GAITHERSBURG — Thousands of people braved Saturday’s drizzle to attend the ninth annual Gaithersburg Book Festival.
Mayor Jud Ashman, then a member of the City Council, founded the festival in 2010. Held every May on the grounds of Gaithersburg City Hall, the festival invites several fiction and non-fiction authors to read from their works and meet their readers.
Additionally, the festival sponsors several writing workshops in partnership with the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, and provides independent authors and used book vendors an opportunity to sell their works.
Among the most prominent authors who spoke at this year’s festival was novelist Alice McDermott, who won the National Book Award in 1998.
Susan Coll, a local author of several books set in and around the Washington, D.C., suburbs, introduced McDermott and credited her with helping to launch the festival.
“It was a warm Wednesday night in May of 2009,” Coll said. “A group of people crowded into the meeting room in the Arts Barn for the first meeting of the Gaithersburg Book Festival Committee. Jud Ashman had been to the National Book Festival and came to us with the question: ‘Why Not Gaithersburg?’
In approaching authors to appear at the festival, Ashman’s first stop was Alice McDermott. When he asked her to appear “at our first-ever festival, right away she said yes, and she agreed to take this leap with us in 2010. Because she said yes, we were able to get 54 other authors to appear. Because she said yes, you’re all sitting here today.”
McDermott read from her most recent novel, “The Ninth Hour,” which was published last fall.
“‘The Ninth Hour,’ in summary, is a book about nuns,” McDermott said. “I’m as surprised as anyone else that I would be as silly as to try to write a book about nuns. Most of the book takes place in the early part of the century in Brooklyn, New York, or at least my version of Brooklyn, New York. What’s most important to me is that the book is concerned with a time and a place that is past. It is told from a 21st-century perspective, but it is told as if it is happening in real time.”
John Bicknell read from his book “Lincoln’s Pathfinder: John C. Fremont and the Violent Election of 1856.” The book is an account of Fremont’s ultimately unsuccessful campaign as the first Presidential nominee of the Republican Party, which had been founded to resist the encroachment of slavery into the Northern states. Although Fremont’s campaign was unsuccessful, losing to James Buchanan, it established the Republican Party as a viable political force, paving the way for Abraham Lincoln to win the Presidential election four years later.
“We’re a blue county here in Montgomery County, and we’re a blue state here in Maryland,” Council member Robert Wu said in his introduction. “But the Republican Party was founded, for all intents and purposes, down the road in Silver Spring.”
U.S. Senator Francis Preston Blair, who founded Silver Spring in the early 1840s, played an important role in organizing the Republican Party.
“It was Blair’s idea that John C. Fremont would be the Republican candidate,” Bicknell said. “I’m always amused when I hear people say that Americans are more divided than they’ve ever been. The election of 1856, to say nothing of what happened four years later, shows that isn’t true.”
During the Civil War, Fremont was a General in the Union Army and frequently clashed with Lincoln over tactics.
John Gallagher of Fairfax, a self-published author of comics and graphic novels, made his first appearance at the festival this year.
“It seems to have a really great history,” Gallagher said. “Most people I’ve talked to have been here multiple years as attendees and exhibitors. I really like their kids’ section, and even though I wasn’t placed in the kids’ section, there’s still been a really good flow of people. Comics are how I learned how to read, and I think more parents and educators are coming to realize that they are an exciting way to teach children.”
Mayor Ashman estimated that roughly 14,000 people attended this year’s festival, down from 22,000 last year. He and the other organizers attributed rain to the drop in attendance.
“The big highlight for me was the great turnout in spite of the ugly weather,” Ashman said. “A lot of people work really hard all year to produce the Gaithersburg Book Festival, and when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, it’s a potentially scary thing. When crowds of people still show up, though, it’s amazingly gratifying. In terms of programming, our authors were spectacular, as always. I was thrilled to see our workshops filled up all day, and what a treat it was to welcome the Mayor of Bonningheim, Germany. It was all wonderful.”