David Wroblewski spent the better part of a decade crafting The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Everything since has happened very fast indeed.
Published in June to critical acclaim and a lavish testimonial from Stephen King, the northern Wisconsin native's 576-page debut novel climbed The New York Times best-seller list. During a summer book-tour stop in Madison, he was invited to return for the 2008 Wisconsin Book Festival. Then, on Sept. 19, Oprah Winfrey picked The Story of Edgar Sawtelle as the latest title for her book club - calling it a great American novel comparable to the best of Steinbeck and Harper Lee.
Boom. In the same way she launched her first book-club pick, Jacquelyn Mitchard's The Deep End of the Ocean, into the stratosphere in 1996, Winfrey sent The Story of Edgar Sawtelle skyrocketing. By Oct. 8, the number of hold requests for the 91 available copies in Wisconsin's South Central Library System was 1,069 and climbing. Booked months ago to appear at the 2008 Wisconsin Book Festival, Wroblewski now shines as the brightest star in the seventh annual festival's constellation of literary lights.
It is a lustrous lineup. Scheduled for Oct. 15-19 at dozens of venues in and near Madison, this year's festival includes the likes of filmmaker and author M.K. Asante Jr. (It's Bigger Than Hip Hop), cartoonist/writer/ playwright/force of nature Lynda Barry, Malian man of letters Baba Wagué Diakite, Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich, journalist and Democracy Now! producer Amy Goodman, actress Mia Kirshner, Stuff White People Like phenom Christian Lander, scientist/musician Daniel Levitin, Pulitzer-winning author David Maraniss, fiction Pulitzer laureate Marilynne Robinson, novelist Christina Schwarz (herself a 2000 Oprah beneficiary), award-winning poet Patricia Smith and two-time sportswriter of the year Dave Zirin.
Bring sunglasses: Adding to that wattage are scores of other presenters illuminating the theme of this year's festival, "Changing Places" - along with an intriguing experiment and a new partnership with Wisconsin Public Television.
The theme once again provides a loose framework on which to build this year's festival, while tying it to other programs and initiatives of the festival's parent entity, the Wisconsin Humanities Council. The theme provides a modicum of structure, but also affords festival organizers tremendous latitude.
"We intentionally chose another theme that could be interpreted in a zillion different ways, because we didn't intend the theme to be a filter in our decision-making," explains festival director Alison Jones Chaim. "We want to be able to include the best and most exciting stuff from Madison, Wisconsin, all over the Midwest, but also stuff that's happening on the national level and even international, if we can get them to land here instead of fly over."
Chaim rattles off a host of ways in which the theme might be interpreted. The context of how we change places, for example, opens the possibility of a programming stream that explores our relationships with urban and rural landscapes. There is also the sense of "how places change us," she adds, or of changing from one place to another - traveling. Chaim can conjure all manner of meanings. Superman's phone booths, she points out, are changing places.
Such tongue-in-cheek interpretations are necessary preventatives, Chaim observes: You don't want the theme to hijack the festival and send it spiraling into some sort of academic parsing exercise.
"We want something that is really, sincerely going to have something for everyone," she explains. "That's why we choose these open themes, so you can slip something in sideways."
Chaim cites a handful of festival programs to illustrate what she means by something for everyone:
- In partnership with the Aldo Leopold Foundation, the festival's big kickoff on Wednesday, Oct. 15, features New York Times science writer Andrew Revkin, author of The North Pole Was Here and The Burning Season, and Oberlin College environmental studies professor David Orr, author of such books as Ecological Literacy and Design on the Edge.
- Another collaboration, this one involving the UW-Madison's creative writing program, has yielded an appearance by Guggenheim Fellow and PEN/Malamud Award-winner Ann Beattie on Friday, Oct. 17. "Ann Beattie is a beloved and amazing short-story writer," Chaim says. "She has won huge major awards and is really revered by other writers. When I say Ann Beattie is coming, they fall off their chairs. We're really excited to have her."
- An electrifying spoken-word program track features four-time national poetry slam champion Patricia Smith, the Midwest Youth Slam All-Stars, the UW's First Wave Spoken Word & Urban Arts Learning Community, Milwaukee's Dasha Kelly, the Madison Storytellers Guild, and rising star M.K. Asante, author of It's Bigger Than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post Hip Hop Generation.
- There is an abundance of local authors, including Jerry Apps, whose new book, Old Farm: A History, narrates the provenance of his family's farm in central Wisconsin with historical and contemporary photos, maps and documents; Fabu, Madison's poet laureate; Mitchard, a festival fixture who so far this year has published two new novels for young adults; and artist-photographer Carol Chase Bjerke, whose new art-book project, Hidden Agenda, addresses issues related to her confrontation with colorectal cancer.
- On Saturday, Oct. 18, the pairing of Marilynne Robinson (whose new novel, Home, is a companion to her Pulitzer-winning previous novel, Gilead) and poet Ron Wallace (whose new collection is titled For a Limited Time Only) promises the sort of intriguing juxtaposition of form that is a hallmark of the festival.
