Before she was the 43rd FLOTUS, Laura Bush was a young Texas librarian with a tobacco habit and a smart mouth. And so it follows that in 1995, when she was First Lady of Texas, she founded the Texas Book Festival. The free, weekend-long event once took place entirely in the Texas Capitol, but in years hence it’s spilled out on to Congress Avenue and nearby church sanctuaries and ballrooms—venues which pass for public spaces around these parts. This year students from the UHCWP, Inprint fellows all, served as volunteers at the festival and readers at the evening Lit Crawl, while taking in two days’ worth of panel discussions by authors from across the literary spectrum.
A few highlights of the 2017 Texas Book Festival, which took place earlier this month:
- Pachinko author Min Jin Lee describing her writing routine: she reads a chapter of the Bible every day before she starts work, a practice of Willa Cather’s that she adopted for her own. Lee on scripture: “There’s no better way to understand symbol and story.”
- The American Short Fiction Ex Libris game at the Lit Crawl, where Manuel Gonzales, Min Jin Lee, Mary Millier, Lindsay Hunter, and Deb Olin Unferth vied to see who could most convincingly fabricate plausible first lines for classic novels.
- Jiyoon Lee performing her poem “All Out With Bang Bang” to a full house at Stay Gold, a collage death drive love poem elegy featuring The Hollow Men” by TS Eliot, “Pour le CGT” by Rod Smith, and Kanye West referencing “Strange Fruit,” a poem by Abel Meeropol, which was also sang by by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, and lastly, “paper plane” by M.I.A. Lee and UH poet Cait Weiss Orcutt shared a bill with poets Matthew Zapruder and Eileen Myles.
- Deb Olin Unferth discussing the creative writing program she runs for inmates at the John B. Connolly Unit maximum security prison for men in Kenedy, TX. (Read more here)
- The Writers’ League of Texas Obsessed with Texas panel, where Houston native Amy Gentry, author of the recent Houston-set novel Good as Gone, made the observation that “everything in Texas is in Houston in some way shape or form—you just don’t know where it’s going to be because there’s no zoning.”
The festival is free, and it’s always a great time. If you go, consider these tips:
- Try Manuel’s on Congress for dinner. The food and cocktails are reliable, and you can almost always get a table. Austin food culture seems to deem queueing for food for hours to be a socially acceptable activity. Houston-ians need to have places of refugee planned out in advance to avoid this fate.
- Attend session in the State Capitol’s House Chamber, where the best-known authors are interviewed. You can sit at a state legislator’s leather recliner while you listen to Walter Isaacson, Tom Hanks, or Lemony Snicket. Imagine what office you might run for to help save American democracy.
- Buy your books before you attend the panel; sometimes they’re sold out afterwards. And do buy books if you can: proceeds from the book festival benefit Texas public libraries. This year they were also doing a book drive to restore collections damaged in Hurricane Harvey.
- Bring a lunch. Once you get down on the ground floor of the underground capitol extension, where they stash most of the panels on contemporary fiction, it won’t be worth hiking back down to the food tents for a taco.
- Even if you’re focused on fiction or poetry, don’t neglect the nonfiction panels. This year I loved learning about the segregation of high school football in midcentury Texas from Michael Hurd, who presented his new book, Thursday Night Lights.