Last year, we bemoaned the lack of recognizable, high-profile names at the Arkansas Literary Festival. We certainly can't repeat that gripe about this year's festival, which kicks off on Thursday. Writers don't get much bigger than our cover stars, Charlaine Harris, the queen of the undead/mystery/romance novel, and David Sedaris, surely the smartest humorist writing today. And while they don't transcend their niches in quite the same way, blogger/memoirist/cookbook writer Ree Drummond and fantasy author Peter S. Beagle are as big as they come in their circles. Furthermore, festival organizers have secured an impressive slate of reporters and non-fiction authors — Eliza Griswold and Isabel Wilkerson, especially— and a near comprehensive assemblage of Arkansas writers who are doing interesting work.
All in all, it's a line-up with something for just about any reader. With a broadened schedule that runs all the way until next Wednesday and an expanded number of venues, including several in North Little Rock, you'll have more opportunities to take part. Keep reading for our picks for the festival, including a special section on our suggestions for Arkansas writers to see; a profile on Magnolia's Charlaine Harris; a complete festival schedule; a feature on Starving Artist Cafe's "Tales from the South" reading series and a preview of "Pub or Perish," the Times annual salute to libation and literature.
Thursday, April 7
Longtime Boston Globe reporter Curtis Wilkie (Clinton School for Public Service, 6 p.m.), who co-wrote "Arkansas Mischief" with Jim McDougal, returns to Arkansas to talk about "The Fall of the House of Zeus: The Rise and Ruin of America's Most Powerful Trial Lawyer," his 2010 book about Mississippi attorney Richard "Dickie" Scruggs, known at one time as the "King of Torts," but now serving a five-year sentence on federal bribery charges.
Friday, April 8
Hobnob with festival authors over hors d'oeuvres and booze at the Author! Author! Party (Concordia Hall, Arkansas Studies Institute, 7:30 p.m.), $25 in advance (available at any CALS branch or by calling 501-918-3009) or $40 at the door.
Saturday, April 9
A Book Fiesta (Main Library Youth Services, 10:30 a.m.) gathers children's authors Matt de la Peña, Darcy Pattison, Carla Killough McClafferty, Mimi Vance, Melanie Bowles and Linda Williams and features a piñata and prizes.
Cooking with Vikings (300 Third Tower, 18th Floor, 11:30 a.m.) pairs Elizabeth Heiskell, lead culinary instructor at the Viking School in Mississippi and author of "Somebody Stole the Cornbread from My Dressing," with Capitol Hotel chef Lee Richardson in a demonstration of what's being billed as "simple and spectacular Southern dishes." Tickets are $15 and can be reserved by calling 501-918-3309.
Ree Drummond's (Darragh Center, Main Library, 1 p.m.) massively popular blog, ThePioneerWoman.com, documents her transition from city life in Los Angeles, where she attended college, to returning to her home state of Oklahoma and marrying and starting a family with a rancher. A mix of slice-of-rural-life stories, photography and recipes, it's spawned two No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, "The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl" and "The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels — A Love Story." Reese Witherspoon is attached to a film adaptation of the latter. Get there early; this one is bound to be packed.
Dogs who read! Well, not quite, but the canines of Tail Waggin' Tutors (Fourth and Main Streets, North Little Rock, 1 p.m.) are trained to sit patiently in front of children who may be too shy to read in front of their peers, but willing to read to a dog. It's all about confidence building. And teaching dogs to read.
Novelist John Brandon (Cox Creative Center, third floor, 1 p.m.) may've taken some geographic liberties in his debut novel "Arkansas" — he sends a character through Jonesboro heading north to Memphis and describes Pine Bluff as "craggy" — but he also managed an excellent read, an existential crime tale that sticks with you. The New York Times Book Review called his latest novel, "Citrus County," "terrific."
A poet and an investigative reporter whose work has been published in the Atlantic, the New Yorker and Harper's, Eliza Griswold (Darragh Center, Main Library, 2:30 p.m.) visits the festival to talk about her recent best-selling book, "The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam," which examines combustible areas in the 10th Parallel, the circle of latitude near the equator that includes countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, and the Philippines.
Peter S. Beagle (Darragh Center, Main Library, 4 p.m.), author of books like "The Last Unicorn," "Tamsin" and "A Fine and Private Place," is a bona fide fantasy icon and one of the finest writers around, according to Kevin Brockmeier, who is moderating Beagle's discussion. "He's a writer of such tremendous vision and great craft, and such a complex and absorbing sense of what it means to be alive, that I find myself returning to his books again and again for replenishment," said Brockmeier.
Ghostwriter and celebrity profiler Alanna Nash (Main Library, fifth floor, 4 p.m.) has contributed articles to magazines like Entertainment Weekly, People and Vanity Fair and written popular books like "The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley" and "Behind Closed Doors: Talking with the Legends of Country Music." Her latest is "Baby, Let's Play House: Elvis Presley and the Women Who Loved Him."
In a can't-miss appearance (fortunately, there are no other competing sessions), Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson (Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, 5:30 p.m.) talks about "The Warmth of Other Suns," her widely praised account of the "Great Migration" of African Americans out of the South in the mid-20th century.
Another can't miss event: The annual lubricated literary event sponsored by the Arkansas Times: Pub or Perish (8 p.m., Big Whiskey's party room). Poets and authors and a lucky few chosen for the mini-open mic will entertain for two hours. More on page 16.
