Tucson, Arizona – Special Report by Sean Hillen
Sean is a writing coach with Ireland Writing Retreat, a week-long, creative writing holiday with a difference – scenic Celtic legend walks, island tours, fascinating authors and practical writing and editing workshops – all in a land that time forgot, in probably the most scenic part of all Ireland, along the famous northwest ‘Wild Atlantic Way‘ coastline in the Donegal Gaeltacht.
Tens of thousands of people strolling across the spacious campus at the University of Arizona in bright sunshine over two full days at the annual Tucson Festival of Books is a truly impressive sight.
Even more so when you pick up a copy of the festival program with the motto ‘Where Words & Imagination Come To Life’ and peruse the immense number and diversity of author readings, round-table discussions, creative writing workshops, musical events, food booths and exhibits.
Though smaller in population than some other American cities, Tucson has carved out a leading place for itself in the realms of literary endeavor, an achievement based mainly on the enthusiasm and selfless commitment of the festival’s 1,500 volunteers.
Ann Weaver Hart, president of the University of Arizona, described the festival as “a site for education, discovery and fun for all ages…a celebration of creativity.” In summing up the event, Bill Viner, festival president and co-founder, quoted Mark Twain, saying, “Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: This is the ideal life,” while John Humenik, festival chairman and co-founder, said it is, “a dazzling display of America’s most celebrated authors…a wonderful place where words and imagination come to life.”
Such is the high level of admiration the festival has attracted over its nine-year life-time, well-known authors are delighted to attend – often regularly – to air their views on social and political changes and the world of books. This year, packed audiences flocked to hear speakers such as newspaper columnist and media commentator, Maureen Dowd, Colson Whitehead, Michael Tolkin, John Nichols, James Dashner and Juan Felipe Herrera, the US poet laureate.
From crime and sci-fi to romance, mystery and children’s books, there is no literary genre not debated at the festival. And not just by seasoned, multi-book authors either. Some of the speakers this year were debut writers, thrilled to have the chance to talk about their work. There are more than 350 authors and presenters at the festival.
Wide-ranging entertainment included culinary demonstrations, a story-book character parade, live music concerts from jazz to traditional Irish, humorous and acrobatic antics from the Peter Pan Circus and performances from the Ballet Folklorico Los Tucsonenses, the Leikarring Norwegian Dancers and the VASA Swedish Dancers. As for food, whether it’s barbecue, cinnamon donuts, pasta, popcorn, hot dogs, sausage, pizza, hamburgers or an assortment of healthier organic dishes, a variety of stands cater to every taste. Events for teenagers included workshops on graphic novels, fantasy and conspiracy and conflict, as well as paper and zine making.
Nancy Thompson, from upstate New York, has been living in the Tucson area for the last 30 years and has volunteered at the Tucson Festival of Books since its inception. “My main motive was to contribute to the collective community effort. I volunteered for one job, which quickly became three, all interesting and challenging, and immensely enjoyable.”
Nancy, who is on the festival steering committee and chaired the ‘Author’s Pavilion’ at this year’s event, co-ordinates closely with her colleagues to make sure the 200-plus authors at the pavilion over the festival’s two days have all they require to give their short, ten-minute talks to audiences. “In such a complex undertaking, to make sure things run smoothly. Closely-knit teamwork is very important. Fortunately, we have an excellent group of volunteers who work very well together, so much so that out of this positive work ethic have come long-lasting friendships.”
Being run on a volunteer basis – the only paid person on the festival is executive director, Marcy Euler – Nancy is keen to emphasize this uniqueness of the Tucson project. “We are very, very proud of this fact. It is something no other festival of such a size can boast.”
Nancy and her colleagues on the steering committee begin preparing for each festival mere weeks after the last one has ended. “You can imagine, with such a large weekend event there’s an awful lot of organizing to do,” she said. “Every year we brainstorm over what changes or additions we can consider to make the festival even better.”
Claudia Oreck-Teplitsky, who has been a volunteer for the last nine years, said, “The festival has grown exponentially to become the third largest in the United States and the first in the nation as a non-profit venture. It has contributed more than one million dollars to literacy programs.”
Denver-born and a specialist in teaching children with reading difficulties who was also former director of a cultural enrichment program that hosted a wide range of activities, Claudia cited ‘Science City’ as an example of such a positive addition, with talks ranging from black holes to bacteria.
Not only has Claudia been a loyal, hard-working festival volunteer like Nancy, but such is her deep interest in reading, she also established a book club in Tucson 17 years ago that is still going strong.
Nancy and Claudia were joined this year for the first time by Diane Stephenson and Sandra Katz, who wanted to help what they consider a terrific project. “If we don’t encourage our youth to read and differentiate between fact and fiction, our world is doomed and subject to overthrow by a charismatic, persuasive dictator,” said Sandra. “The Festival of Books is the outstanding event of the year, not only as a gathering of 140,000 people of all ages, but as a community effort to emphasize the importance of reading.” Added Diane, “After enjoying the Tucson Festival of Books for nine years, it was time to volunteer and become a ‘Friend of the Festival. The importance of literacy is not only reading enjoyment but specially to maintain an educated and well-informed society.”
One example of the projects supported by the festival is Literacy Connects, under the direction of executive director Betty Stauffer, a nonprofit connecting people of all ages through literacy and creative expression. Its programs offer opportunities for learners of all ages to realize their potential — at school and in the workplace, as parents, as consumers and as participants in the community. Last year, more than 1,500 volunteers helped more than 50,000 people in southern Arizona. Literacy Connects also guides children in reading so they catch up with their peers, as well as helping adults with reading, writing, math and English. In gratitude for the help it receives from the Tucson Festival of Books, the nonprofit hosted an enjoyable outdoor buffet comprising a range of dishes and desserts for festival volunteers.