CHARLESTON — The 20th anniversary edition of the West Virginia Book Festival will have a true 21st century ambience, presented entirely virtually.
It’s a safety measure, prompted by the cautionary strictures of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following its 2020 cancellation, the Book Festival was scheduled to return to its familiar confines of the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center this weekend, after social distancing restrictions were relaxed — temporarily — earlier this year.
“We were really anxious to get back to normal this year after having to cancel in 2020,” KCPL Marketing and Development Manager and Book Festival Co-Chair Stan Howell said. “We had already begun preparations; it’s a pretty big event, so we had started planning in February and March. We had the authors lined up prior to that. Then, of course, the pandemic took a turn for the worse.”
Howell and other Festival Selection Committee members met in August to determine their course. “Thousands of people crowd into the Convention Center, so their health and safety was our number one priority, and the committee voted unanimously to cancel an in-person event. We had to pivot and figure out a Plan B.”
Plan B entailed investigating how other book festivals had produced virtual alternatives, then assembling help to emulate their methods, he said.
“We partnered with MotionMasters and American Technology Rentals. Over the past year, both of those companies have been helping organizations with virtual events of various kinds. Diana Sole and her team at MotionMasters are going to be doing the heavy lifting for us, in terms of virtual presentations of the events and the technical side,” Howell said.
“The Kanawha County Library is a longtime client; we’ve produced videos for their fundraising campaigns,” MotionMasters CEO Sole said. “This event requires excellence on two fronts: production/planning and technical expertise. That’s what we bring to the table.”
Sole said the festival will be a mix of live and pre-produced content with the authors.
“The challenge is also to do something engaging to the audience, not just having talking heads on Zoom,” she said. “We look at it more as a television concept — we have a show to produce. We’re excited for this opportunity to take the Book Festival to an audience around the country and beyond. I have book-lover friends from all over the United States who are going to tune in to hear Colson Whitehead and the other authors.”
Authors on board online
“We also had to figure if the authors were still interested in taking part,” Howell said. “When we had to go to a virtual event again, we had to contact the authors again. We’re very grateful to all of them who wanted to stick around and do something different.”
Featured authors scheduled to appear on screen in lieu of in person are Pulitzer Prize-winning writers Colson Whitehead and Eric Eyre, children’s book author Jon Scieszka, author/singer Josh Malerman and state natives/novelists Homer Hickam and Denise Giardina.
Giardina is returning as a Book Festival presenter after more than a decade as a featured author at the event. “It’s disappointing to not be doing it in person and being able to talk to people there,” she said, “but I think it’s perfectly understandable why they had to do this.”
Since the publication of her last book in 2009, Giardina said she has visited classrooms and book festivals to discuss her works, but the pandemic brought the bulk of those activities to a standstill. “For almost two years, everything has just dried up,” she said.
Eyre has had a similar experience. “Because of COVID, my entire book tour got canceled when ‘Death In Mud Lick’ first came out, but, like everyone else, you have to adjust and adapt. You miss the in-person interactions with readers, but with the virtual events, you have new opportunities to connect with book lovers anywhere in the country — or even the world. When one door closes, another door opens,” Eyre said.
Virtual workshops and presentations
The strictly virtual Book Festival activities are all free. Writing workshops and presentations will happen; in-person staples, such as the Used Book Sale and the Festival Marketplace, will not.
“We’ll be doing the workshops and literary presentations on Zoom, but people still need to register,” Howell explained. “Once they’ve registered, we’ll send them the Zoom links so they can take part in the workshops and presentations. The author presentation feeds will be coming from where the authors are; Eric and Denise live in this area, so they’ll be in a room at the Coliseum and Convention Center. The others will be in various places around the country.”
Howell said viewers can watch the authors via the Book Festival website. “There’ll be a phone number on the screen where they can text questions for the authors. Then, when we go live during the presentations, we’ll put up as many of their questions as we can get in. We’ll still have that interaction between the audience members and authors — that’s still important to do that.”
Book Festival screening schedule
Slated to lead virtual writing workshops Friday were Bonnie Proudfoot (“Fiction Writing: Beginning in the Middle”) and David Mould and Cat Pleska (“Travel Writing: A Sense of Place and People”); Brett Armstrong, who presented his “Echoes Across Epochs: Building Worlds in Any Era” writing workshop, as did Melinda Falgoust, addressing the topic “Super Self-Publishing on a Shoestring.” A pair of presentations from Kara Vuic’s “Non-Fiction Book: The Girls Next Door” and Judi Tarowsky and Jo Ann Dadisman’s “Exploring West Virginia Ghost Lore” also took place.
Friday’s programs concluded with Whitehead’s livestreamed appearance.
Saturday’s author roster begins with Hickam online from 9 to 10:30 a.m. From 9 to 10 a.m., Joe Geiger will present a lecture, “Disorder on the Border.” At 11 a.m., Eyre will present his “Death In Mud Lick” discussion, followed by Giardina from noon to 1 p.m., Malerman from 1 to 2 p.m. and Scieszka from 3 to 4 p.m.
“It has been a challenge, but we think it’s going to work out well and we’ll see how people react to it,” Howell said.
Preparations for next year’s Book Festival will advance with renewed optimism for traditional social gathering again, but with very little pause in the process, he added.
“We’ve already nailed down a plan to have a live event on the third weekend of October in 2022. We have to start working on getting authors as soon as we’re through with this year’s event. Our Selection Committee will go through nominations and potential authors. We’ll start work on the 2022 festival later this month,” Howell said.
Full schedules, registration and more information about West Virginia Book Festival activities can be found at www.wvbookfestival.org. The website contains a link to purchase works by this year’s featured authors as well.