First Unbound Book Festival produces discussion about literature, writing process

Festival founder Alex George: "Promoting literacy and a personal relationship between authors and readers was the goal."

By Anna Sutterer | April 26, 2016

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The Unbound Book Festival debuted Saturday on the Stephens College campus. The free event gathered authors from across the nation to participate in personal works discussions and big ideas panels for attendees to absorb and contribute to. MOVE asked Unbound’s founder, volunteers and participating authors their thoughts about Columbia’s reading community and the value of book festivals.

The founder

Alex George, Local author and founder of Unbound Book Festival

George, a father of four, has written five books and has a love for books and the community. MOVE spoke with George about his process and desired impact of the first Unbound Book Festival here in Columbia.

Q: Was this festival in any way inspired by True/False, Roots ‘n Blues, or other festivals we have here in Columbia? A: I know David Wilson and Paul Sturtz of True/False, and I’ve had various meetings with Paul. He’s given a lot of advice on what to do and what not to do and what to be aware of and what to beware of. That’s been extremely helpful. And also very early on, I got in touch with various organizers of book festivals around the country and talked to them as well, from places as far as Maryland and Minneapolis. I’ve had a lot of support from people who know far more than I do.

Q: How will the festival impact Columbia as a literary and artsy college town? A: We have a statistically improbable number of authors who live here. And it’s oddly a relatively small number related to the universities. They came here for whatever reason, and it’s a good and conducive place to write and be supported. The hope with this festival will be that it will put Columbia more in the public eye in those terms and be a snowballing effect, for example to persuade other authors to do readings and things like that. I think we’ve made a good start in the last few years, and the community of writers here in town is very strong, but we can certainly work on that and improve on that.

Q: Why do you think writers have flocked here? A: I think the community of writers has built up here is incredibly strong and very supportive. It’s great to have a network of people to reach out to and commiserate with or celebrate with over a cup of coffee. It can be a very lonely business; there’s no water cooler. So the fact that there are so many in town that understand what you’re going through can be a tremendous help.

Q: What are the most salient pieces you want festival-goers and those who missed the event to know? A: This is a festival for readers, that’s super important. We’re trying to make it as interactive as possible. There’s lots of opportunities to meet the authors, talk with them and pick their brains or just get them to sign your book. The relationship between a reader and a writer is a very odd one, and usually it’s from a distance mostly, even though it can be very intense and quite passionate. What we’re trying to do is break that down. Most of these people (the authors) don’t come to Columbia, but will go to St. Louis or Kansas City. And so we’re trying to bring these folks in as a way of introducing them to this very smart, reading public we have here.

The volunteers:

George said of his team: “I have various angelic volunteers who have gone above and beyond. They’re these people who will go unsung most likely. We have a lot of people who’ve put in massive amounts of time to get this done.”

Kitiara McGuire, Stephens College senior studying Creative Writing and Graphic Design:

McGuire spent 20 hours designing the map and schedule for the Unbound programs and set up the Pinterest and Snapchat accounts for the event. She was also a general volunteer for the Windsor Auditorium venue.

Q: What does supporting a book festival mean to you? A: The message of the festival to improve adult literacy in Missouri resounds with me. I think that’s what a book festival is about, encouraging literacy. The adult literacy rate can be really low, especially in impoverished areas. So supporting a book festival to me means supporting literacy and supporting people being able to read and enjoy books as a community of book lovers.

Q: What have you learned through this process of volunteering for Unbound? A: I have learned that adult literacy and children’s literacy, while closely connected, are separate entities. Adult lit has a lot of political meanings. For example, we have Claire McCaskill here, and the Lloyd Gaines discussion about ending segregation. It’s very politicized work, it’s very cultural work as well. Whereas children’s lit is entertainment value and about the basic moral compass. But I think that they both contribute to the sense of being better informed through literature.

Peggy O’Connor, retired English teacher from Rockbridge High School:

O’Connor dabbles mostly in essay writing and is part of a writing group called F.R.A.M.E. (none of the members remember what the acronym stands for anymore). They meet once a month at the six members’ houses and share ideas and encouragement for their work.

Q: Why did you decide to volunteer? A: I volunteer a lot for True/False. It’s such a great experience to be part of it. You get to be behind the scenes, doing what you can, and then you can also participate. Books are my number one love, so I thought I had to get in at the ground floor of this festival and support it. We want this to be the True/False of book festivals.

