Thursday, May 24, 2018
Books

20th annual Times Festival of Reading celebrates books, authors; features Lehane, Grunwald, Connelly

An author. Vampires. A black wedding dress.

And with that, it was no surprise that Anne Rice became one of the most memorable moments of the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading, which celebrates 20 years today.

Rice, a featured author at the 1995 festival, didn't even present a reading or talk. She came only to sign her newest novel, Memnoch the Devil.

The signing was scheduled for 1 p.m. — and people started lining up at 4 a.m. to meet her. Rice, whose vampire novels were at the height of their fame, did not disappoint. She showed up in that black gown, accepted tributes placed in a "gift coffin" and signed books and memorabilia for more than a thousand fans.

Since it began in 1993, the Times Festival of Reading has brought together hundreds of authors and thousands of readers in an annual celebration of books. Many booklovers have left with a favorite author's name scrawled in the front of a book. The signings have become nearly as popular as the presentations.

Today's festival is 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the campus of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Forty authors will discuss and sign their books — including three who participated in the first festival: Roy Peter Clark, Jeff Klinkenberg and Enid Shomer.

The reading festival was the brainchild of then-Times book editor Margo Hammond to promote literacy and make it fun. The original festival also featured about 40 authors, including Florida novelist and journalist Carl Hiaasen, poet and novelist James Dickey, science fiction star Ben Bova and Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction author Tracy Kidder.

That first one, like the next 11 festivals, took place at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. Besides readings, book discussions and signings, it featured performances by Famous Dead Authors interacting with festivalgoers, and children's activities and a kids' book giveaway.

The number of authors has fluctuated over the years, from about two dozen to more than 70. For three years, starting in 1999, the festival was a two-day event. In 2005, the festival moved to USFSP. A few years later, children's activities were dropped because of construction projects on the campus.

For the last three years, the festival also has presented single-author events in Tampa. On Monday, two festival authors, Dennis Lehane and Michael Koryta, will appear in conversation with me at 7 p.m. at Four Green Fields Pub in Tampa.

Book signings are always popular at the festival because they allow fans to have a few words with their favorite writers.

He didn't wear a black wedding gown, but in 2009 former Sen. Bob Graham signed his book for three hours — and never took off his navy blazer, despite the Florida sun. Children's author R.L. Stine has been at the festival three times and always signed his Goosebumps books for young fans for several hours.

Crowd reactions to authors have ranged from uproarious laughter, notably for humorist Andy Borowitz, who has appeared at the festival three times, to widespread weeping, as at the 2006 reading by actor-turned-author Meg Tilly, who presented her novel based on her personal experience with child abuse.

Since I became the Times book editor in 2007, I have helped organize the festival, and before that worked as a volunteer. It always has been a wonderful (and exhausting) experience — I'm as big a fan as anyone else when it comes to meeting favorite authors.

My diciest moment was introducing author Edward P. Jones in 2004. He wasn't at the venue at the scheduled time, he wasn't at his hotel, and no one could find him on the festival grounds. I was trying hard to keep a restive standing-room-only crowd of several hundred in place and beginning to worry I'd have to read from Jones' The Known World myself (not what the audience had in mind) when he strolled in 20 minutes late — and gave a terrific reading.

Over the years, the festival has flourished and drawn many faithful fans as well as new ones, despite tightened budgets in the publishing industry that mean authors go on fewer, shorter book tours, which makes putting the festival together more complex than ever.

In 2010, 2011 and again this year, the Festival of Reading has featured speakers on a development that's changing the book world: e-books. Each time, those talks have drawn large audiences as digital books rapidly became more popular. In 2011, e-book sales in the United States rose 117 percent as all types of print books fell.

But at the festival, the books for sale are still printed on paper. How could your favorite author sign your e-book?

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Times files were used in this report.

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