Alison Jones Chaim has had to cancel plans for a three-week trek in Nepal, she says, due to an unexpected surge in preparations for the sixth annual Wisconsin Book Festival. The festival's director may be joking, but it's hard to be certain. Chaim has one of those smiles that render you unsure as to whether she is pulling your leg and, if she is, how hard she might be pulling.
But if she has indeed postponed a Himalayan trek, there is compensation: This year's festival is bringing the literary world to Madison from Oct. 10 to 14. Among the regions and nations represented this year: South Asia, Russia, Armenia, Trinidad, the Middle East, Latin America, New Guinea, Nigeria and South Africa.
Presenters include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Rick Bass, T.C. Boyle, Ana Castillo, Michael Cunningham, Susan Faludi, Zakes Mda, Luis Alberto Urrea and Terry Tempest Williams - marquee names who complement a sparkling constellation of local and state writers. The emergence of the Overture Center as a central venue will anchor the festival downtown, but new venues on South Park Street and in McFarland hold the potential to take it to new audiences. And for the first time, a theme will unify the entire festival.
That theme is "Domestic Tranquility," and it marks a transition. Over lunch at Jo's Tazzina a few blocks from her office at the Wisconsin Humanities Council, Chaim explains that this is the last year for "A More Perfect Union," which has provided a cornerstone for the festival - each year taking one evocative phrase derived from the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution and using it as a basis for selected festival programs.
Chaim says the Wisconsin Humanities Council wanted a more adaptable thematic approach. Though derived from the Preamble, "Domestic Tranquility" is broad enough to encompass family, history, notions about domiciles and our relationship with the land.
Chaim has come to recognize that a theme provides fertile soil in which to plant programs. One of them is a panel organized by poet Shoshauna Shy, during which poets will address questions about domestic tranquility by reading from their work. (Sunday, Wisconsin Historical Museum, 2 p.m.) The biographer Sanford Horwitt is scheduled to discuss "Russ Feingold and the Politics of Domestic Tranquility in Post-9/11 America." (Saturday, Overture's Promenade Hall, 6 p.m.) T.C. Boyle will address "Domestic Tranquility Behind The Tortilla Curtain," his 1995 novel about immigration and xenophobia. (Friday, Orpheum Theatre, 7 p.m.) The Bone Folders' Guild will mount an exhibit called "People in Paper Houses Shouldn't Throw Books," featuring their interpretations of the theme in the form of handmade artist books. (Thursday, Little Luxuries, 5 p.m.)
The "Domestic Tranquility" theme is but one of the the innovations bound into the festival's sixth volume.
"We've made dedicated efforts this year to enhance the ethnic diversity of not only the presenters but also audiences," Chaim says. The addition of Harambee as a venue, with its location at 2202 S. Park St., brings the festival to what may be Madison's most vibrant and diverse neighborhood.
Chaim credits the local poet Fabu Carter Brisco for helping organize some of the festival's most intriguing programs centered on issues of ethnic diversity. Among these: "Telling Tongues," featuring poets Oscar Mireles and Margarita Pignataro in an exploration of how their choice to speak the Spanish language has affected their work. The program is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Saturday at another venue new to the festival, Con Safos in McFarland.
In organizing the festival, Chaim works within categories. "I think of it like a bookstore," she says. "We started categories in earnest when we upgraded the website four years ago."
This year's Nature category, for example, suits Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us, which imagines what might happen if humans vanished from the face of the earth. (Saturday, Overture's Promenade Hall, 10 a.m.) "Within a few days," Chaim says, "there would be skyscrapers crumbling in Manhattan."
The Nature category is also a good fit for former Newsweek correspondent Peter Annin, author of The Great Lakes Water Wars, and emerita UW history professor Margaret Beattie-Bogue, author of Around the Shores of Lake Superior and Fishing the Great Lakes: An Environmental History. (Saturday, Madison Public Library's Main Branch, noon.)
These two programs illustrate one of the most ambitious goals of organizing the festival. "We worked really hard not to schedule more than one program at the same time within each category," Chaim says. With more than 30 venues hosting festival events this year, some overlap is inevitable in broad categories like fiction and poetry. ("There are a whole bunch of Wisconsin poets who have new books in 2007," Chaim notes.) All but a handful of this year's venues are within a mile of the Capitol, however. Good planning and the occasional hasty walk ought to help avoid some of the difficult choices posed by this year's festival.