Q: What does supporting a book festival mean to you? A: I know people who are serious writers who want to be published, but it’s so hard. So if coming here and getting the word out helps more good writers get published or have people buy their books... anything that we can do to make it a viable profession and support good writing.

Q: Are there any tips or highlights you would give someone who missed the festival to encourage them to come next year? A: I think it’s been fantastic. One of the surprises for me is that the people who are interviewing the authors have been fabulous and almost equally great. Many of them are published authors too, so you kind of get a two-for-one. You get these two wonderful minds going, and the whole process of questioning and knowing what to ask is an art itself.

Q: What have you learned or most enjoyed about your experience with Unbound? A: This is about more than books. This is a day-long conversation with people who are keen observers of humanity and emotion and identity, and they’re great at articulating what they’ve observed. It’s very refreshing.

The authors

Shann Ray, Author of “American Copper”:

Ray was born and raised in Montana, but he loves and admires writers from Missouri. The 20-year editor of that The Missouri Review, a literary magazine based at MU, also edited his novel. Ray has a background in psychology, and teaches leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University.

Q: Is there anything about the festival that has really stood out to you? A: Yeah, it’s easily among the top three most professional places I’ve been, the most caring and most professional. I think it’s hard to run a great literary festival because it involves money and knowing how to get that. I think the town has supported this so profoundly and so fully that it makes it a great experience for the writers, so thank you to the town and to everyone who’s here.

Q: What are your impressions of the reading community here? A: Very well read. This crowd is one of the first crowds where so many people have read many of the artists’ work here before they came, which is very nice. Again, it builds more conversations and they know what you’re trying to speak about. I was speaking with a person about a part of the novel and he was saying how it influenced his life, and I was saying how thankful I was that he read it. Those exchanges are so kind and valuable.

Q: What do you want your relationship with your readers to be? A: Open and transparent, accessible, loving, kind. The people I’ve read that have eventually become great mentors to me or I’ve admired from a distance have all been directly loving and purposeful people. So that’s my hope, to be like them.

Q: Who are your greatest influences? A: On the philosophy and theology side, I would say MLK and bell hooks, who is a beautiful feminist writer. And then the literary side is probably Toni Morrison, James Welch and Michael Ondaatje who happened to be here this weekend which was amazing to meet him because he’s a major influence on my writing. Also a lot of great Native American writers like Sherman Alexie as well.

Candice Millard, Author of “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President”:

Millard is fascinated with people. As a historian and biographer, she understands that people love to read about other people, and that people don’t change very much. “Hundreds of years can pass and what you care about and those stories of tragedy, hope and ambition are all really the same, just in different settings and different times,” Millard says. “But that’s what we’re drawn to, and that’s what we learn from, and that’s what I’ve always been attracted to.” Millard has also previously been a history and geography writer and editor for National Geographic.

Q: How do you edit your subjects’ lives, decide what bits are important enough, and put them into a book? A: You’ve got to use all the primary source material you can: the letters, the journals, newspaper articles, and what other people say about them. You do have to go into it with a story in mind and you have to have a shape, but it kind of takes on a life of its own. Certainly like any kind of art, the more you work with it and think about it — you know a lot of writing is not typing, it’s just thinking. It starts to take on shape and a life of its own and what you end up with is what was meant to be.

Q: What does your process look like? Do you like the thinking part or the writing part more? A: I love the thinking part. Most of it is research and educating myself, finding everything that I can because you don’t know really what’s going to be important until you start digging. And then I start to organize in my mind how I’m going to tell the story. So much of it is done while I’m doing other things and it’s just kind of percolating. My husband is a writer too, and we always tell our kids, ‘Writing is thinking.’”

Q: Do you have any tips for writers that are in the thinking mode and are getting really frustrated? A: Just stick with it. It helps that I’ve finished my third book, and I have some perspective and confidence in the process that it will work out. But, again and again, there are times when I think I don’t have enough for a book or I write something and it’s garbage and I would die if anyone saw it. But I would just keep thinking about it, printing it out, editing it and getting back on the computer and just — you wrestle with it and eventually it will come together, so don’t give up on yourself.

Edited by Katherine Rosso | krosso@themaneater.com

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