Over the course of a perfect weekend at the end of April, the first chapter of Columbia’s newest arts festival, the Unbound Book Festival, unfolded. Like all good openings, there were twists and turns, drama, laughter and heroes galore. Happily, there wasn’t a villain in sight, but there were many, many happy readers (and writers).
The culmination of 18 months of planning, the festival kicked off in a packed Missouri Theatre on Friday night where Michael Ondaatje, Booker Prize winning author of “The English Patient,” was in conversation with the mercurial poet Mark Doty. These two titans of the literary world captivated the crowd with their wide-ranging discussion about writing and creativity. It was fascinating and inspiring – and also, if you happen to be a writer, full of good advice, such as never go out for lunch; eat a sandwich instead. (So now you know.) The audience hung on every word, and there was a long line that waited to have books signed after the event. We couldn’t have wished for a more inspiring start.
I did wonder whether we would be able to match those heights on Saturday, but as it turned out, I hadn’t needed to worry. The festival took over the Stephens College campus for the whole day. Guests had six different venues to choose from, including the sunlit, intimate rooms in Senior Hall and the rather grander surroundings of the Windsor Auditorium and Kimball Ballroom. Perhaps my favorite venue of the day was the beautiful Firestone Baars Chapel where guests sat in the round and listened to poets and scientists, historians and travel writers. In between events visitors strolled unhurriedly around the beautiful campus discussing what they’d heard. As festival director I spent most of the day hurrying between venues, introducing writers and giving interviews, so I was unable to sit down long enough to enjoy any presentation for very long. But, I soon learned to take vicarious pleasure in the delight of others. People were keen to tell me of the marvels they had witnessed – poet Patrick Rosal bringing down the house with his electric performance, Bob Shacochis’s hysterical frankness, the excellent advice delivered by our panel of publishing industry professionals to aspiring writers.
Throughout it all our team of heroic volunteers kept things running smoothly with poise and finesse. When the crowds grew too big, they procured extra chairs seemingly from nowhere. Nearly 4,000 visitors were made to feel right at home.
My favorite memories of the day, though, were some of the quieter moments that took place far from the spotlight: chatting with a couple who were reading their newly purchased (and signed!) books in the sunshine between events; meeting people who had driven from Dallas, Texas, especially for the festival; and seeing the looks of delight on the faces of the children as Bobby Norfolk performed his stories. Best of all I loved watching friendships form between authors, volunteers, and visitors. We were all there for the same reason – for our love of books. I can’t think of a better kind of glue to bring people together. My thanks to all the authors, donors, sponsors and volunteers for having faith in this project and helping us bring it into the world.
But, as the saying goes, there’s no rest of the wicked. We’ve already begun making plans for next year. Mark your calendars for April 21 and 22, 2017. I’m looking forward to chapter two.
Alex was born in England but has lived in Columbia for the past 12 years. His most recent novel, “A Good American,” was a national and international bestseller, and his new book, “Setting Free the Kites,” will be published by Penguin in January 2017. In addition to writing, Alex also runs his own law firm and is the founder and creative director of the Unbound Book Festival.