Don DeLillo Visits the National Book Festival

Nothing like giving out an impressively titled award to bring out a reluctant star. TV awards shows do it all the time, giving some oddly named lifetime achievement award out just so some reluctant star will will show.

That might have also been the case with Don DeLillo, the esteemed author who doesn’t go out of his way to book tours, readings or interviews. Awarding him the first Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction assured he’d show up to both receive the award and sit for an interview to kick off the National Book Festival on the Washington Mall.

Previously they gave out something called the Library of Congress Creative Achievement Award for fiction to people like John Grisham, Isabel Allende and Toni Morrison. But when Philip Roth didn’t show up last year to pick up his, they knew they had to goose up the title.

The National Book Festival is a pretty great event, with scores of writers reading and speaking in several different tents and then agreeing to sign books for an hour or so before lines so long they stretch across the mall in orderly queues.

DeLillo, who in his jacket and cap looked more dressed for fishing, sat for an interview that seemed to scratch a bit on his process, while dwelling quite a bit on his epic “Underworld,” though scarcely mentioning more recent work of the past decade or two.

A couple of his more terse answers seemed to be the most effective, but he said an amazing thing about the structure of his writing. While being asked about the musicality of his sentences, he was also asked about their visual appeal.

That’s when he said that he often chose words based on how they looked on the page, or how they looked compared to other words, the very shape of the letters. It kind of blew my mind and made the trip worth it (that and the free orange book bag from CSPAN, of course).

The only other figure I was interested in Saturday was Linda Ronstadt, who maddeningly was scheduled at exactly the same time. So after DeLillo signed off I went off to hear the singer turned autobiographer talk about her long singing career that she recently ended. “I’ve had a long time at the trough,” she said, in an odd turn of phrase. “It’s time to see how else I can be useful.”

She’s already useful as an author; her book “Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir” was the one title in the makeshift tent bookstore that was sold out.

Therefore, there was nothing to stand in line and have her sign. I was willing to stand in line to get a DeLillo signature, fanboy that I am. But I found a pre-autographed volume in the tent store. So that saved me a couple of hours in line right there.

The Book Festival concludes Sunday with its first Graphic Novels concentration,with both Lynda Barry and Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez signed up).

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