On Friday night, do you attend T.C. Boyle's appearance, or the conversation between South African author Zakes Mda , or the discussion involving Progressive editor Matthew Rothschild (author of You Have No Rights) and Chris Finan (author of a new history of the fight for free speech in America), or the performance by the Nuyorican poets Willie Perdomo and Roger Bonair-Agard? The latter promises to be one of the highlights of another spectacular series of Wisconsin Book Festival events in the spoken-word category.
Chaim grows animated at mention of the spoken-word category. When spoken word was introduced into the festival schedule three years ago, she remembers, "I really hoped that it would stick and never go away." It has stuck, and at this Chaim smiles in a way that has nothing to do with pulling your leg. She runs off a series of superlative words to describe a phenomenon that calls audiences to "be here and hear this and feel this energy. It's a really tangible, extroverted example of getting people to connect and talk."
As with other overlapping categories, some of the spoken-word events at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival double as Youth/Kids events. But some Youth/Kids events will skew younger. Chaim points out the free Kids' Book Bonanza as a prime example. (Friday, Madison Children's Museum, 6 p.m.) It includes a hands-on word-association art-book project, an open-mike storytelling stage for parents and appearances by book artist Kelli Hoppmann, storyteller Sharron Hubbard, Safe & Sound author Beth Finke and her guide dog Hanni, and novelist Kashmira Sheth, who demonstrates sari-wrapping in conjunction with her new picture book, My Dadima Wears a Sari.
Festival enthusiasts with broad tastes confront other difficult decisions throughout the weekend. Pinning the schedule to a dartboard, closing your eyes and throwing pens at it might be the way to go. That method presents a high likelihood of producing at least a few sleepers.
Among the more intriguing programs lurking in the schedule's foliage, waiting to sneak up on the festival audience, Chaim cites her pairing of Danielle Trussoni and Ben Percy. (Sunday, Overture's Wisconsin Studio, 4 p.m.) Trussoni's Falling Through the Earth is a memoir about her father's Vietnam War service as a tunnel rat assigned to seek out guerrillas underground. The title story of Percy's new collection, Refresh, Refresh, centers on children waiting to hear from parents deployed to Iraq.
"When I saw Danielle Trusoni speak at the Veterans Museum in April, I wanted to expose a wider audience to her," says Chaim, adding, "It's fun for me to put a nonfiction writer with a fiction writer." Each has the potential to complement and amplify the other.
A similar rationale led to her pairing of Luis Alberto Urrea - author of The Devil's Highway, an account of 26 Mexican men who attempt an illegal border crossing only to be abandoned in the desert by human traffickers - with Chicana poet, essayist and fiction writer Ana Castillo, whose new novel, The Guardians, tells the story of a Mexican family that straddles the border. (Sunday, Overture's Promenade Hall, noon.)
Chaim loves making matches. She notes her pairing of the poet, memoirist and novelist Meena Alexander, who grew up in India and Sudan, with Ellen Litman, who was born in Moscow, emigrated to the U.S. 15 years ago and whose new novel in stories is The Last Chicken in America. What might they share in common? Chaim says it is evident in the title of the program: "Second Languages, Second Homes." (Saturday, Overture's Wisconsin Studio, 6 p.m.)
Perhaps the most exotic pairing of all this year is rocker Laurie Lindeen of Zuzu's Petals with Janet Fitch, author of the best-selling Oprah's Book Club selection White Oleander. (Saturday, Café Montmartre, 9 p.m.) The match appears counterintuitive until you understand that Lindeen's memoir, Petal Pusher, complements Fitch's new novel, Paint It Black, which centers on a teenage runaway who takes refuge in the L.A. punk-rock milieu of the 1980s.
One notable absence from the 2007 festival is a repeat of last year's partnership with the Virginia Quarterly Review, which yielded appearances by the heavyweight triumvirate of Michael Chabon, Marjane Satrapi and Chris Ware.
Chaim notes, however, that an emerging partnership with the Overture Center provides the festival with "a real hub this year." She cites the inclusion of an advertisement for the festival in the magazine Overture mails out to area residents. That kind of exposure, she says, is critical to introducing the festival to new audiences.
The festival itself is stepping up its own outreach efforts, introducing new features to its website at www.wisconsinbookfestival.org.
Elbow on the table, Chaim rests her chin in the palm of one hand for a moment, then leans back. Maybe she is visualizing all the organizational efforts bearing fruit, the literary world alighting here in some great symbiosis of novelists, poets, spoken-word artists, publishers, editors, agents, booksellers, readers and other stakeholders of the Book in all its iterations. Or maybe she is thinking about that three-week trek in Nepal. It is hard to tell. She is smiling.