The Boston Book Festival may not be the city’s first literary festival, but in its first two years it has gained a reputation as one of the country’s best. For three and a half decades, starting in the late sixties, the multi-day Boston Globe Book Festival was the city’s premier book event with readings by big name authors. After it ended in 2004, the BBF moved to more than fill the void, even inaugurating a One City, One Short Story reading program last year. And its audience has grown from 12,000 in 2009 to double that in 2010. Now the BBF is readying its third festival, to be held on Saturday October 15, which will include outdoor exhibits by publishers, literary magazines, and independent booksellers in Copley Square, as well as adult and children’s programming at nearby venues.
When founder and executive director Deborah Z Porter was casting about for something to do, she didn’t set out to give the city a literary festival. “I was thinking of starting a speaker series like the one in San Francisco, City Arts and Letter,” she says. “It was brought to my attention that Boston was one of the few major cities in the world that doesn’t have a literary festival, and that sounded like a great project. So I took it on, quite naively.” She visited other festivals like The New Yorker Festival and TED during the two years she worked full-time on BBF before the inaugural festival. She also put together a variety of boards, including a literary board with New England publishers and authors ranging from Helen Atwan, director of Beacon Press, to writers Sue Miller and Andrew Dubus III. Nicholas Negroponte and Judith Donath are among the festival’s technology advisors, while agent Ike Williams and Harvard Book Store owner Jeff Mayersohn serve on the board of directors.
As for the one-day format, says Porter, “at first it was a matter of practicality. Never having done it before, one day seemed like enough. It started out with such force that I was surprised. It had an awful lot of momentum.” This year the festival is playing with the one-day rule by adding a Friday night kick-off event with writer/producer George Pelecanos and some of the cast of HBO’s The Wire in conversation on race, class, and institutional failure. The event came about largely because Mayersohn was so inspired by attending Charles Ogletree’s Harvard Law School class on Race and Justice: The Wire. “I thought this would be a great panel for the BBF and would give it broader exposure,” he says.
The line-up of authors for year three reads like a who’s who, from kids keynote speaker Mo Williams (Happy Pig Day!, Hyperion) to graphic novelist Daniel Clowes (The Death-Ray, Drawn & Quarterly), Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad, Anchor), Small Beer Press founders Gavin Grant and Kelly Link (Steampunk!, Candlewick), and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (A Reason to Believe, Broadway). And if the first printing for this year’s One City, One Short Story selection, Richard Russo’s The Whore’s Child, which first appeared in Harper’s and was later published by Knopf as the title story in his only story collection, is any indication, the festival will have at least 30,000 visitors.
“It’s obviously a fabulous community event,” says Dana Brigham, co-owner of Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Mass., who has participated in the festival for each of the past three years. Judith Gurewich, founder and publisher of Other Press, one of this year’s sponsors, says that she felt an allegiance to the festival, because she lives in Cambridge and it contributes to the literary life of the community. As Mayersohn, observes, “Any time you have doubts about the future of literature and you see hundreds of people standing in line to see an author, it’s inspiring.”
For the complete schedule, go to www.bostonbookfest.org.