By Tyler Hale
The 16th annual Arkansas Literary Festival’s lineup includes award-winning authors, dynamic musicians, acclaimed filmmakers and more
This month, book lovers from around the state will converge on Little Rock to participate in the largest literary festival in the region.
The Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) will host the 16th annual Arkansas Literary Festival on April 25-28. For four days, Arkansans and visitors will have the opportunity to hear over 70 presenters discuss books, cooking and more. Featuring a diverse collection of authors and lecturers, the Arkansas Literary Festival highlights the best in contemporary literature, whether it is fiction, nonfiction or other media like graphic novels.
Created in 2004 by the Arkansas Literary Council, CALS adopted the festival in 2008. Since that time, the festival has grown and evolved. But according to Arkansas Literary Festival Coordinator Brad Mooy, its core mission has stayed the same: to promote literature and literacy in Arkansas.
“The whole festival is encouraging the growth of a more literate populace by actually letting folks in Arkansas interact with authors who they might read about in the New York Times the week before the festival,” he says. “It’s definitely saying, ‘Pick up a book.’ It’ll be good for you, and you might enjoy it.”
Another constant through the years has been the location of the festival. Novelist Kevin Brockmeier has been a part of the festival since the beginning, and he says it has always been centered around downtown Little Rock. This year, many of the events will be held at the CALS campus, but there will also be excursions to local bars, restaurants and other notable locations.
Setting up a literary festival outside of traditional literary hotspots can be challenging, according to Mooy. However, with the help of volunteers and sponsors, the festival continues to attract both established and emerging authors while bringing audiences to Little Rock to celebrate literature.
“There’s a lot that goes into building any kind of festival,” Mooy says. “The budget is very lean, so it’s always a challenge to get the folks we want here. But thankfully, we’ve had real success at attracting some really terrific authors.”
Putting on an event this size, even if it is a comparatively smaller literary festival, is still an organizational feat. The organizers, though, are up for the challenge. “Our festival, what it has going for it is that we are among the most organized festivals, and we are among the friendliest festivals,” Brockmeier says.
Mooy believes that authors are attracted to the high level of organization and friendliness. “They enjoy their time here. They thankfully think that it’s well organized. For some of them, it may not be the largest festival they attend during the year, but we hope that we are the most hospitable,” he says.
Each year, a talent committee meets multiple times to present recommendations and vote on their picks for the festival. According to Brockmeier, a member of the talent committee, each committee member recommends authors who have published a book in the latter half of the year preceding the festival or in the first part of the festival year. Once each committee member makes their case, they begin casting their votes.
Picking the authors and presenters can be challenging, says Amy Bradley-Hole, another member of the talent committee and the festival’s moderator chair, but the varied interests of each committee member produces a diverse slate of authors.
“One of the things that I love about the talent committee is that we all have very different interests and things that what we look for,” Bradley-Hole says. “That’s what helps us get, I think, such a diverse, robust group of presenters.”
Brockmeier agrees with the sentiment, saying that the diversity of authors is one of the distinguishing marks of the Arkansas Literary Festival. “We always try to make as inclusive a roster as possible. We want poetry, literary fiction, science fiction/fantasy, thrillers…cookbooks. There’s as broad array of books as you can possibly find,” he says.
Multiple award-winning authors will be presenting their newest works during the festival. Rick Bragg, a Pulitzer Prize winner and the author of seven books, will be at the festival discussing his memoir, The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table. “It’s sort of a memoir mixed with a cookbook. It’s very amusing, and he’s usually quite a hit. So I think he’s definitely a highlight,” Mooy says of Bragg.
Five-time James Beard Award-winning food columnist Dorie Greenspan will be at the festival with her newest cookbook Everyday Dorie. In addition to giving a regular presentation, Greenspan will host a cooking demonstration during the festival.
A definite point of interest for all Arkansans will be Little Rock Nine member Elizabeth Eckford, the author of The Worst First Day: Bullied While Desegregating Central High, an illustrated memoir.
Other highlights include Chigozie Obioma who was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize for his debut novel The Fishermen. Obioma will be presenting his second novel An Orchestra of Minorities. Granta has named Esmé Weijun Wang as one of the “Best Young American Novelists,” and she’s bringing her latest collection of essays about mental illness, The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays to the festival.
Books aren’t the only highlight at the festival, though. Music lovers can enjoy a guitar duel between musicians Isaac Alexander and Joshua Asante, followed by Bonnie Montgomery and her guitarist. The duel, inspired by Ian S. Port’s The Birth of Loud, which chronicles the rivalry between Fender and Les Paul guitar companies, will be held at Four Quarter Bar on Friday, April 26.
One addition to the festival this year is the Maker’s Alley. On Saturday, April 27, there will be a curated maker’s festival at Library Square, featuring Electric Ghost, Control, MilkDadd, Bangup Betty, Crying Weasel Vintage, Sean Sapp, Matthew Castellano of Gallery 360, Dower (Jack Lloyd), and Luna Tick Designs. “In between sessions, folks can learn something from the makers, or buy something, or visit with them,” Mooy says.
The festival is “jam-packed” with events and things to see, according to Mooy. He recommends that attendees take a chance on something they wouldn’t ordinarily see during the festival. These sessions, he says, are often the best experiences for festivalgoers.
“I always tell folks to pick one that they want to see, of course. But then try one that they’re more on the fence about,” Mooy says. “Sometimes, those are the ones you might walk away enjoying more than you expect.”
But no matter which authors you end up seeing or which events you go to, the song remains the same: keeping reading.
“At its core, anything that gets people to be excited about books and to read more is great,” Bradley-Hole says. “At the literary festival’s core, we want to expand literacy, to get people reading,”