Decatur Book Festival: literary veterans and rising stars celebrate reading – The Guardian

Things you might have seen if you were lucky enough to attend the 2015 AJC Decatur Book festival this past weekend: a children’s parade with drummers and festival mascot Bookzilla; an onstage marriage proposal during a panel about YA literature; funnel cakes and corn dogs; haiku written by festivalgoers on chalkboards lining the sidewalk; a tense conversation between feminist authors Erica Jong and Roxane Gay; dozens of exhibits by independent book sellers and presses; Cat Cora, the first female Iron Chef; and former US poet laureate Natasha Trethewey reading Meditation at Decatur Square, a poem she wrote to honor the festival’s 10th anniversary.

And what you might have felt, despite it being the largest independent book festival in the US with more than 600 authors and a turnout of 85,000-90,000 to this smallish town near Atlanta, is the sense of community that drives the entire festival. Trethewey is a resident of Decatur and she told me that when executive director Daren Wang asked her to write the poem, she couldn’t turn him down. “The Decatur Book Festival is such a good friend, and I have been connected to it from the beginning,” she said. “It has made this place of personal tragedy a happy place, a place I can make my life over.” (Threthewey’s mother was murdered in the town.) “And I can help celebrate the way that books allow us to imagine and the community of readers and writers descending upon the square every year.”

Thanks to Wang’s original vision, DBF has taken place every Labor Day weekend since its launch in 2006. It transforms Decatur’s historic square – think Old South but with hipper shops and restaurants and a little bohemia – into a book lover’s wonderland. This year the Old Courthouse, now the DeKalb History Center, once again set about the business of making history as readers gathered to hear authors in the regal upstairs courtroom.

The outdoor community bandstand spotlighted emerging authors, musicians and performers, their voices hovering over the buzz of the festival crowd, some stopping to watch, others content to wander among the exhibits. Nearby churches offered their sanctuaries to readings and discussions of other famous texts. Things literally sizzled on the food and cooking stage as cookbook authors shared their secrets. And the weather this year, pleasant mid-80s temperatures with sunshine, allowed determined book lovers to peruse book vendors lining the square’s cross streets or to scurry from one venue to another with ease.

And that scurry was worth it. In years past, authors such as Joyce Carol Oates, Charles Frazier and Michael Connelly drew crowds. This year’s program offered an assortment of acclaimed poets and fiction writers. Jericho Brown, Denise Duhamel, Laura McCullough, Evie Shockley and Afaa Michael Weaver, all with coveted spots in the anthology Best American Poetry 2015, explored the status of contemporary American poetry during a lively Sunday afternoon session. And following that, PBS Newshour’s Jeffrey Brown and Buzzfeed columnist and poet Saeed Jones talked politics and poetry in the panel Poetry and the News.

Venues were packed for sessions featuring fiction writers Ron Rash, Adam Johnson, Amy Stewart and Pat Conroy. Conroy, who recently created his own imprint at the University of South Carolina Press, Story River Books, was there to celebrate several authors he edited, including short-story masters Mary Hood and Pam Durban. One festivalgoer, on her way into the Decatur Baptist Church to hear satirical novelist Christopher Moore joked: “It’s perfect. I get the brilliant Christopher Moore and God. And both for free.”

Although DBF attracts established writers like Moore, Wang has always been guided by a strong commitment to writers at various stages of their careers. “I would say that every year we have fantastic A-list authors, but I think the Decatur festival puts a little more emphasis on up-and-coming writers, too,” he said. “And there’s a duty and obligation to help the Atlanta writing community have a showcase.” Program director Philip Rafshoon, who assumed the title in 2013, agreed. “Our mission has always been to connect with people at all stages of the writing process, whether they are on a small press or a major press, rising star or established. We have to cover it all, and we take that mission very seriously. If you look at our lineup this year, it was lots of big-name authors like Samuel Delaney, but there were brand-new writers like Hester Young and Jonathan Weisman.

“One of the very innovative things that we’ve recently put in place is having a track where a featured author decides who bring in,” he added. Last year, it was Pat Conroy; and this year it was Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist. “She chose young writers, rising stars, who, like Roxane herself, write a lot about culture and identity.” Among Gay’s curated six sessions were The State of Publishing for People of Colour and To Be Other, with appearances by Jones and Angela Flournoy, among others. All Gay’s sessions prompted many discussions in the restaurants and bars lining the Decatur square.

Theatre was the focus of this year’s Art DBF, which merges the literary and visual arts. Serenbe Playhouse offered excerpts of its production of The Secret Garden, based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s book. The Imperial Opa Circus performed their acrobatic interpretation of The Great Gatsby. Atlanta ensemble Found Stages allowed characters from Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club to play mahjong with audience members.

This year, the teen stage grew to a 400-seat venue on the square, featuring sessions like YA Truth or Dare, Identity Crisis and a poetry slam. “They talk about so many important things,” one young girl told me, referring to the YA authors she had seen thus far – music to presenter and YA author Terra Elan McVoy’s ears. “What is currently most exciting to me as an author, bookseller and reader are the YA conversations about diversity and how to widen that scope across the board, and that folks are realizing how intelligent, compelling and high-quality this ‘genre’ can be,” she said.

Many children’s events ended with long lines of chatty children, parents relegated to the sidelines, waiting patiently (or not) to have books signed. Diane Capriola, children’s and teens’ program manager said: “The best thing about my job is to make these connections. To see kids more starstruck by meeting the author of a beloved book than by meeting a celebrity. I do believe that festivals like ours do a lot to get and keep children and teens reading.”

Jennine Capó Crucet, whose debut novel Make Your Home Among Strangers brought her to the festival, agreed that the festival’s social element is its biggest draw. “It’s a chance to see social media in action,” she said, referring to the vibrant online presences of most of the writers present, “where you get to hang out in real life with people that you meet and know only online, where you can forge really genuine friendships.”