Grand Rapids was Michigan’s snowiest city (114 inches) this past winter, and mounds of aged snow still dotted parking lots at Calvin College during the Apr. 10-12 Festival of Faith and Writing, a biennial event that is ordinarily graced by spring flowers. National Book Award winners James McBride, author of The Good Lord Bird, and Mary Szybist, author of Incarnadine, were among the festival’s 114 speakers, along with Anne Lamott, a perennial favorite for readers of faith. Said McBride in his Thursday evening plenary, “I sit down and write every day because I can’t not do it. God has planted a story in my heart.” Lamott, in her Friday evening address, jumped script, scratching her prepared speech to offer observations both pained and quirkily Lamottian about spending time earlier in the week in a funeral parlor after a friend died. A packed auditorium sang to celebrate her 60th birthday. "Give yourself small assignments," she told an audience eager for writing advice. "Find the shape of your work, then take out all the stuff that doesn't work."
Publishers were among festival exhibitors, selling books by featured speakers to a crowd of around 2,000 avid readers and writers. Underwriters for the festival included Baker Publishing Group, Wm. B. Eerdmans, Zondervan, Westbow Press, and U.K. publisher Lion Hudson, touting its new fiction line. Andrew Hodder-Williams, Lion Hudson publishing director, came from England for the festival; he said the Christian publishing house had decided to organize its diffuse fiction under an imprint and position it differently from more formulaic novels written for Christian readers. “We don’t want to offend but we want to stretch [sensibilities],” he said. Lion Fiction is publishing cozy crime, contemporary women’s fiction, historical fiction, and fantasy.
While Calvin College is Christian, the list of festival speakers and exhibitors was ecumenical and interfaith, with graphic novelist and memoirist G. Willow Wilson, a Muslim, among the speakers. Catholic publishers Loyola and Ave Maria exhibited and brought writers. “There’s a generosity in this definition of faith,” said Amanda Skofstad, publicist at Ave Maria, exhibiting for a second time at the festival. Festival organizers spoke also about stretching genres in their planning. “We are seeking to represent some newer genres such as graphic novels, comics, and pop culture criticism,” said planning committee and faculty member Debra Rienstra. “We are also having more success in representing TV and film writing, and I hope we can continue that in the future.” Planning committee and faculty member Dean Ward added his wish for “more diverse participation of ethnic communities and faith traditions.” Though presenters were racially diverse, attendees were "wonderful white people," as novelist McBride, who is biracial, humorously needled his audience when he spoke.
The next festival will be held in April 2016. Look for PW profiles of festival speakers G. Willow Wilson, Rachel Held Evans, and Miroslav Volf in the days ahead.
Ann Byle contributed to this report.