The Arkansas Literary Festival used to intimidate me. While I like books as much as the next Little Rocker, the vast array of affiliated events overwhelmed me. “Pub or Perish,” “Author! Author!,” “Writers in the Schools,” cooking classes, writers workshops, the book sale, family events, and — oh, yeah—five or six dozen writers from across the globe speaking on a variety of panels about a variety of different subjects.
So, while there were years when I wanted to go, I didn’t know where to start, so I stayed home. A lot of years, actually. I didn’t embrace the festival until 2015. But I have embraced it now, and let me say this: The Arkansas Literary Festival is the best festival in Little Rock.
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I’m not trying to pick a fight, but I stand by my words. And I grew up in White County, where we rely on cheese dip consumption as a remedy for an emotional imbalance and a set of carefully considered opinions on what makes good cornbread will earn you a daughter’s hand in marriage. But festivals held in honor of those Arkansas staples — as wonderful as they are — have their limitations. The literary festival, on the other hand, is boundless.
The first year I went, my wife Liz and I kicked off our experience by going to the cals Ron Robinson Theater to hear Rebecca Wells read. She wrote “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” which was marketed to middle-aged women and not my 26-year-old wife and kind-of-barely-in-my-mid-thirties me, but it was the only event that Thursday night, so it felt like a safe way to dip my toe into the Lit Fest waters. Wells, who had not given a reading in 12 years because of her extended bout with Lyme disease, had Liz and I patting each other’s knees as we doubled over with laughter while she read from a new, profanity-laced work-in-progress.
Truth be told, my having not read any of the writers’ books on the schedule probably contributed to the feelings of inadequacy that kept me from attending the fest before then when—deep down—I wanted to. But at my first Lit Fest event, I learned very quickly that it didn’t matter that I had not read “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” or that I wasn’t in the demographic of people the publisher marketed the work to, because I loved it anyway. The same would be true for the rest of the events.
There’s something about a writer who can also perform that transcends a publisher’s marketing plan. All of us in that theater — no matter our demographic — were sharing a compelling experience, and isn’t that what a festival atmosphere is all about? I’ve been all-in on the Arkansas Literary Festival since my first taste of it.
I still have a lot to learn about how to best do the festival, which evolves every year as it continues to grow and CALS continues to perfect its strategy, but here are four important things I wish someone would have told me when I was a novice attendee.
Go to “Author! Author!” The $25 ticket price scared me away at first, but I assure you, it’s worth it for the food and wine alone. You’ll also get to chat up the writers, who are generally a fun crew who are amazed at how much they like Arkansas.
ProTip: Try to fit in by acting like hanging out on the fifth floor of the library on a Friday night is way less cool than it actually is.
Don’t half-ass it. A lot of people will say things like, “Oh, I’m going to try to make the cooking class, and then maybe a panel later.” Don’t be that person. Get a babysitter, pack your lunchbox, quit your job, and plan to spend the whole day at the festival. This is kind of a hardcore approach, I understand, but I believe in it. There is a certain creative high that comes with surrounding yourself for an extended period of time with people who have written important things. To achieve that high, you need to not think about how much time you’re going to have to run to the grocery store as soon as the panel is over.
ProTip: Don’t actually quit your job, but do your best to wholly commit yourself to the festival experience.
Make a plan before you go. You can download a PDF of the program guide from the festival website. Read it, pick out what looks interesting, put it on your calendar. When your panel ends, if you don’t know exactly where you’re headed next, you might get discouraged and miss out on something really cool.
ProTip: Pay attention to venue locations. Some off-site locations may require some time to get to.
Be okay with abandoning your plan. Liz and I once went to a panel to hear Benjamin Percy read, and afterward he asked us where the best barbecue in town was. We met him for beers and then ended up at Sims. Had I forced myself to stick to the plan, I would’ve missed out on a great literary conversation with a talented writer. Let your plan guide you until something else takes over.
ProTip: Google videos of Benjamin Percy reading so that when you run into me at the festival this year, we can discuss what sort of devil’s bargain one has to strike to get a voice like that.
If you don’t want to make your own Lit Fest plan, here’s mine. But, of course, it’s subject to change.
Thursday, April 25, 6:30 p.m.
Maurice Carlos Ruffin w/Kyran Pittman at Argenta Reading Series
Argenta United Methodist Church, 317 N. Main St., NLR.
Friday, April 26, 7 p.m.
Central Arkansas Library System – Main Library
Saturday, April 27, 10 a.m.
Charles J. Shields, Brantley Hargrove
The Bookstore at Library Square
Saturday, April 27, 11.30 a.m.
Rick Campbell, Alfred Gough, Miles Millar
Main Library – Darragh Center
[Full disclosure: I’m moderating this panel.]
Saturday, April 27, 1 p.m.
Nita Gould, Joe David Rice
Roberts Library – Room 124
Saturday, April 27, 2:30 p.m.
Rhett Brinkley, Lillian Li, Vaughn Scribner
Allsopp & Chapple Restaurant + Bar
Saturday, April 27, 4 p.m.
Mark Freeman, Esme Weijun Wang
Main Library – Darragh Center
Saturday, April 27, 7 p.m.
Pub or Perish
Stickyz Rock’n’Roll Chicken Shack
Sunday, April 28, 2 p.m.
UA-Little Rock Downtown Library Square