The intent of these pairings is to render programs more fluid and interactive, Chaim explains - to encourage dialogue between the presenters, but also segue into conversations between writers and their audiences, and between audience members.
"It's wonderful when there's a rich Q & A period after an event," says Chaim. "It's even more wonderful if we can get people who came as strangers to talk to each other and to leave the event having a conversation and take it home to their dinner tables."
This goal falls under the auspices of the Wisconsin Humanities Council, which has adopted "Community Through Conversation" as a distillation of its mission. The aim, Chaim explains, is to cultivate "the shared experience of what makes us human, what connects us, the civic discourse that generates community and democracy."
Toward that end, this year's festival will experiment with conversation circles organized to facilitate reflection. Based on a model developed by the Chicago Humanities Festival, each circle will be linked to topics addressed in festival programs, and be guided by a facilitator.
The Overture Center will once again serve as a centralized hub for the festival. In addition to hosting author presentations in its Promenade Hall, Wisconsin Studio and Rotunda, it will be the site of an information table where staff and volunteers will help festival goers find events at venues scattered throughout the city.
"That's a huge thing," notes Chaim, because in addition to area bookstores and libraries, this year's festival includes programs at theaters, museums, UW-Madison, MATC-Downtown, restaurants, a tavern and even Parman's Super Service Station, where historians Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz are scheduled to discuss their new book, Fill 'Er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations.
Seven years in, Chaim notes, the festival is reaping the dividends of partnerships it has built. Some relationships, such as the ones the festival enjoys with small independent local booksellers like A Room of One's Own Feminist Bookstore and Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative, have matured into symbiosis.
"Allen Ruff from Rainbow is super-proactive and gets more proactive every year - thank you, Allen - about keeping his eye out," Chaim offers by way of example. "It's quite unique that we have relationships with all the different booksellers who want to have relationships with us. In prior years, when we started this out, we did a lot of legwork to meet with people who had bookstores and said, 'Do you want to be doing this?'"
Time after time, the answer was a resounding yes. The festival has worked hard to maintain and extend this web.
The festival must also be conscientious in apportioning events to libraries and other partner venues. "It's a pretty logistical, labyrinthine nightmare to parcel out all the different events to different booksellers who are doing on-site sales at events in a couple dozen different venues, and trying to make it so that everybody has an equal-ish number of the real revenue-generating ones," Chaim notes.
Over these considerations, festival organizers must try to take into account a complicating layer of audience logistics and strive to avoid scheduling events that might appeal to similar audiences at the same time - or without leaving enough time to get from one event to the next.
A new partnership may relieve some of the inevitable frustration: Wisconsin Public Television will be filming some of this year's Wisconsin Book Festival events for broadcast on its recently launched online channel.
"People are so diverse and books are so diverse that there's reason to showcase a really wide spectrum," says Chaim. "I know the schedule is frustrating to any number of people, but we can't make it ideal for everybody. The only practical solution is to have one event at a time."
They're never going to do that, she says: "That would be like spoon-feeding, like this is what you should be interested in, instead of saying this is what's out there."
Independent bookstores benefit
As a bookseller for Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative and the author of the 2007 debut novel Save Me, Julie Kogon, Allen Ruff has a dual perspective on the Wisconsin Book Festival.
"The book festival affords a great opportunity for small independent bookstores in the Madison area, such as Rainbow," he observes, in terms of greater visibility for the festival's book vendors.
Rainbow has taken an increasingly proactive stance in its relationship with the festival. The store's involvement this year includes presentation of Democracy Now! journalists Amy Goodman and Jeremy Scahill at the Barrymore Theatre (in a collaboration with WORT-FM); an appearance by Dave Zirin, author of A People's History of Sports in the United States; a program Ruff describes as "the big radical graphics event" featuring Paul Buhle, Mike Konopacki, Lynda Barry and Seth Tobocman; and a panel on the watershed year of 1968, featuring former Weather Underground principal Kathy Wilkerson, Buhle and Kendall Hale, an entering undergrad on the UW campus that year, and now author of Radical Passions: A Memoir of Revolution and Healing.
The festival's relationship with Rainbow is but one of many such symbioses among and between sponsors, booksellers and friends. The University of Wisconsin Press, for example, is a festival cornerstone. It is involved in more than a dozen festival events this year.
The dividends for participating authors are both tangible and otherwise, Ruff observes. "One of the things that the festival does very well is it gives visibility, provides space for local talent, local authors, Wisconsin authors, people that have published through small presses," he says. "That's a very big plus. The nature of the publishing industry is such now that it's very hard to get that visibility, that public access, that notoriety, unless you're already a star."
If audiences are drawn to the festival by marquee names like David Wroblewski, the reflected glory shines bright enough to illuminate even the most obscure names and render them visible to that same audience.
Ruff suggests the significance of this cannot be overstated. In the age of Amazon, big-box retailers and e-books, the festival casts a spotlight on the book itself. "Who else would put these events together?" he asks. "Who else would provide the books, bring the authors, but those dedicated to the book as we know it?"