Monday, April 11
Novelist Jonathan Ames calls Benjamin Hale (Main Library, Darragh Center, noon) "the most talented and intriguing young writer I've met in years." Hale's debut novel, "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore," about the relationship between a talking chimpanzee and his primatologist caretaker, received glowing reviews upon publication in February. The Washington Post called it a "brilliant, unruly brute of a book."
Wednesday, April 13
After a weekend plus of mostly free events and readings, you might be wary of dropping $40 or $50 to watch someone read, even someone as hilarious as David Sedaris (Pulaski Academy's Connor Performing Arts Center, 7 p.m.). But remember, ticket sales benefit the festival and Sedaris is a famously good reader. Ira Glass discovered him reading his diary in a Chicago club and put him on the air, first on a local Chicago station and then on NPR's "Morning Edition." Those radio pieces helped him land his book deal, and though he's become known as author first, he still does high profile readings; he might be the only writer to regularly read on Letterman.
Arkansas writers to see
Friday, April 8
Kevin Brockmeier (Argenta Community Theater, noon), surely Arkansas's most renowned novelist, imagines a world where pain radiates, visibly, from all humans in his latest novel, "The Illumination."
This year's Porter Prize, awarded annually to an outstanding Arkansas writer, will go to Fayetteville novelist, short story writer and screenwriter William Harrison, and the Worthen Prize for best book of the year by an Arkansan will go to Phillip McMath, author of "The Broken Vase," at the "A Prized Evening" ceremony at 6 p.m. in the Darragh Center of the Main Library at 6 p.m.
Saturday, April 9
In the Portis panel (Cox Creative Center, third floor, 10 a.m.), Little Rock journalist and author Jay Jennings ("Carry the Rock"), Democrat-Gazette "Voices" editor Kane Webb and screenwriter and Arkansas Times columnist Graham Gordy gather for a freewheeling discussion on beloved Little Rock novelist Charles Portis, with Gordy weighing in on what's drawn filmmakers to "True Grit," Webb discussing Portis' Arkansas-centric point of view and voice and Jennings talking about the love a big swath of the writing community has for Portis and how it helped revive his career.
Times contributing editor and the author of "Devil's Knot" Mara Leveritt (Argenta Community Theater, 10 a.m.) shares a panel with attorney Cristi R. Beaumont, an attorney and the co-chair of The Innocence Project, and Fred B. McKinley, the author of "A Plea for Justice: The Timothy Cole Story," a non-fiction examination of a wrongly convicted Texas man.
Long time civil rights activist, union organizer and musician Si Kahn, who got his start working in St. Francis County, participates in three panels: The first (Main Library, fifth floor, 11:30 a.m.) focuses on community organizing, the second is a folk concert (Argenta Community Theater, 4 p.m.) and the third is a workshop on songwriting (Main Library East Room, 1:30 p.m.).
We Ate the Book, the young collective of often experimental poets, novelists and graphic artists, is all over the festival on Saturday. Members will be reading on the shuttle bus that travels between Little Rock and North Little Rock, 9:30 a.m. until noon on Saturday; at the Cox Creative Center at 2:30 p.m. and at Zin Wine Bar, 300 River Market, at 6 p.m.
Arkansas native Brock Thompson (Cox Creative Center, third floor, 4 p.m.) discusses "The Un-Natural State," the history of gay and lesbian life in Arkansas that the Times excerpted last year.
Little Rock native Jay Jennings (Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, 4 p.m.) returned home in 2007 after working for Sports Illustrated to write "Carry the Rock: Race, Football, and the Soul of an American City," a book that weaves a season-in-the-life of the Central High football team with a fantastic racial history of Little Rock.
Massively popular novelist Charlaine Harris (7 p.m., Christ Episcopal Church) speaks about Sookie and such. More on page 11.
Sunday, April 10
Famous for recording the song "You're the Reason God Made Oklahoma," El Dorado native David Frizzell (Main Library, Darragh Center, 1:30 p.m.) talks to "Arkansongs" host Stephen Koch about "I Love You a Thousand Ways," his biography about his country legend brother, Lefty Frizzell.
Former Oxford American editor Paul Reyes (Main Library, fifth floor, 1:30 p.m.), who turned his National Magazine Award-nominated article for Harper's into the book, "Exiles in Eden," about the housing crisis, leads a panel called "Magamorphosis."
Perhaps a riff on the book "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," the "Zombie/Austen Mashup" (Historic Arkansas Museum, Ottenheimer Theatre, 3 p.m.) pairs UCA professor Robin Becker and her funny, postmodern take on the zombie genre, "Brains"; with Joan Ray's "Jane Austen for Dummies," which is just what it sounds like, an introduction to Austen's methods and themes. Worth going if only to see how the moderator holds it all together.
Tuesday, April 12
Little Rock native Nate Powell (Pulaski Tech, Connor Performing Arts Center, 12:15 p.m.) won the Eisner Award, the highest prize for a graphic novel, for "Swallow Me Whole," a story about adolescence and mental illness. Powell's an engaging speaker. Don't miss him, comics fans.
Contest winners read their stories at "Tales from the South" (5:30 p.m.) at Starving Artist Cafe in Argenta. See more on page 14.