Books
12:06 pm
Mon November 17, 2003

Novello leaves Leaving Maggie Hope Behind

When the Novello Literary Festival in Charlotte announced that John Grisham would be their keynote speaker for their 2004 event, a nervous murmur could be heard rippling outwards with the press releases.

Wilmington NC – [Click the LISTEN button to hear Nicki's commentary.]


When the Novello Literary Festival in Charlotte announced that John Grisham would be their keynote speaker for their 2004 event, a nervous murmur could be heard rippling outwards with the press releases. Grisham has sold more books than anyone except God and Stephen King. He is notoriously skittish about speaking and rarely makes public appearances. It took the State of Virginia to pry him away from his little league coaching to speak at the Virginia Festival of the Book.

How had Novello, a book festival run by the Charlotte County Library, convinced Grisham to attend?

By offering him $75,000 for an hour-long appearance. That's how. The size of the honorarium is staggering, especially in the world of books, where most authors are expected to speak for free on the grounds that people need to buy their books. (This has never stopped musicians from charging for concerts AND CDs, but ours is a weird and wacky industry that doesn't always do the most sensible thing).

It was even more perplexing since the Novello committee admitted that even with a sell-out crowd (and John Grisham will certainly attract a sell-out crowd) the income from ticket sales wouldn't cover the cost of his fee.

Their explanation was that Grisham's presence would raise the visibility of a very fine festival (which it has), and that Grisham was likewise the most requested speaker from festival attendees. Isn't it encouraging to know what lengths the festival will go to please its attendees? Not everyone was pleased. The last time I looked, library programs were fighting for funding.

Not that I really begrudge a writer getting paid the kind of money usually reserved for rock stars and sports celebrities, but it is a wee bit hard to imagine what any person could say that would be worth $75,000/hour.

I found the controversy to be ironic. Novello really is a premier literary festival. It has a publishing arm, the Novello Press, which is

as far as I know the ONLY library-sponsored publishing house in the country. They are committed to emerging writers, and they run one of the few literary competitions available for novel-length works. Last year the person who won the fiction competition was Anthony S. Abbott, a teacher at Davidson college and a prize-winning poet. This year, amid the swirl surrounding the Grisham announcement, Abbot's novel, Leaving Maggie Hope, was published by Novello Press. It is one of the best things I have read in a long, long time.

The "Maggie Hope" of the story is a mother only tenuously tied to this earth, and the person leaving is David, her seven year old son, who is

trying to run away from home. His rebellion against his mother's wild swings between tenderness and neglect has its intended

consequences--David is sent away to boarding school, although who can afford to pay his tuition is a mystery. David learns at school that we are all the sum of what has gone before us, but it takes a journey across the country to find out he will never be able to truly leave Maggie Hope behind.

Abbot writes with a poet's sense of language--he chooses every word with care, making the novel a very intense and satisfying experience for the reader. He is able to create fraught emotional moments with an economy of words, so much so that it feels like a literary slight-of-hand: like pulling far too many rabbits out of tiny, tiny hat. As I read I kept thinking "how does he do that?".

Alas, I don't think that Novello Press has committed $75,000 to promoting Abbot's book. That is too bad, because it would have been a better use of the money. The people who give John Grisham a miss to stay home and read Leaving Maggie Hope are getting the better deal.