Q&A with Festival Founder and Director Cherilyn Parsons

For interview, email lorna@baybookfest.org

Tell me about the 2019 Festival. What’s new?

The May 2019 Festival is our fifth anniversary, and I feel we’ve developed a strong voice. We celebrate writers and books we think are significant, whether on artistic, social, or purely human levels. This year we go full-on into urgent issues such as race, immigration, incarceration, and climate change. We also feature more fiction this year than ever before, compelling, high-quality literature on matter of the heart, including love, families, loyalty, and personal courage. We have a lot more poetry than in past years, with a poetry conversation going on most of the time throughout the two days of the Fest.

This year we feature a new partnership with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, which presents original compositions inspired by the work of Bay Area poets. The esteemed literary journal The Paris Review takes part in the Festival for the first time. We have expanded our range of moderators and interviewers; for instance, The Washington Post has sent their nonfiction book critic, Carlos Lozada, and Human Rights Watch is contributing a moderator. We have more foreign countries represented than ever before.

In a new series called Writer to Writer, two leading authors who are huge fans of each other’s work come together for conversation, later podcast. This idea was a brainchild of writer and publisher Lise Quintana of Zoetic Press, a supporter of the festival since its inception.

There’s an exciting development in our youth programming: Teens and middle-graders themselves will take to our stages to interview authors. We also present the first-ever middle-grade and teen editions of the world-famous, hilarious Literary Death Match. We hesitated to use the word “death” in the edition for middle-graders, but the kids insisted we keep it.

How has the Festival changed over its five years? What has surprised you the most?

Especially after the 2016 Presidential election, we became more overtly activist. We wanted to create a platform to highlight books we think are important in public conversation. We look at potential books to feature at the Festival through this lens, not exclusively but as part of our general rubric around selecting books that matter.

It shouldn’t surprise me that so many people care about books as much as I do—but each year I get to see afresh how much they care. As any event producer knows, it’s hard to gather just a hundred people for anything; everyone’s so busy. But the Festival gathers 25,000 people each year, coming together because of books! Not a sports event, not rock stars, but books! Each year we’ve had around 15,000 seatings on average in the literary sessions we present (with other people attending only our Outdoor Fair). That means that over the four years of the Festival so far, a person has sat in a seat 60,000 times to hear authors talk. With this fifth anniversary event, it’ll be 75,000

You’ve described BABF as a reflection of the Bay Area community. How so?

There is no place quite like the Bay Area. It’s home to some of the most respected authors and activists anywhere. It has one of the strongest literary ecosystems in the world, thanks in large part to our excellent independent bookstores and a multitude of literary events organizations.

More than half of the featured authors at the Bay Area Book Festival come from Northern California, along with nearly all our moderators and interviewers. Dozens of emerging local writers exhibit in our Outdoor Fair.

We support our literary ecosystem. We rely exclusively on Bay Area independent bookstores (large and small) to sell our speakers’ books for post-session signings. Additional booksellers exhibit in our Outdoor Fair. We don’t take funding from Amazon or have Amazon involved in any way.

We also work closely with universities, literary organizations, libraries, local publishers, youth programs, and local businesses. I could give dozens of examples. Stephen Sparks, co-owner of Pt. Reyes Books, is on our all-volunteer Program Steering committee, as is Aya de Leon, novelist, poet, and director of UC Berkeley’s Poetry to the People Program. Steve Wasserman, publisher at Heyday Books, advises, connects us, usually moderates sessions, and exhibits. Local MFA in Writing programs create sessions with their faculty, and exhibit. The Center for the Art of Translation recommends authors, designs a literary session each year, moderates, and exhibits. A local B-Corp, North Berkeley Investment Partners, has been involved for years, this year leading a Festival conversation on the meaning of citizenship.

We also reflect our Bay Area community by creating programming around local issues. The Bay Area is arguably ground zero around economic inequality, with our tech titans on one hand and large homeless population on the other—with the working class now also unable to afford stratospheric housing costs. Our Saturday Night Keynote this year, with Anand Giridharadas and Robert Reich, addresses these issues head-on, and it’s sponsored by Beneficial State Bank, an Oakland-based community bank that lives a mission of justice and sustainability.

Finally, San Francisco and surrounding cities are among the most international places in our country. From its inception, the Festival has included many authors from other countries, thanks to grants from consulates and cultural institutes. The Bay Area Book Festival is the most international literary festival in the United States after PEN World Voices (New York), which is entirely international.

Take us behind the scenes a little bit. How do you decide which authors to invite? How do you decide on themes for the festival?

We feature books that, with rare exceptions, have been published within the previous year. We receive many pitches from publicists and authors during our submission window in the fall. Meanwhile, we review publisher’s catalogues of upcoming books, and we get suggestions from our Program Steering Committee and others. We stay in touch with what’s happening in the book world (I take part in the Jaipur Literature Festival in India each year, for example). Since we’re also tremendous readers, our own interests also lead to suggestions. We pay special attention to authors of color, who have been underrepresented in book publishing. We look at small presses as much as big ones.

We don’t come up with a particular theme for each year’s festival, but we do consciously curate toward certain interest areas and values, as can be seen in our Archives. No offense to ghostwritten celebrity memoirs, but you won’t find them at our Festival.

The hardest part of creating the Festival is having to say “no” to terrific writers and books. Often a “no” doesn’t reflect the quality of the book but the overall balance of our program: how many other authors we have in a particular area, whether a panel needs fleshing out, etc. People shouldn’t take it personally if they don’t get in.

