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No big names at this year’s Arkansas Literary Festival, but who cares?

CONTENTS: A few books featured at this year's festival.
  • CONTENTS: A few books featured at this year's festival.

In July 2008, the Central Arkansas Library System took over the Arkansas Literary Festival from the Arkansas Literacy Council. The festival wasn't broken, new director Brad Mooy told the Times last April; it had become too large for the small non-profit to manage and the library wanted to grow it still.

This go-round, the festival brings together 80 writers, where last year's featured 60 and 2008's hosted 45. There are new partnerships: The National League of PEN Women is hosting its biennial conference in Little Rock to coincide with the festival, and the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center is hosting several race-centered programs. The Writer in the Schools initiative, which places festival authors in Pulaski County schools, has broadened; this year 14 writers will appear in local classrooms, kindergarten through college. The Times-sponsored Pub or Perish returns, this time at Prost (get the lowdown on page 19), and, as we detail below, there is a host of panels and workshops well worth your time.

Still, amid this year's lineup, it's hard to find the A-list talent of years past, established names most anyone who'd consider going to a literary festival would know, such as past festival authors Rick Bragg, Nikki Giovanni, Garrison Keillor and Joe Klein.

Mooy is reluctant to concede the point. “If someone's sold over 200,000 copies of her books [as children's author Gwendolyn Hooks has], or had his first four books on the New York Times Bestseller list [as novelist Christopher Rice has], I think that's pretty impressive.

“It's hard to make people understand that authors like John Grisham or Stephen King aren't coming. Those authors come with a pretty hefty price tag. Many of the larger festivals around the country pay their presenters or performers. CALS is not in a place to do that. Some literary fests may do a special event and some charge admission to go to everything. CALS really wants to keep the event free.”

That financial philosophy is not a departure from the five festivals the Literacy Council helmed. All were free and, according to past director Katie McManners, no one was ever paid. As they are today, travel and accommodations expenses were covered by the festival.

This year's festival also has competition. The massive Association of Writers & Writing Programs holds its conference this weekend in Denver. And, of course, the book business hasn't exactly been minting money lately.

“The publishers that actually will foot expenses for authors often want to pick the bigger book festivals,” said Rod Lorenzen, manager of Butler Center Books and a member of the talent committee that selects the lineup. “It's going to take another year or two, I think, for us to get more established and gain some clout with the publishers, especially in a time of such drastic cuts for everyone.”

In the meantime, Mooy asks folks to dig a little deeper.

“I'm really hopeful that people will spend a little time with the program and look at the pretty amazing and impressive credits of our writers.”

Here's a start.

Best Bets
Our picks for the Lit Fest


Ken Gormley, Clinton School, Sturgis Hall, noon. A constitutional law professor and the dean of Duquesne University law school, Gormley followed up his acclaimed biography of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox with the recently released “The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr.” Reviewers — including Max Brantley in the Times' — agree: It's the tome to end all tomes on White Water. “Exhaustive” is a word that comes up often. Janet Maslin, reviewing the book in The New York Times, wrote, “There are times when this book seems akin to climbing Mt. Everest in house slippers: impressive but not entirely necessary.” But here's betting plenty of folks around here are revisit those Ken Starr-plagued times, gory details and all.

Also: Steve Weinberg discusses his book “Taking on the Trust” about pioneering muckraker Ida M. Tarbell, who exposed Standard Oil's unethical business practices in the early 20th century (Ottenheimer Theater, Historic Arkansas Museum, 2:30 p.m.). And the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center hosts a forum on African-American fiction, with Daniel Black, RM Johnson and Alice Randall (5:30 p.m.).


Alice Randall, Main Library, Darragh Center, 10 a.m. The first African-American woman to write a No. 1 country hit — Trisha Yearwood's "XXX's and 000's (An American Girl)” — Randall's better known for her novels: “The Wind Done Gone,” “Pushkin and the Queen of Spades” and “Rebel Yell.” All deal, often allusively, in themes of race and identity. “The Wind Done Gone,” for instance, tells the story of “Gone with the Wind” from a slave's point of view.

Marcus Sakey
, Main Library East Room, 10 a.m. Maybe the preeminent young crime-fiction writer working today, Sakey's the author of four novels, three of which have been optioned for films by people like Ben Affleck and Tobey Maguire. His latest, “The Amateurs,” keeps “readers gasping with fright and pleasure,” according to the Chicago Tribune.

