The Rough Guide to the Texas Book Festival

If you're headed to the Texas Book Festival, congratulations. You'll be going to end of the book galaxy that's 180 degrees offset from the world of ebooks, Amazon and its ilk, as well as the remote on your table that delivers streaming versions of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Mockingjay. The BookFest is thick with paper books, authors in person, and stories you've never heard about but will want to buy and carry home under your arm. And it's all free, except for the books and the eats.

Location: All around the Texas Capitol, the BookFest is much more of an outdoor event than before. I've been going for 13 years, and the Texas House and Senate floors both once hosted the big-name author talks and panels. Now it's just in the House, but it's fun to sit in a chair usually occupied by a politician. You always feel like "this government stuff is no big thing." Massive tents go up on 11th Street, down Congress, and along Colorado Street to the west of the Capitol.

Other talks are inside the Capitol complex. Some venues are small and others take place in the Auditorium, all of it below ground level. The chairs inside are comfy and the distractions few, but the authors speaking are less famous. That's how you discover a book you didn't know you'd love though: the unfamiliar. Bring a notepad (old-school) or just open your phone's notes app. Since you're a writer you're sure to hear a line you'll want to take back to your desk.

Access: Inside spots like the Capitol rooms can be crowded. Line up early for a seat if you're intent on seeing a particular author. A few years back the BookFest organizers started up a Friends Pass for some of the higher-flying author talks. Pass holders have a VIP line for those talks, but they do open the regular line if there's nobody in the queue in the Pass line. You can still donate your $100 right up to the moment you arrive to get that Pass.

Kids: The BookFest has been enthusiastic about making programming for children, and we're not talking just YA here. There are hands-on booths for crafts and sing-alongs and storytime readings. Just about all of the kid activities are outdoors under one tent or another.

Food: You won't go hungry at a BookFest, with a fleet of food trucks all up and down Congress and in front of the Capitol, too. Cookbook authors demonstrate in the Central Market tent, but alas, there's no tastings afterward. Save your $3 a bottle and bring your own water. Prices are reasonable for an event that will draw 20,000 over a single weekend.

Parking: This is easier than you'd think for a downtown event. The State lots along 15th Street as well as the garages are free, although you want to be careful to avoid reserved spaces in the lots. From 15th it's a short walk to the Capitol and its rooms.

Books: All you'd want for sale, including many you'd struggle to find for sale elsewhere. The authors with big distribution and traditional publishing contracts have books for sale in the Bookpeople tent. That's where signings take place for the authors you may know. The indie authors sign at booths in the tents along Colorado. The children's and cookbook authors sign, too. In the Bookpeople tent you tote the book from the register to the table where the author is inscribing and have your two minutes of one to one with a successful writer. Last year I chatted up Pulitzer winner Jennifer Eagan while she signed a $28 hardback of Manhattan Beach. You can get your signed book personalized with a motto for your work on your soon-to-be-finished book.

Indie authors and presses: The most fun (after those personal book moments with the authors) comes in the bazaar tents along Colorado. Individual authors, self-published and doing their own bookselling, man their booths. At about $200 these sales outlets will need to turn over 30 books over the weekend to let these authors earn back their rent. Just about everybody takes a credit card these days using a phone. If you bring cash they smile brighter, but don't tote a checkbook (if you can even find yours anymore).

The presses include university imprints selling books from established authors and new and focused voices. Trinity has a polished array of titles, including the likes of the San Antonio Spurs history and Home Ground, the latter an amazing guidebook crammed with geography terms (know the difference between a wash and a draw?). Charms like that abound in the aisles of the book bazaar tents.

Readings: Many authors read from their work and many of them are reading in front of the biggest crowd they'll ever see. You can go to one reading after another in a revel of author admiration, something pretty much impossible in the world where these usually happen inside bookstores. It's usually one reading per day in the stores. Be a part of an audience that applauds an author for their work. That kind of affirmation in person is so rare, delicious, and inspiring.

The BookFest always has some surprises from one year to the next so be sure to pick up a copy of the printed guide to learn what's new. There are handsome book totes all around on the streets to tuck away what you've bought. You'll find books at the BookFest that are virtually out of print, but most of all you'll find authors. Selling books is complex and hard work in 2019. The BookFest is an event to expose authors to audiences using the sizzle of in-person contact. Authors would like to hear your questions at the end of their reading event, so raise your hand and stick around for the session's finale.

Did I mention it's free?

It will inspire an author to be a part of this festival of writing. That's what it's done for me since 2006. That, and helped to fill a bookcase or two. Go hear an author, buy a book, and tell your friends.

Stealing Home: On the verge of perfect

An excerpt from the new memoir

Every one of baseball's other hundreds of thousands of games started out with the same chance — They’re all perfect for awhile. An official perfect game emerges over a long cycle of actions, nurtured by luck and daring those odds. I was taking my own long shot at two weeks of happiness using eleven hotel nights to see eight ballparks—all of which I’d never tried to find in thick traffic or the dark of the night. Every check-in, every fill-up, every Quarter-Pounder we discovered in the right place at a time that fit our schedule, every parking space or subway train caught, they were all individual plays in our larger game. Two weeks of road tripping with Nicky might amount to a string of disappointments as the experience fell short of my expectation. Because when the mustard is too spicy or the game is played in a drizzle or your team doesn’t win, that’s not perfect.

I thought we’d found perfection at our game in Chicago at Wrigley. The Friendly Confines was my exacting destination, the turn-back point for our journey. Wrigley was planned, something I could reach for—and then later on, burnish like a cup pulled down off a mantel.

Being in those hot seats at the Ballpark in Arlington was something far different. The baseball gods were giving me a tease, a hint this trip could end on an even higher note. It was something I didn’t dare wish for, but also a thing I desired more than anything. A perfect game would be a historic sign that I was meant to be more than a weekend dad. A ballgame even better than Nicky’s very first trip to Wrigley with his stepdad. No pressure there, for me—just come home with a perfect game, so you can call it a perfect trip with your son.

Once a game is more than halfway over and one team has squeezed out no hits, or even taken a base on a walk or errors, the focus tightens on what remains. It takes 27 outs in a row to make a perfect game. After we marked down the first 15 on our scorebook, counting every pitch and marking every play, I started to look ahead at the nearly impossible back half of the game. Just a single “ball four, take your base” could spoil perfection. Rangers pitching had been hammered all year long, giving up more runs than any team in that season. Perfection was too much to expect as they went onto the field for the sixth.