Page Turners: 2017 Nantucket Book Festival
by: Joshua H. Balling
Ruth Reichl. Diane Rehm. Robert Pinsky. Nat Philbrick. Jodi Picoult. Alice
Hoffman. Not a bad short list of the nearly 40 authors attending this year’s sixth annual Nantucket Book Festival, set for June 16-18 at the Nantucket Atheneum and other venues around town.
The three-day event offers readings, panel discussions and social events in an informal setting, most of them free, and is intended to further the festival – and its parent organization, the Nantucket Book Foundation’s – mission of celebrating and promoting the joys and rewards of reading, writing and literacy.
The idea is to bring a diverse group of authors to the island, to open the eyes of residents and visitors alike to new literature, and genres they might not otherwise pick up at their local bookstore or library.
“My view of any book or literary festival is when we make a lineup of writers and poets, we want to be comfortable in saying to people, ‘this is who you should be reading. These people are near the heart of what we need to be exposing ourselves to’,” said Dick Burns, a member of the festival’s selection committee and co-founder of the Brattleboro (Vt.) Literary Festival.
“That’s our aim as we look at the entire range of the program. We’re certainly always looking for new voices, mixed with established figures. It’s difficult to put together a balanced program, but we try to do that every year. Because it’s an event, on Nantucket, we’re probably going to lure people who don’t normally go to poetry readings, or readings of any kind. But they will come here. We kind of want to set the hook, and make the program as interesting as we can.”
This year’s headliners span the literary spectrum. Rehm, the long-time public-radio talk-show host and interviewer, was scheduled to appear at last year’s festival but had to cancel at the 11th hour due to illness. She will speak Saturday about her latest book “On My Own,” a memoir of how she reconstructed her life after the death of her husband, and at Friday’s opening-night celebration with poet Kevin Young and author and journalist Will Schwalbe.
Also scheduled to attend are Pinsky, former U.S. Poet Laureate and author of 19 books, most of them collections of his own poetry; and Reichl, former editor in chief of Gourmet, whose latest book, “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life,” extols the power of cooking to cure many of life’s ills. Philbrick, Nantucket’s own National Book Award winner, will discuss his new young-adult book, “Ben’s Revolution: Benjamin Russell and the Battle of Bunker Hill,” with National Book Award finalist Laurie Halse Anderson (“Speak,” the “Seeds of America” trilogy).
This year’s lineup also includes Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson, author of “The Warmth of Other Suns,” which chronicles the migration of African Americans from the South; island novelist Nancy Thayer; former Nantucket selectman Finn Murphy, who will discuss his first book, “The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road,” about his career as a long-haul truck driver; Francine Matthews, discussing her latest Nantucket mystery, the first since 1998; and Elliot Ackerman, a decorated Iraq War veteran, fiction author and war correspondent.
Other island authors scheduled to speak are Jim Sulzer, Bernie Swain and Rob Cocuzzo, with dozens more in the Local Authors Tent, in which Nantucket writers have the opportunity to sell their books and talk with readers.
“There really is no theme. As much as it might be helpful sometimes, we don’t want to restrict ourselves. I don’t know that there is any criteria for choosing, necessarily. Our selection committee are voracious readers, and some are connected to the bookstores and the publisher buzz, and they know well in advance what books are going to be hot. They have a very good eye for authors on the verge,” festival executive director Maddie Hjulstrom said.
“From day one, the organizers felt very strongly that literature, the power of words and reading were so important we didn’t want anyone to be excluded. That’s the reason most of our events are free. We have one fundraiser among our eight ticketed events. We never charge children to attend.”
The festival was founded in 2012, the brainchild of Nantucket Book Partners’ Wendy Hudson and summer resident Mary Haft, after they attended the Nantucket Project.
“The idea of hosting a book festival had been kicking around for a while, but everybody was understandably quite intimidated. But with help from a lot of people, in a manner of a couple of months, they pulled together a lineup of authors, and had a very successful first festival,” Hjulstrom said.
“There is such a cultural and literary history on the island, so it’s the perfect place for a book festival. There are great writers who live here, and a wonderful history of Nantucket literature. This was an idea just waiting for somebody to run with it.”
Hjulstrom pegged Burns as the festival’s poetry champion, and praised his work in bringing some of the country’s finest poets to Nantucket in recent years.
“Even though it’s not always the most popular genre, poetry is such an important representation of how we think, and how we write. Last year, when we were able to get (former U.S. Poet Laureate) Billy Collins, it changed a lot of people’s
opinions about poetry. It gave people a new look at the power of poetry, and the fun you can have with poetry. Collins has the ability to start with humor and fun, with a twist at the end that can break your heart,” Hjulstrom said.
This year’s lineup of poets includes Pinsky, Young and Andrea Cohen, director of the Blacksmith House Poetry Series in Cambridge, Mass.
“Poetry is one of our most important literary forms. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but people can be seduced into reading poetry. People need to be exposed to the range of poetry going on in the country right now. It’s a pretty good time for poetry, actually,” Burns said.
“Billy Collins is a great proselytizer for poetry. His work is very accessible, but we didn’t bring him last year to lure people in then spring some very different poets on them this year. These poets are also pretty accessible in their own way. Pinsky, who I consider one of America’s leading and most important poets, is very vernacular. Andrea Cohen has a kind of sly allure in her poetry, that brings you in, and Kevin Young has a distinctive voice, with a kind of musicality and intelligence. It will be good for people to hear these poets.”
The festival’s reach extends far beyond just three days each June. The Nantucket Book Foundation also administers an education program in island schools that includes the PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools program, the Nantucket Book Festival Young Writers Award, and the Visiting Authors program, in which PEN/Faulkner author Benjamin Alire Saenz visited the island in April. A new island initiative, StoryTime, was just launched and will provide free picture books by text to children ages birth to 5.
“The simple mission of the Nantucket Book Foundation is to enhance literacy on Nantucket. The festival is what most people think of when they think of the foundation, but it’s a lot more than that,” Hjulstrom said.
For more information on the Nantucket Book Festival, visit http://www.nantucketbookfestival.org
Joshua Balling is the associate editor of Nantucket Today and the managing editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.