa. If only there were a prize, the best emcee award would surely go to Craig Ferguson, the CBS Late Late Show host whose Scottish accent and self-deprecating flirtatious wit (he seemed to have a special fondness for Glass Castle memoirist Jeannette Walls, also on the panel) had the audience practically swooning—at 8 a.m., no less!  If his book, American on Purpose, reveals him to be half as amusing and charming, Harper will have a big hit.  For best panelist of the year, I’d have to vote for novelist Lorrie Moore, on a lunchtime panel. She addressed her famous self-consciousness and dislike of public speaking by constructing a piece of wry and funny performance art, in which she read from notecards of supposedly real questions about her career and her book.  (“What’s with the cover?” she had one “questioner” ask; in response to a notecard full of revealing information about her personal life: single mother, not a lot of money, angry interactions with ex-husband, Moore turned to the audience and said, faux-primly: “I never discuss my personal life.”)  For pure adaptive behavior—and great writing—Moore surpassed even crowd favorite Mary Karr (who stepped in at the last minute for the always crowd-pleasing Pat Conroy, whose doctor had forbidden him to travel following recent surgery).

Well, I certainly missed the dinner that Knopf usually throws for booksellers and some press at BEA, but even a scaled-down cocktail party can be great—especially when you’ve got writers like Nora Ephron, Richard Russo, James Ellroy, Sloan Crosley (who works at Knopf/Vintage but has published the bestselling I Was Told There Would Be Cake with Riverhead) milling with the hoi polloi. Agent-to-virtually-every-political-person-in-Washington Robert Barnett was also there, as was perennially upbeat Markus Dohle, the CEO of parent company Random House, who replaced Peter Olson last year. Editor Nan Talese looked smashing in her beret, even if her star writer of the season, Pat Conroy, had stood her up.  Besides, the party was at the Strand, a New York book world institution if there ever was one.

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Sara Nelson is a critic for The Daily Beast and the former editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. She is the author of the bestselling So Many Books, So Little Time.