In the program for the first Arkansas Literary Festival, begun in 2004 as a fundraiser for the Arkansas Literacy Councils, there is a short letter from then Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller. "If Arkansas is to remain competitive in the global economy," he writes, "it must be a state of readers." Now entering its 11th season with a program featuring New York Times bestsellers (and contributors), a U.S. congressman, professional puppeteers and graphic novelists alike, the Literary Festival remains the state's largest and most vibrant celebration of books. The festival kicks off Thursday, April 24.
A four-day series of readings, panel discussions, art shows, concerts and literary events of all stripes, the festival has been sponsored since 2008 by the Central Arkansas Library System, and is organized in a year-round effort led by Festival Coordinator Brad Mooy and a team of dedicated volunteers. This year's event will include more than 80 presenters, selected by a talent committee that meets throughout the year, at more than 20 different local venues. "The turnout continues to grow," Mooy said. "I think there's a hunger for good literature in Little Rock."
"For me, it's like Christmas," said Little Rock novelist Kevin Brockmeier, the only author to have presented every year of the festival since '04. "It's the one weekend of the year when Little Rock experiences that buzz of literary activity, and it's given me the chance to meet and listen to quite a few of my literary heroes."
This year's festival offers a diverse lineup, including presentations on lucid dreaming, paleontology, robotics and Arkansas legends from Johnny Cash to Donald Harington. "There are so many," said Mooy. "It really just depends on your interests."
A complete list of events and presenters is available at arkansasliteraryfestival.org.
Here are our picks for the weekend's highlights:
Noon. "Cash" (South on Main). Longtime Los Angeles Times rock critic Robert Hilburn, who toured the U.S. with The Sex Pistols and Israel with Bob Dylan, will discuss his new biography, "Johnny Cash: The Life," with Old 97's frontman Rhett Miller contributing Cash songs, moderated by Oxford American associate editor Maxwell George. At 8 p.m., Miller will also play a solo set ($20).
6 p.m. "True Gratitude" (Sturgis Hall, Clinton School of Public Service). Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Finkel will present on his book, "Thank You For Your Service," which follows the post-war lives of the soldiers of an infantry battalion returned from Baghdad. "One of the best reviewed books of 2013," Mooy notes.
10 a.m. FOCAL Book Sale (Main Library basement). Sponsored by Friends of the Central Arkansas Libraries (FOCAL), the book sale features $1 hardbacks and $0.50 paperbacks to benefit Summer Reading Club, Reading Is Fundamental and many other CALS programs.The sale will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday and Saturday (FOCAL members can get in at 9 a.m.) and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday.
Noon. "Kill 'Em Clean" (Main Library, Darragh Center). A writing workshop hosted by bestselling author Catherine Coulter, whom Mooy notes, "has more than — and this number is so staggering to me — 70 million books in print. I can't get my head around that number." Tickets are $20.
8 p.m. "Author! Author!" (Main Library, 5th floor). A party to celebrate the festival's presenting authors, with drinks and hors d'oeuvres ($25 advance, $40 day of).
10 a.m. "Ecotone" (Arkansas Studies Institute, room 124). A panel featuring contributors to the literary journal Ecotone (Kevin Brockmeier, Cary Holladay and Rebecca Makkai), which Salman Rushdie once called one of a handful of magazines on which "the health of the American short story depends." The talk will mark the publication of the anthology "Astoria to Zion: 26 Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone's First Decade."
10 a.m. "Other People's Secrets" (Ron Robinson Theater). A discussion between Mona Simpson, author of "Anywhere But Here" and "Casebook," and Curtis Sittenfeld, author of "Prep" and "Sisterland," moderated by Oxford American managing editor Eliza Borne.
10 a.m. "Love or Hate a Cowboy" (Main Library, Darragh Center). Joe Nick Patoski, the Willie Nelson biographer and longtime Texas Monthly staff writer, will discuss his new book, "The Dallas Cowboys: The Outrageous History of the Biggest, Loudest, Most Hated, Best Loved Football Team in America," with moderator Tim Jackson.
11:30 a.m. "Canal Voyage" (Ron Robinson Theater). Mary Roach, author of "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers," will discuss her new book "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal." "Mary Roach is absolutely hilarious," Mooy said. "I saw her on a panel with Jon Stewart and Condoleezza Rice a few years back, and she was the take-away. You walked away from that panel thinking, 'Oh my god, Mary Roach.' "
11:30 a.m. "Modern Parenthood" (Main Library, Darragh Center). Jennifer Senior, a writer for New York Magazine, will discuss her new book "All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood" with Amy Bradley-Hole.
1 p.m. "Conversing With Kadir" (Hillary Rodham Clinton Children's Library and Learning Center). Artist, illustrator and author Kadir Nelson is also the only presenter at the festival to have designed album covers for Michael Jackson and Drake.
2:30 p.m. "Great TV" (Arkansas Studies Institute, room 124). Writer and GQ Correspondent Brett Martin, who has written on subjects ranging from Bill Murray to Malaysian street food, will discuss his book "Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From 'The Sopranos' and 'The Wire' to 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad'," with moderator Philip Martin.
2:30 p.m. "Vanguard" (Ron Robinson Theater). Victor LaValle, the celebrated novelist and acting fiction director at Columbia University, will talk genre and its discontents with Doug Dorst, co-author (with J.J. Abrams) of the experimental novel "S." "A lot of people call Victor horror," Mooy said, "but he goes way beyond typical horror."
4 p.m. "7th Grade in Little Rock" (Main Library, Darragh Center). Little Rock's own Kevin Brockmeier, the award-winning author of such novels as "The Brief History of the Dead" and "The Illumination," will discuss his first work of nonfiction, "A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade," which the Boston Globe recently called "graceful and roundly empathetic," with poet, fiction writer and UALR professor Nickole Brown.
7 p.m. "Pub or Perish" (Stickyz). The Arkansas Times's annual open-mic reading series, featuring festival presenters and local authors, hosted by our own David Koon (more on page 51).
1:30 p.m. "March: Book One" (Mosaic Templars Cultural Center). North Little Rock native and award-winning illustrator Nate Powell, civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis and co-writer Andrew Aydin will discuss their graphic novel, "March: Book One," recently nominated for three Eisner Awards.
3 p.m. "Finale" (Main Library, Darragh Center). National Book Award-winner and University of Arkansas Professor Ellen Gilchrist will read from her latest book, "Acts of God." "Ellen Gilchrist is an Arkansas legend, she's terrific," Mooy said.