BRATTLEBORO -- Three years after starting the "Books on the Nightstand" podcast with Michael Kindness, Ann Kingman thought it might be kind of fun to meet some of the fans who download their chats every chat.
So they decided to hold a weekend retreat for some of their listeners, figuring if they were lucky they might get eight to 10 people for pleasant weekend of book talk and relaxation in the tourist-friendly Vermont town of Manchester.
Instead, in short order more than 100 people signed up; the inn they had planned to host guests in completely filled up; and they had to scramble to find rooms for everyone else.
"There are a lot of people who read as a lifestyle, and yet all around them are people who think they are strange," said Kingman, who enjoys connecting with other booklovers and confirming that they’re not so strange after all. "It’s like we’re all old friends, because we all have books at the center of our lives."
For one weekend at least, books are at the center of Brattleboro’s collective life, as the 11th annual Brattleboro Literary Festival returns, bringing more than 50 more authors, artists and illustrators, poets, musicians, book professionals and writers for young people for nearly 40 readings, panel discussions, student events, film screenings and other literary showcases. Total attendance typically runs about 4,000 people.
Kingman is uniquely positioned to observe the literary scene. In addition to being a voracious booklover, she is also district sales manager for Random House and a devoted podcaster. Print and digital, business and pleasure, publisher’s plans and reader interaction -- Kingman sees it all and remains bullish on the world of words, even though the landscape has changed in our electronic age. The fact that 5,000 people download "Books in the Nightstand" every week must mean something.
"It makes you believe if the diehard fanatics feel that way, I don’t think anything is lost at all. There are people out there who are hungry to discover new writers. We can’t despair that everybody’s playing Angry Birds," she said. "I think people are looking for connection. Those kinds of connections between authors and readers are something the internet helps."
Connection is what the Brattleboro Literary Festival is all about. With a block or two in downtown Brattleboro, people can connect with authors of all stripes, from Pulitzer Prize-winners (there are two coming to the festival this year) to rising stars. The festival welcomes writers of fiction, nonfiction, memoir, poetry, children’s literature who come from a great distance (one writer is coming from Israel this year) and who live right next door (Karen Hesse, Eileen Christelow, Joyce Marcel, Chard deNiord, F.D. Reeve and Write Action).
The festival has star power. One of this year’s writers is Isabel Wilkerson, whose book "The Warmth of Other Suns" tells the story of three people who made the decision of their lives to travel north in what is known as the Great Migration. Her book won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and a slew of others. Earlier, Wilkerson had won the Pulitzer Prize while working as a Chicago Bureau Chief of the New York Times, the first African-American woman in America to do so.
"She’s an amazing speaker," said Festival Director Sandy Rouse. Wilkerson will speak on Saturday at 1 p.m., at Centre Congregational Church.
The festival’s other Pulitzer Prize-winner is poet Carl Dennis, who won for his book "Practical Gods." He will speak on Saturday at 10 a.m., at Centre Congregational Church.
"I’m a big fan of his ‘Practical Gods,’" said festival committee member Tim Mayo. "It really did have a post-modernist approach to concepts of God."
Authors for children and young adults
There are stars aplenty among authors of children’s and young adult literature.
Tony DiTerlizzi, co-creator of the bestselling "Spiderwick Chronicles," translated into 30 languages and adapted into a feature film, will be on hand. His new series for middle grade readers began with "The Search for WondLa" and "A Hero for WondLa." He will do the school event at the Latchis on Thursday at 11 a.m., and then appear with his wife, Angela, author of "Say What?" and the "Adventures in Meno" picture book series with her husband, on Saturday at 11 a.m., at the Garden.
Jane Yolen, dubbed the "Hans Christian Andersen" of American and author of more than 300 books, including "Owl Moon," will be on hand. Her versatility will be celebrated -- she is doing an event focused on her poetry, with Rachel Hadas on Saturday at 2:30 p.m., at First Baptist Church. Yolen will also read at an event celebrating her young adult fiction on Sunday at 2:30 p.m., at the Hooker-Dunham Theater.
Closer to home, Karen Hesse, winner of the 1998 Newbery Medal for "Out of the Dust," presents her newly published novel," Safekeeping," in which she turns to her attention to a dystopian future and experiences of a Brattleboro teenager who walks to Canada to search for her parents. The book is accompanied by Hesse’s photographs. Hesse’s appearance is Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Hooker-Dunham Theater. Word to the wise: Seating is going to be limited.
