They run a tight ship at the book signing area of the National Book Festival, which took place over the weekend in Washington D.C. Fans of the written word converged in the thousands on the National Mall over two days to take in dozens of authors — from a variety of genres — talking about their latest offerings. After the presentations, readers lined up to get their books signed.
Chief among the high profile authors was novelist Don Delillo, who was also honored with the inaugural Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction last weekend.
Included in Delillo’s pantheon is “Libra,” his absorbing meditation on a possible scenario that culminated in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It was, Delillo wrote, “the seven seconds that broke the back of the American century.”
JFK’s assassination comes up again in his later novel, “Underworld,” in which New Yorkers at a loft party react to a bootleg copy of the Zapruder film:
“And oh shit, oh god it came from the front, didn’t it?”
Delillo is fascinated by the Zapruder film. He’s been quoted as saying it “could probably fuel college courses in a dozen subjects from history to physics.” He also analyzed the infamous sequence of images as a guest director at the Telluride Film Festival this summer.
I barely made the cut to be in Delillo’s line, and it soon became clear that the ground rules did not augur well for any chat with the reclusive 76-year-old author. No photos, no personalizing, no dilly-dallying. There were security men blocking Delillo from passers-by attempting to steal a photo on their phones.
Given the conveyor belt nature of the exercise, my turn came quickly. Delillo is small fellow, with dour eyes. A cap upon his head.
“Any thoughts on the JFK assassination on the 50th anniversary?” I asked.
He didn’t react — didn’t look up or even seem to hear. Instead, he just flattened out the page in preparation for his signature. Going through the motions. “Oh well,” I thought. “I broke the rules and he isn’t going to respond.”
Delillo signed his name and handed back the book.
Fixing me with an intense stare, he blurted out: “Who did it?”
Later that day there was an official discussion on the JFK assassination. Author James Swanson, of “Manhunt” fame, presented his book written for young audiences, “The President Has Been Shot!”
Swanson harbors no doubt about who killed JFK on Nov. 22, 1963: Lee Harvey Oswald, alone.
So, two views of a major historical event from the nation’s front lawn. One from Delillo, a fiction writer whose penetrating observations often have an unsettling ring of truth to them. And Swanson, whose non-fiction treatments are heralded for bringing history to life, like the best of novels.