Evolution of a festival


SPENCERTOWN, N.Y. -- When Jonathan Weiner and Deborah Heiligman first started dating, they were at odds on the issue of religion. Weiner was a science writer, while Heiligman was working for a Jewish magazine, and they had many a conversation about where science fits into faith.

Their positions were not nearly ad diametrically opposed, however, as another couple they have a close connection to: Charles and Emma Darwin.

Weiner won a Pulitzer Prize for "The Beak of the Finch," and Heiligman writes young adult and children's literature, including the Printz Award-winning nonfiction young adult book "Charles and Emma."

They will speak together on "Faith, Evolution and a Very happy Marriage" at the annual Spencertown Festival of Books.

The Beak of the Finch follows another husband and wife team, Peter and Rosemary Grant, who spent decades watching the same Galapagos finches that inspired Darwin's theory of evolution -- and discovered that evolution can be observed in action, in real time. "Charles and Emma" deals with the difficult relationship between Charles Darwin and his wife. She was deeply religious and afraid he would go to Hell for his work and they would be separated forever.

Weiner and Heilignam will talk about their life together, the Grants and the Darwins, each relationship different but very significant to the work it produced.

"Emma was not a scientist at all, but she was very literate and intelligent," Heiligman said. "Even though she was worried that Charles would go to Hell, she was his most helpful reader. Even though she was worried about his argument, she would help him hone it."

At the same time, she said, Darwin was an incredibly involved father, which was very modern for the 19th century.

Weiner said the Grants' discoveries would have been impossible without the two of them working together.

"Field biology is notoriously tough on marriages," he said. "If one of them had tried to do the work and had left the family behind for all those months or sometimes a year at a time, it just couldn't have worked. But it's more than just logistics. It's really a marriage of true minds. They work incredibly closely together."

The Grants were the first to really demonstrate that, unlike Darwin's line "It takes the lapse of ages before the changes become visible," evolution can be seen in action. Weiner recently wrote an article for The New York Times about a new variety of finch the Grants watched grow that may even be an example of speciation, the formation of a new species.

Heiligman and Weiner themselves are important to each other's work.

"We talk about our projects fairly endlessly and read each other's drafts, from before the beginning to after the end," Heiligman said.

Heligman and Weiner will join in a set of panels and readings, from children's nonfiction to adult poetry.

On the poetry side, this year Marie Howe, the New York State poet laureate, will come to Spencertown as well.

"We often think of poetry as being unapproachable, but Marie's material is so heartfelt and genuine and of the moment. She's about relationships and is just an exquisite writer and presenter," said David Highfill, a member of the committee that organizes the festival.

The Festival also holds a massive donation-based book sale.

"We get more than 10,000 books every year," Highfill said.

"We also now have a specialty book room with cookbooks, cartography books and such that are more expensive but are still at a big discount," he said.

They have a wide range of writers as well as books.

"A Crime Novel Roundtable" will bring together three crime writers: Katia Lief, Wendy Corsi Staub and Alison Gaylin.

Gaylin's best-known series follows Brenna Spector, a private investigator with hyperthesmia, the memory condition made famous by hyperthesmic Marilu Henner. Hyperthesmics possess extremely detailed autobiographical memory.

"It seems like the worst thing in the world," Gaylin said. "It struck me not as the ability to remember but as the inability to forget."

The idea, she explained, is that the disorder would be extremely helpful for work as a PI but otherwise painful and distracting.

Gaylin grew up reading true crime and would consider writing it, and she has worked as an entertainment journalist, but she said she had always wanted to write fiction.

Among her books, the one that most draws on the entertainment journalism, she said, is her Young Adult novel "Reality Ends Here," about a girl thrust into the spotlight as the older sister of a set of sextuplets who are the center of a "Jon and Kate Plus 8"-esque show.

Gaylin wrote the book for her daughter, she said, to have something she could read before she was old enough for the adult crime novels.

The Festival will have a range of writers of Young Adult literature this year. Gaylin and Heiligman join Lauren Oliver, wo writes young adult dystopian fiction and will give a talk on young adult literature and its massive new popularity.

"It's the explosion of a category that beforehand was not very well represented," she said. "Adolescence is lasting longer and longer, and we didn't have a lot in the middle area between children's and adult literature."

Young adult books, she said, reach well beyond teenagers.

"Things that comprise adolescence, like a search for identity and meaningful jobs and relationships, those things are resonant with people into their 30s and maybe even permanently," she said.


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