Twin Cities Book Festival: The Long Version

The twelfth annual Twin Cities Book Festival took place on Saturday, October 13, 2012, as more than 5,000 Twin Citizens already know. What we might not know is that the festivities actually began a few days before that, on Thursday the 11th, with a little kick-off gathering in the Walker Arts Center‘s 8th floor Garden Terrace room.  This event marked my foray into the world of literary festivals, and oh what a world it is!

Thursday, October 11: Social/Brief

This event was a modest celebration in many ways: Rain Taxi and the Walker restrained the media blitz to a few tweets here and there, listings on websites, and a handful of mentions in direct emails to the Bookfest partners and exhibitors. The format of the event, which in its essence was a simple poetry reading and open mic, also obeyed the “modesty” theme: a bunch of local poets, including Jim Moore, Heid Erdrich, Sarah Fox, Matt Rasmussen, and Kris Bigalk, received invites to come read a poem with the stipulation that it had to be less than twenty seconds long. Audience members were also encouraged to read, and they also had to obey the 20-second rule.

Eric Lorberer in the Walker Art Center’s Garden Terrace, pre-Social/Brief

It was a loose and casual evening emceed by Rain Taxi’s Eric Lorberer, whose job turned out to be relatively simple: rather than having to organize readers into a sequence or beg audience members to participate, there was a steady flow of poets to a microphone set up in the middle of the room.  Both invited, established poets (like those mentioned above) and novices to the craft read their work to an engaged, entertained crowd.  Maria Damon took advantage of her 20-second window to lead the room in a chorus of howling, which Lorberer timed on his wristwatch and cut off at the limit.

In all, close to 30 poets stood up and read, and the entire event, from intro to exit, lasted only about an hour (subtract the into and transition time before you do the math).  This brevity was by design: it marked the official beginning of the Book Festival’s festivities, but it also allowed the audience to scoot down the street to the Paper Darts party at Icehouse, occasioned by the release of their fourth print issue.  I stopped by briefly, and watched a few of the acts, but other than noting how drastically different in style, content, and attitude the two events were, I didn’t feel up to the task of putting together a coherent opinion on the party: I’d spent the previous two weeks frantically preparing for the festival, and knew that the next two days were likely to end me.  I needed to rest up. Luckily, I noticed Mill City Bibliophile’s Patrick Nathan busily taking notes, which meant I was off the hook–check out his stellar recap of the event here.

Friday, October 12: Set-up, Pick-up, and Get-down

Friday began like a typical workday: I drove to the Rain Taxi office in Uptown and set to work answering emails, double checked a few scripts for the festival, and printed out some materials we’d need on hand. Then it all changed. I loaded up my car with books, magazines, signs, and clipboards. We rented a U-Haul and caravanned to the offices of Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, where even more bookfest materials awaited us, in Northeast. So did a couple of Rain Taxi Volunteers:  Abe Avnisan and Kevin Anderson, as well as CLMP‘s Steph Opitz lent their hands to the hauling and loading of box after box of books and lit mags. Looking around Consortium’s offices, I wasn’t sure exactly how this venue was supposed to transform into the site of a cocktail party, as was the plan for later on. But at that point, it wasn’t my concern.  We loaded up, and then it was on to the the Minnesota State Fairgrounds to begin setup.

Gettin’ ready for the big show!

The first few hours (about 11-2) were spent finalizing the layout, preparing tables for exhibitors, and beginning to set up the Rain Taxi portion of the Festival (including a used book sale, the CLMP Lit Mag Fair, an info station, and the Rain Taxi booth. Volunteers were on hand as well, and we made good time.  This year, the festival allowed exhibiting organizations to unload the day before, and we finished wrapping up the set-up just as exhibitors began arriving with their materials. Magers & Quinn dropped off a few hundred boxes of books (exaggeration, but it was impressive to see how fully packed their van was), and Coffee House Press came by to erect the “The Bookseller is In!” booth.

In a fortunate development, the flight of the author I was assigned to transport got delayed an hour, so rather than abandon the set-up at 4:00 I got to see it through. By 5:00, about half of the participating organizations had successfully unloaded their materials. I scurried down down Snelling and skipped over to the airport to pick up one Mark Z. Danielewski. Merging back into traffic, he detailed (at my request) his upcoming book tour in support of the recently released Fifty-Year Sword.

