The first day of this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book will end with a spirited conversation among three longtime audience favorites. On the eve of its closing day, the 25th-anniversary outing will flip forward to three more authors whose work beckons readers into the future.
Back in 1995, on the busy weekend before the inaugural festival, a couple of organizers — Calvin P. Otto, who first came up with the idea of a book festival for local readers, and Paul Collinge, principal owner of Heartwood Books — wondered aloud if anyone would show up.
“Twenty-four years later, we’ve counted almost half a million attendees,” said Jane Kulow, the festival’s director. Part of her mission is striking a balance between celebrating a tradition of success and finding out where literature will be taking readers in the next quarter-century.
“An Evening with Festival All-Stars: Lee Smith, Adriana Trigiani and Douglas Brinkley” is set for 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Paramount Theater.
The three authors have been among the festival’s most popular guests year after year. They’ll speak about their own work, including Smith’s “Dimestore: A Writer’s Life,” Trigiani’s “Tony’s Wife” and Brinkley’s “American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race.”
Smith, an award-winning author of 17 works of fiction, got her start writing stories as an inquisitive 9-year-old growing up in Grundy. Many readers recognize Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University, in his role as presidential historian on CNN. Trigiani, who also has 17 books to her credit, directed the film version of her novel “Big Stone Gap,” drawing on her background as a playwright, filmmaker and television writer and producer.
Margot Lee Shetterly, author of “Hidden Figures,” will be the host for the evening, and the conversation will be followed by time to get books signed. Tickets are $22; students pay $11.50.
At 8 p.m. Saturday, another gathering at the Paramount will bring in some of today’s younger voices.
“Future Tense: Writers You’ll Be Reading for the Next 25 Years” will introduce audience members to Mitchell S. Jackson (“Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family”), Jose Olivarez (“Citizen Illegal”) and Sarah Smarsh (“Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth”).
Olivarez, a poet who’s the son of Mexican immigrants, received the inaugural Author and Artist in Justice Award from the Phillips Brooks House Association. Jackson picked up numerous honors for his debut novel, “The Residue Years,” including a Whiting Award and the Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence. Smarsh, a 2018 National Book Award finalist, focuses on socioeconomic class issues and rural America.
The moderator is Carlos Lozada, nonfiction book critic for the Washington Post. Tickets are $22; they’re $11.50 for students.
Between the two events, Don Winslow, who recently released “The Border,” the finale of his Cartel trilogy, will be the Crime Wave Brunch speaker at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Omni Charlottesville Hotel.
Lisa See, author of “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane” — this year’s Same Page selection by Jefferson-Madison Regional Library to bring local readers together — will speak at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Northside Library and then at Thursday’s sold-out Literary Luncheon at the Omni.
There will be time to celebrate children’s literature with Clifford the Big Red Dog at 9 a.m. Saturday; that event, presented at the Paramount by WVPT and WHTJ PBS, will send each family home with a free book.
Topics covered by other discussions and events will range from Southern fiction to superheroes. Poetry has been an important part of each festival. And along the way, another trio of authors will tackle headline-fresh matters of race and rights in America.
“All of Our Rights — America’s Legacy of Inequality” will bring authors Carol Anderson, Michael Eric Dyson and Martha S. Jones to the Paramount stage at 8 p.m. Thursday. Jamelle Bouie, columnist for the New York Times Opinion pages and a political analyst for CBS News, will serve as moderator. Tickets are $22; they will be $11.50 for students.
Jones is the author of “Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America.” Anderson wrote “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy.” Dyson penned “What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America.”
Diversity has been important to the festival since its earliest days. Including a rich variety of voices — multiple races, genders, backgrounds and philosophies — keeps discussions lively and the exchange of ideas genuine.
Kulow said the festival offered Zora Neale Hurston programming early in its existence, “far before she had a Renaissance of popularity. Diversity of authors has been a part of the festival since 1995.”
Many festival fans dive into the online resources and calendars at vabook.org to plan their own paths from event to event, but there’s something to be said for allowing serendipity to do the scheduling. Kulow said it’s possible to have a memorable festival experience simply “by just showing up.”
Most of the festival’s 135 events are free, which makes Kulow’s favorite piece of advice easier to follow.
“We encourage anyone to drop in on any event,” she said. “You can just wake up in the morning and decide you’re going to go to an event. You don’t have to read the books ahead of time.”
If a discussion topic interests you, but you aren’t familiar with the authors or their work, don’t let that keep you away.
“It is accessible, and it is welcoming,” Kulow said. “I approach the festival prepared to be surprised. Once you have those authors in the room and they explore topics, that’s magical.”
Participating in this year’s festival also is an easy way to influence next year’s programming.
Attendance consistently exceeds 20,000. Two years ago, the festival welcomed about 31,000 visitors, but a couple of snowed-out days brought last year’s total down to about 21,000. Volunteers hand out evaluation forms at almost all the events, and attendees also are welcome to respond online through the website if they prefer. If the customary percentages hold true, festival organizers expect to get back about 5,000 evaluations, and “we read through all of the comments,” Kulow said. “We incorporate that into our planning for next year.”
Part of the fun for festival team members is knowing they’ve introduced compelling new voices to a beloved book town. Reminders that they’re on the right track come often while they’re poring through those evaluation forms.
“Someone will say, ‘There’s this great new author; you should bring them to town.’” Kulow said with a chuckle. “And we had them last year.”
Festival organizers have dedicated the silver-anniversary festival to founder Robert C. Vaughan III, longtime president of Virginia Humanities, who died March 6.