One of America’s Most Bookish Cities is Getting a New Lit Festival
Steph Opitz Introduces Wordplay, Coming to Minneapolis in 2019
I have, of course, heard plenty of people using readiness as a metric for action. Like, being ready to get married, not ready to buy a house, ready to send in that manuscript. For me, I’ve never been fully ready for anything. Willing, yes. Able, sure. Ready? Not usually. If I had waited until I knew for sure I was ready to do things, I think I’d still be living with one of my parents. I wouldn’t have moved across country (four times), or internationally, wouldn’t have taken that new job, bought that car; I’m sure when I send this essay in, it won’t feel ready. Which is all to say, that when I talked to my now-boss about starting Wordplay, a Minneapolis book festival, when I was seven months pregnant, I wasn’t ready for any of it.
I’ve been involved in book festivals, in various capacities, for a decade—from volunteer to literary director to advisory board member. Through a series of events that only sound cool and calculated when I skip over the minutiae, I’ve worked on or with the Texas Book Festival, the Brooklyn Book Festival, the PEN World Voices Festival, Literary Arts’s Wordstock, and others. Different festivals present different challenges. Duh. The space, the budget, the ease of getting there, the breakfast tacos—these all have an impact on the experience.
I’m actually not kidding about the tacos. I surveyed about 100 authors earlier this year about what they do and do not like about book festivals and breakfast tacos came up a lot. So, Texas Book Festival, don’t ever cut that author breakfast. Authors are literally craving your festival. Overwhelmingly (88 percent), authors like going to book festivals and feel it is a helpful venue for their promotion. Thank goodness. The rest of the results were sort of mixed. People thought some festivals were too big, some felt they weren’t big enough—this applied to the amount of authors, crowds, and the physical footprint of the festival. A major reason authors felt it was, or was not, worth it to attend a given festival was their panel. Maybe that’s an obvious thing, but it’s worth stating clearly: what authors were asked to talk about and with whom directly tied into their overall festival satisfaction.
I’ve always loved the process of programming, how to put authors together in discussion. Sometimes time and other constraints prevent true curatorial ingenuity—an author I really wanted declined, flight arrival or departure times aren’t flexible, secret one-sided feuds when author A—unbeknownst to author B—absolutely will not be paired with author B, venue capacity, and other less sexy reasons all play a role in the final outcome. Always, too, the print-deadline-train is coming down the tracks and I better get this thing programmed yesterday.
Other times it feels like the smartest thing I’ve ever done and I’m still patting myself on the back about it several years later. Like, putting two authors together whose respective work is not necessarily on the same topic or in the same genre but seemed from a certain viewpoint to lend themselves to unique conversation. I’m thinking of past panels like when I was able to put Lawrence Wright (Going Clear) and Jeff Guinn (Manson) on stage together to talk about cults of personality—did you know both Charles Manson and L. Ron Hubbard read Dale Carnegie? Or when debut poet Jynne Dilling Martin (We Mammals in Hospitable Times) and debut novelist Rebecca Dinerstein (The Sunlit Night) talked about how their works were inspired by respective Arctic adventures. Or when nonfiction writer Reza Aslan (Zealots) and fiction writer Owen Egerton (Everyone Says That at the End of the World) learned live, on stage, that their respective secular interests in Jesus stemmed from similar upbringings. I love discussions that push the conversation past, “What is your book about?” and dig up surprises, revelations.
A joy of reading was the start to my unlikely career path; I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a book festival director when I was an English major. Reading and writing are such private activities, and a book festival is so public. It seemed impossible to me that there would be an opportunity to talk about books, outside of an academic context, with people who were as into literature as me. To meet and hear authors—who are way more famous to me than, like, X Hollywood person—and do so with other adoring fans, sometimes in the thousands, felt so hypothetical. The prospect that creating that space could be my job, the way I earned money, well, that was inconceivable! And, yet, here I am: the self-proclaimed Number One Book Festival Enthusiast in the World. It was a no-brainer to me that, despite mothering a two-month old, when the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis offered me a job to launch and direct a large-scale book festival I was all yeses.
To start a book festival from scratch in my very literary hometown is beyond thrilling most of the time—nothing grandfathered in, no staid traditions or outdated guidelines to uphold. It’s also masochistic, I think—no precedent, no loyal attendee base, no laurels of previous years’ success to point to; it is hard to get people to care about a new thing. And, planning an annual event can be a bit exhausting. Keeping track of what books are coming out in a given year, reader trends, thematic trends, what is even pop culture-ish in a given year—it’s a lot to manage and then start over again the following year. It keeps me sharp, though—btw, I’m available to join your trivia team—and as tiring as it can be, it’s as energizing.
The back and forth emails about edits to a kidlit author’s powerpoint presentation might make my eyes bleed one day, but seeing said presentation come to life in front of hundreds of kiddos who are meeting a Real Life Author for the first time will never get old. And it’s always that—the moment of connection between a writer and a reader—that gets me. I’m not immune to it myself, after all these years; I cried when I met R.L. Stine for the first time (and, y’all, that was just, like, three years ago).
For now, though, I’m doing the nuts-and-bolts stuff like getting street permits, and thinking about signage, and wondering how many recycling bins to have on hand. The tedium is always less interesting to talk about, but it’s what makes the authors and attendees have a good time. If I can’t give them breakfast tacos, I will give folks a clear sense of where they need to be and when, damnit. And, soon, I’ll get to start on the programming…
And whether or not I’m ready: Wordplay, a book party in the heart of Minneapolis, is coming May 11-12, 2019. Mark your calendars.