Virginia Festival of the Book

Interview by Nicki Stein
Issue 37 • March 2016 • Charlottesville

Authors, publishers, and bibliophiles travel from around the world to celebrate the written word and commune with each other in the heart of Virginia.

As a kid, I devoured books whole: on long car rides, my parents marveled at my ability to read in the back seat (a talent thwarted by nausea in my adulthood) and rolled their eyes at my unwillingness to close the spine of my book-of-the-moment even at the dinner table. Part of what entranced me enough to continue turning those stained pages with a mouthful of half-chewed food was the feeling of wanting to stay awash in the world that the author had so lovingly crafted for me.

Like a lot of folks who love to read, it remains a singular joy for me to hole away with a good book. But while reading is typically a solitary pursuit, the joy of reading is also informed by collective experience: the knowledge that you share this new world and the characters you’ve grown close to with other readers from around the world. The Virginia Festival of the Book is dedicated to bringing bookworms of all ages together to celebrate their collective love of literature. Now in its twenty-second year, it is the largest literary festival in the state, sprawling over five days at a variety of venues throughout Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

As Sarah Lawson, the festival’s Program Associate, told me, “Every year we pack in as many programs as possible. This year, we have more than 250 programs planned, featuring more than 425 authors and moderators.” Events range from author visits at local public schools and author panels, to book signings and writing workshops. Since the festival staff is small, they rely heavily on volunteers to facilitate their prodigious agenda, adding to an already strong sense of community among festival-goers. As Sarah explained, “The scale of the festival is made possible through the tremendous support of volunteers – some of whom come from around the state to help support these programs. This year, we have more than 340 volunteers who will be taking part.” Due to generous support from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, as well as individual contributions, the Virginia Center for the Book is able to offer the majority of festival programming completely free of charge.

With over 20,000 book-lovers flocking to Charlottesville for the festival each year, it’s no wonder that the event has garnered clout in the literary world; however, it’s the focus on community that sets it apart. Sarah explained that local community members give input into festival programming each year. “Our Youth and Outreach Committee is comprised of regional teachers, librarians, children’s authors, and parents who meet with festival staff to provide input and expertise,” she explained. “The result is a festival that is able to evolve and grow in an organic manner.”

Victoria E. Schwab (who writes under the pen name V.E. Schwab), a fantasy writer from Tennessee known particularly for her A Darker Shade of Magic series, will be participating in the Virginia Festival of the Book for the first time this year. She spoke to me with excitement about the particular benefits provided by participation in a literary festival of this caliber. “Festivals as an author are one of the best things you can do,” she told me, “because you get to connect with other people’s fans and you get to make new readers – it’s not just preaching to your existing choir.”

In her capacity as a Young Adult fiction author, Victoria will be leading a discussion geared towards teens along with fellow YA authors Robert Beatty and Jen Swann Downey. Their focus will be on publishing Young Adult novels. “Any opportunity that I get to not just talk at teenagers, but to work with them, I’ll take,” Victoria explained. “I started writing when I was a teenager and I know that the opportunities I had in high school to interact with members of the published community really shaped me as a writer.” These moments of personal connection to one’s audience are particularly salient for participating authors throughout this sprawling, yet tight-knit, event.

Lamar Giles, a fellow Young Adult fiction author who specializes in mystery and crime novels, will also be participating in the festival for the first time this year. A lifelong Virginian currently residing in Chesapeake, he will take part in three author panels. “I love participating in panels,” Lamar enthused, “It's always fun and enlightening to spend time with other professionals and the people who care.” Highlighting again the importance of the connections that the festival facilitates, he joked, “I spend most of my time alone in a room making up stuff. I need the reality check.”

Although this is his first time participating as an author, Lamar has been aware of the festival for years. “This is the festival for our state,” he told me, “and I can't wait to be among all of these literary figures and literature lovers. Where else would a writer from the Commonwealth want to be?” That sense of synchronicity, of looking to the person next to you and feeling a common sense of belonging, is a precious sensation that the Festival of the Book provides.

At the close of our conversation, Sarah Lawson echoed Lamar’s thoughts, recounting her favorite moment of the festival each year. “You look around a room and realize that everyone else there is just as excited about books as you are,” she confided, “There is just such an amazing energy that comes from sharing a room or an entire week of your life with people who care as much as you do about reading and books.”

The Virginia Festival of the Book takes place from March 16-20 at a variety of venues throughout Charlottesville and Albemarle County. For a full schedule of events, visit vabook.org.

Photos provided by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities

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