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Free speech, slams and guns fire up the Festival of the Book


Panel discussions at the Festival of the Book provide fascinating insight into an author’s writing process. Sometimes you get the story behind the story, or hear the self-deprecating recount of weeks sitting in front of a blank screen, the anxiety rising, the author waiting for inspiration. It’s a humanizing experience. Other panels provide a sense of how fire in the West influences writing, or how scientific funding or tribal politics affect newspapers.

Now in its ninth year, The Festival of the Book brings some of the more familiar panels and readings together with some new elements. And this year there’s an injection of controversy and youthful democracy. With over 75 authors presenting at 60-plus events including panel discussions, readings, signings and receptions, we can’t list everything. Instead, we highlight some of the most anticipated aspects of this year’s event.

Jewel of contention

Sherry Jones has come a long way. For 10 years she wrote columns for the Missoulian coyly referring to herself in the third person as “Ms. Jones” (as in: “…and Ms. Jones isn’t the only one who thinks so.”). But lately, Jones has been in the press for an international brouhaha. Jones’ first novel, The Jewel of Medina, follows the story of Aisha, the young wife of the prophet Muhammad. But, as the Wall Street Journal bluntly put it in their headline: “You Still Can’t Write About Muhammad.” Random House was set to print the book until a University of Texas professor of Middle Eastern Studies called the book “soft-core porn” and warned the publication might lead to violent backlash. Random House dropped the book, but others picked it up, including Beaufort Books—most famous for publishing O.J. Simpson’s If I Did It.

Some critics question whether the prose of The Jewel of Medina warrants the publicity. But Jones says criticism of the actual book isn’t her beef, it’s people’s misunderstanding of historical fiction. “Even the BBC and Time magazine, instead of looking at my book on its literary merits, chose to send my book to conservative Muslim women as though it were non-fiction,” says Jones. “These reviewers don’t like my version of Aisha and I understand that—they grew up with their own versions… [But] I found some other stories and I embellished in places for the sake of a compelling narrative, which certainly…is allowed in the constraints of historical fiction.”

Whether you believe her cultural interpretation is accurate or not, or find her prose pedestrian or not, the issue is meaty. And free speech, it seems, still reigns at the Festival of the Book. Jones joins Gwen Florio, Mehrdad Kia and Jeffrey Renz to hash it out on a panel discussion called “When Commerce and Controversy Collide.”

“When Commerce and Controversy Collide” takes place Saturday, Oct. 25, at 1 PM inside the Holiday Inn Three Rivers Room. Jones also reads from The Jewel of Medina at the Holiday Inn Yellowstone/Glacier room Friday, Oct. 24, at 11 AM.

Slam it to the people

In the spirit of word sport, the festival’s poetry slam will provide a meter for meter. In other words, if you get up there and read one of your solid gold poems in an engaging fashion, you might score high.

Poetry slams aren’t new, but they are for the Festival of the Book.

Luke Warm Water, an Oglala Lakota poet, helps facilitate the inaugural event and, unlike most panels at the festival that feature established authors, mostly unknown public performers will fill the slam’s 16 slots. (If you’re interested in competing, spots still remained as the Indy went to press.) Each poet gets three minutes to perform and is either eliminated or advances to the following rounds. The winner takes $100.

Another democratic aspect to the festival is the first but perhaps not last emergence of the Favorite Poems Project. Robert Pinsky, the former U.S. poet laureate, founded the project when he was appointed to the post in 1997 and it has been emulated elsewhere in various forms. The idea is simple: everyday people read favorite poems from favorite poets, reminding us of past greats—some more obscure than others. The Missoula version includes Mayor John Engen, Montana poet laureate Greg Pape and various other community members reading their lyrical faves.

The Poetry Slam takes place at The Loft at Higgins Alley Friday, Oct. 24, at 8 PM. The Favorite Poems Project takes place at the Missoula Public Library Saturday, Oct. 25, at 2:30 PM. Luke Warm Water also reads with Greg Keeler and Tim Sandlin at the Holiday Inn Ballroom D Saturday, Oct. 25, at 1 PM.

Guns gone by

Hal Herring is a contributing editor to Field and Stream and a columnist for High Country News—and his byline’s appeared a few times as a contributor to this paper. His first book, Famous Firearms of the Old West, which includes the intriguing subtitle, From Wild Bill Hickok’s Colt Revolvers to Geronimo’s Winchester, tells the story of the West through the barrels, magazines and blue steel of famous and infamous characters’ guns. Herring describes the Model 1866 .44-40 that Chief Joseph surrendered to General Miles, recounts the details of Buffalo Bill’s .50 caliber breech loading needle gun nicknamed “Lucretia Borgia,” and weaves the story of guns throughout the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. We’re anxious to read this, ahem, straight-shooting history.

Hal Herring reads from Famous Firearms at the Holiday Inn Yellowstone/Glacier room Friday, Oct. 24, at 4 PM with Stephenie Ambrose Tubbs and Gordon Sullivan.

Last best talks

Other highlights of the festival include the Montana premiere of Dry Rain, a short film written by author Pete Fromm based on his collection of short stories. As usual, there are also publishing panels, including “The Small Small Press: The Outrider Tradition” with talks from zine publishers. Contributors to the anthology The Last Best Place will hold court in honor of the book’s 20th anniversary. There will be a tribute to James Crumley, and, of course, there’s the Gala Reading, which features Rick Bass, Kim Barnes and Thomas McGuane.

Bookworms, it seems, will find their favorite authors, some public displays of poetry and a few contentious panels to ignite debate.

The Festival of the Book runs Thursday, Oct 23, though Saturday, Oct. 25. Friday’s Festival Author Reception is $25, but all other events are free. For a complete schedule visit


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