- Kris Krug
- Author Ruth Ozeki will headline the Green Mountain Book Festival.
So far, only the headliner has been announced, but she's a heavy hitter: Ruth Ozeki. The American Canadian author of the novels My Year of Meats, A Tale for the Time Being (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize), and last year's The Book of Form and Emptiness is also a filmmaker and a Zen Buddhist priest.
Kim MacQueen, president of the Green Mountain Book Festival's board of directors, said by phone that "We've got a small board of volunteers who are working really hard to bring [the fest] together."
She emphasized that the event is a book festival with a focus on recent releases, not a craft festival where authors meet to talk shop — at least for now. "We need to try to start small and do it really, really well," she said.
The new fest emerged from a confluence of local arts organizations, MacQueen said. Elaine Pentaleri, then president of the thriving Burlington Writers Workshop, approached Mike DeSanto, co-owner of Phoenix Books, and Barbara Shatara of the Fletcher Free Library.
They're now festival board members, along with author and writing instructor Angela Palm Hopkins, author and podcaster Shelagh Shapiro, and treasurer Lisa Hughes. The plan is to create an executive director position within the next three years, MacQueen said.
Around the first of the year, the board started talking logistics. With Phoenix Books serving as majority stakeholder and sponsor, the organization has applied for grant funding from Burlington City Arts, the Vermont Arts Council and Vermont Humanities, MacQueen said.
The festival will have six to eight hours of programming on Saturday and Sunday, most of it in the Fletcher Free Library. Ozeki will appear at Burlington City Hall Auditorium on Saturday afternoon.
"My absolute favorite author happened to be available, and I was in a position to bring her to Vermont, so I've been over the moon ever since," MacQueen said.
The board is still narrowing down lists of potential guests, she added. Sunday will be "mostly dedicated to poetry." While authors in various genres and categories will be included — including a panel on graphic novels — don't expect "a significant amount of children's programming."
MacQueen emphasized that the new fest has no connection with the Burlington Book Festival. Under the leadership of founder Rick Kisonak, that event took place annually for 15 years before going on pandemic hiatus.
The most recent post on the Burlington Book Festival's Facebook page, dated February 13, reads: "We look forward to seeing you in the fall for a Celebration of Vermont Authors. Dates and details coming soon."
Reached by email, Kisonak said the existence of the Green Mountain Book Festival was news to him. Pentaleri reached out to him in March 2020 about a collaboration between the BBF and the Burlington Writers Workshop, but the two didn't communicate after the pandemic lockdown, he wrote. "Starting an imitation-BBF modeled, obviously, on my design was never mentioned as a possibility," Kisonak wrote. "This is the first I've heard about it."
Citing a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prediction of a fall surge in COVID-19 cases, Kisonak expressed doubts about putting on a full-scale festival in September.
"I've been hopeful as to a window in all this opening up when it might make sense to put on a scaled-down version of the event," he wrote, noting that he's been "watching the numbers" and reaching out to venues about the "possibility of a truncated fall presentation." Meanwhile, he's been keeping busy in the literary realm, preparing a nonfiction book for publication by Little, Brown.
With regard to the new festival, Kisonak said that "the sudden, unexpected lit fest competition (scheduled on our traditional September weekend) will only make a challenging situation worse."
In response to Kisonak's comments, MacQueen wrote in an email: "We'd love to have Rick join us at some point that makes sense for him, so that we can benefit from his input and years of expertise putting on a long-running, well-known book festival."
Many literary festivals around the country, such as the mammoth Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, have returned from their pandemic dormancy this year. With COVID-19 still a factor, though, some are reporting erratic attendance.
"It may take some beginner's luck," MacQueen acknowledged, "but, having attended past book festivals, I think the time is right for this event in Burlington." She noted that the state has a strong culture of independent booksellers who "work together to help everyone have a place to celebrate their love of books.
"I think people will turn out," she continued. "I think they will have great reason to turn out. What I'm feeling is this groundswell of energy around books, around writing, around our need to get together and celebrate books and celebrate writers."
Disclosure: Rick Kisonak is a long-time freelance film critic for Seven Days; Kim MacQueen has also contributed freelance writing to the paper.