Fact and fiction, Jesus of Nazareth and John F. Kennedy: All of these topics were addressed, debated and discussed Saturday, and all bolstered by an obvious and enthusiastic love of books and reading on the first day of the annual Texas Book Festival held in and around the Capitol grounds.
The Literary Death Match, sort of a cross between a literary reading and “American Idol,” took place at 10 a.m. at the Paramount Theatre. Austin poet Sasha West read with and against Jonathan Lethem, former Austinite Nina McCongiley and the eventual winner, “Zero Fade” author Chris L. Terry.
Terry’s story, “Real Skater Music,” about being a multiracial kid into skating, provided the canniest line about music and culture: “Rap is a difficult correspondence course on how to be black.”
At a panel to discuss their new book “Dallas 1963,” authors Bill Minutaglio and Steven. L. Davis said they wanted to paint a picture of the polarized political environment of the North Texas city just before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. And both authors pointed out that they saw parallels in 2013 with the polarization surrounding President Barack Obama.
“Our contention is that this kind of polarization was born in Dallas,” Minutaglio said, referring to the extreme views of such people as former Dallas Morning News Publisher Ted Dealey, former Maj. Gen. Edwin A. Walker and Southern Baptist leader W.A. Criswell.
Nick Flynn, the author of the memoir “Another (Expletive) Night in Suck City,” appeared with writer and director Stephen Elliott in a session dubbed “Adapting Your Work for Screen,” and Flynn talked about being summoned for an audience with actor Robert DeNiro.
Flynn said he’d spent years working with big studios who wanted to turn the book into a film, and each studio suggested revisions that took the edginess out of the story until it had been turned into “treacle.” Flynn said he’d loved the original script penned by director Paul Weitz.
When Flynn arrived alone at the legendary actor’s office, DeNiro told him that he loved the book. But the current script, DeNiro said, was terrible.
Flynn told DeNiro about Weitz’s original script, which DeNiro loved and filmed. DeNiro played Flynn’s father, Jonathan, in the 2012 film.
Late in the afternoon, Austin writer Owen Egerton interviewed scholar Reza Aslan on “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” the latter’s book on the historical Jesus.
Addressing a packed House chamber, Aslan — an Iranian-American raised culturally Islamic before converting to “fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity” as a teenager and eventually converting back to Islam later in life — discussed the book and made an argument for admiring Jesus without being a Christian.
“The Jesus of history is every bit as worth believing in” as the Christ of faith, Aslan said. Aslan also said that the toughest thing for a lot of readers to accept is: “The fact that Jesus could neither read nor write.”
Besides all of the authors, the festival itself made news on Saturday, announcing that it will begin planning and operating the Austin Teen Book Festival in 2015.
The teen book festival, which is among the largest in the nation and attracted a record audience of 4,000 last month, has been presented by the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation since 2011. In 2014, the Texas Book Festival will co-present the event with the foundation before taking over.
“We are thrilled to inherit this dynamic and engaging annual festival,” said Lois Kim, executive director of the Texas Book Festival. “And as we go forward, we look forward to building on The Library Foundation’s work and cultivating the national audience for young adult literature.”
Find an extensive look at the Texas Book Festival’s schedule in the Insight & Books section, and at statesman.com/books.