Serious bookworms in our region have reason to rejoice this week, as the Woodstock Bookfest returns – live and in-person – for the first time since COVID struck. A lot of people must’ve missed it badly, since several of the events are already sold out. If you want to jump on board before you even read the details of what’s on offer, head to woodstockbookfest.com.
This annual convocation of leading literary lights is organized and curated by Martha Frankel, otherwise probably best-known for Hats & Eyeglasses, her widely praised 2008 tale of the gambling life, based on personal experience. Her original concept for the festival, in 2010, was to gather practitioners of the art of memoir to share stories and techniques. The main event was a Story Slam, in which participants were each given a few minutes to spin a yarn out loud in response to a prompt phrase – kind of like The Moth, but without months or years to practice and perfect one’s story.
The wild and wooly Story Slam proved immensely popular with audiences and became an annual feature of the Woodstock Bookfest, although the shape and theme of the overall event expanded over the years. Authors of all sorts of writing now make appearances – sometimes on panels, sometimes being grilled onstage by an interviewer. There are novelists and journalists, poets and playwrights and cartoonists. Many are rockstars of the Hudson Valley literary scene such as Gail Godwin, Ed Sanders, Baird Hersey, Nina Shengold, Laura Shaine Cunningham, Carey Harrison, Eva Tenuto; Gail Straub, Abigail Thomas and Beverly Donofrio are among those who come back year after year. From farther afield, the festival has drawn big names including William Kennedy, Francine Prose, Cheryl Strayed, Colm Tóibín, Jane Smiley, Owen Gleiberman, Lynn Johnston, Augusten Burroughs and Marion Winik.
This year, if you haven’t already signed up for the Story Slam – which launches this year’s festival on Thursday evening, March 30 at the Bearsville Theater, with the prompt “But was it all a dream?” – you’ve missed your chance. You can, however, view videos of previous years’ contestants going back as far as 2014 on the Bookfest website; entries recorded remotely were the only event that happened in the Plague Year of 2020. So, it’s a good bet that you’ll be able to come back after the festival is over and catch up online.
Also sold out is the workshop that Frankel moderates to end the Bookfest on Sunday afternoon, April 2 at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, called Memoir à Go-Go! No wonder, since it’s another of the festival’s most anticipated annual offerings, carrying the torch for its original inspiration. This year’s participants will be Ada Calhoun, Rebecca Carroll, Priscilla Gilman, Ann Hood, Courtney Maum and Aileen Weintraub.
Folks who like to schmooze with authors quickly snatch up all the limited number of tickets available for the Little Bites + Big Libations cocktail hours, and this year is no exception. They’re happening twice, at Dixon Roadside, on Friday and Saturday evening, March 31 and April 1. Again, if you don’t already have reservations, you’re out of luck.
One more event is sold out as of presstime: How to Write an Autobiographical Essay, happening Saturday afternoon at the Kleinert. Hosted by Sari Botton, the panel consists of Alexander Chee, Carolita Johnson and Gary Shteyngart.
“So,” you demand in increasing exasperation, “what events can I still get into?” We’re glad you asked, Dear Reader. This year’s headliner is an internationally best-selling author who recently returned to Woodstock after several years of working abroad, including showrunning and consulting on TV series based on his iconic The Sandman graphic novels and his comedic, post-apocalyptic fantasy novel co-authored with the late Terry Pratchett, Good Omens. We’re talking, of course, about Neil Gaiman. And tickets are still available for An Evening with Neil Gaiman, beginning at 8 p.m. on Saturday night at the Bearsville Theater. Gaiman will be interviewed about his work by Alisa Kwitney, who edited much of his Sandman output at DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint and went on to become a celebrated author of novels and graphic novels herself. She’s also credited as “book doula” on Gaiman’s 2017 retelling of stories from the Prose Edda, Norse Mythology.
A perennial favorite at the Woodstock Bookfest is Abigail Thomas, author of, among other titles, the much-awarded A Three Dog Life. Stephen King has dubbed her “the Emily Dickinson of memoirists,” and she has a new volume out, titled Still Life at Eighty: The Next Interesting Thing. You can still get tickets for Thomas’ interview at the Bearsville Theater at 7 p.m. on Friday. Her interlocutor will be Rosemary Armao, familiar to many in the Hudson Valley as one of the regular panelists commenting on the day’s news on The Roundtable on WAMC FM.
Another Bookfest regular, Gail Straub, will moderate a panel on Spiritual Practice and Social Consciousness at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday at the Kleinert. The panelists are David Gershon – founder of the Empowerment Institute, author of The Change Handbook and frequent workshop leader at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck – and novelist/essayist Sophfronia Scott. Tickets are still available.
Next up at the Kleinert on Saturday, at 1:15 p.m., will be Book Banning, Black Studies and Backlash, an examination of what’s currently happening with the teaching of the true history of racism in America coming under fire in many states. This will take the form of a conversation between CNN/NBC/Newsweek journalist Mark Whitaker (My Long Trip Home, Smoketown) and author/painter Clifford Thompson (What It Is: Race, Family and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues, Big Man and the Little Men). Tickets are still available.
Finally, at 11 a.m. on Sunday at the Kleinert, publisher Brooke Warner will moderate another extremely timely discussion titled My Body, My Life: Writing around and through Roe. The panelists will be playwright/screenwriter Amy Ferris (Funny Valentines), writer/blogger/merchant mariner Rob Galvin and author/editor Elizabeth Hines (Black Titan: A. G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire, Aftermath: Life in Post-Roe America). Tickets are still available.
Need we reiterate that you need to move fast if you want to catch any of these great chats with great authors? Visit woodstockbookfest.com to order tickets (prices range from $20 to $230 for an all-festival pass) or for more information.