The South Carolina Book Festival: Great Hospitality, Great Literature
(Showing the diversity of the festival, from left-to-right, high-energy SF/Fantasy writer Jay Lake, the somewhat unclassifiable and delightful fiction writer Lauren Groff, dynamic poet Sean Thomas Dougherty, and "Southern" fiction writer Man Martin--who gave one of the best readings I've ever witnessed.)
I just returned from the South Carolina Book Festival, where my wife and I had a great time as guests, participating on panels and other events. (Ann's the fiction editor for Weird Tales and co-editor on our various anthologies). I can honestly say that it was one of the best-run festivals I've ever seen, and that we were made to feel like royalty the whole time. Which is not to say that at other events we've stepped off the plane and been instantly kneecapped by the organizers, but you could tell that the people running this festival really took pride in getting the details right. Not only that, they also really enjoyed themselves, which rubbed off on the participants.
Highlights of the festival included hanging out with the ever-entertaining Jay Lake, whose SF novel Mainspring will soon be released in a mass market edition, as well as meeting The Monsters of Templeton author Lauren Groff, not one but four state Poet Laureates (Marjorie Wentworth--South Carolina; Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda--Virginia; Joyce Brinkman--Indiana; Lisa Starr--Rhode Island), mystery writer James O. Born, historical thriller writer A.J. Hartley, legal thriller writer James Sheehan, mainstream literary novelist/short story writer Jason Ockert, YA novelist Alan Gratz, cookbook author Sallie Ann Robinson, and journalist Peter Zheutlin, among others. That's the great thing about a book festival as opposed to a convention focused on a narrower spectrum (for example, SF/F)--the sheer number of writers you meet from other genres and disciplines. To give you another example, I even met up with Lola Haskins again, a great poet I'd published in a 1980s literary journal and who I hadn't seen since. Ann, meanwhile, actually got to dance with the keynote speaker, Kevin O'Keefe, author of The Average American: The Extraordinary Search for the Nation's Most Ordinary Citizen.
Of course, making sure that diversity doesn't become chaos can be one of the biggest challenges facing a festival. Festival director Paula Watkins told me the most difficult part of her job is actually "Narrowing it all down to fit the space and time we have available. There are so many great writers out there. Getting ten pages of ideas down to three is a challenge."
What's the most satisfying aspect of the festival, for her? "It's free to the public and I fight hard to keep it that way. It's meant to be a public program to help the literacy rate in South Carolina, and to get adults back into reading." She also finds the way in which the writers at the festival interact personally rewarding, as "there's a lot of cross-pollination of ideas."
The festival could be described as the "flagship" for an admirable overall effort to promote the arts and reading. Susanna Brailsford, involved in the festival as the program coordinator for the South Carolina Literary Arts Partnership--a collaborative effort of the South Carolina Arts Commission, the South Carolina State Library, and The Humanities Council SC--assisted Watkins with "everything from author invitations and handling submissions to working with caterers and maintaining the Web site." As this was her first festival, she "most enjoyed watching how all of the pieces come together to create the finished product. And, of course, the positive feedback from presenters, exhibitors, volunteers, and festival attendees was also enjoyable."
For Brailsford, the most difficult yet rewarding part of her role outside of the festival is "managing many different programs for many different groups of South Carolinians, but that aspect is also the most rewarding because I get to work with...librarians, teachers, students, writers, and readers."
When I asked Watkins if there was a book she'd recommend on how to run a literary festival, she told me she's worked hard to help establish a meeting with other festival directors at BookExpo America (BEA), because "there's no manual for this kind of thing. We get together to share and exchange ideas [so we can] do our jobs more efficiently and creatively."
Finally, I asked both Watkins and Brailsford for general book recommendations. Watkins suggests Amazon readers check out Joan Didion's The Year of Magic Thinking and Adeline Yen Mah's Watching the Tree. Brailsford suggested Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson and My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier, as well as her favorite novel of all time, Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence.
Over the next couple of months, I'll be featuring current books from some of the authors we met at the festival, so watch this space. For more photos from the event, check out these photographs taken by Curtis Rogers, the Director of the South Carolina Center for the Book. --JeffV