Most of us initially fell in love with literature and books from a place of solitude. Reading is an activity we do by ourselves, but ultimately books make us feel much less alone, no matter how far from home, or from each other, we are. I think this is doubly true in times of crisis, or in times of isolation.
Books give us strength that comes from a place of intense vulnerability—the vulnerability of the writer, of his/her characters, and of us, the readers taking this leap into the unknown with them. In a time of collective vulnerability—a time like the one we’re experiencing now—we want our programming to give people strength. We want it to create a space for inquiry, stimulation, hope, and even courage. We want it to stand as a form of communication because in a time of physical human distancing, it’s one of the few means of touching, and of being touched, that we still have.
Our beloved Bay Area community members have made it clear how much the Festival means to them. We can’t even list all the testimonials we’ve received about the Festival’s impact on people’s lives—testimonials from the writers we feature, as well from the thousands of adults, kids, and families who feel nourished, galvanized, and seen by their experience at the Fest. When we announced our decision to cancel the in-person event and our intention to produce virtual programming, we received so much validation from that community—validation that books and reading matter more than ever now, and that having conversations about them, even on a screen, is a way of coping, of bonding, of making it through.
I mentioned above that our theme this year was “books build bridges.” BABF #UNBOUND is all about bridging—bringing meaningful conversations by smart, creative people who have thought a lot about the topics (aka, authors) right into your living room. We’re bridging that physical distance.
Aside from BABF #UNBOUND, in what ways will you communicate with your audiences during this tough time?
We’re producing much more original written content now, not only to inform our audiences but, just as with the programs themselves, to connect with our community and give them something stimulating and absorbing to engage with during a tough time. We want to send them messages of love and solidarity and comfort.
We’re putting out our newsletter, “Between the Covers,” three times per month instead of one, and filling the issues with original author interviews, profiles of indie bookstores that capture how they’re coping and how we can help, personalized book recommendations, and literary links and food for thought. You can subscribe here!
We’ve also started a regular series in our newsletter and blog, “Literary Sustenance,” that delves deep into how Festival authors are dealing with the current situation: what they’re reading, how they’re seeking and finding solace, what’s giving them hope. These portraits have been very moving and relatable. They’re glimpses into authors’ daily lives in the midst of these trying circumstances, and they’ve been very raw and open in sharing with us what their challenges and inspirations are. Many of them, caring for elderly relatives or very young children, are trying to balance home-schooling their kids, teaching their classes virtually, writing, caretaking, and in some cases figuring out how to stay afloat. They’re still finding, in the midst of it all, little glimpses of beauty and hope, whether it’s as minor as some fleeting scene glimpsed through their living room window, or a virtual happy hour with a faraway friend, or an act of charitable kindness they’ve witnessed in their community. We’ve been talking to so many wonderful writers—Carolina de Robertis, Cara Black, Dan Chiasson, Oscar Villalon, Matthew Zapruder, Vanessa Hua, Marie Mockett—and are looking forward to talking with several more, and sharing their words and insights with our community.
Speaking of sustaining a sense of community, how are you planning to do that for the members of Women Lit, your year-round series focused on female and female-identified authors, during this social-distancing era? In-person events and intimate receptions/salons have been such an integral part of the community-building aspect of this series.
We love our Women Lit members, and we’ve been so lucky to have built our membership significantly over the past year. It’s such a beautiful forum for book-loving women in the community to learn about each other, bond, make new friends, have unforgettable conversations with authors and one another in gorgeous and peaceful settings. In the past year, we’ve had several members gift Women Lit memberships to their friends, so they can experience the magic of these events together; and we’ve had so many events—with Jenny Offill, Amber Tamblyn, Terry Tempest Williams, Eve Ensler, Gloria Steinem, and more—that were nothing short of transformative.
Because of COVID-19, we’ve unfortunately had to cancel some of the Women Lit events we’d scheduled for spring and summer, including ones with Victoria James and Alexandra Roxo. But we’re producing a new sheltering-in-place series, “Women Lit Lunch Hour,” as part of our Unbound virtual programming. The first videotaped lunch hour, coming in May, will be an interview with debut author Chelsea Bieker, whose novel Godshot is causing a big stir. We have another Lunch Hour underway with author and aging expert Louise Aronson.