Community ‘Falls’ for Mason’s Book Festival

Posted: September 14, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: September 21, 2009 at 1:45 pm

By Tara Laskowski

The opportunity to see and hear well-known authors draws book lovers from the area. Creative Services photo

The opportunity to see and hear well-known authors draws book lovers from around the Washington, D.C., area. This year there are more venues than ever. Creative Services photo

When Chinua Achebe, author of “Things Fall Apart,” accepted Fall for the Book’s Mason Award last year, Claire Smith was in the audience. A longtime resident of Annandale and a Mason grad, Smith thought it was thrilling.

“He is a legend,” she said. “It was amazing to be in the presence of someone so great.”

Achebe’s appearance was just one of the many events Smith has attended at Fall for the Book throughout the years. She has been to every single festival since the beginning when Fall for the Book was only a two-day event. She was there in 2004 when a group of Fairfax lawyers reenacted the court scene in “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the Fairfax Courthouse. In later years, she met novelists Dave Eggers and Khaled Hosseini. She even brought her son, a huge history buff, to hear Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Ellis read.

“I’ve seen it grow over the years,” she says. “And now I can’t believe the number of authors the festival brings and the different venues they have.”

Fall for the Book, now in its 11th year, is the largest and oldest literary celebration in Northern Virginia. Throughout the years, the festival has brought internationally known writers such as Tobias Wolff, Joyce Carol Oates, Mitch Albom, Pat Conroy and Doris Kearns Goodwin to Northern Virginia and given students amazing opportunities to meet and interact with these authors.

This year the festival runs Sept. 21-26. Headliners E.L. Doctorow and Sherman Alexie will give readings to the public. Doctorow will accept the Fairfax Prize and Alexie will accept the Mason Award. More than 130 authors will present at more than 30 different locations.

Out in the Community

While most events take place on Mason’s Fairfax Campus, Fall for the Book authors will also go out into the surrounding community, appearing at businesses in downtown Fairfax and libraries in Arlington, Va., Alexandria, Va., and Laurel, Md.

The festival has also partnered with places such as The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md., for headliners such as mystery writer James Ellroy, who will wrap up the festival Saturday evening. This “distributed model” of the festival brings many benefits to the programming.

“One of the hallmarks of Fall for the Book is the fact that even our bigger events still are of a manageable size and in formats that allow the easy involvement of writers and readers together. The distributed model helped maintain this quality by allowing us to look at a proposed event, figure out where the best audience would be for that event, and then find a venue close to that audience that would work well,” says festival director Bill Miller. [See a video of Miller and others discussing several of this year’s speakers.]

“I can appreciate Bill Miller’s vision about expanding the festival throughout the communities in the area. It was pure genius,” says Pier Penic, a volunteer for Fall for the Book and president of the Friends of Sherwood Regional Library in Alexandria, which sponsors events. “The festival is vital to the survival of books and literacy in this particular area.”

Joanna Ormesher, cultural tourism and marketing manager for the City of Fairfax, has been working with staff at Fall for the Book for several years and partnering on many events that take place in local businesses.

“We have had amazing reactions from the local businesses — and this is what drives us to do more in the city.  On so many levels it makes the city residents and businesses feel a lot more involved with Mason and the Fall for the Book Festival.”

A Personal Interaction

The festival offers an opportunity for audiences to hear authors read their own works. Creative Services photo

At the festival, audiences hear authors read from their own works. Creative Services photo

But it’s not only the businesses that benefit from the festival. Community members such as Smith love the opportunity to meet and interact with their favorite authors in a more laid-back, accessible environment than some of the more crowded, jam-packed shorter literary festivals in the area.

A few years ago, Smith was able to meet one of her favorite sports writers, Will Blythe, author of the book “To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever: A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry.”

“We’ve become friends now,” Smith says. “We’ve e-mailed back and forth frequently, and he’s introduced me to other authors. It’s wonderful.”

Penic also remembers the Achebe event fondly, and says she brought homeschoolers, book club members and friends to the event.

“That particular historical moment for Mason will always be remembered as an event of grace, respect, honor and scholarly international achievement,” she says.

And, of course, Mason students get perhaps the best deal of all with Fall for the Book. Many classes read books by authors they then get to meet up close and personal. Students in the MFA in Creative Writing program can volunteer to drive authors to and from their destinations, an experience that offers time for a more personal chat with a writer.

Some students even have the opportunity to interview authors. Nicole Lee, a current student in the MFA Creative Writing Program, was able to talk to and write about Alan Cheuse, a Mason professor and author most recently of a book of travel essays.

Festival driver coordinator David Heath, a current fiction student, was able to interview author C.M. Mayo for the Fall for the Book web site this year.

“What fun to read a good book and have the opportunity to ask the author questions about it. It was great to talk to her about what couldn’t make it into her novel and glean some of the ways she went about researching,” Heath says.

“Fall for the Book is a way to meet interesting people in the writing community and give back to the community at large — without other people, writing can feel a bit lonely and selfish.”

For a full schedule of events, see the Fall for the Book web site.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu