WASHINGTON — At this weekend’s virtual National Book Festival, “Lifestyles of Gods & Monsters,” by Arkansas author Emily Roberson, will be in the spotlight.
Her young-adult novel, a mix of mythology, “The Hunger Games” and “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” has been designated one of the nation’s 53 “Great Reads from Great Places.”
The annual list — https://tinyurl.com/listreads — includes one book from each state, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and one other U.S. territory.
The Arkansas Center for the Book, an affiliate of the Library of Congress’ Center for the Book, made the selection.
“We noticed Emily Roberson’s book. We enjoyed it. We know that she’s a little Rock author, and we thought this would be a nice book to highlight this year,” said Karen O’Connell, the Arkansas center’s coordinator.
“‘Lifestyles of Gods & Monsters” reimagines the millennia-old story of Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur — the latter a man-eating half-human, half beast monster.
According to Greek lore, Ariadne, a Crete princess, fell in love with an Athenian named Theseus as he prepared to face the Minotaur in a seemingly inescapable labyrinth. Ultimately, she had to decide whether to help him try to survive or leave him to his fate.
“Lifestyles” got good reviews when it was released late last year. The paperback version is scheduled for release Oct. 20.
Roberson’s story is the 19th Arkansas book to be selected for the honor, joining a list that includes John Grisham’s “A Painted House” in 2005 and “March Forward, Girl: From Young Warrior to Little Rock Nine” by civil rights trailblazer Melba Pattillo Beals in 2018.
Since it debuted in 2001, the National Book Festival — http://loc.gov/bookfest — has become one of the largest events in the capital. Organizers say it attracted 200,000 people last year.
In-person activities have been canceled because of the pandemic.
Instead, more than 120 authors will appear via video and a book festival special will air Sunday on PBS.
This year’s lineup includes appearances by Jonesboro native Grisham and Little Rock native Chelsea Clinton, who is touting a child’s book co-written by her mother titled “Grandma’s Gardens.”
Normally, Arkansas would have a booth in the Parade of States exhibition where its Great Reads selection would be highlighted. Young festival attendees are given a “Roadmap to Reading” and can win prizes if they complete the entire circuit.
Posters and bookmarks highlighting Arkansas books are distributed by the thousands.
This year, there isn’t a booth. There isn’t any swag to distribute. Everything is virtual — even Friday’s opening night gala, Roberson said.
The success of “Lifestyles of Gods & Monsters” was a long time coming.
Originally from Jacksonville, Roberson, 46, decided long ago that she would be an author.
She says she confided to her diary in the fourth grade, “I really hope that some day, I will get to write something that people love.”
As a student at Little Rock’s Parkview Arts and Science Magnet High School, “I took creative writing and had a bunch of really great teachers. I always knew I wanted to be a writer.”
After graduation in 1992, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Brown University in 1996 and a master’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 2001 — both in English literature.
She also worked as a news clerk at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and as a local government reporter at the Vicksburg Post in Mississippi.
While living in Conway and commuting to Little Rock, she met a Hendrix College student named Russell Roberson. They would eventually marry and head to Boston, so her husband could study at Harvard Medical School.
There were subsequent stops in Chapel Hill, N.C., and Dallas, before the couple finally returned to the Natural State in 2014.
At each stage in the journey, she honed her storytelling skills.
“I worked in marketing [in Boston] and I’ve been a stay-at-home mom, and I’ve just been writing the whole time,” Roberson said.
In Massachusetts, in 2007, she began writing what she calls her “chick lit” novel, “Life, Motherhood and the Pursuit of the Perfect Handbag.”
She finished the project in North Carolina, where her husband was completing a residency at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham.
After collecting a number of rejection letters, she ultimately published it herself in 2011.
In the years that followed, she wrote second book.
And a third.
Publishers rejected those as well.
Instead of giving up, Roberson kept writing. Her fourth effort, “Lifestyles of Gods & Monsters,” caught the attention of Macmillan Publishers. The hardbound version debuted 11 months ago. A French translation came out in August.
Success, though slow in coming, has been sweet, she said.
“It’s an absolute dream come true,” Roberson said.
“I never knew anyone from Arkansas who did anything like this. Growing up, I wasn’t really sure it was possible,” she said.
“I’m really hoping that me getting to do this will demonstrate to somebody else that you can do this. This is possible,” she said.
Friends, family members and former Parkview educators are pleased with the latest chapter in Roberson’s career.
“I quite regularly get to see my creative writing teacher, Judy Goss. She’s just been thrilled,” the author said.
Goss, who snapped up a copy of the book as soon as it came out, said Roberson was “a great student and a fun person.”
“I’m just delighted with her successes,” she said.
Goss gives the book high marks, calling it “enchanting, interesting, suspenseful [and] clever.”
“It has love. It has danger. It has family stresses [and] high stakes,” she said.
To those who haven’t read it, Goss said, “You’re missing some fun.”