Every seat of the Decker Forum of McDaniel College was filled with a book-lover on Monday afternoon as award-winning fiction authors Alice McDermott and Stephanie Powell Watts took the stage to talk about their work.
"Literature is alive and well, as this room so beautifully proves," said McDermott, who discussed her new book "The Ninth Hour," released Tuesday, Sept. 19. Attendees of the McDaniel event received a copy one day in advance.
This was the seventh year for the annual Day for Book Lovers, an event hosted by the Carroll County Public Library in partnership with the Friends of Carroll County Public Library; McDaniel College; HarperCollins; and Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Macmillan.
"I come every year," said Donna Crafton, of Westminster. "It's my favorite holiday."
Both authors spoke briefly and were then asked book-club-style questions by a Carroll administrator. Attendees could then have their books signed following the talk.
The event also included the "Book Buzz," a video presentation put together by publishers, which previews upcoming books for the next quarter.
Lisa Picker, CCPL communications manager, said Day for Book Lovers is a signature event for the library and tickets sell out every year.
To start the morning, Kendra Hart, supervisor of elementary education for Carroll County Public Schools, interviewed Watts, whose debut novel "No One is Coming to Save Us," is a Southern African-American retelling of "The Great Gatsby."
Watts described her novel as an exploration of what happens after a disruption of "family, tradition and sameness" occurs.
One of the takeaways of the story, she said, is the value of being seen and acknowledged by another person.
"It gives us the armor to be out in the world that is not as nice as we would like it to be," she said.
Currently, she is working on a new novel based on a friend of her mother's whom she knew in childhood. Though the characters begin with real people, the writing process has a transformative effect on the characters and events, according to Watts.
"Memory is an imaginative act," said the writer, who is a winner of the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence and a Pushcart Prize for her short fiction.
Coming out and meeting book lovers is valuable for the author.
"I love connecting with people who love literature," she said, noting that hearing the stories of others makes her even more motivated to write narratives that capture true experiences. "It makes me think, 'I want to be better at my job.' "
During an hour-long break for lunch, Watts signed books. The line at the signing table outstripped the one by the sandwich buffet.
After lunch, McDermott spoke briefly before speaking with Joyce Muller, president of the Friends of CCPL and former associate vice president for McDaniel's Communications and Marketing.
McDermott's novels are a personal favorite of Muller's, who re-read all of her previous works in order to prepare for Monday's talk.
"Her prose is just phenomenal," Muller said. "She writes eloquently about ordinary people who are struggling."
McDermott said events like the one at McDaniel feel almost like "family events" because she knows she is speaking to a room of avid readers. "I love to hear what readers have to say ... what has come up in their own book clubs and discussions," she said.
She shared with the audience that the inspirational spark for "The Ninth Hour" came from a discussion about Civil War substitutes, men who were paid to take the place of another in the draft.
From there, she said, inspiration comes not so much from the facts of the era, but "the implication of the facts and facts as a metaphor for something else."
The idea of selflessness and selfishness brought in religious themes for the writer, who is known for her Irish-Catholic narratives.
"Oh my God," thought the novelist, who is a former Catholic school pupil, "I'm writing about nuns."
Though she was as surprised as anyone about the choice of topic, McDermott sees her novel as a way to look beyond the authoritative or comedic roles that nuns are often limited to in poplar culture. She said their role in education, women's rights and medicine has been largely overlooked.
A surprising writing process, however, is not a surprise for McDermott, who has written nine novels, won the National Book Award and been nominated for a Pulitzer.
"Every time a writer sits at her desk, she's a new writer again," she said. "It's just you and the language with which you are going to create a new world."