Jonathan Mahler, Arkansas Studies Institute, room 124, 11:30 a.m. A contributing writer to the New York Times magazine, Mahler's the author of two nonfiction books with provocative premises. His 2006 bestseller, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning,” delves into the combustible milieu of 1977 New York — when “Son of Sam” stalked the streets, punk rock and Studio 54 started to emerge and mercurial personalities on the Yankees grabbed all the headlines. His latest work, 2009's “The Challenge,” offers an account of the landmark Supreme Court case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that, according to reviews, reads like a legal thriller.

Christian Lander, Main Library, Darragh Center, 1 p.m. A not so bold prediction: More people will show up to hear Lander, the man behind the Stuff White People Like blog and book, than any other festival author. Grab a seat early; the Darragh Center isn't huge. And read John Tarpley's Q&A with Lander on page 15.

Rus Bradburd, Main Library, Darragh Center, 2:30 p.m. If Lander doesn't boast the festival's biggest crowds, Nolan Richardson biographer Russ Bradburd is bound to. As Derek Jenkins details in “Personal fouls” on page 13, his new book, “Forty Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson,” isn't so much a hagiography of the Arkansas legend as it is a look back at the sordid history of race in college sports. That Bradburd's panel also includes (white) former Razorback basketball player Pat Bradley and Darrell Brown, the first African American Razorback football player, should make it all the more compelling.

The Oxford American Southern Food Issue Panel, Ottenheimer Theater, Historic Arkansas Museum, 2:30 p.m. Panels on sports and food at the same time? What's a red-blooded Southerner to do? This one featuring recent Oxford American contributors looks especially tasty. Two New Orleans Times Picayune contributors, columnist Lolis Eric Elie and restaurant writer Brett Anderson, join Arkansas Business' Sam Eifling to talk Southern foodways and food-writing and sense of place (Eifling will rep for Arkansas cuisine, naturally).

Brock Clarke and Kevin Brockmeier, Cox Creative Center third floor meeting room, 4 p.m. Best I can tell, the “Brock” connection these two authors share is all that ties them together. Save that both are young, decorated fiction writers. Twice a National Magazine Award winner for fiction, Clarke's latest, “An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England,” is part mystery, part faux-memoir, all postmodern comedy. You probably wouldn't be reading this preview if you didn't know Brockmeier. Long Little Rock's brightest literary light, the fabulist's latest is “The View from the Seventh Layer,” a short story collection.

Also: Literary scion Christopher Rice — son of Anne — has hit the New York Times bestseller list with all four of his novels (Cox Creative Center, Third Floor Meeting Room, 10 a.m.). Pico Iyer, author of “The Open Road,” an account of 34 years of time spent with the Dalai Lama, has written two novels and seven books of nonfiction (11:30 a.m., Darragh Center, Main Library). LGBQT activist and spoken word performer Staceyann Chinn talks about her memoir, “The Other Side of Paradise.” (1 p.m., Cox Creative Center, third floor meeting room). The Times' David Koon moderates a panel with poets Sy Hoahwah and Patricia Dorsey (ASI Ozark Classroom, 4 p.m.). Arkansas's biggest literary awards, the Porter and Worthen prizes, are presented to playwright Robert Ford and historian Grif Stockley, respectively (Darragh Center, Main Library, 7 p.m.)


Marjorie Rosen (Main Library, Darragh Center, 1:30 p.m.). Last year, David Koon wrote in the Times about Rosen's book on the impact of Wal-Mart's growth on Bentonville, “Boom Town: How Wal-Mart Transformed an All-American Town into an International Community,” after Rosen had scheduled readings in Bentonville and Rogers libraries canceled.

Lauren Hall (ASI Room 124, 3 p.m.) Author Dave Eggers came to the Clinton School last year and talked about 826 Valencia, the nonprofit he founded to promote childhood literacy. Some of those in attendance expressed interest about starting a branch of 826 (there are seven throughout the country) in Little Rock. Now, Hall, a former Little Rocker and the current development director for 826 National, comes to town to talk about youth writing programs and, hopefully, about how we can get an 826 here.

Also: “Arkansongs' ” Stephen Koch introduces the Butler Center's David Stricklin (1:30 p.m., Cox Creative Center third floor meeting), author of “Louis Armstrong: The Soundtrack of the American Experience.” And novelists Ben Farmer and Matt Baker (3 p.m., Main Library East Room) talk about writing their first novels, “Evangeline” and “Drag the Darkness Down,” respectively.

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