A book travels a long way to get to its reader. It starts as a prod in the author’s mind, a call to action. That nudge then turns into a spilling of words out onto a page, which is then sent to a publisher to be critiqued and reshaped. There, the words of the eager author are molded into their final form, as author and editor alike shape this literary outpouring into its most impactful self. Finally, the book is ready to be distributed to curious readers. Clasping the freshly bound work in their hands, feeling the feathery weight of a newly purchased book, bibliophiles delve into the carefully crafted story.
Sunday, the 14th Annual Kerrytown BookFest brought together all aspects of the novel experience — author, reader, publisher and more. The festival took over the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, sporting booths and tents with a wide range of attractions under this year’s theme, “Travels with Books.” The avenues of the market were filled with meandering townsfolk and students, soaking in the culture and crafts of literature. The sky was cloudless, and the air was crisp. It was a perfect day to find a new favorite book.
Local authors, booksellers and publishers ran the bulk of the booths. Locally owned bookstores, such as bigwig Literati, made their presence known by setting up their own booths full of unique books for purchase at their respective stores. The owners of these establishments were often manning their displays, giving festivalgoers a personal look into the management of some of their favorite haunts. The BookFest also highlighted other, lesser-known local establishments. In a time when privately owned bookstores often succumb to the pressure of larger chain stores, the presence of locally owned, thriving businesses was refreshing to see.
Aside from those selling the finished product, the BookFest included individuals who help transmit books from the imagination to the shelf. Michigan-based, first-time authors proudly displayed their debut works, engaging passersby in debates about literature, form and authorship. Also present were publishers, ranging from the large Wayne State University Press, based in Detroit, to individually owned establishments like Splattered Ink Press, based in Grand Haven.
BookFest also showcased readers, sharing the art of anyone inspired by written word. Cropping up among the novels was a vast range of paper- and literature-based art of all shapes and sizes. Artists brought to light the potential that paper has on its own, rather than just being a vehicle for words. There were dainty, hand-painted prints on cream-colored cardstock alongside purses made from the shelled-out hulls of beloved novels. Attendees could purchase jewelry incorporating favorite quotes — long pendants containing character’s quips and hand-etched bracelets with simple quotations — or journals to archive their own lives and stories. The beauty of words, especially when displayed artistically, was evident in the countless prints, canvasses and paper collages brought by the artists.
While the sheer volume of new work presented at the Fest was enough to inspire confidence in the future of print literature, the Kerrytown organizers made sure to include the storied past of print. Vendors toting vintage magazine covers, comic books and more of the same were sprinkled throughout the displays rooted in the now. Drawing visitors in with the unmistakable scent of aged paper, these vintage booths reminded those gathered of just how far the production of literature has come. From 1900s children’s fiction, to early music magazines, to books on the history of dentistry in the United States, any literary craving could be satisfied. An interesting dynamic was created in the nooks of these booths. Some visitors were drawn in by memories from their youth, but others were experiencing this aged art for the first time.
Celebrating the power of words and art, the BookFest also provided attendees with resources to improve their own literary lives. Resources made available spanned age, gender and level of experience to include anybody who may want to delve deeper into the written world. Local libraries, such as the Ann Arbor District Library, took part in the Fest, as well as literacy groups and book clubs. The literacy groups were directed at a wide range of clientele, including the school-aged youth of 826michigan and the women of Women Writers of Ann Arbor/Ypsi. The presence of these groups made the BookFest inclusive, welcoming to neophytes and veterans alike.
Like the festival resources, the literature itself didn’t cater only to seasoned bibliophiles. There were several booths toting clever children’s literature, and an entire tent dedicated to children’s book readings. The Children’s Tent featured animated readings by authors, illustrators and storytellers. Kicking off the day was Mother Goose, who shared nursery rhymes with the flocks of children gathered at her feet. Looking the part, Mother Goose sported wire-rimmed glasses, a floral dress and a plush pet goose. The later storytellers followed suit, donning costumes or using enthused voices to bring the stories to life. All smiles and bursts of laughter or surprise, the Children’s Tent was a place of candid wonder throughout the day.
