“Hey, Darlin’. I’m having a beer at Cape Fear Wine and Beer. Can I call you back in an hour?”
“Uhm, I’m going to be with Amy Tan then, so can we touch base in a little bit?”
“Wow! So this is sounding better than you expected. You must be ecstatic!” Jock gushed.
“Well between the dehydration, time change, lack of sleep, hunger and disorientation of the celebrity, it is kind of like an acid trip with all your favorite literary heroes.”
“OK…” Jock chuckled and we agreed we would chat at some point that day. “I love you.”
“Love you, too. Be safe.”
I was in Tucson, AZ, for some business I had to take care of, and my Aunt Sara had offered to put me up. When we made arrangements for the trip, she commented I would be there during the Tucson Festival of Books. “I’m a sponsor,” she commented offhandedly. “So we’ll do that when you’re here.”
I was expecting something like a cross between the Friends of the Library Book Sale and the Literacy Council Gala. What I found was the Azalea Festival if everything was geared toward books, reading and knowledge.
Since it launched in 2009, the Tucson Festival of Books has raised well over a million dollars for literacy programs in their area. It is an area with a tremendous disparity of wealth that is shockingly apparent as you drive through the city and its environs. Almost a fifth of the Arizona population doesn’t have a high-school diploma or equivalent.
The festival launched in 2009 after two years of planning, and in many ways, was modeled after the L.A. Book Festival. That first year they brought 450 authors, close to 50,000 regional visitors and pulled it off with the help of around 800 volunteers. Since it has grown to over 130,000 visitors from all over country (truly I met people from Wilmington, Virginia, Maine, and Oregon) they are attracted by many factors not the least of which is the headliners, which this year included Amy Tan, Greg Iles, Mitch Albom, Mary Karr, Joyce Carol Oates, Noam Chomsky, Alice Hoffman, Ja Jance, and more than we have space to name here. Truly, they bring in the rock stars of the writing world—I mean literally. If you read Stephen King’s book “On Writing,” it opens with him recounting the creation of a band composed of published authors that formed the garage band of his dreams for a book festival: “The Rock Bottom Remainders.” They still reunite to play various literary-themed gigs and play a mix of covers that appeal to rich, old white people reliving their adolescence and some parodies they have put together (“I’m a best-seller baby/ Shakespeare’s got nothing on me” and “Fifty shade of grey? We got 100 shades of Tan!”)
I have to admit: For a book geek like me, it is a dream come true to see all these people onstage together and enjoy the energy they bring to the room even if they really can’t sing. I guess I am just spoiled by the stunning talent I get to see perform every week in musical theatre there, but they truly are a draw. The festival currently is estimated to bring over $3 million to the Tucson economy for lodging, food, transportation, and gifts. (Truth time: I went a little over board with book buying and signing while I was out there.) But financial benefits aside, the website is quick to point out “Because the festival is provided free of charge, the greater Tucson community benefits from the celebration of the written word each March.”
Besides the big-name authors, it boasts many up-and-coming writers, as well as beginning writers. The street fair is like the Azalea Festival street fair except all the booths have literary themes. Even the C-SPAN Book TV Bus is there. Food vendors, booksellers, children’s theatre performers, and the Science City area are just a smattering of the offerings. It is total sensory overload, geared toward knowledge.
We have several festivals in the area that are important to our local economy, the Azalea Festival is coming up, Cucalorus—our internationally recognized independent-film festival—is another, and the impact on our economy from both these and the smaller events is essential for our survival. But I wonder: At a time when education is clearly under attack in our state and our local economy is trying to find it’s footing and direction for the future, could we put together something like this? Surely Cape Fear Literacy Council and our GED programs could use an infusion of a million dollars in funding. But on a larger level, as a community, could we not benefit from an annual event that shines such a light on the power of words, ideas and thought?
A few years ago, a couple visiting from Idaho walked into my bookstore, and after speaking with me for a few minutes, the husband commented it was a shock to find someone intelligent and well-read in North Carolina. Because, you know, that’s not what you expect here. I responded that I was glad to know he found Carl Sandburg, Thomas Woolf, David Sedaris and Maya Angelou to be illiterate. He finally cut me off and said some more insulting things as I continued to list accomplished literary figures from our state. Would an infusion of $3 million dollars of tourism not help, especially now that we are starting to feel the pinch of losing the film industry? It would be like the Azalea Festival. With the multiple performance venues set up, the Tucson Festival of Books has musicians and dancers preforming throughout the weekend, as well as a plethora of activities geared toward children and families. That’s important because there are also a lot of events aimed at adults, and there needs to be areas where adult discussion about freedom of speech, pollution, race, gender, and more can take place. It is these venues that create an opportunity for discussions like these that plant seeds to make growth and change possible in a society.
In a community that has the vibrant literary scene we do and a state with such a distinguished literary history, we could offer something like this to not only our community but to the country. Tucson literally attracts people from all over the U.S. to come participate. Why should people be traveling from here to there when we could bring them the same thing here, and have them investing and spending their money on improving our community here?