The Wisconsin Book Festival begins a new chapter on Thursday, as the Madison Public Library stages a scaled-down festival with a new director at the helm. If last year’s festival, with 140 events over five days, was a sweeping epic, consider this year’s fest more of an intricately plotted novella, with 50 events over four days.
“We wanted to streamline it so that people could get from one event to the next, come together and talk about what they saw,” said Conor Moran, the director of the Book Festival. Moran was hired earlier this year by the Madison Public Library Foundation to run the festival when it was handed over from the Wisconsin Humanities Council.
Moran consulted with Dena Wortzel and Alison Jones Chaim from the Humanities Council to find out what had worked in years past, and to figure out what could be improved for this 12th iteration of the Wisconsin Book Festival.
“One of the things that came out of those conversations was that a theme was often more limiting than it was inclusive,” Moran said, so the decision was made to go without an overarching theme for the festival. Rather than “go to strange lengths to find how that theme would work with a book you wanted at the festival,” Moran instead focused on finding a good mix of authors, both regional and national.
Moran acknowledged that when the initial handover took place, shortly after last year’s festival, there was some talk about spending more money to get big-name national authors in addition to local writers.
“What was recommended to us, and what we ended up deciding, is the Wisconsin Book Festival is a great opportunity to both showcase Wisconsin’s multitude of literary talents while also bringing people in to the state to further national conversations that are going on,” Moran said. To that end, the final schedule is almost exactly the same, percentage wise, as last year, but on a one-third scale.
Jones Chaim, the former director of the festival, said that she feels like the event has found “a great home” with the library.
“I was laughing a few weeks ago when I learned Bill Ayers was one of their big speakers,” Jones Chaim said. Ayers is a polarizing political figure who is appearing this year in support of his memoir, “Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident.”
“We had Bill Ayers a couple of years ago in a very controversial year,” Jones Chaim said about the radical activist’s appearance at the 2009 festival. “At the Humanities Council, we had some qualms about whether we were being really partisan by having Bill Ayers at that time. And now with this new era, the library is able to be more nimble in a way that the Humanities Council was not.”
Moran brushes aside any notion that the new book festival has a political bent.
“You will see that there are probably three or four political events, but I think that’s representative of the Madison community. There’s also fiction, biography, poetry and art,” Moran said. “We didn’t set out to say ‘Let’s have a political book festival.’”
Plenty of local authors are featured at the festival, including Dale Kushner, Susanna Daniel, Michelle Wildgen and David Rhodes. They’ll present events alongside national names like Dan Chaon, Jonathan Alter and Jon Ronson.
Moran is perhaps uniquely qualified to organize something like the Wisconsin Book Festival, as his last job was as an assistant events coordinator at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. In his three-year tenure at that job, he coordinated a thousand author events. He plans to up Madison’s game when it comes to celebrating the written word.
“One of the things we decided, in addition to four days in the fall, we need to be making author events part of the Madison community,” Moran said. “You can look for more of those in the future.”
He and the library have been working to host one Wisconsin Book Festival event each month. At the end of October, the library partners with UW-Madison to present Ruth Ozeki and her book, “A Tale for the Time Being,” the 2013 Go Big Read selection. In September, the library hosted British author JoJo Moyes, with impressive results.
“We had 200 people come to that event. It was a wonderful way to both open the festival and the new Central Library. I got to introduce her, and look out at all those people in this room that we’ve been talking about for so long,” Moran said. “There was a great energy in the room and in the building. The staff was excited and engaged.”
“It signaled a new phase for Madison, I think.”