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Q&A: Local Author Excited For Gaithersburg Book Festival

Bethesda's Gary Krist brings his new book, "City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago", to the Gaithersburg Book Festival.

The third annual Gaithersburg Book Festival is Saturday, May 19, and among the featured authors is Montgomery County resident, Gary Krist.

Krist has experience writing both fiction and nonfiction and will be presenting his new book, "City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago", to the festival.

He is a recipient of The Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Lowell Thomas Gold Medal for Travel Journalism, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, according to his book festival profile.

Krist took some time with Gaithersburg Patch to help preview Saturday's event:

Gaithersburg Patch:  You're one of a few local authors from Montgomery County participating in the Gaithersburg Book Festival. As a Bethesda resident, what excites you most about participating in an event like this so close to home?

Gary Krist: First of all, I’m delighted—and a little astonished—that a book festival of such size and caliber has grown up so quickly right here in my own back yard. The roster of authors featured at this year’s festival is extraordinary; it’s hard to believe that this is only the third year of its existence. And I’m glad to see that the response from the community has been so overwhelming. When Jud Ashman first e-mailed me about participating, I thought that the attendance figure he cited for last year’s festival might be a typo with an extra zero at the end. 

Gaithersburg Patch: What experiences have you had in the past with Gaithersburg Book Festival or other events of its kind?

Gary Krist: It’s always gratifying to see the level of interest generated by this and other literary festivals I’ve been to. It shows that books really do still matter to people, and that our reading culture has not yet been totally swamped by the juggernaut of Real Housewives, Angry Birds, and YouTube videos of stupid pet tricks. I also really enjoy participating in festivals that feature children’s books, since the presence of so many avid young readers guarantees a certain level of energy, enthusiasm, and unpredictability. Seeing so many kids who are excited by books reassures us pessimistic adult authors that we may actually have a new crop of readers 15 or 20 years down the line.

Gaithersburg Patch: Before turning to nonfiction for your most recent publications, you worked on multiple novels and short stories. What do you enjoy about each type of writing and why did you decide to move on to nonfiction?

Gary Krist: Whether I’m writing short fiction, novels, or narrative history, my goal is always to find compelling stories to tell, so the different kinds of writing I do are actually more similar than they might seem at first glance. I believe that people understand the world primarily through story, so my job as a writer is to take the raw material of my subject—whether it’s the chaotic mess of history or the equally chaotic mess of subjective experience—and present it in a way that a reader can understand and assimilate. Crafting a narrative is always a process of shaping some kind of order out of chaos, so the difficulties—and the pleasures—of writing nonfiction and fiction are, for me, essentially the same.

Gaithersburg Patch: Tell us a bit about your book, "City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago", that you'll be sharing with the community at Saturday's event.

Gary Krist: To put it in a sentence or two, it’s the story of how Chicago in 1919 went from a state of high optimism about its future to the brink of civic collapse and martial law, all over the course of a few months. The crisis culminated in the last 12 days of July, when the city endured a series of disasters—a downtown blimp crash, a high-profile child murder, a race riot, and a major transit strike—that was arguably the worst thing to hit Chicago since the Great Fire of 1871.

Gaithersburg Patch: What about the city of Chicago made you so interested in chronicling this time in history and its effect on the city moving forward?

Gary Krist: I’ve always been interested in big cities and in the way they evolve, which is inevitably a tumultuous, almost Darwinian process, full of epic conflicts that bring out both the best and the worst of human nature. And in a city of immigrants like Chicago, this process is especially dramatic. So I wanted to look at the city as a kind of test case for the whole American experiment of building a democratic society from a population made up of all races, creeds and ethnicities. 

The question was: Could this wildly diverse group of people from every corner of the globe really come together and—despite numerous ethnic hatreds, racial hatreds, and cultural differences—successfully turn a young city into one of the economic powerhouses of the world?  The short answer, as we now know, is yes. But there were times, as in the Summer of 1919 that I write about in the book, when it looked as if the entire experiment might come crashing down.

Editor's Note: Krist will make his presentation to the book festival at 4 p.m. under the James Michener Pavilion.

Be sure to check out and of our Q&A with Gaithersburg Book Festival founder and city council member Jud Ashman. 

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