Evanston Literary Festival 2017 – In Conversation with Lynn Haller

Julia Sweeney reads while Nina Barrett of Bookends and author Julia Claiborne Johnson look on at Bookends during last year's Mamapalooza event. (Photo: Lynn Haller)

Though this weekend has not yet come to an end, if you’re already thinking about what to do next weekend, look no further. This coming Saturday, April 29, 2017, will mark the beginning of the the Evanston Literary Festival, which began in 2015 and is now in its third year. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Lynn Haller, one of the co-organizers of the festival. Read on to see what Lynn had to say about its history, some of this year’s highlights and much more.

 

The Evanston Literary Festival runs from April 29, 2017 through May 11, 2017 (Poster Design: JudithMayer.com)

 

Andrew DeCanniere (AD): For those who may not be aware of the Evanston Literary Festival, what is the history of the event and how did it come to be?

Lynn Haller (LH): Well, this is our third year and my co-organizer, John Wilson, and I also organize the Chicago Book Expo. When we moved to Evanston about six years ago, we had the idea of holding a literary festival here. Evanston is such a center of literary activity and there really wasn’t anything quite like that here yet. Once Bookends & Beginnings opened, we had a new bookstore in town, and we approached them with the idea and they were very into it. You can’t really have a festival without a bookstore. Then we approached Northwestern University, and they were very interested as well. One of the reasons that it takes place when it does is because of when Northwestern University’s Spring Writers Festival takes place. It’s kind of under-the-radar in the local community and just has these wonderful writers every year. They have a series of events that are open to the public, and people didn’t know about it.

There’s a lot of stuff in Evanston that is sort of like that, where a select crowd knows about it and that’s sort of it. The idea behind this was to take some of these events and package it and add more events, in cooperation with the bookstore and others, to make it into a festival in order to highlight what is already going on, and then also have enough added events that it makes Evanston into a literary destination. That’s really the idea for the festival, to highlight all of the great things that are going on, as well as to provide a catalyst for new things to happen. A lot of people are energized by the idea of being featured in a festival, and then they want to be part of it. That creates more activity in the local community, which is always a good thing.

AD: It certainly is a nice addition to the community and to the North Shore as a whole — and it’s a great way to tie everything together as well.

LH: That’s sort of our hope with it. Every year we have more headlining events than the year before, and we’re trying to keep a good balance to have a critical mass of events so that they are all successful.

AD: And balancing it out would, I assume, make it that much easier for someone interested in multiple events to sort of make the rounds and, if they have the time, to attend all of those that interest them.

LH: Absolutely. That’s sort of how we’ve designed and planned everything, too — with the hopes that you could perhaps attend more events in the evening, or with the hopes that at least, if you’re late from work and can’t make it to a six o’clock event, you could maybe make it to a seven o’clock event. That’s why we kind of stagger them, with the hopes that everybody can make time in their schedule to attend an event in the evening, if they would like to.

 

Rachel Jamison Webster reads poetry at the Unicorn Cafe (Photo: Lynn Haller)

 

AD: I think it can also be a great way to discover authors you may not know about.

LH: Absolutely. That’s what we’re hoping. This year Bookends & Beginnings is having several food-related events, based on Nina Barrett’s culinary background. She used to host a cooking show on WBEZ [Chicago Public Radio], so it makes sense for them to invite some top cookbook authors. There are several events like that happening, including the kick off of Street Food, which is published by Agate, an Evanston publisher. Again, it kind of ties the local publishing community into the activities. So, the authors will be there talking about their book. That will be toward the end of Independent Bookstore Day, which is also the kickoff of the festival.

AD: Sounds like it’ll be interesting — though I’d be the first to admit that my own cooking skills are somewhat lacking. Are there any highlights, in particular, that you want to touch on?

LH: We’re really excited that Scott Turow will be at Bookends & Beginnings. It’s right before his book tour — he has a new book coming out toward the end of May. He’s an Evanston resident, but we’ve not had him at the festival yet. One of the things he’ll be discussing is the Amazon threat and the importance of supporting local businesses in the face of Amazon opening a bookstore in Chicago. That’s obviously something the local booksellers are very active in working to educate people about — particularly because Amazon is killing downtowns, because people shop online and that’s killing retail environments. That, in turn, has implications on local tax revenues, which is not something people think about very much.

AD: Yeah. I was at another local independent bookstore a number of weeks ago, and I noticed there was this article sitting on the counter, near the cash registers, and it was about that very issue — about how Amazon is opening a brick-and-mortar bookstore in Chicago and the very real implications of that. I think that some corporations come into town, and they end up forcing independent businesses out and don’t think twice about that, and that really has to change or else, as you say, many downtowns can end up very badly damaged. The last thing you want for a town is for all of these hardworking shop owners to be forced out, and for your community’s downtown to effectively become these ghost towns, all because of this big corporation came to town.

