When most people think of Tucson, they think of swimming pools, seniors and saguaros. But we who live here know that it's also home to one of the most vibrant literary communities in the country.
And the Tucson Festival of Books is helping put us on the literary map.
This year's festival, to be held Saturday and Sunday, March 13 and 14, at the University of Arizona, will feature workshops, poetry readings, panels, book reviews, writing contests, book sales (of course) and children's activities. Hundreds of authors—including many best-selling ones—will flock to Southern Arizona from across the country to give lectures, interviews and book signings.
Of course, scores of the best writers participating in the festival won't have to flock: They already live here.
Tom Miller, author of books like The Panama Hat Trail and On the Border, has been a Tucsonan since 1969 and has written about almost every subject. (Says he, "You name it; I wrote about it.") But he's an expert on Southwest topics. His latest book, Revenge of the Saguaro, takes readers on an often funny, always thought-provoking journey through the Southwest, answering questions like, "What is the sound of one billboard falling?" and, "Whence cometh the chimichanga?" The book also addresses deeper issues like endemic violence in the region and the proliferation of what he calls "people who suffer from NMVS"—no means of visible support.
"I couldn't have written (Revenge of the Saguaro) during my first few decades in Tucson," Miller says, "because it took that long to accumulate experiences and meet some of the people who populate the book. There's no shortage of characters to write about here."
Besides promoting Revenge of the Saguaro at the festival, Miller will lead three events: a panel discussion about border issues, an interview with Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana (authors of the Brokeback Mountain screenplay) and a conversation with borderlands-focused author Luis Alberto Urrea.
"I'm looking forward to an informative and entertaining event," Miller declares. "It's the one weekend of the year where you don't have to be embarrassed about being smart and curious."
Another prominent author, Dancing With Wolves author Michael Blake, fell in love with Tucson 18 years ago and has been living in a remote paradise at the base of the Rincon Mountains ever since, writing five books during that time.
"Where I lie is inspiring," he says, "because there's no traffic, no people—just life on Earth, and that appeals to me. ... Tucson is like most other cities in America—its traffic, its stores and people—and yet there's an unbelievable number of incredibly creative people here."
At the festival, Blake will promote his most recent book, Twelve the King, which takes place on his foothills ranch and profiles his 15-year relationship with a majestic mustang who was never tamed and "never lost the feeling of who he was."
A good friend of Blake's, author Deanne Stillman, likewise finds inspiration in both mustangs and the desert Southwest. Her recent book, Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, was a Southwest Book of 2008 by the Pima County Public Library (among other honors) and was a best-seller here. At the festival, she'll lead a workshop on writing and the power of place. Stillman believes writers come to the desert largely because wide-open spaces feed the creative soul: "To write, you need solitude. And here it is."
Another featured writer, Marge Pellegrino, has just published a young-adult novel that unfolds far from the Southwest—but which is Tucson inspired. Journey of Dreams follows a Mayan family fleeing from the Guatemalan army in the '80s to find safety in the United States through the Tucson-based Sanctuary Movement, which helped shelter Central American refugees and still plays a role in Tucson's identity. Pellegrino is best known as a youth writer.
In fact, one of the main goals of Tucson Festival of Books is to promote literacy in youth, from small children to high school students. On Saturday morning, young children can attend a "character breakfast" that will bring to life more than 15 storybook characters, while older children—notably preteen girls—will love Sunday afternoon's American Girl Tea Party (focused on the popular book series about girls in American history). Other kids' activities include appearances by famous children's authors, interactive stage presentations, storytelling and arts and crafts.
The Tucson festival is one of the only such events in the West, sharing the spotlight with the larger Los Angeles Times Festival of Books (which the Tucson festival was modeled after, and which C-SPAN last year compared it to). Frank Farias, executive director of the UA Bookstores and one of the Tucson festival's co-creators, says that one thing distinguishing our book festival from the L.A. one is that its primary goal is to serve the community, both educationally and financially. All festival proceeds will be funneled back into the community through literacy and outreach programs. Last year, the event raised $200,000.
"A book festival speaks about the culture of a community, and the importance of education within it," says Farias. "This event is for anyone who reads books or wants to influence their child to read."
The festival's 2009 debut was an astounding success, drawing more than 50,000 people. With even more people expected to attend in 2010, who knows how far this event could go in the years to come?
"Tucson has a lot to be proud of," asserts Farias, "and we hope even more Tucsonans embrace this festival. If we don't do this, I'm sure Phoenix will jump on it."
And none of us want that to happen.
For more information and a complete schedule, go to www.tucsonfestivalofbooks.org.