Reading the Crowd

The inaugural Tucson Festival of Books promises a weekend full of literary events

The federal government has good news for the organizers of the Tucson Festival of Books.

No, the news has nothing to do with bailout money. But according to the most recent National Endowment for the Arts study, literary reading among American adults is up for the first time in more than 25 years. The growth reverses decades of declines in literary reading (defined as novels, short stories, plays and poems).

That's good news for the two-day festival, which is hoping for a large turnout at its inaugural event on Saturday and Sunday, March 14 and 15. Featuring more than 350 authors, dozens of workshops and panel discussions, 200 exhibitors and a wide range of family entertainment, the Festival of Books will be held at the University of Arizona campus, with free admission and free parking.

The federal study, "Reading on the Rise," offers even better news for the heavily beset publishing industry. The biggest increases were among young adults, age 18 to 25. The fastest rates of increase were among Hispanics (20 percent), followed by African Americans (15 percent). Sooner or later, more people reading may lead to more people buying books.

Festival organizers, including a long list of sponsors, are hoping that translates locally into an increased interest in literacy and literature. According to festival steering committee chairman Bill Viner, "The biggest challenge is to make sure that we get lots of people attending the event so that they can understand and tell their friends what the experience was, for next year."

He goes on to elaborate: "It's more than just a book fair. This is entertainment; this is celebration. There are so many things going on at once. It's a festival in every sense of the word."

Organizers are particularly hopeful for a large family turnout.

"There's a huge family component to this, where children can come and hopefully get energized about literature and reading," Viner said. "There are a lot of interactive booths. There's a storytelling stage with some very prominent storytellers coming in. There's an entertainment stage for children. I think if people come, they'll walk away entertained, educated and, hopefully, inspired."

The Tucson event is modeled after the highly successful Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which draws up to 140,000 attendees each April to the UCLA campus.

A dozen coordinating committees for various logistical and operations elements have been planning and organizing the Tucson event for more than a year. More than 1,000 volunteers will eventually make the event happen.

The participating authors include world-famous names as well as genre writers, successful but little-known outside of their respective niches.

A number of the authors are Tucson-area residents. They include high-profile writers J.A. Jance and poet Richard Shelton, and genre authors such as mystery writers Elizabeth Gunn and Margaret Falk, who writes under the pen name J. Carson Black.

Gunn and Falk, along with fellow mystery authors J.M. "Mike" Hayes and Susan Cummins Miller, are members of one of Tucson's many writing support groups. The quartet, calling themselves Southwest Murder Ink, meets regularly to critique each others' latest work, trade ideas and do group readings at local bookstores. All will appear at the festival.

Gunn is the author of a series of police mysteries set in fictional Rutherford, Minn. Her latest book, Cool in Tucson, introduces a new character, Sarah Burke, as a Tucson police detective. Despite her success, the long declines in reading rates and local bookstores have taken a toll.

"Writing and publishing right now is in a total state of flux," Gunn notes. "I still do the best I can to get into bookstores, but that's getting harder, too, and a lot of the selling happens on Amazon.

"I had a mother who read to her children, and I became a passionate reader as a child," Gunn continues. "I think that's almost a universal experience among writers."

Falk is a Tucson native who grew up in the Fort Lowell area. She earned degrees in music performance from the UA before returning to her first love: writing.

"I went to Austria and came this close to becoming a professional opera singer," she explains. "But when push came to shove, I realized that all I really wanted to do was hole up in the desert and write."

As J. Carson Black, she is the author of Dark Side of the Moon and Darkness on the Edge of Town, both featuring Arizona locales.

"I always loved books. Here in Tucson, there was a place called the House of Paperbacks, in Pine Crest Center on Speedway (Boulevard). Friday nights, after dinner ... my parents would take me to the House of Paperbacks, and I'd spend an hour there picking out five or six brand-new books. Get a child to read by appealing to her material side!" she laughs.

Hayes agrees that an early attraction to books is crucial. Author of the successful "Mad Dog and Englishman" series, his first published book, The Grey Pilgrim was a historical thriller set in circa 1940-'41 Tucson. The fifth book in the "Mad Dog and Englishman" series, Server Down, due out in May, has segments set in Tucson. He first came to the Old Pueblo for post-graduate studies at the UA.

"Ultimately, I write because my parents read to me, told me stories, read themselves and encouraged me to read," Hayes says. "I write because I love books."

Susan Cummins Miller is currently affiliated with the UA as a research associate. Her background as a geologist led her to create her Frankie MacFarlane series of Southwestern geology-pegged mysteries. Her latest book, Hoodoo, the fourth in the series, is set in the Chiricahua Mountains.

"My grandmother and uncle were writers, and I'd always loved reading mysteries. I was always an author, though it wasn't always fiction," Miller admits. "I began with poetry when I was 8."

With its full workshop agenda, and multiple opportunities to meet writers of every ilk, mix with fellow fans and enjoy day-long activities for children and teenagers, the Festival of Books could inspire the next James Patterson, Carl Sagan or Danielle Steel.

At the very least, Bill Viner pledges, "It will be a great way to spend a March day in Tucson on the University of Arizona campus."

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