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Arts & Life

Writers Turn Columbia, Missouri, Into Center Of The Book World (At Least For A Weekend)

Courtesy Unbound Book Festival
Sir Salman Rushdie is a keynote speaker at the Unbound Book Festival in Columbia, Missouri.

On a recent Wednesday morning at his home Columbia, Missouri, Alex George was ignoring his day job. He’s an attorney and author whose second novel, Setting Free the Kites, was released in February. But on this day he was working on neither writing nor lawyering.

Instead, he was in the final stages of preparations for the second Unbound Book Festival, which kicked off its inaugural fest last year and is very much the vision of this transplanted Englishman living in the middle of Missouri.

“I thought Columbia was the kind of town that would really respond well to that kind of thing,” George said of his adopted city. “I mean, we’re a hyper-literate community, we have three universities, lots of – a bizarre number — of writers live here. And so many readers!”

Credit Courtesy Unbound Book Festival
Ishmael Beah, whose memoir 'A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier' recounted his childhood in Sierra Leone, visits Columbia schools as part of 2017's Unbound Book Festival.

As an author who loves attending book festivals, George said another reason he couldn’t understand why there wasn’t a book festival in Columbia was the success of the annual True False Film Fest that brings more and more people to Columbia every spring. The city also hosts the annual Roots N Blues N BBQ music fest and the Citizen Jane Film Festival.

“We’re a town that loves its festivals,” said George. “So all of these things came together.”

One result is this year's visit by Salman Rushdie, winner of the prestigious Booker Prize and one of the most internationally recognizable names in literature, who is set to fill the University of Missouri’s 1,732-seat Jesse Hall on Friday night.

Another prestigious visitor is author Ishmael Beah, who stunned the world with his 2007 memoir, A Long Way Gone, about being a child soldier in Sierra Leone. Beah is scheduled to share his story in person with hundreds of Columbia high schoolers.

In the weeks leading up to the second festival, George said he now understood why no one had done it before: Because it’s hard.

George now books authors, creates schedules, engages in fund-raising and building partnerships — all of which is time-consuming, especially for someone who already enjoys two life vocations and prefers the reclusive life of the writer.

Credit Courtesy Alex George
Besides his jobs as a lawyer and a writer, Alex George is now an Unbound Book Festival organizer.

“When I’m writing, I become the most anti-social creature on the planet," George said. "My desk faces a blank wall; I have to turn off the internet; I can’t have music. I need no distractions at all.”

So the festival provides a way for George to connect not only with other authors, but with the community around him.

“Because it’s very much a community effort,” he said.

The lit-fest life

Festival organizers have built a budget of around $150,000 dollars, which funds the author visits and outreach to area schools.

Cathy Salter, who publishes dispatches and essays from her rural home in Southern Boone County, was one of the first people George approached with the idea.

“Seems like almost two years ago, when Alex invited us and said, ‘What would you think about a book festival?’ And we all said, ‘Wonderful, let’s to it,’” said Salter. “And so it began — with no money, great energy, and a group of some who hadn’t met each other and others who knew each other through book circles. And it’s been non-stop – I mean our lives haven’t been the same.”

Once people started talking about the idea, it gained momentum. Last year’s festival, with featured keynote author Michael Ondaatje, brought almost 4,000 attendees.

Credit Courtesy Unbound Book Festival
At the inaugural Unbound Book Festival in 2016, the audience in Columbia's Missouri Theater responded enthusiastically to Michael Ondaatje's talk with Mark Doty about the creative process.

George said he and the rest of the Unbound team are looking at ways to expand the festival both in terms of the number of days it takes place, and in terms of the types of partnerships they create with local schools and literacy groups such as Columbia’s Literacy Action Corps, which benefits from the festival.

“The potential is unlimited, and we’re only being limited by our imaginations. We have many, many plans,” George said with a laugh, showing his British bent for self-deprecation. “Probably not all of them are entirely possible, but we’re dreaming big.”

Writer and Unbound board member Jill Orr said Columbia is the right place for a book fest. With her first novel – the initial edition in a lighthearted mystery series — just out this month, she hasn’t attended a lot of festivals as a writer and is looking forward to diving into the experience here.

“I just think it’s such an opportunity for people in our tiny little town in the middle of Missouri to get to sit with and talk to so many amazing writers,” Orr said.

Credit Janet Saidi / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Writer Alex George (second from left) with board members Susan Dunkin, Jill Orr, Stephanie Williams and Jim Erwin (far left) plan the second annual Unbound Books festival at George's home in Columbia.

It’s that live factor that seemed to most excite George.

His eyes lit up when he mentioned the “undiscovered moments” that unfold at a festival: Things like a storyteller who performs The Grapes of Wrath in 45 minutes or live poetry performances.

“Go and listen to one of these young poets,” said George. “They don’t just read it, they perform it, and it can be a transformative experience.”

Besides presenting literary lions like Rushdie and Beah, George said he hopes the festival's many author conversations and panels on a range of topics including the literary legacy of James Baldwin, writing about disability, and literature and dogs, brings close encounters of the literary kind.

“Just to encourage the urge to write,” said George, “which is in all of us somewhere and it’s just encouraging that to come out.”

The Unbound Book Festival begins Friday, April 21, with an appearance by author Salman Rushdie, and continues Saturday, April 22, on the campus of Stephens College, 1200 East Broadway, Columbia, Missouri, 65201. All events are free and open to the public.

Janet Saidi is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @theradiogirl.

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