To inspire a more adult sense of awe, the BookFest also offered various panels and speakers throughout the day. Taking place at the Main Tent and in the Kerrytown Concert Hall, these presentations ranged in topic from the sense of place in novels, to how to make a living as a writer, to the hidden gems of Michigan. One particularly telling panel, including authors Desiree Cooper, Kelly Fordon and Andrew Mozina, discussed the essential place of identity within narratives. The discourse was rich, tackling questions of sexuality, familial relations, personal morality and more. Each author explained the integral role of identity in their respective works, despite their differences in content. As the question of identity is one that everyone faces, the complexities discussed during “The Quest for Identity” reverberated outside the literary realm and into the everyday lives of listeners.
Stepping even deeper into the lives of attendees was R.J. Fox, the Writer in Residence of this year’s BookFest. Fox, who graduated with an English degree from the University of Michigan — Dearborn, is a screenwriter, novelist and teacher. He was granted the task of reading and critiquing the first 20 pages of six manuscripts submitted prior to the festival to a live audience during the event. His love of writing and narrative, though, began well before this past Sunday.
“Writing has been my passion since high school,” Fox said. “I’ve been working towards it, writing script after script, story after story, getting rejected over and over. I just kept working at it and not giving up.”
This drive to succeed allowed Fox to successfully publish his novel, “Love and Vodka,” which he hopes will be made into a movie. While budding as a novelist, Fox is also an English teacher at Huron High School in Ann Arbor. Working closely with students and helping them develop their own narratives made Fox the perfect pick for Writer in Residence.
“I love teaching reading and writing,” Fox said. “I love telling students that when I teach, it’s not just because it’s my job. I have this passion for writing and helping other people with their writing. The Writer in Residence was right up my alley because it combines my teaching and my writing background.”
As the submitted manuscripts were chosen on a first-come-first-serve basis, Fox encountered a range of style. Works spanned from fiction to memoir and were penned by newcomers as well as published authors. The diversity in submissions reflected the variety of experience found within Ann Arbor.
“It’s a wide range of memoir, fiction and even poetry,” Fox said, referring to the chosen manuscripts. “Each one has its own challenges. Using any information I had myself about each genre, I applied it to each writer’s piece. Each piece had to be treated differently.”
Meeting at the crossroads of education and creation, Fox pulled from his own inspirations as well as academic influence to help guide the writers. Through his own work, as well as the work of his students, Fox has learned the value of vigilant revising and editing. There is always room for improvement and expansion.
“Writing is hard, even if you’re a writer,” said Fox. “Any piece of writing, whether it’s someone who has been published a hundred times or someone who has never been published, you can always find things to make better.”
Fox applies this kind of optimism and drive not only to his own writing but also to his outlook on his work as a whole. At last year’s BookFest, Fox was one of the flocking authors aspiring to one day run a booth at the festival. He pinned up flyers for his then-new novel in any available space, hoping to get his name into people’s heads and his book into their hands. One year later, Fox is becoming a respected author and voice in the Ann Arbor literature scene.
“Good storytelling is good storytelling, whether it’s on film or in a book,” Fox said. “It’s not about number of copies sold, but about meeting people and having a chance to do even more events like this.”
Events like the Kerrytown BookFest, so full of passion for creation and art, are always zestful and seldom leave their attendees unchanged. Aside from the splendor of displays and presentations, it was impossible to miss the conversations going on around these attractions. Each visitor, bringing his or her own experiences, shared a piece of themselves — with a stranger, a friend, a favorite author. As they so often do, books sparked conversation after conversation between kindred spirits. The connectivity was tangible. Bubbles of shared experience popped up and engulfed visitors, reminding them just why books are so gratifying. The pleasant hum of chatter warmed the quickly chilling September air as the visitors of the Kerrytown BookFest returned to their homes, ready to crack open a new book.