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The Arkansas Literary Festival brings the Sweet Potato Queen, noir masters and other writers to town.

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BOSS QUEEN: Jill Conner Browne.
  • BOSS QUEEN: Jill Conner Browne.

Calling all tome raiders, bibliophiles and book hounds: It's time to put down that page-turner and step out for a little sunshine and author interaction.

From Thursday to Sunday, April 3-6, the Arkansas Literary Festival celebrates the book with a big ole get-down with 48 authors in the River Market district.

Arkansas Literacy Councils Inc. is sponsoring the four days of readings, writer workshops, teen and children's events and panel discussions to help fund its adult literacy programs throughout the state. Proceeds come from a gala author party, book sales from the outdoor fair in the River Market and special ticketed events, but most of the sessions are free.

Now in its fifth year, the event continues to pull in an impressive and diverse line-up, names to tempt readers of all stripes.

National Public Radio's “The Book Guys,” with book appraisers Allan Sty-peck and Mike Cuthbert, will likely turn up some literary treasures during the taping of shows at 6 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. Thursday at the Darragh Center of the Main Library. Admission to what's become a Literary Festival tradition is by reservation; call 918-3029. The Festival Author Party, featuring its signature pomegranate martinis, is at 7 p.m. Friday at the Lafayette Building. Hobnob and enjoy hors d'oeuvres for $55 a person or $100 a couple; reserve at 907-2490.

Two of Arkansas's favorite native novelists, Kevin Brockmeier of Little Rock and Donald Harington of Fayetteville, are among literature's leading fabulists and will be among the festival lights. Both appear on the festival's last day: Brockmeier reads from his new story collection, “The View from the Seventh Layer,” at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Darragh Center and Harington will appear at 4:30 p.m. at Darragh, likely with a reading from “Farther Along,” his forthcoming book, which we excerpt on page 12.

Festival-goers will have to choose between Brockmeier and Mohja Kahf, the columnist, novelist, poet and subject of a past Arkansas Times cover story (and like Harington, a professor at the University of Arkansas) whose talk, “Muslim in the Midwest,” is also scheduled at 3 p.m. Sunday, at Pyramid Art, Books and Custom Framing (Hearne Fine Art) in the Museum Center at 500 President Clinton Ave.

Crescent Dragonwagon, author of children's books and cookbooks and, yes, a household name for more than 30 years in Eureka Springs, will be featured at two sessions Saturday. At 10 a.m. in the Trinity Gallery of the Historic Arkansas Museum, the author will help fourth- and fifth-graders write a group story. At 3 p.m., in the Clark Room on the third floor of the River Market, Dragonwagon presents “Food-Shelter-Story,” a $15 ticketed event, where she'll talk about how and why her cookbooks provide more than recipes and invite attendees to sample cornbread from her latest cookbook, “Cornbread Gospels.”

Little Rock writer Trenton Lee Stewart, whose children's book “The Mysterious Benedict Society” has won national acclaim, will give the kids' program “Adventures Abound” in the HAM's Ottenheimer Theater at 11 a.m. Saturday. At 2 p.m. he'll join a panel discussion in the Darragh Center, “Men and Their Novels: Does Gender Matter?” Richard Mason of El Dorado will present the children's program “Making Dreams Come True,” also in HAM's Ottenheimer Theater, at 2 p.m. Saturday.

Master chef Roland Mesnier, who concocted sweets in the White House, will present his new cookbook, “Basic to Beautiful Cakes,” at 12:30 p.m. Saturday in the River Market's Clark Room, on the third floor. Tickets are $15 a person and sell out fast: reserve at 907-2490.

Among the national names attending the festival, none is likely to inspire more passion than Jill Conner Browne, author of the “Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love” and self-described Boss Queen. Local actress Natalie Canerday moderates Browne's session, “Being the Queen Mother,” at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Darragh Center. Browne will headline the Arkansas Times' “Pub or Perish” reading and open mic event at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Sticky Fingerz, 107 S. Commerce St. (see page 14 for more info).

Also at “Pub or Perish” will be Kelly Corrigan, a memoirist with Arkansas ties. Her debut work “The Middle Place” documents her battle with cancer and has landed her on the New York Times bestseller list and O and People magazines. She'll present “Mom-oir” in the Darragh Center at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.

Those who like their lit a shade darker will want to attend the session with British-born novelist Patrick McGrath, one of today's foremost noir stylists. Three of his psychological thrillers, “Asylum,” “Spider” and “The Grotesque,” have been made into films. McGrath's “The New Master of Noir” is at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in the Darragh Center.

Mystery writer Ace Atkins has also been known to dabble in noir. His talk, “It's a Mystery,” is at 1:30 p.m. Sunday in the East Room of the Main Library.

New Yorker magazine editor Susan Morrison will talk about her compilation, “Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary,” essays on Clinton by Susan Cheever, Deborah Tannen and others. Morrison's session is at noon Thursday in the Darragh Center.

Also worth a look: Novelist Tony Earley, who's just released “Blue Star” (see review, page 18), a sequel to his acclaimed debut, “Jim the Boy.” Brockmeier will moderate Earley's session, “Rising Star,” at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Cox Creative Center, 100 Commerce St. “Willie Nelson, American Legend” will probably be a hoot, too. Moderated by erstwhile political candidate, DJ and general roustabout Rod Bryan, the session features Joe Nick Patoski, author of the biography “Willie Nelson: An Epic Life.”

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