Pianists! Stage productions! Actors! It turns out that MZD’s appearance at the Bookfest would be his most modest on the tour–every other stop involved choreographed readings, accompaniment by a classical pianist, and full-on theatre settings in five of the country’s biggest cities. About the time the traffic crawled past the Cedar Avenue exit, he concluded his explanation and apologized, then talked about cats the rest of the way into town. Had his flight been on time, I would have taken him to his hotel, where he could leisurely check in and freshen up before heading to the party at 5:30. As it was, we endured the traffic and took the most direct route to Consortium, which still involved about seventeen directional reversals.

By the time we got there, the party should have been underway, but the place was dark.  No lights in any of the windows, no party sounds filtering through from some happening place inside. “I’m pretty sure this is where they told me it was,” I assured Mr. Danielewski, recalling my doubt earlier in the day about partying amidst half-walled cubicles. For all of the signs that we shouldn’t be here, MZD willingly followed me up the stairs. Fortunately the door was unlocked, and inside we were greeted by fellow Rain Taxian Kelly Everding with a warm smile and further directions. “Just follow the hallway to the back! Beer’s at the bottom of the stairs,” she said.

“Ohhhhh,” I thought.  “There’s a downstairs.”

Indeed, the office was a perfect choice: a unique, two-level setup with a balcony and cozy lower room.  Because we’d gotten there a bit late, the place was already full of Twin Cities literati: publicists and media, key administrators on arts boards, and representatives from a good number of exhibiting organizations. The editorial staff of Revolver was pumping beer from a keg, and everywhere I looked I saw someone I recognized but didn’t actually know: Bookfest panelist and executive director of the Loft Literary Center Jocelyn Hale was in attendance, as were several feature authors who had flown into the Twin Cities throughout the day. At one point in his brief speech, Eric Lorberer declared his pride in the amazing talent that would be joining us. “In my line of vision right now I can see Gerald Stern, Mark Z. Danielewski, and Eduardo Halfon,” he stated, epmhasizing the top-to-bottom excellence of the Bookfest’s featured programming.

(From left): Margaret Telfer, Sharon Olds (hiding), Candace Savage, Mark Z. Danielewski, Tamara Faith Berger, RHM, Jennifer Miller, Keith Bell, Gary Dop, Gerald Stern, Eric Lorberer. Photo courtesy of Pamela Klinger Horn.

We nibbled on finger foods, but because many of the authors had flown in that afternoon, a more substantial dinner was in order.  We reconvened a few minutes later for an intimate meal at Spoonriver.  My end of the table included MZD, Jennifer Miller, and Tamara Faith Berger. The conversation touched upon topics you might expect:  Does Fifty Shades of Gray have any literary merit? (Nope.)  What’s the deal with all the fantasy YA crossover business? (MZD: “I love work with fantastical elements, so long as it doesn’t depend on the narrative transparency of YA crossover fiction. By the way, Jennifer Miller, what’s your book like?” Jennifer Miller, deadpan: “It’s a fantastical YA crossover.”) And, of particular interest to me, they talked about their respective writing habits. It turns out, in this day and age, in this economic climate, in this world of publishing e-upheaval, it’s still possible to make a living as a full-time author. Two out of the three writers in my immediate vicinity wrote for at least 40 hours per week, and primarily during business hours. So there’s hope.

After a pleasant meal, I dropped authors off at their hotels and then collapsed at home. I knew the next day would be even longer, but I really had no idea.

Saturday, October 13: The 12th Annual Twin Cities Book Festival

At 7:20 am I called the State Fairgrounds supervisor to let him know I had arrived, and that he could come unlock the doors to the Historic Progress Center, the new site of this year’s book festival.

The calm before the storm…

For a few minutes, I had the place to myself. This was the first literary event I’d ever helped to plan, and it seemed surreal that the venue should should afford such a private moment: just the rows of tables in line across the room, the black drapes hanging still and partitioning off where, later in the day, panel discussions, author showcases, and presentations would take place.  The eerie echo of my footsteps down the aisles, suffused in the gray morning light eking through the Progress Center’s high windows. I took it in, then reviewed my paperwork for the day. The sequence of obligations that awaited me included coordinating the volunteers, commencing the second round of load-in, and overseeing the exhibitor parking situation (which we’d identified as one area of potential cataclysm). Then, at 7:30am I heard a knock on the door. When I opened it, I was not greeted by a Bookfest volunteer, but by an exhibitor ready to get the day started a bit early. Then another, fast on the first’s heels.