BABF isn’t just for adults. You include talks by children’s and YA authors, and you also have some really fun hands-on activities for kids. Why is it important to make this an event for all ages?

The Festival is a fantastic place to take the kids for a day. We offer stimulating stuff to do for tots, middle-graders, and teens. Kids like it—and it doesn’t involve a screen.

Numerous studies have shown how important reading is for children’s future development, both personally and professionally. “Deep reading,” which comes especially by reading print books instead of digital devices, is directly linked with critical thinking skills. The best way to get kids into deep reading is to show them that reading is fun. The Festival creates an environment where kids see that reading is indeed fun, that everyone does it, that they too can enjoy reading.

It’s also vital that parents read to kids regularly and have books on hand at home. In our Story Time circle, leading children’s authors and illustrators read aloud to children with their parents looking on, absorbing strategies about reading aloud while connecting more deeply with the terrific children’s literature that’s out there. What’s more, for the fifth year in a row Half Price Books generously provides thousands of free books for young people! There’s no excuse for any child to not have a full library.

It’s also important to help kids and young adults discover good books. We present books by diverse authors so all kids can see themselves reflected. The books talk about standing up for oneself, accepting others, and being kind. Our authors aim to equip a generation to make racism obsolete and to embody courage, tolerance, and environmental stewardship.

What is the Women Lit program?

Women Lit (www.womenlit.org) is a membership program that began in January 2018 as a way to raise the voices of female-identified authors, especially authors focusing on gender-related issues, and to foster literary community among Bay Area women. It raises funds to bring bold female authors to stages at the Festival and year-round. Women Lit has blossomed and will be a major focus of development during the rest of 2019, into 2020.

At the Festival we’re featuring numerous authors and sessions supported and inspired by Women Lit: a conversation on the legacy of Adrienne Rich; female speculative fiction writers; leading female Black authors (including Tayari Jones and Esi Edugyan) in conversation; a roundtable called “What Women Want” with four novelists; and much more, as detailed here.

Year-round, Women Lit has featured writers such as novelist Leila Slimani, journalist Rebecca Traister and—in a sold-out show at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco this past February—Gloria Steinem. Literary fiction master Rachel Cusk visits us April 7 in Berkeley in what promises to be another sold-out event.

We live in a high-tech age where so much discussion happens online. Why do you think it’s important to have the kind of in-person, real-time discussions that the Festival facilitates.

We need opportunities to connect personally because so much now happens online. We’re human beings, meaning we’re social creatures. But it’s not easy to find friendly places to connect around similar interests outside of work.

A literary festival brings people together in a special way, around the life of the mind. It’s fun to gather at a bar, but conversation can tend toward chit-chat (and at high decibels). At the Bay Area Book Festival, thousands of people come together to discuss things in substantive, fun ways. It’s hard to find other venues where meaningful conversation is the very point.

You don’t have to come with a friend to thoroughly enjoy the Festival. On your own you can roam among the many different topics and types of books being discussed. You’ll leave with dozens of friends—the characters in the books you’ve heard discussed, the authors who have signed your new books, the people you’ve chatted with while standing in line. We’ve had people discover significant others. We had a budding writer sign with an agent. At the very least, you’ll be able to take someone great to bed with you that night (come on, we’re referring to the characters in the book).

What do you think are some of the most important trends in literature today?

There’s a powerful and important movement toward publishing books by authors of color, by women, and by people with alternative lifestyles. Books by all of these groups, especially authors of color, have been poorly represented on bookshelves, not to mention among reviews and awards. The We Need Diverse Books movement has swept children’s and teen literature, and there is a growing consciousness within adult publishing about the importance of writers whose work explores diverse viewpoints and experiences. One of the great powers of literature is its ability to reach across difference while also celebrating it.

Another important trend is toward publishing more literature in translation. Today’s political landscape is a duel between globalization (with a desire to embrace others beyond one’s borders) and self-protective nationalism (as with Brexit and “build the wall”). Literature has always been a Silk Road, an avenue for cultures traveling to each other, bringing their unique delights. But for that to happen, books need to be translated. Americans read far fewer books in translation than residents of other countries do. We benefit as more publishers bring out these works.

Literature has always given us a powerful lens through which to understand the world around us. Do you think there is something unique about the kind of discussion that it inspires?

In different ways, all forms of artistic expression let you enter the mind—the consciousness, the way of seeing or feeling—of another person. In literary art, we can go inside another’s mind at great depth through a character, or trace the contours of an author’s thought at great length.

I’ve often noted how intimate literature is. When you open the pages of a book, you open yourself into an encounter with that author, a person who has dived deep into her own heart and mind and, with great persistence, often hundreds of thousands of hours, has created the literary work you hold in your hands. Your mind communes with her mind in the sacred space created by the page. Sometimes I think of the pages of a book as the walls of a cathedral where you meet. You’re not rushed. You pay attention. You open yourself to be touched, to be changed. If this isn’t a sacred experience, I don’t know what is.

What’s remarkable about a book festival is that you come together with thousands of other people who also treasure that intimate experience, and with the writers who know it too and devote themselves to creating it. You all have a special bond. You share a key to the magic kingdom. So you sit in the audience at a book festival event, you walk through literary exhibitors at our Outdoor Fair, and you can know: We’re in this together, this sacred thing called reading.

Bio of Cherilyn Parsons

Cherilyn Parsons is the founder and executive director of the Bay Area Book Festival. An article about how she started the Festival appeared a couple of years ago in the San Francisco Chronicle; you may also wish to view other press. Her speaker bio for this year’s Festival is here.