Celebrating Louisiana’s Literary Richness
A peek inside the Louisiana Book Festival, scheduled for October 31 in Baton Rouge.
“The uniqueness of our state and the breadth and scope of our history and culture draw authors from across the country and throughout the world to write about Louisiana or set their work in the state,” says Louisiana State Librarian Rebecca Hamilton. And it’s those writers and their works that the Louisiana Book Festival seeks to promote each fall with a jam-packed free day of literature in Capitol Park.
The 12th annual Louisiana Book Festival returns Saturday, October 31, from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. in Baton Rouge with presentations by local and national bestselling authors, panel discussions, activities for children and teens, live music, food and a Halloween costume contest.
Big names on the agenda this year include Ellen Gilchrist (pictured), Rick Bragg, Cokie Roberts, Molly Antopol, M.O. Walsh, Jamie Kornegay, Kim Boykin and lots more. Hamilton says one of the things she’s most looking forward to is the Louisiana Writer Award ceremony. New Orleans literary critic and writer Tom Piazza will be receiving the award this year, as well as promoting his new book A Free State.
The One Book, One Festival discussion is also a popular session, with this year’s book selection being Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Hamilton promises some lively conversation led by Southern literature scholar Gary Richards.
Louisiana Center for the Book began holding the festival in 2002. “Not all states have a book festival, but we felt it was important for us to celebrate this part of Louisiana’s cultural economy,” says Hamilton. “As with the national festival, we promote literacy, books and reading, but additionally we focus on the work of Louisiana authors and books about or set in our state.”
That first year gathered about 5,000 attendees and 75 authors. The festival was canceled in 2005 after hurricanes Katrina and Rita and again in 2010 due to budget cuts, but has grown over the past five years to a record attendance of more than 29,000 attendees, 200 authors and panels and 100 programs in multiple genres for children, teens and adults.
“Our rich cultural heritage and the diversity of the people of our state, whether native or assimilated into our culture and making Louisiana their home, lend themselves to a comparable depth of literary richness,” says Hamilton. “Though we as a people don’t go searching for trouble, looking for a hurricane or an oil spill, our writers know how to create a great story from that adversity and how to celebrate what is good about our state.”
Grand dame of Southern literature Ellen Gilchrist is one of those authors, repeatedly setting her work in New Orleans over the years and using Hurricane Katrina as a plot point in her 2014 story collection Acts of God. Like special guest Shirley Ann Grau, who appeared at the festival in 2013, Gilchrist, who makes her home in Fayetteville, Arkansas, presents a rare chance to see one of the South’s best living authors and gain insight into her body of work.
Hamilton does make the point that Louisiana readers don’t just read books about their home state. “We’re Louisiana readers, yes, but we’re also Southern readers and American readers and citizens of the world readers,” she says. To fellow music fans, she recommends a presentation by Dennis Dunaway, who’s written a memoir about his years in The Alice Cooper Group. His wife, Cindy, who designed the costumes for the band, will be with him.
If there was a complaint to be made about the festival, it would be too many compelling presentations packed into a seven-hour time span, but Hamilton takes this as a compliment. “We always have more authors and books to feature than we can accommodate in one day, and we’d love to expand our festival to more than one day if we had the funding and staffing to make that possible,” she says. Budget cuts still impact the State Library and festival, making support and attendance imperative. The free festival app (available in the coming weeks) can help with creating a personal schedule and making those hard choices about who to see.
Lagniappe at the Festival:
Five writing WordShops are scheduled for October Friday, October 30, including “Waking the Dead: Crafting Historical Fiction” with Kent Wascom; “The Rough Draft in Poetry, or Which Comes First, the Chicken or the Egg? Or Both?” with Alice Friman; “Finding Your Form: Exploring Storytelling through Fiction and Memoir” with Molly Antopol and Skip Horack (pictured); “Experimental Nonfiction: Writing the Known, Writing the Unknown” with Christopher Schaberg; and “The Publicity Philosophy: How to Think Like a Publicist Even If You Can’t Afford to Hire One” with Sarah Russo. To register for a WordShop, call 225-219-9503.
Deep South is a media sponsor of the Louisiana Book Festival. Look for a festival reading list and interviews with guest authors coming up later this month.
Ellen Gilchrist photo by Nathalie Dubois.