LH: Then, Northwestern University Press is hosting a Gwendolyn Brooks roundtable and poetry reading with some of the leading black women poets of our generation, including people like Angela Jackson. Parneshia Jones is moderating it and she is a very well-loved, award-winning poet who also works at Northwestern University Press. It’s the centennial of Gwendolyn Brooks’ birth, so the City of Chicago has been celebrating that all year with special events and this is another event to celebrate that. Another important event we have is a collaboration between Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, the Guild Literary Complex and Fleetwood-Jourdain Theater to do a stage reading of Sandra Seaton’s adaptation of Cyrus Colter’s short stories called the Chicago Trilogy. Cyrus Colter was a very prominent Evanston author, so this is very exciting. I’ve seen a preview and they’re very subtle and interesting and it’s a really phenomenal opportunity to get to see something like that — and to hear about the process of the development of these plays from the playwright, who will be in attendance. They’re three one-act plays, and they are set during the sixties on the south side of Chicago. That will be taking place at the Evanston Public Library on May 8th.

We’ll have several writing workshops at the Frances Willard House, which I find to be pretty exciting since the Willard House just reopened, and Frances Willard is such a part of the history of Evanston. When we first started talking about doing a project, and about what kind of program they might want to host, everyone I talked to said Frances Willard really thought of herself as a writer first. So, we thought that having some writing workshops there, in this historic location, would be a unique opportunity and would be really appropriate for the festival. One of the things we like to do is to celebrate the local culture and to bring these things to light, because a lot of people really don’t know about Frances Willard. It’s a really interesting opportunity. They’re only open for tours on Sundays, so this will be after their tours. They’ll remain open for these workshops. There will be one on journaling and one on finding your voice as a writer.

AD: Sounds interesting. I’ve never been there, but I think I’ve heard of the house.

LH: Yeah. I was lucky enough to get a mini-tour from the Executive Director when I met with them, and it was just painstakingly restored. She basically had a publishing company in the house, and her library is still there. It’s a very literary location.

I feel like there are so many events I’m excited about that it’s hard to narrow it down. Every night we have several great things happening. We have Kevin Coval, who has been getting a lot of press about his new book A People’s History of Chicago. We also have Mary Barr. She has written a very celebrated book called Friends Disappear, which is about the effects of economic disparity and segregation in Evanston. She doesn’t live in Evanston, but we were lucky enough to find out that she’ll be in town during the literary festival, and so we’re really excited to have her. She’ll be at the Second Baptist Church.

Then, of course, there’s the Northwestern Spring Writers’ Festival. So, we have Aleksandar Hemon, Cathy Park Hong and John Keene. If you haven’t been to the Spring Writers’ Festival, one cool thing is that they have past sessions posted online that you can listen to. They’ve had some really terrific people. There are always very interesting topics, because they talk a lot about their writing processes. In the past few years, Eula Biss has led the discussion. She asks phenomenal questions. It’s always really interesting.The first year we did this, Roxane Gay and Maggie Nelson were among the writers that they had, which is a pretty star-packed line-up to have as a part of our festival. There always are these really great conversations, especially if you’re a writer. Even as a reader, though, you get a new perspective on how writers come up with their ideas and it really makes you appreciate the books that you read even more. I think they’re always really enlightening.

We’ll have a nature walk-and-talk, and this is the first time we’ve done anything like that. It’ll be at the Ecology Center. The Block Museum will be hosting a number of events as well, and they always have very thoughtful programming. If you haven’t been to the Block, they are a local treasure.

 

Audrey Niffenegger and Aleksandar Hemon (Photo: Lynn Haller)

 

AD: It truly does sound like you have a wonderful line-up planned this year — not that you didn’t before. As you say, I think that the festival truly does just keep getting better and better — if that’s possible — with each passing year.

LH: I should also mention that Comix Revolution is hosting a few events, one of which is Emil Ferris, who is also a local resident who has written a graphic novel that has received a lot of attention lately. She was just on [NPR’s]  Fresh Air and we’re extremely fortunate she’s going to be able to be here.

AD: I have to say that it’s really tempting to try and make it to almost every event.

LH: Yeah. As we go through this, we try not to have too many events that we think compete with one another opposite each other.

AD: And it certainly seems like there’s something for virtually everyone.

LH: We try to have a diverse array of activities. We even have a stop-motion Lego animation event happening for kids. They can register at the library. That’s with a local author, David Pickett, and should be a really fun event. I don’t know if you’re been to the Sunday Salon series, but they’re a very well-loved, important reading series here in Chicago. We’re fortunate that some of the organizers have Evanston connections and were interested in having an event here — a special pop-up event as part of the festival.

Osama Alomar, who spoke at the Writers Resist event will be back. He’s from Syria, and there’s a very interesting and moving article about him in the Chicago Reader. It’s the cover article this week. You should check it out. We’re lucky enough to have a chance to have him back to discuss his work, particularly as Syria is on everyone’s mind right now. It’s very heartbreaking to hear his account of how he thought he would be able to go back to Syria. He lost manuscripts in his apartment that was bombed. It’s really sad. He is now in Pittsburgh on a special fellowship. So, he will be making time to come back to us for the festival, so that’ll be an exciting event. That’s just utterly relevant right now.

It just goes on and on. I feel bad leaving anyone out, because it really is a very strong line-up. I think we only have two paid events. One is the event that is taking place at Found with Beth Dooley. The other is the Poldark event. Robin Ellis, who was the original Poldark on PBS, is going to be in town. He’s now a well-known chef and cookbook writer, so he’ll have an event about Poldark and cooking.

 

The Evanston Literary Festival takes place at various venues around Evanston, kicking off on Independent Bookstore Day, April 29, 2017, and continuing through May 11, 2017. For a complete schedule of events and more information about participating authors, log onto the festival’s website. You can also follow Evanston Literary Festival on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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