Local children’s author/illustrator Eileen Christelow, who lives in Dummerston with her husband, artist Ahren Ahrenholz, is the creator of the "Five Little Monkeys" series of books and other children’s classics. She will present a program titled "Animal Antics" by the festival, discussing those naughty little monkeys and more on Sunday at 12:15 p.m., at the Hooker-Dunham Theater.
Christelow has seen a lot of changes in the industry in the three decades since she began publishing children’s books.
"The whole landscape is changing. Suddenly picture books go in IPads. ... It’s a whole different reading experience, and I think publishers are really grappling with what it is. Is it a toy at the same time it’s a story?" said Christelow, who is a big fan of the literary festival and eager to meet fans at her reading. "It’s a good group of authors coming to our small town ... our small town with lots of bookstores."
For the hipper crowd
The festival is chock full of authors who have won other prestigious awards and held valued professorships at prestigious universities, but it also casts an eye at less traditional, ivy-covered literary outlets.
Case in point in the Literary Death Match, which will be held on Friday at 8:30 p.m., at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden. Hosted by LDM co-founder Todd Zuniga, the event pits authors Deni Y. Bechard, Tayari Jones, Victor LaValle and Matthew Dicks against each other in literary and more silly exploits to crown a champion. Founded six years ago, Literary Death Matches have become a worldwide phenomenon, although Brattleboro is by far the smallest town one has ever been held in.
"I’m really looking forward to the Literary Death Match," said Kingman.
Before the Death Match, Tayari Jones and Deni Bechard, two emerging literary stars, will read at 7 p.m., at the First Baptist Church.
"I think we consider it part of the mission to introduce people to writers they might not have encountered," said Rouse.
Other events tapping into less traditional, but very vibrant trends in literature include the forum on Do It Yourself Publishing with Steve Almond and Courtney Maum on Saturday at 3:30 p.m., at Brooks Memorial Library; Saturday at 5:30 p.m., at the Hooker-Dunham features a happy hour Flash Fiction event hosted by literary funny man Steve Almond featuring four masters of the form reading their work plus a raffle.
Thursday night offers two events: a poetry slam with Major Jackson at 7 p.m., at Landmark College in Putney; and the third annual collaborative event between video artists and Write Action at 7 p.m., at the Center for Digital Arts in the Cotton Mill.
Science in the spotlight
There are events for all ages for fans of science and the natural world.
David Aguilar, astronomer and author of several National Geographic books, writes about astronomy for young people. His upcoming book, "Alien Worlds" investigates how bizarre alien life might be. He will speak on Sunday at 1:15 p.m., at the Hooker-Dunham Theater.
On Saturday at 2:30 p.m., at the Hooker-Dunham, Daniel Chaimovitz, an expert in plant science who recently was director of the Manna Center for Plant Biosciences at Tel Aviv University, will speak about his new book, "What a Plant Knows, A Field Guide to the Senses."
Merging science, social science and history, John Kelly’s fascinating nonfiction book, "The Graves are Walking" examines the Irish potato famine and points to some interesting lessons that might apply to our own times. Kelly will read at 11 a.m. on Saturday at the Hooker-Dunham Theater.
Two literary daughters, talented in their own right, team up in one of the most interesting non-fiction events of the festival.
Reeve Lindbergh, daughter of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, journeys from her home in northern Vermont to read from her latest book collecting her mother’s writing, "Against Wind and Tide: Letters and Journals, 1947-1986." She will pair with Alexandra Styron, daughter of William and Rose Styron and author of "Reading My Father" and the novel "All the Finest Girls." Their reading is Sunday at 1:15 p.m., at Centre Congregational Church.
Also dealing with a parent is memoirist is Deni Y. Bechard, whose new book, "Cures for Love" talks about growing up with a difficult father. His appearance is
Another offering for memoir fans comes from northern Vermont novelist Howard Frank Mosher, who will read on Sunday at 11 a.m., at Brooks Memorial Library from "The Great Northern Express," a chronicle of a 100-city book tour and a reflection on his development as a writer in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.
The festival samples some Italian fare with a program titled "Embracing the Inner Italian" with two authors -- Tom Santopietro, whose new book "The Godfather Effect," examines how the classic film trilogy has effected perceptions of Italian-Americans; and Mark Rotella, author of "Amore: The Story of Italian American Song." Their event is Sunday at 2:30 p.m., at Brooks Memorial Library. In a related event, "The Godfather" will be screened at Latchis 4 on Saturday at 8 p.m. An admission will be charged.