So began a day that felt much like standing chest-deep in the ocean. A continual pummeling, not entirely unpleasant, which coincided with a steady sinking into the ground. By the time the festival started at 10am, I was exhausted. By noon, I was ready to let my head droop under the water. I spent the hours between 12 and 3 at the Info Desk just inside the front doors, answering questions for whoever I could, which let me witness first-hand and over an extended period of time the steady throng of people streaming into the building, which felt amazing.  I also got to interact with festival goers and provide a pretty solid resource for anyone who had a question–as the exhibit coordinator, I knew quite a bit about the Festival’s layout and programming. Thanks to our stupendous and hardworking volunteers, I also got the chance to step away for a few minutes when I needed to.

I decided to step away right around 3pm: in a half-hour, I’d be introducing the World Fiction Showcase, for which I’d been growing increasingly excited all month. To regain my land legs, I slipped out of the Progress Center and took a walk through the drizzly fairgrounds. Being a native of Portland, Oregon, climates like the one we had on Saturday tend to sooth me. Drippy, puddly, and cool, I breathed the moist air into my lungs and felt a bit of color return to my skin. I headed back to the Festival renewed, and after tracking down the fourth of the four authors I’d be introducing, made my way to the Taxi Room, one of the two auditoriums set up inside the main festival space.

This reading, I realized as I stepped onto the stage, was the last feature event of the festival. It was also the first I’d had a chance to witness! All the excitement I felt when I heard Chris Ware was coming, all of the time spent in proximity to Mark Z. Danielewski, the grace of being in the company of such poet-masters as Sharon Olds and Gerald Stern, and I hadn’t seen a single one of them read! Me, a person who voluntarily attends readings and then voluntarily writes about them! Somehow, though, I felt like this omission was an accomplishment, more than anything. I stepped to the Taxi Room’s podium and welcomed an audience to what I considered one of the strongest lineups of the day: Tamara Faith Berger, reading from Maidenhead;James Kilgore, reading from Prudence Couldn’t Swim; Jennifer Miller, reading from The Year of the Gadfly; and Eduardo Halfon, reading from The Polish Boxer. In turn, they read from disparate works, influenced by disparate lives and careers, and each impressed me in a completely different way. Tamara Faith Berger with her candor and the plain-faced expression of erotic material (to which, I must say, the ASL interpreter’s rendering did complete justice); James Kilgore with his political background and the tumultuous conditions under which he created the work; Jennifer Miller with her detailed recounts of the woes of marketing a book despite a major publishing house and glowing reviews; and the way Eduardo Halfon blurred the line between fact and truth (“Just because something is a fact doesn’t mean it’s true,” he responded to a question posed by Canadian naturalist Candace Savage from the audience).

The reading concluded, the writers stepped outside to sign books, and the next wave of obligation came crashing down upon my shoulders: time to prepare for the breakdown and exodus. As 5pm neared, that parking cataclysm loomed like a front in the stormy sky. What would happen to all those cars we’d double parked? Would there be a tangle of traffic at the loading door? How many people would blame me, personally, for every second of inconvenience they experienced?

While attendees filtered out and finalized their last purchases of the day, I hefted open the loading door in the back of the building to signify the conclusion of the event. What followed was part blur, part miracle: within fifteen minutes, the tables were stripped, the exhibitors loaded and moving, the parking lot emptied. I don’t know how it happened, but everyone seemed to make out alright. I completed my final sweep of the Progress Center with a newfound appreciation for anyone who’s ever planned a major event: not easy work, and I was glad for the moment that the next Twin Cities Book Festival was about a year away (though I’m already looking forward to it).

The final item on the agenda was a celebratory dinner at a local poet’s home. I’d planned on attending, but in light of the day’s events (and the day before’s events, and the events of the day before that), the thought of spending a few casual hours with some of the greatest artists alive simply didn’t appeal to me. Not as much as sitting down on my couch, at home, and winding down with a good book.


Were you There? Have something to add, or a different take on this event?  Chime in on the comments below, or send us an email at! Be sure to check the schedule to the left and the Twin Cities Literary Calendar to be at the next attended event. See you around!

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