At the risk of sounding like some kind of locust-eating prophet whose howls in the wilderness entreat citizens to take heed and act before it is too late, here is the pitch for the Montana Festival of the Book. For the bibliophile, the jargon of the patent medicine vendor, and tent revival promoter is irresistible: The first ever Montana Festival of the Book is coming to town, for two days only. It is practically free, intellectually stimulating and suitable for young and old alike. There will be performances and discussion panels involving award winning authors and scholars who also happen to be your neighbors.
In short, wake up, Missoulians. Even if your reading habits consist of little more than insomnia therapy and killing time in the Jiffy Lube you may have at least heard of one or two of the festival’s 123 presenters who will be spread over some 62 events. Some of whom include: Richard Ford, James Welch, Mary Clearman Blew, David James Duncan, William Kittredge, Richard Manning, Diane Smith, Bryan DiSalvatore, Kim Barnes, Rick Bass, Dan Kemmis, Pete Fromm, Deirdre McNamer, Kevin Canty.
Barbara Theroux, owner of Fact and Fiction, and member of planning, steering and program committees for the festival, said that looking at the list of authors made her acutely aware of the “embarrassment of riches that we possess in Missoula, which is proof that it [the festival] should be done.”
Besides bringing together the old guard of Montana’s writers, many of whom have multiple Missoula connections, the festival will be an opportunity to see and hear promising new authors who will be reading from their first books and poems. After his first book tour, first-time author Greg Martin told me that reading to an audience of strangers was unnerving. He explained the differences between the printed page and the author’s presence by reflecting that “writing a book was like building a guitar, and going on a reading tour was like playing that guitar on stage.”
The public appearance by the writer, however thrilling or painful, is certainly not essential to understanding the work. But reading a book is about as close as you can come to knowing a stranger’s mind. And after spending a couple hundred pages with an author, you often find that you know more about their philosophy, habits, biases, word choices, tastes, and sensibility than you may ever get to know about your co-workers, fishing buddies or lovers. For me, the great thing about seeing the writer read is not necessarily basking in the presence d’auteur, measuring her intonation, or knowing for sure exactly how he pronounces “banal.” My appreciation is at a much lower level. I am simply interested in putting a face—and voice and clothes and stature and hair—to the person who wrote the words that either gave me something to look forward to every night, helped me kill the time while traveling, or managed to express one idea or emotion that made me feel as though I was not alone in the world for having thought that way and felt that thing and been unable to express it accurately. But you don’t necessarily have to be a serious devotee either. Heck, I am planning to go to see a couple of writers who I don’t like, just to make sure.
Mark Sherouse, executive director of the Montana Commission for the Humanities/Montana Center for the Book, sees this first festival as a test for both the festival itself and Missoula. Originally, the idea was to have about 40 writers; however, the response from the writers contacted was so impressive that it caused the project to grow threefold. Although this was planned as a one-time event, Sherouse says that public reaction to the festival will be the best indication if this could be done again, perhaps in other cities around the state on a regular basis.
“Montana has some unique circumstances which make it a good location for this kind of festival,” he says. “You have a great product with all of the writers here, and a beautiful setting. But the question is whether you can attract the numbers of people. Can Missoula and Montana support this kind of event?”
As for the events themselves, the festival is by no means limited to author readings; in fact, you are more likely to see your favorite author sitting on a panel discussion such as: The New West: Moderator, William Chaloupka; Panel, Tom Power, Dan Kemmis, Richard Manning, Jim Robbins, or The Contemporary Character: Moderator, Kate Gadbow; Panel, Kevin Canty, Rick DeMarinis, Deirdre McNamer, or A Place in Time—Butte: Moderator, William Bevis; Panel, Dave Emmons, Kevin Shannon, Jim Edwards, Mary Murphy. There will also be seminars on book making, book collecting, and internet publishing, all staffed by experts in the field.
The main event, however, will be the two gala readings scheduled for Friday and Saturday night. Friday night, Paul Zarzyski, David James Duncan, Rick Bass and Greg Keeler read. In the Wilma Theatre on Saturday night, there will be a heretofore unprecedented collection of Montana’s writing talent—essentially a Monsters of Literature line-up that includes: William Kittredge, Richard Ford, Mary Clearman Blew and James Welch. Show some class and be there; it’ll be edifying and I think they’re going to blow the doors off the place.
For a brief schedule of events for the first-ever Festival of the Book, consult their ad on page 11. For a complete listing, dial up www.bookfest-mt.org or call 243-6022.