The insider’s guide to the Boston Book Festival

The stories behind festival authors, books, events, and the hidden connections among them:


“Americans tend to think poetry is a school subject like ancient history or precalculus, because we often encounter it in school, but poetry is just as much like pop music: It’s an art form, and you learn to hear it by hearing it. The more you hear the more patterns you know how to find,” says Stephen Burt, whose “Close Calls With Nonsense: Reading New Poetry,” was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award.

Alcohol may also aid poetry comprehension: Burt will read at a bar with Lucie Brock-Broido and David Rivard. Another panel “Poems and Pints” features Susan Donnelly, Jan Schreiber, and X.J. Kennedy.

History and historical fiction

  • Those seeking a fictional take on the war that pitted brother against brother should head to the historical fiction panel, in which Dennis McFarland will discuss his novel, “Nostalgia,’’ about a Union vet suffering from a disease called nostalgia.

  • The two most important objects of the Civil War, according to Harold Holzer, author of “The Civil War in 50 Objects,” are “the Tim Russert-like ‘path to victory’ scribbling Lincoln did in the darkest days of his 1864 reelection campaign — on one of his nightly visits to the War Department telegraph room — adding up electoral votes that he thought could (barely) put him over the top; and the half-model of the USS Monitor — because it was the design that changed the war, changed warfare.”

  • A panel on the Civil War also features: Brenda Wineapple, author of “Ecstatic Nation,” Thomas Fleming, author of “A Disease in the Public Mind,” Barbara Krauthamer, author of “Envisioning Emancipation”

Kids’ books

  • A cavalcade of plush characters will roam the festival grounds, including Bad Kitty, the bunny from “Pat the Bunny,” and Curious George.

  • Kids’ keynote speaker Tomie dePaola is most famous for “Strega Nona,” a book about a witchy Italian grandma who comes close to destroying an innocent town with her overenthusiastic pasta-making.

  • Lois Lowry wrote ‘The Giver,’ the classic children’s novel set in a terrifying, dystopic future where emotional depth has been forsaken.


  • Novelist Amity Gaige wrote “Schroder,” which concerns a German national, con artist, and kidnapper who lays claim to an American dynasty by changing his name. Sound familiar? It should: The book is loosely based on the life of Christian Gerhartsreiter, otherwise known as Clark Rockefeller, whose inspired crime spree rocked Boston in 2008.

  • John D. Rockefeller, the richest man in history, who ranks as the most influential industrialist at this year’s festival. So who’s the most interesting actual Rockefeller? “At the moment, I am, because I’ve written intimate stories about my life,” says Eileen Rockefeller, who recalls her life as the great granddaughter of John D. in her memoir, “Being a Rockefeller.” The best part about her name, she says, is that it opens doors: “I appreciate getting a call back from almost anyone I want.”

Chris Carlson/AP/File


  • New York-based artist Sam Wolfe Connelly adapted “The Great Gatsby” into a lavishly illustrated volume for the Folio Society. A film adaptation of Ann Leary’s “The Good House” is slated to star Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro.

  • ‘Who would I want to play the roles of Frank and Hildy if the fabulous Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro weren’t signed on? Why Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro, of course! Honestly, they are the greatest, nobody compares. I’m just thrilled that they are attached,’ Leary says.

  • Reese Witherspoon optioned J. Courtney Sullivan’s second novel, “The Engagements,” months before its June release.

  • Two of Tom Perrotta’s novels have been made into feature films (one starring Witherspoon); his most recent, “The Leftovers,” will soon premiere as an HBO series starring Liv Tyler and Justin Theroux.

  • The adaptation of Andre Dubus III’s novel “The House of Sand and Fog” was nominated for three Academy Awards.


  • The scene: a typical high school classroom circa 1985. A bespectacled girl in a tight yellow T-shirt falls asleep. A long metal claw plucks the perfect red apple from the top of her desk and peels it. The owner of the hand picks her up and kisses her, sucking the life from her body. “You flunk!” the monster croaks.

  • That fiend, of course, is Freddy Krueger, Wes Craven’s most famous creation. The “Nightmare on Elm Street” director will be on hand to talk about terror and terrorism with three other experts, including Valerie Plame Wilson, the former CIA operative.

  • Those looking for horror of a more existential variety should seek out Emily Anthes. Her recent book, “Frankenstein’s Cat,” exploresgenetically modified animals from cloned collies to glow-in-the-dark zebra fish.


  • ‘My favorite subject in “Bad Girls,” a book I wrote with my daughter Heidi Stemple, is the duo Ann Bonney and Mary Read, the female pirates,’ says Nebula Award-winner Jane Yolen. ‘I have been obsessed with them since I was in seventh grade and wrote a “book” on pirates for a class project which I typed, illustrated, and hand bound. One copy. Very rare. In fact lost forever . . .’

  • In “I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined),” Chuck Klosterman, current Grantland staff writer and ethicist for The New York Times magazine, provides perhaps the world’s only comparison of Perez Hilton and Julian Assange.

  • -Lizzie Borden, Anne Boleyn, Typhoid Mary, Jack the Ripper: a selection of villains discussed in the works of various BBF presenters.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/file


  • “Along with Gore Vidal and William Buckley, [Norman Mailer] was also a public intellectual, full of ideas, some cranky, some prophetic,” says Mailer
    biographer and friend J. Michael Lennon. “Reporters will tell you, he was good copy.” When Lennon embarked on his project, he “worried about getting sufficient material from people who might not want to talk with me — some of the women he had affairs with, for example. But eventually, all the key people did confide in me. At one point, Mailer told me, ‘If you can’t figure out my motivation in a certain instance, cherchez la femme.’ That helped too.”

  • -Rose Styron, la femme of literary titan William, collected her late husband’s letters.

  • -Eve LaPlante wrote a dual biography of Louisa and Abigail May Alcott.

  • -Alysia Abbott remembers her father, Steve, the acclaimed poet, novelist, critic, and gay rights activist.

  • -Najla Said remembers her own father, Edward.

Remembering the marathon

  • The reporters and photographers who were at the scene when the bombs exploded in Copley Square will talk about what they witnessed at the panel The Boston Marathon: Telling Tragedy’s Story.

  • In the wake of the event, Andrew Blauner convened a group of local authors to contribute essays about the city for “Our Boston: Writers Celebrate the City They Love.” Three of them will appear at the festival. Proceeds from book sales go to One Fund Boston.

Eugenia Williamson, a writer and editor living in Somerville, can be reached at
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