Annual Fall for the Book Festival Brings Authors to Campus

By Buzz McClain

For some students, Mason’s annual Fall for the Book Festival is a fantasy come true.

“I got tickets to see Gaiman, yessss,” says Mason senior Elizabeth Tierney with a fist pump.

The Fall for the Book Festival has been bringing authors to the Mason campuses and the region for 13 years. Photo by Creative Services.

That would be Neil Gaiman, the author of American Gods, among other bestsellers, who will accept the Mason Award in the Concert Hall at the Center for the Arts on Friday, September 28. A thrilled Tierney will be in the audience.

“I’m really excited to see him,” the English and/or Philosophy major says (she’s still deciding). “I’ve read everything [he has written] except American Gods. I was driving to Chicago with my phone in my hand waiting for tickets to [become available] and when they did, wham!, I hit ‘send.’”

Tierney sums up the feeling of encountering favorite authors in the flesh in the way Fall for the Book allows: “I want to become a writer, and it’s nice to see who is behind the words.”

In its 14th year, the festival is one for the books, bringing literary rock stars, as well as new authors to meet their public. Where else do you get to meet Stephen King, Amy Tan, E. L. Doctorow, Dave Eggers, or Joyce Carol Oates except in your wildest literary dreams? Those best-selling authors have appeared in previous festivals and have set a soaring standard for the organizers at Mason.

Author Allegra Goodman and Mason University Professor Alan Cheuse discuss their recent novels at a  past Fall for the Book event. Photo by Creative Services.

But this year they’ve turned a new page: Alice Walker, famous for rarely “doing” events, will be on the Fairfax Campus to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the publication of The Color Purple, an exclusive to Mason.

Besides Walker and Gaiman, also on the contents page of 125 speakers this year are Michael Chabon (Telegraph Avenue), Rita Dove (Sonata Mulattica), Katherine Boo (Behind the Beautiful Forevers), and Matt Bondurant (whose The Wettest County in the World is the basis of the movie Lawless).

The first Fall for the Book Festival in 1999 was basically a two-day event, with some 30 readings stretching from Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon. The budget was a mere $1,000, but the public program was a success, and organizers at Mason and the City of Fairfax could see promise in bringing published authors to meet readers and promote their work. As it happened, the second year expanded the scope considerably and raised the budget to $20,000.

The momentum continues. This year’s Fall for the Book will take up nearly a week—Wednesday, September 26, to Sunday, September 30—with writers appearing at multiple venues throughout the region and reading from works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, history, biography, politics, environmentalism, and other genres. And as you’d imagine, the budget is bigger.

“This year we will raise and spend 10 times what we did that second year,” says Mason English professor and Fall for the Book executive director William Miller. Sponsoring partnerships and a fund-raising board of directors help offset the cost of hosting a book festival that sprawls for several days over multiple venues in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. Organizers expect some 20,000 visitors this year.

Robinson Professor Shaul Bakhash talks about his scholarly work at a Fall for the Book event. Photo by Creative Services.

Wouldn’t it be easier—and cheaper—to keep it all on Mason campuses?

“The festival began as a partnership between Mason and the City of Fairfax,” says Art Taylor, an assistant professor of English and marketing director of the festival. “While our sponsors and partners have shifted and broadened a little—the Fairfax County Public Library is now one of our biggest sponsors—the festival has always tried to serve both the campus population and the general public, whether that means having folks from off-campus come on or, in many cases, hosting events in the local community.”

And the expansion continues. “In recent years, we’ve broadened that even further, with events beyond Fairfax itself, throughout the county, in Arlington and Alexandria or in Prince William County, in D.C., and in Maryland,” Taylor says. “We realized that a lot of folks couldn’t, wouldn’t, or simply didn’t make the trek out to Fairfax even for good events. It’s part of the regional mindset, I think.”

Distance and traffic are obstacles, so Miller decided that if there are people who won’t come to the festival, then we’ll bring the festival to them.

“That’s certainly helped bring the festival to more people over the years and further broadened our partnerships, with the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, for example, or with Politics & Prose in D.C.,” says Taylor.

Meanwhile, Mason professors are generating interest by integrating the books into their class syllabi. “We’ll go to as many events as we can, and their first paper will grow out of that,” Miller says of the section of ENGH 201 Reading and Writing about Texts he is teaching. “Other faculty are doing that as well.”

For more information and a complete schedule, visit the Fall for the Book website.

This article originally appeared on the university’s News site.

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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