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Starting today: The 2021 Festival of Reading (slightly abridged edition)

Bill DeYoung

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Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Louise Erdrich, who will appear virtually Nov. 14, is member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Photo: Wiki Commons.

It seems almost quaint now, like something from a simpler time. For 27 years, the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading was the area’s largest and most eagerly anticipated literary event. The University of South Florida’s St. Pete campus and the Poynter Institute would be bustling with people toting bags full of books, excitedly packing into auditoriums and classrooms to sit in rapt attention as one author after another talked about their work.

Afterwards, they’d sit and they’d sign. Dozens of authors, many of them famous and best-selling.

The Festival of Reading is still well-attended, in a manner of speaking. The 29th annual edition, beginning today, is (like the 2020 iteration) entirely virtual, a pandemic-inspired necessity.

Colette Bancroft

Which doesn’t sit all that well with Colette Bancroft, the Times book editor and the chief curator of the Festival of Reading since it began. But it sure beats not having a Festival of Reading at all.

Bancroft is pleased with this year’s lineup of nine authors, all of whom will sit down with her, monitor to monitor, and Zoom-interview for whoever wishes to acquire the link and attend.

Of course, the pandemic has eased considerably since 2020 – and some authors are back “on the road,” promoting their books in person.

“We start planning this months in advance,” explains Bancroft, “and we had no idea what conditions would be like in November. If you look back two months ago, in September, Florida was the hot zone of the whole country for Covid cases … we didn’t know whether it would be safe or not. And six or eight months ago, when we started planning, there was no way to predict.”

Although several of Bancroft’s 2020 Zoom interviews happened live, in real time, many others were pre-recorded.

For the 2021 festival, which runs today through Nov. 14, all the conversations – one per day – will be Zoomed live.

“We found that the live ones we did last year got larger audiences than the recorded ones, so we decided to do them all live,” Bancroft explains. “We do a Q&A at the end, as if it were the live event. The way we would always do it at live events. With these Zoom interviews, I’ll be opening it up for questions.

“It’s not as good as getting your book signed in person, but there is some interaction. And people like that.”

Public participation is free for all events, with the exception of the closing-night conversation between Bancroft and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Louise Erdrich (The Night Watchman).

Tickets for this one interview are $50, and include a signed copy of Erdrich’s latest, The Sentence, which will be published Tuesday by Harper Collins.

The Sentence is set inside a haunted book store. “This is one of her first interviews about it,” Bancroft reports. “It’s a tremendous book. I was just knocked out by it. And I’m thrilled to have her. She is one of the great America novelists writing today.”

The schedule:

Today (Nov. 8) at 7 p.m.: Lauren Groff (Fates and Furies, Matrix).

Tuesday (Nov. 9) at 7 p.m.: Michael Connelly (the Bosch and Lincoln Lawyer series)

Wednesday (Nov. 10) at 7 p.m.: Poet and essayist Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, whose debut novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, has been named an Oprah’s Book Club novel.

Thursday (Nov. 11) at 7 p.m.: A panel discussion with Ace Atkins (The Heathens) and Lisa Unger (Last Girl Ghosted).

Friday (Nov. 12) at 7 p.m.: A panel discussion with Craig Pittman (The State You’re In) and Cynthia Barnett (The Sound of The Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans).

Saturday (Nov. 13) at 2 p.m.: Michael Koryta (aka Scott Carson), whose novels include Those Who Wish Me Dead, The Chill and the recently-published Where They Wait).

Sunday (Nov. 14) at 4 p.m.: Louise Erdrich. Tickets and book fulfillment are being handled by Tombolo Books and Oxford Exchange Tampa.

Register for free virtual events here.

“As the person who reads all the books, writes all the reviews and conducts all the interviews, this is more manageable for me, for sure,” Bancroft chuckles. Still, she credits her fellow Times staffers, including Features Editor Ellen Clarke, for the hours of work they put into Festival of Reading planning, coordinating and marketing.

“At a time of uncertainty, when we really didn’t know what we would be able to do, this is more manageable,” she adds. “When we were first thinking about it back in the spring, we said ‘We’ll plan on this smaller one, and then if by some miracle the pandemic vanishes and it looks like we can do it in person, we’ll just expand it.’ But that hasn’t happened.”

There are some advantages to doing virtual interviews – if an author is on the other side of the world, for example, or won’t (or can’t) travel. So there may well continue to be a virtual element at future Festivals of Reading, one of the very few positives to come out of the pandemic.

The city’s biggest literary event will turn 30 in 2022. “I hope it’s live next year,” Bancroft says. “What shape it will take, I don’t know yet. Nobody misses that more than me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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