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Bill Miller Discusses 2009 Fall for the Book

August 3, 2009

In addition to monitoring updates on the North Carolina Literary Festival (see last Friday’s update here), I also keep close tabs — very close — on another big fall book event: the Fall for the Book Festival, September 21-26 at George Mason University and throughout Northern Virginia, D.C. and Maryland. How close are those tabs? Well, for several years, I’ve actually been helping to market the festival, and occasionally I’ve even suggested a writer or two for each year’s line-up.

FFTB_040108_longWhile that disclosure may rightly suggest some bias on my part, I feel certain that Fall for the Book’s attractions and achievements stand tall without any spin or slant. This year marks Fall for the Book’s 11th annual festival, and the 2009 headliners are two of the finest writers in the U.S. — novelist E.L. Doctorow, winner of this year’s Fairfax Prize, and novelist, poet, and filmmaker Sherman Alexie, winner of the Mason Award. The festival overall spans a wide variety of genres — fiction, folklore, mystery, history, poetry, politics, spoken word, kids events, and more — and the schedule strikes a balance between young, up-and-coming talents and writers plucked straight from the bestseller lists, often with books hot off the presses. For example, Doctorow’s latest novel, Homer and Langley, will be released just on the eve the festival, and one of my favorite writers of all-time, James Ellroy, closes the festival by debuting his novel Blood’s A Rover, the final installment of his massive and ambitious Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, published just days before his appearance.

This past week, Fall for the Book posted its full schedule of events online, with more than 100 writers, scholars and performers on the line-up, and events scheduled in communities throughout the region,“bringing the rock stars of writing to your backyard”(as one of our marketing catchphrases has put it).. With the festival set, I send festival director Bill Miller a few questions, urging him to look back at Fall for the Book’s past, test the pulse of its present, and maybe even forecast its future.

Art Taylor: This year marks the start of the festival’s second decade, and you’ve been involved since the beginning. What has been the biggest change in Fall for the Book since that first year, and what’s the most important change/improvement/initiative you’re working on for future years?

Bill Miller, Fall for the Boook

Bill Miller, Fall for the Book

Bill Miller: From the beginning, Fall for the Book has been lucky enough to bring in some of the best writers of our time as festival participants. Even when we had no money to spend on honoraria and travel for them, these writers agreed to join us and let our audiences experience their work first-hand. Now, thanks to the generous and caring support of numerous businesses, individuals, and agencies throughout the region, Fall for the Book is able to accommodate a wide variety of readers’ interests by presenting writers whose works form the standards of today’s published words. That we are able to present such stellar writers and more than 100 of them every year is the biggest single development, I think, since the beginning of Fall for the Book.

As we go forward with Fall for the Book, what we envision is a festival that literally spans out to embrace the whole region, with writers of the highest quality appearing in all areas of the metro region. This is what we sometimes call the distributed model of the festival and under it, each area will have a part of the festival housed within it. This will enable people to attend events that are interesting and informative without having to all come to one location to do so.

The festival offers two major awards each year: the Fairfax Prize and the Mason Award. What kind of standing do these awards have in the larger literary community? What efforts do you think are needed to earn the prizes more recognition or greater respect?

Yes, each year, Fall for the Book selects two writers whose works the festival’s awards selection committee believes warrants recognition. I don’t know how the larger literary community perceives the awards, but I would say that there has been less visible attention paid to them than I would have thought. The thing is, we don’t try to make news with these selections. Our goal is to honor writers who have contributed significantly to the literary arts and the growth of readership for the literary arts. To anyone who is paying attention, then, these probably seem like logical choices rather than newsmaker choices. If we want to garner more attention for the awards, we probably need to change our goals and incorporate into them some criteria that would ensure that we made news with each selection. Or create one or two new awards with those goals. Something that would surprise people more. I guess I just gave myself a new project to work on.

The phrase literary festival potentially carries some weighty connotations. Is Fall for the Book primarily aimed at fans of big-L literature? Are there events for someone who just enjoys the occasional beach read, for example? And how are you dealing with the seemingly regular reports that book reading is on the decline, or the suggestion that women read and men don’t, or even that echoing death knell for the novel?

In fact, we don’t call ourselves the Fall for the Book literary festival and haven’t since about the second year, for just those sorts of reasons. People indicated in surveys that they had certain expectations about the festival when the word literary was in its title. So even though books remain our focus, we are not a literary festival with or without the cap L. We are more a festival of the literary and cultural arts. Most years, festivals include photography exhibits, music performances, and even dance demonstrations or performances. These are all part of the artistic, creative spirit out of which writing comes, we think, and so make perfect components of a festival dedicated to writing and reading, as Fall for the Book is.

Beyond that, I would note that, yes, we always — always — have a wide variety of writers and books represented at Fall for the Book. Beach reading, science, public issues and policy, essays, memoirs, how-to’s even. We have no one theme or approach but rather try to present something of interest to a wide variety of readers.

Is there a death knell sounding for the novel? I think there are huge changes in store for how we read and the formats in which our books are delivered to us, and those changes may mean large changes in the publishing industry, too. But I think we have to be careful not to confuse change with the death of things. Indeed, the changes may serve to increase readership as they make a wider variety of reading materials available in an ever-larger array of formats. Will we change our name to Fall for the New Format? Or even to Fall for Reading? I don’t think so, but I would expect us to include the new formats and the new publishing modes in the Fall for the Book array of fantastic events.

This year continues to be a tough time both for arts organizations and for the book publishing industry. What are the particular challenges that a festival like this faces in this economic climate?  What are you doing to meet those challenges? And what can fans of the festival do to help out?

Fans could make minor contributions and that would help a lot, actually. This can be done by visiting the Fall for the Book web site and just clicking on “contribute.”

All right, that’s tongue in cheek. Seriously, though, yes, these are tougher times economically and several of our sponsors have had to drop out altogether or significantly reduce their support levels. We began working with all of our sponsors months and months ago to see how the economic times would affect them and their abilities to help Fall for the Book, and then in response to what they told us, we sought additional support from new sponsors and managed the resources we had very frugally so that Fall for the Book festival-goers would not experience a diminished festival this year.

A main goal for us in this climate was just that — to ensure that festival-goers did not experience a diminished festival. And we managed it very well, actually. Our fundraising is on par with last year’s, and our spending management has been carefully tuned to maximum effect. The combination has produced a festival that is even more outstanding than in previous years. Maybe that comes with learning more about what it is you’re doing.

Looking at the 2009 schedule, what event are you personally most anticipating? Is there a favorite author of your own on the program?

Oh, I look forward to it all, to all of them — all of the writers who are coming. Every year, I find myself being like most of the people who come to Fall for the Book, I imagine. I want to go to everything. I used to be able to do that, too. I could get to every event at least briefly. But as the festival has grown and as we have begun to incorporate and build into venues that are not on the main Fairfax campus of Mason, it has been more and more difficult to do this. But doing it that way allows us to get events closer to the people of the region, and brings Fall for the Book into the backyards of everyone in the metro area.

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