In addition to Pulitzer Prize-winner Carl Dennis, poetry lovers can enjoy the work of Martha Collins, whose work includes "Blue Front," a book-length poem about a lynching her father witnessed, and "White Papers," a series of untitled poems that explore race from a variety of perspectives. She will read on Sunday at the Hooker-Dunham at 11 a.m. with Joan Houlihan, author of "The Us" and, forthcoming in 2013, "The Ay."
Rachel Hadas, whose new book is "The Ache of Appetite," reads with Jane Yolen; Major Jackson, professor at University of Vermont, reads with Daniel Tobin, author of five books of poems, on Saturday at 4 p.m., at First Baptist Church.
Sydney Lea, Poet Laureate of Vermont, will read with local poet and author Chard deNiord, whose 2011 book "Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers and Stapled Songs" is a fascinating and instructive series of essays interviews with famous American poets. They will appear on Sunday at 4 p.m., at the Hooker-Dunham Theater.
Poet, writer and translator F.D. Reeve will present a verse and jazz event, "The Blue Cat," with Don Davis and Joe Deleault on Sunday at 4 p.m., at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden.
A strong group of fiction writers includes short story author Edith Pearlman whose book "Binocular Vision" won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award (Sunday at 2:30 p.m., at Centre Congregational Church); best-selling author Stewart O’Nan, who has written 14 novels, including, most recently, "The Odds," and collaborated with Stephen King on "Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season" (Saturday at 4 p.m., at Centre Congregational Church); Kathryn Harrison, who reads with April Bernard, author of "Miss Fuller," an imagined story of historic feminist, journalist and orator Margaret Fuller (Saturday at 11 a.m., at Centre Congregational Church); New England Book Award-winning author Margot Livesey, also reimagines a classic figure, in this case, Jane Eyre, in her new book, "The Flight of Gemma Hardy" (Sunday at 1:15 p.m., at Brooks Library); Matthew Dicks and Ben Dolnick, author of two coming-of-age novels, "Zoology" and "You Know Who You Are" (Sunday at 11 a.m., at River Garden.
An intriguing figure is Richard Mason, born in South Africa in 1978. An author and activist, his first novel, "The Drowning People," published when he was 21, sold more than a million copies worldwide. In 1999, with Nobeal Laureate Desmond Tutu, he founded the Kay Mason Foundation, which helps disadvantaged South Africans have access to education. He reads with Margot Livesey on Sunday.
One of the most interest pairings is that of novelist Victor LaValle, author of the short story collection "Slapboxing with Jesus," three novels and a forthcoming book, "The Devil in Silver," about a troublemaker sent to a mental hospital.
"I love this book. It reminded me of some of the characters in Steinbeck," said Rouse.
He reads with Bernice McFadden, whose unique and courageous novel "Gathering of Waters" is a fictionalized account of young love between Emmitt Till and a girl in Money, Miss. But really, it’s more than that.
"It’s about the town of Money, Miss. It’s really about three generations of women," said McFadden, whose novels have been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, praised by Toni Morrison and selected as finalists for the NAACP Image Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.
As she was working through the novel, Emmitt Till, the young African-American teen who was brutally murdered in the 1950s, enters the picture.
"Emmitt Till was murdered 10 years before I was born, but I grew up with him because it was always a topic in my household," said McFadden, whose character falls in love with Emmitt Till. "Nothing comes beyond a little peck on the lips. A few days later, he is murdered, but she never forgets him. That’s what happens with first love.
"I needed to write it that way because I needed to feel better about what happened to him," she said. "I needed to create a better reality for him. Anybody who has love in their life is blessed."
McFadden and LaValle read on Saturday at 2:30 p.m., at Centre Congregational Church.
In addition to readings by guest authors, the festival offers other events, which begin tonight with a Vermont Reads event, highlighting the book "Bull Run" read a troupe of New England Youth Theatre actors at 7 p.m., at Brooks Library. On Saturday, there is a booksigning for the new Circus Smirkus book at noon at the River Garden; the Write Action Local Authors Showcase at 1:15 .m., at the River Garden; and the Write Action Open Reading there at 6:30 p.m. On Sunday, local journalist and author Joyce Marcel presents a program on "Making it in the Arts" at 10 a.m. at the River Garden; as well as the lunchtime panel on sharing books through podcasts, blogs and social media at 12:15 p.m., at the River Garden.
For more information about the festival, visit www.brattleboroliteraryfestival.org.
The Brattleboro Literary Festival is presented by Building a Better Brattleboro. Major sponsors include Marlboro College, Vermont Arts Council, Vermont Humanities Council and Vermont Public Radio.